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COMFORT ZONE

Chanel Miller on practicing mental health during a pandemic and learning to live with uncertainty

Chanel Miller during an interview on "60 Minutes," which aired Sept. 22, 2019. Miller, who read a searing statement at the sentencing of the man who sexually assaulted her at Stanford University, revealed her identity in her memoir, "Know My Name."
Chanel Miller during an interview on "60 Minutes," which aired Sept. 22, 2019. Miller, who read a searing statement at the sentencing of the man who sexually assaulted her at Stanford University, revealed her identity in her memoir, "Know My Name."60 Minutes/Associated Press

As it has for so many people, the coronavirus pandemic slammed the breaks on Chanel Miller’s plans. These days, the writer and advocate would have been traveling to Alaska and New Zealand, giving talks at Stanford University, and signing copies of her 2019 memoir, “Know My Name.” Now, she finds herself gravitating toward activities she hasn’t had time for since her college years, like carving linoleum blocks and making prints.

In “Know My Name,” Miller writes about being sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus in 2015, her decision to press charges against her attacker, and, later, to publicly identify herself as the survivor in the case. Now living in New York, she stepped away from her journals and drawing pads to talk about the ways the pandemic will change art, what it means to be a mental health advocate while social distancing, and turning feelings of uncertainty into strength.

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Q: How do you think the pandemic will change art?

When we can address the certainty or when I can draw something that symbolizes it and make that feeling visible, something you can look at and share, then that becomes like a little island you can swim onto and sit on for a while. It’s a break from just wading through the murkiness. You have something concrete you can identify with to say, “Oh, I’m feeling this. Are you feeling this too?” Art allows you to expose the vulnerabilities, and we can all realize what it is that is weighing us down.

Q: What have you been writing and drawing during the stay-at-home orders?

I’ve been journaling a lot and drawing things I see every day. I feel this need to document the present, and I’m fascinated by the way simple pleasures have become the highlight of my week, like getting an iced coffee. I write about being in a depressive state, I write about lethargy in the morning. When you’re doing well, you don’t feel right voicing discomfort or worry because you know people are truly suffering. There’s a difference between acknowledging your feelings and complaining about them. There is value in being able to express what weighs you down in the day and addressing your fears.

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Q: As an Asian American, have you noticed any changed attitudes toward you during the pandemic?

In January and February, I was still traveling, giving talks, and I always wore a mask. At that time, I’d be the only one on the airplane wearing one. I felt so stressed at just feeling this omnipresent threat that I was being seen as disgusting or that someone would be disappointed when they found out their seat was next to me. I would get off the plane and get to my hotel room and have these small breakdowns because of the emotional anticipation all of the time — just feeling like I was a contaminated vessel wearing a mask rather than a human really took a toll on me. I remember thinking I would be able to exhale if I didn’t look Asian, but I am. And that’s something I shouldn’t be afraid to be.

Q: How do you practice mental health during this time?

If you take the year before my trial, I called all of my plans for my life at that time “sugar cube ideas,” and I said the court case was a pot of hot water. Every time I made plans, they would dissolve like sugar cubes in the water because court dates were always being rescheduled or canceled. That whole year was teaching myself to surrender to the fact that there was so much out of my hands, and realizing surrendering is not the same as giving up. I started to focus on what I could control, and that was my internal life. I could strengthen myself, I could acknowledge what I was feeling, I could fortify my insides. Even though I didn’t know what the trial would look like, what the verdict would be, or where that would spit me out, I knew the person going into these events was going to have a stronger sense of conviction about who she was and what she stood for. So now, I think we have no idea what awaits us, but we can reassess what we value, how we prioritize our time, and who we are helping.

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Q: What can people do to practice mental health without leaving their homes?

One is not to minimize your feelings. I feel so much for the graduates right now, and I see them saying, “well, I know people have it worse.” Of course that’s true, but at the same time, the act of closure is significant, and it’s important not to minimize that loss.

Slowly come to accept the present. I hear people use the word “pause” or “on hold” a lot, and there’s no such thing as pause. The world we’re walking into is being built now. When we can accept our new reality and incorporate this new invasion, then we can start building the world we’re going to be living.

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Acknowledge what this time is giving you. It’s interesting when people express something they enjoy, there’s almost guilt around it because they feel it’s not appropriate to express joy when there’s collective grief. I do think it is important to acknowledge what is coming out of this. It’s not all going to be lost and damaged, there will be growth in unexpected places.

Q: You’ve openly spoken out about domestic violence and racism during this time. What does it mean to be an advocate when much of the public isn’t leaving home?

I get a lot of requests to address what’s happening in the present. There’s this immediacy to respond to whatever breaks in the news, but I’m not a reactive person. If you look at my track record, it took one and a half years of processing to write the statement and three years to write the book. My pattern has been to observe, feel, and collect — to tuck it away and go into my cave, work with it, and then emerge with my thoughts.

There have been things I’ve been seeing that have made me really angry. Before, I would have addressed this anger by meeting up with other people to talk, by going to a bookstore — I had these ways of coping that felt like bouncing water out of my anger. When you don’t have those coping mechanisms, it almost feels like we’re all just burning in our own homes and spitting our rage over the Internet. It is different not being able to gather or to march or to have meetings and put your heads together. It is hard not to have that connection and to feel like you’re fighting in your own home with only a screen that is the single thread to the rest of the world. I think the dynamic has changed — activism feels different when you’re cooped up.

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Q: What, if anything, gives you hope that some good might come out of all of this?

When we think of skill sets, we think of things like cooking or learning a language, but the way we are being forced to live without knowing is a skill we’re going to walk away with. To calm yourself down during moments of panic and to accept that we don’t understand what the ending of the story will be is a tool we’ll be able to use in the future. I hope people credit themselves just for showing up every day for their life and for bearing the weight of existing. That’s not nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.