“One memory that stands out… This just sounds so ridiculous now, but it makes so much sense! I was at a gas station in the car with my brother, and my mom was pumping gas. And I was afraid that I inhaled too many fumes, and I was going to die. Like, a fourth grader, imagine! Saying this stuff! I remember staying at home that night… that entire night freaking out, not leaving my dad’s side… so afraid I would die.”
[Content Warning: Suicidal Thoughts and Acts]
Reading Time – 6 minutes
The Emergence of Anxiety in Childhood
The anxiety started… I remember, well, I barely remember actually… In third grade I started to have a ton of behavioral problems at home. I started swinging at my mom, which was a huge wake up call that maybe we should look into this more… My dad was completely against therapy, and mom was completely for it. There was a lot of stress there… My mom had to take me to the actual therapy sessions with me not wanting to go… making a big scene… just causing a lot of stress.
I don’t remember a lot, but I remember being up and down. One memory that stands out… This just sounds so ridiculous now, but it makes so much sense! I was at a gas station in the car with my brother, and my mom was pumping gas. And I was afraid that I inhaled too many fumes, and I was going to die. Like, a fourth grader, imagine! Saying this stuff! I remember staying at home that night… that entire night freaking out, not leaving my dad’s side… so afraid I would die.
I had times like, “Why do I have to take this stupid medicine? Why does my mom have to cut this pill in half every morning?” I was just so angry that I had to deal with something like that… and not understanding any of it at all. I knew I needed to “chill out”… that was what I was told and how it was described to me.
I knew that something was going on, that I always felt nervous… I didn’t understand why it was a disorder and why everyone else didn’t feel like that. It was right there in front of me, like… I’m sick and I need to take this pill… but I still didn’t really understand the “why” of it all. I didn’t know that it was a legitimate sickness… I thought, “I can’t be sick in my feelings! It’s not possible!” That was the closest I got to understanding that I was sick and anything about anxiety in general during childhood.
Coming off of the Ledge
The depression started around my sophomore year of college. I got a little better… but then my junior and senior years things got really bad. I didn’t know it was depression at the time, and I wasn’t educated enough about mental illness to know that something was severely wrong. I decided to try to take science classes, but things were not going well… I started to miss a lot a class and didn’t want to get out of bed for days at a time… didn’t want to socialize… isolated myself and because of that felt more isolated… The depression didn’t allow me to function… Despite joining a tennis club and having all these great, new friends, I wouldn’t go out.
Thursday night before my Chemistry 2 final… I told myself I was worthless, that I could never do anything in medicine, because I’m not smart enough… just completely cut myself down into pieces. Eventually I was to the point where I thought, “I’m nothing. What’s even the point? Is it even worth it?” I ended up standing on the ledge of my building for about… 20 minutes maybe. It was so cold. To be honest, I don’t even remember what went through my head. I don’t know what made me step off that ledge and turn back.
My psychiatrist thought it was pretty fascinating that I didn’t remember everything. The next day was the Sandy Hook School Shooting… and that really was a wake up call. I still have my life… I could have taken it away, and all these seven-year-old kids didn’t even have a choice… Their parents would do anything to get them back, and I almost gave mine away… made me feel even shittier… I could have thrown it away.
Experiencing Mental Illness and Stigma Abroad
After college I had an opportunity to move to Ghana to teach for six months. I convinced myself, “Ah, you’ll be fine! You’ll be fine!” I got out there, and really, that place is as close to Heaven as I’m ever going to get. The first three weeks were easily the best weeks of my life. But, I tried to make something work with one of the volunteers there, and that didn’t work out… so with that whole breakup, things started to tumble.
I didn’t realize how isolated I would be. I was in a village with like… 130 people living there, so I mean, I was out there with nobody. I didn’t even have cell phone service, and the Internet would go out for months at a time. I couldn’t talk to anybody! I literally had no support system sometimes. I think the isolation really got to me, and I started having suicidal thoughts again.
The difference between there and college was… in college my grades suffered and I suffered… but teaching… if I would go into school without a lot of energy because of the illness, my students suffered, and is that fair to them? I talked to my supervisor, and we had to make a tough decision. She didn’t send me home, but she gave me the option to go home. I decided to try and get treatment in the city first. The doctor from there sucked… and on top of that, he couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t get any therapy in addition to medication. So it was just a terrible combination of things…
In general the locals have a huge lack of understanding of mental illness… even though around a third of high school students there contemplate suicide. I think it’s the result of corporal punishment… even elementary school kids get the shit kicked out of them at school. It was really hard to watch. I had to be really careful on letting parents know their kids were doing bad… they could get hurt. It got out in the village that I had depression. I had to go to the city for a month for treatment, and there is no confidentiality in such a small place… everyone talks.
The locals treated me completely different when I got back. It’s all just a lack of understanding. It’s not their fault. They just thought I was crazy… and maybe they were afraid… I don’t want to say afraid, but they just didn’t understand… To my face, they were always super nice, because that’s the culture. But I heard them talk about me behind my back… That really got to me a lot… It got into my head, “Do the kids know? What are they going to think?” I made the tough decision to just walk away from things and go home…
Coming Back and Making Changes
When I got home, I decided I just have to go at it with everything I got… It was tough at first, but slowly I’ve made improvements. I’ve been doing pretty good for about seven months now. Running as a coping mechanism helped me out of that depression. I ran so much, my knees are shot. I winged like… five marathons in college, trained for the other three. (laughs) Any time I’d feel remotely down or nervous, I’d just put on my running shoes and go.
Since I can’t run now, school and getting into medical school have been my replacement coping mechanisms. I’m doing a pre-med post-bacc next year. I definitely want to do something with psychiatry to research what’s happening with young adults and mental illness. Why mental illness comes out so severely in college… Like, why do we have this much stress and is there any way to bypass that?
Some Final Advice
For people who are struggling… You always read articles that say, “You are not alone.” But when I’m struggling, I always think, “Oh, they’re just saying that…” I’m not super receptive to that. But really, you are NOT alone. There are so many of us out there. Like, one-fifth of the population suffers from anxiety… that’s every fifth person you see on the street! You really aren’t alone. Also, don’t give up, and don’t feel ashamed at times when you do want to give up. It happens to everybody. Don’t be afraid to talk about giving up with your chosen support system. I wish I would have talked about it to more people and used that as a coping mechanism.
For the general population… Be careful of when you put people down. You don’t know how deep those words… how deep of an impact those words can have. Words have a really weird way of resonating deeper with mentally ill people, so it’s important to always be careful of how you criticize people. You might have a barrier against it, but other people… it might really hurt them.
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