I remember the first time I wanted to die. I was 17 years old. I went to my mom and said, “Mommy, I think I need help. I think I’m depressed.” To which she replied, “Only rich people can afford to be crazy.”
I don’t blame her. I don’t see her indifference as negligence. In her culture, and many around the world, mental illness is not viewed as a legitimate illness. Either you’re crazy or you’re not, and in her eyes, I was fine. Just a normal, moody teenaged girl who was still bitter she hadn’t passed her driver’s license exam the first time around.
And so for about three weeks, I cried and slept and didn’t see my friends outside of school, National Honor Society, and cheerleading practice. I was lucky to be able to get through the days, but inside I was falling apart. And then one day, I wasn’t. One day, I smiled and meant it. One day, I had a genuine hope for the future. There was nothing different about that day from the rest. I didn’t change my diet or my schedule. I just woke up and didn’t want to hide from the world. Shortly after, I graduated high school and began my freshman year of college.
I couldn’t explain what happened to me or why. I didn’t dare bring it up ever again and just prayed that it was the first and last time I would ever feel that way.
But it wasn’t.
One month into my final semester of college, a familiar pit of anxiety welled up inside me. It was the middle of the first home football game of the season. I couldn’t breathe. Students painted in orange and blue drunkenly cheered around me, and I felt like the stadium was going to swallow me whole. I looked around at my friends, laughing and smiling, and suddenly felt like an outsider. It wasn’t rational, but mental illness isn’t rational. I felt like no one wanted me there, so I left. I panicked and told my friend that I was going to the restroom. I ran home and never looked back. I climbed into bed, pulled the covers over my head and sobbed until I fell asleep.
We’ll call that “Anxiety Attack #1”.
When my friends followed up with me later, asking where I’d run off to that night and why I wouldn’t answer my phone, I lied. Too ashamed to admit what really happened, I told them I wandered into a local bar and then found my way home. We all laughed at my “#college” moment and never spoke of it again.
The next time it happened at a party.
After that, at a club meeting.
And then, at church.
Until finally, the fear of people knowing my dirty little secret—that something (that I couldn’t explain) was not quite right, that I wasn’t perfect—consumed every aspect of my life until it was my life. My anxiety triggered depression and every waking moment I lived paranoid that my facade would come crumbling down around me.
I quit my job. I quit my sorority. I stopped going to class.
Nine days. That was the longest streak I went without leaving my apartment. I know this exact number because I posted a Facebook status about watching NBC’s entire Parks and Recreation series in that time frame. I lived alone, so no one knew where I was. I needed to make the world believe I was okay, that I was enjoying my senior year. That post got 77 likes. “Good enough,” I thought as I laid in bed.
During those nine days, I mostly slept. I ordered delivery when my hunger pangs became louder than whatever episode I was binge-watching. I feared that if I even stepped foot outside, people would know. They would judge me and hate me and see me for who I really was: A fraud. A phony. In my mind, the accomplished and ambitious college student was no more and what was left of her, this shell of a person, was all I ever was.
I ignored all phone calls, emails, and texts. My parents and I don’t speak very often, so if I missed my weekly check-in, it wasn’t a big deal. But this check-in was about graduation and all the chaos that came with it. One missed called turned into ten, which turned into angry voicemails from my mother threatening to drive five hours to see me if I didn’t call back, so I did.
She asked me if I’d ordered my regalia and I told her I wouldn’t be walking. I told her I may not even graduate. It all just came out of me. I admitted that for the past two months, I was barely functioning and fell behind in all of my classes. I’d already used my allotted drops and even still, would fail two classes and have to retake them. She said she was coming to take me home. I told her not to; I was going to fix it.
The next morning, I drove myself to the student Counseling and Wellness Center. I don’t remember much of the session except that I cried, a lot, and when I tried to make sense of what I was feeling or why, I cried even more. I tried to pin my depression on every external part of my life, because I didn’t want to believe it was something I couldn’t control. I didn’t want to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, even if that’s how I felt. That day I was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. My intake counselor recommended a counseling program at a local health center that accepted students without insurance.
Two days later, I went home for Thanksgiving break and almost didn’t come back. I considered withdrawing from the semester and taking my remaining class online, living at home to avoid the shame of returning to campus.
You see, before my episode, I’d spent the past year at multiple internships across the country. Being the overachiever I was, I completed most of my required classes by my junior year and passed time by working, studying abroad, and interning to postpone graduation so I could walk with my friends. This was supposed to be my victory lap. I was supposed to be happy. I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I excelled at every stage of my academic career and now, in the last round, I was failing. The life I envisioned for myself was slipping through my fingers. I spent more time worrying about how I would explain my situation to the outside world rather than worrying about how to get better.
For the sake of my family, I went back to school after the holiday. I couldn’t bear to see the worry on my mother’s face. She couldn’t afford to stay home and “keep an eye on me” and we definitely couldn’t afford the therapy I so desperately needed, so I went back to school to start my free counseling.
I walked into my first session expecting to walk out with the solution to all of my problems. A “quick fix” list with instructions on how to get my life back together. Instead, it got worse before it got better.
Each session, I delved deeper into repressed experiences from my childhood and left challenged to confront them and work through them, rather than get rid of them, liked I’d hoped. The hardest part was telling my loved ones. There are textbook reactions to someone talking about their depression: the blank stare, the worried gasp, or the concerned frown. What do you say to someone who says at one point, they felt not living was better than existing at all? Nothing. You stare blankly, gasp worriedly or frown with concern.
The second hardest part, and easily the most frustrating, was the paperwork. The red tape around claiming my mental illness was in fact “real” was stressful enough to make me want to quit altogether and forego completing my degree. “I need to drop this class because I am depressed,” is unfortunately not enough to relieve you of your academic responsibilities.
How do you prove what you’re feeling is real? How do you show people what’s inside your head? I needed to gather proof. Notes from professors, advisors and counselors. Diagnoses and dates of treatment. For people with mental illness, getting access to the help needed is just half the battle. Getting people to acknowledge it and take it seriously is the other. I went through the medical withdrawal process all by myself and right before finals week, might I add. With guidance and support from my advisor and the Dean of Students, I petitioned to drop my electives and tried my best to complete the one course I actually needed to graduate.
Weeks passed with no word on my petition or graduation status, but instead of living in fear, I was living in peace. No matter what happened, I’d made it through to the other side, and that’s all that mattered. With weekly therapy I was getting out of bed, leaving my apartment, and talking to friends. I was acclimating myself back into the world day by day. I wasn’t denying the status of my mental and emotional health; I was acknowledging it. To me, that was the biggest accomplishment of all.
And just like that, it was all over.
I graduated. I got a job. I moved on. Though it was just a few months ago, senior year seems like a distant past and sometimes I wonder if it really happened at all.
My major depressive episodes seemed to be triggered by drastic life changes, both happening around the time of my respective graduations. At times, I feel like I live in constant fear that it could happen again. It is so scary to think that tomorrow I may not be able to get out of bed and go to work because I want my world to end. But I cannot live in that fear, and I refuse to live in that fear. It’s the fear that crippled me into silence when I needed to scream out for help. It was the fear of judgment and rejection that robbed me of enjoying some of the most special moments of my life. While I cannot promise that everything will be peachy-keen, because I know it won’t be, I know that I can work through whatever comes my way.
There are good days and bad days.
I cherish the good ones and reminisce when I’m not feeling so great. I remind myself that I’ve gotten through it before and I will get through it again. And I will, because I have.
I am Stronger Than Stigma, and so are you.
Recent UF grad