The Sunny Side (when available) of Mental Illness

By Stéphanie Pham-Dang

I’m a reference librarian, because I like to connect with people. A colleague once compared me to sunlight. I’ve heard this before (see my first post). She watches me interacting, while she’s at the loan desk. She says I’m a circular conversationalist: patrons ask questions, I answer, then I ask them questions, they answer and so on.  Aren’t all reference librarians affable? Oh, I see her point.

I manage my sunny side 50% of the time because of mental illness #Anxiety #PMDD. Once a month, I crash and burn. I never know exactly when, but I know when I see it. I forget things (my keys, my freakin’ keys!). I’m an insomniac (I max out my own library account and read at night). I lose my temper. I’m irritable. Basically when I’m mentally ill, I want to be left alone or run away from people.

Empty room with a chair and text says, Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not warm when she's away, ain't no sunshine when she's gone, and she's always gone too long, anything she goes away. by Bill Wethers

Hence, I found the best approach to interact with patrons, regardless of my state of mind. Here is how I try to cope in a customer service oriented work environment.

When answering simple questions from patrons

Come rain or shine, here is my way of attempting to guide patrons into knowing the answer, by figuring it out themselves.

The Socratic Maieutics Method - Simplified. A monster character called "anonymised" (sorta?) asks Hi... You know we have this research assignment due tomorrow. Sigh... I have a citation question. Do I need to add the court's abbreviation in parentheses at the end of my reference? A woman responds: Take a step back. Forget this is technical legal stuff. Think logically. Is it already mentioned? If you were T.A., what would be the essential elements you'd wanna see? Trust your instincts. You got this! That's right. leave out the superfluous. Done.

Alright, it’s a long answer to a simple question about citing case law. But I like to think that patrons feel empowered and forget for a few seconds the stress of paper deadlines. I’ll be more firm on my unexpected “sick” days, and more gregarious on “normal” days.

When answering complicated questions from patrons

Law libraries patrons are known to be demanding. Well guess what? So am I. Their toughest research questions are the perfect intellectual challenge that make me thrieve. On occasions, I get excentric requests. A zombie-like "anonymised" boy says: Hello. How can I manage references in law while using Latex? Is there a law thesis template which include Zotero? If not, can you provide me with coding skills? I don't like MS word and its limited features. A woman librarian sipping coffee responds: l-a-t-e-x like the gloves? Still nothing. To my fellow academic law librarians, any ideas?

When answering to the librarian’s questions

Discussions are often reciprocal : patrons, too, teach me new things, not just in law.

Reversed reference services. Discovering little marvels. Endless curiosity and amazement like a kid. A woman librarian exuding small hearts asks: Huh. I don't know about this case. So what are you working on? A one-eyed female student responds: I analyze interpretation trends at the Canadian Supreme Court level, by using an empirical method in law. Librarian says: Wow. Tell me more! Student responds: Did you know we can now follow the court on Instagram? Librarian asking another student: Hey, what's on your screen? That logo. Zombie like student wearing all green and with a leaf coming out of his head says: I'm using Ecosia, a search engine planting trees. Librarian responds: Wow. Tell me more! Zombie student responds: OK, but first, can't download the report from your very instructive workshop. Librarian says: Maybe too hipster for the UN. Consider mainstream Google Chrome, this time. Zombie student responds: Done. Hey! That WAS the issue. Thanks.

When answering to myself

I talk to myself all the time (a typical trait of anxious people). More questions, which I answer with more questions…

The more I know the less I know. Aristotle. Woman sitting at her desk with head laying on her computer. Four talking clouds coming out of her. First cloud says: Say, what? My Snap? Oh, I get it. Just when I get the hang of it. Snapchat is now out? Second cloud says: What's Tik Tok? Huh. Baby Yoda is funny. Third cloud says: Maybe create micro-videos about research operators? Interesting. Fourth and last cloud says: Can I use Baby Yoda? How will he explain controlled vocabulary in 60 seconds? I'm lame!

Presenting during a research workshop

Same same… I start very structured and by the end of the presentation I’m losing my train of thought.  I talk too much. Brevity in communication is more effective than verbosity. Truth be told, I can’t slow down! That’s neuroticism doing all the talkin’.

Less is more. A diagonal column with the words You got this. come across the picture several times. In the center, a female professor says: Ok. Wrapping up. Be concise. Um... Okay! What was I saying again? What?! Already? I'm so sorry! Yes, please take a break. Come back to the lab in 15 minutes. Behind the professor, there is a board with the following text written on it: Outline. 1. intro. 2. legislation. 3. case law. 4. research exercise. 5. conclusion. There is another diagonal column with the word Fail written multiple times.

Presenting online

Recently I freaked out about appearing at CALL/ACBD 2022 in Montréal, my hometown. I was obsessed about providing the right headshot for the event website. Strangers still think I’m 20. I’m ambivalent about soon turning twice that age #AsianEternalYouth. I’m obsessed with updating my LinkedIn pic, as soon as it makes me look older. Like a teenager getting a fake ID.

Two vintage looking note cards in the center. The larger ones has the following written on it: The importance of headshots. According to a study on facial features published in the Cognition and Emotion Journal (2012), you make your decision to trust someone within 100 milliseconds of seeing their face. Source: Timothy R. Campellone and Ann M. Kring (2013) Who do you trust? The impact of facial emotion and behaviour on decision making, Cognition and Emotion, 27:4, 603-628, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2012.726608. The smaller note card has the following text written on it: Because I'm an Asian woman, and therefore, guaranteed to live until I'm a billion. I'm guaranteed like a turtle from the Galapagos. Ok? Ali Wong.

Has the warranty expired for me? This study says maybe higher neuroticism can actually protect against mortality.

Presenting during a conference

During my premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) dark days in May, I came up with these unusual ideas for my five sessions of CALL/ACBD 2022. Though my private life suffered from my terrible mood swings, I created fun videos, made-up names, aesthetic slides, geeky jokes and theatrical voices. There’s evidence to suggest that people who score higher on measures of neuroticism also score higher in creativity. I asked for help and advice. Everyone was inspiring and supportive. I did it my way, with familiar performance cues #BetterLaughThanCry. These are the tips I want to pass on.

Throughout my CALL/ACBD 2022 sessions, I had an exceptional cheering crowd via the Zoom chat (¡Muchas gracias Marcelo!). In the end, I DID have fun. #Yoga@work After each performance as moderator or presenter, I felt an amazing level of dopamine run through me. Check this book I’ll be reading. I still get lovely feedback from law librarians across North America who attended the annual conference. Stay tuned #CALL/ACBD 2023 #Thankful #Networking #GlassHalfFull.

Just… hanging out!

Some things will always remain a challenge. Like bonding with my colleagues. They’re like family: loving AND annoying. I include myself in this description. Typical work day:

Enjoy the last days of Summer, y’all.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.