School House Rock: The Mental Health Edition


Do you remember School House Rock?


Of course you do. We watched them in elementary school, on the mornings our teachers were too hung over to even. We hummed their tunes when we took our tests. Ole Bill on Capital Hill and Adverbs for sale at Lolly’s shop. Electricity! Electricity! 


We remember School House Rock, the characters and the songs, because they were really effective helpers in the construction of our educational foundation. They laid the bricks upon which we would later conduct chemistry experiments and political debates, algebraic equations and finely tuned prose, and they shaped our brain in a way, making it flexible for new concepts, critical to anything that didn’t hold water.


I thought about these videos today and my educational history in general, as I was trying to remember what basic building blocks I had been given for handling emotional health. What tips. What tunes. In what ways was I prepared to grow into an adult with sensitive feelings and ragey feelings and so much worry in a world that would often smack the shit out of me.


And then it dawned on me: I had been given the bare min.


Now, that’s not a referendum on what I was taught, in the home or in the school, I think this deficit is fairly universal. We learned it was okay to be sad, but never about what it might mean if we were sad for a very long time. We learned to be careful, but not what it meant if we found ourselves always living on edge, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, always bracing ourselves behind a certain belief that everything was about to go boom.


I think about it now,  what it would’ve meant if I had been shown the brain for what it is- a vast network of highways, a billion neurotransmitters speeding along them, the whole thing wild and fast and out of our control. 

In my episode, we might talk about the neurotransmitter. We might talk about this little lightning messenger that sometimes smashes into the guard rails or arrives at the wrong place or time, a clumsy little thing with the power of sending glitches throughout the entire system. Nothing to worry about, the narrator would say. This happens. It’s normal.

However, the narrator would continue ominously, if this keeps happening, if this becomes a pattern, it might mean there is an issue with the routing and the structure, it might mean the whole network is compromised. And at this declaration of doom, a soft-faced angel named Calm would float into the foreground like a savior.  She’d speak in metaphors we could understand, in a voice we could trust. She’d begin by letting us know that even though this is your brain and your own authored thoughts, it is not necessarily your fault. It’s a cocktail of things. Genetics. The weather. Past hurt. Hardwiring. It is a collision of so many factors beyond your control.

Calm would say, You know how you get a stomach ache? Well, sometimes your brain has problems, too. But instead of an ache, sometimes get a tight chest, or a rapid heartbeat, or an abrupt flood of tears for no reason. It’s going to be okay, she’d say. This happens. It’s normal. And like a tummy ache, it too will get better. There are ways to overcome it.


Perhaps we’d see her in a scene on the steps leading up to the almond-shaped building that is our Amygdala- the house of our emotions and our survival instincts. A breathless neurotransmitter named Ned would come bursting out its’ doors, flying down the steps, hands in the air and eyes bulging and screaming at the top of his lungs. Calm would step in his path.


“Where are you going?” She’d ask.


Ned would nearly jump out of his skin, because he’s a cell infused with fear and then he’d double over, panting. “Trouble. Trouble. Ben is in trouble!”


“Is he?”


“Yes,” says Ned, “It’s real bad. Real bad. He didn’t sleep last night and we’ve been researching about death-related-insomnia and it’s not looking good. The sun is going down. I need to warn him. I need to remind him that if he doesn’t sleep he’s going to die.”


“Are you sure? You seem a little anxious Ned.”


“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.” Ned doesn’t blink. “This is protocol. This is what we’ve been trained to do. To warn. To prepare. To get ready.”


“But only in the face of real danger, right?” Calm says. She then sits down on the steps and gestures to the seat next to her. Ned sits down.


“Ned, you are a vital cell to this whole operation. You are so important. Only you can hear the buzz of a swarm of bees, cautioning Ben back on the path. Only you can smell smoke, even as Ben sleeps, and shake him awake and out of the house, pants or no pants. (Ned erupts in laughter.)


“But if you approach the world as if it’s full of bees and always on fire, you’ll steal the life from Ben. You will not be thwarting danger. You will be the cause of it.”


“But I have to warn-“


“If you do, his heart rate will spike. His breaths will shorten. Cortisol and adrenaline will flood his system, making it impossible for him to sleep.”


Ned would nod, “okay. Okay. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” And then he would make one last launch to get out of Calm’s reach, because anxious neurotransmitters can never be reasoned with- but Calm would catch him by the heel and slam like a rag doll against the stone steps and kill him dead.


And the camera would zoom in on her soft face, deep ocean eyes, and she’d say:


You’re going to be okay. Trust me. I got this.