“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 – 10 minutes
*This interview contains an update with the storyteller at the end of this post.*
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.
January 2018 Update
It has been a few years since IOM interviewed me, and there has been a lot of change in my life. I moved to a new city, started a graduate program, and got some serious counseling which has helped me tremendously. I will be moving back to the Burg’ (can’t keep yinzers out of their natural habitats for too long) in May after I finish my program and begin applying to physician assistant schools. I guess I will start from the beginning.
Successes in Therapy
I moved to start a program which will provide me with the science courses I need to apply to physician assistant school. Moving to a new city was tough and, like when abroad, I experienced the same struggles with loneliness. I decided that it was important for me to get some counseling. This was by far the best decision I have made in my life so far. I got paired up with a Psychology PhD student named James. It was incredible working with him.
Initially we met once a week on Fridays to decompress and work on skills I can develop to manage my illness. The most important skill I learned is forgiving myself for things that I have done in the past. We all do things that we are not proud of, and I constantly would have flashbacks to these situations. What I learned to do is accept they happened and forgive myself, because I am not the same person as the one who did those things. As my experience with the skill set developed, we were able to meet once every two weeks and eventually just once a month. He moved on to somewhere in Michigan to finish up his thesis, and I was left for the summer to fend for myself. Much to my surprise, I was able to do so. It is currently January, and I can say that I never have been happier in my life (currently smiling). I can finally sit here and admit something to all you: I. have. depression. I suffer from a mental illness and will likely always suffer from it. It does not define me though, and I can hang with everyone else, even on the bad days, with the right help.
Moving Through Hardships
The past few years have not been without their struggles, though. I still have bad days where I feel lonely, and the disease tries to insinuate that I am not worth it. It tries to hold down my limbs so I don’t get out of bed in the morning. The skills James has provided me with allow me to stand up, look the affliction square in the eye, and push back. I may still feel bad but, like everything in life, the bad feelings the depression attacks me with are transient and eventually will be replaced with better feelings.
In addition to the depression being there, my friend unfortunately lost his battle with depression and completed suicide last year. It was shocking to say the least. It hurt a lot that the depression he suffered from was able to fight so hard against him. He had a beautiful soul and was always smiling and looking out for others. Let me be clear: suicide is never the answer. Like I said above, all feelings are transient and the bad feelings will eventually be replaced by better ones. I really believe that. I wish he was here with us on New Year’s Eve again, and we all could have went to the North Side and kicked it. I wish he would have reached out somewhere else one more time for help. I remember how severe that pain was standing on the ledge that day. I was lucky. I know he is there watching out for me and helping me as I struggle on the bad days and am incredibly grateful for that. All of that said: I love and miss you, brother. Keep looking out for us.
These past few years have been the worst and best of my life. For the first time in my life, despite being so overwhelmed by the darkness at one point, I can finally say I am happy. I never thought I would see the light, but I eventually did. I am grateful for every sunset, every snowfall, and, hell, even every organic chemistry exam. I am happy you all read my story. It made me feel like I was not alone and gave me the confidence I needed to seek help and find as much light in the darkness that I could. I will leave you guys with a few things:
1) Mental illness is real, and you are not alone. You are an incredibly beautiful person, and with some help you also can fight back against whatever is afflicting you. You can do this.
2) It is incredibly hard and scary, but if you have not sought the help of counselors, try to go do so. I never realized how simply talking about my feelings could give me strength. If you don’t want to do that, try to seek the help of a close friend or family member.
3) Forgive yourself for your feelings, thoughts, and actions. We all do things we aren’t proud of.
4) Did I mention you are a beautiful person yet?
5) If you ever have any suicidal thoughts and don’t feel like talking to anyone around you, please please please call 1-800-273-8255.
I likely have never met you, but know that I love you. Thanks for listening.
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