ALTOONA, Pa. — “I’ve spent my whole life with anxiety and depression. I’m 60 years old, and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. But I’m okay, and I’m okay because I asked for help.”
William J. Doan speaks openly and with raw emotion about what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression.
The 2019-20 Penn State Laureate visited the Penn State Altoona campus on Jan. 21 as part of his tour across Pennsylvania, offering performances, workshops, and discussions.
“Anxiety and depression need you to shut down and isolate yourself. Vulnerability, on the other hand, requires you to stay connected, to have empathy for yourself and to have empathy for others," said Doan. "The work of being vulnerable is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s the work I’m doing by being in front of you when every part of my being would rather be in my studio alone, isolated from the world.”
Doan, professor of theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture and artist-in-residence in the College of Nursing, explained to students, faculty, and staff how living with mental illness and the death of his sister led to the creation of “The Anxiety Project.” The project is a combination of hundreds of his own drawings and multiple graphic narrative publications. His live performance includes personal anecdotes and a slide show of some of his drawings, integrated with science and informed by research.
“For me, making art about living with anxiety and depression has been at times painful, lonely, and stressful. My drawings captured better than words what I was feeling at the time," said Doan. "Eventually, this drawing, along with therapy, helped me discover I could move from living with a mental illness to talking about my own mental health.”
That meant, he said, stripping away the layers of protection he had put around himself — dropping the smile and the laughter he had always relied on to mask his pain, to hide his truth, and to pretend everything was okay.
In other words, to live vulnerably.
“I’ve learned that talking about living with anxiety and listening to others is key to the vulnerability it takes to be present to your life and to the lives of other people. When vulnerability matters, we don’t assume that every person living with a mental health issue is somehow less than, or dangerous, or deficient," said Doan.
Doan said he’s learned a lot about himself while doing the work to live with, and not in spite of, anxiety and depression. Therapy, drawing, love and support from family and friends, along with medication and self-awareness, are all resources he relies on every day.
“Even on a good day, living with anxiety and depression means there’s a risk of getting mired in negative self-talk," said Doan. "Learning to notice when it’s happening and disarming it by saying, ‘Oh, it’s just you again,’ helps me move through it instead of getting trapped.”
Doan said he’s come to accept that anxiety and depression live somewhere deep in his body and brain. But what was once a humiliation to him is now simply his truth.
A past president of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and a recent inductee into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, Doan has written or co-written three books, several plays, and numerous scholarly journal articles. In addition, he has created solo performance projects at venues throughout the United States and abroad.
Established in 2008, the Penn State Laureate is a full-time arts or humanities faculty member who is assigned half-time for one academic year to bring greater visibility to the arts, humanities and the University, as well as to their own work. Doan succeeded 2018-19 Penn State Laureate John Champagne, professor of English and chair of the Global Languages and Cultures program at Penn State Behrend.