I have never heard such a word that made me feel both terrified
–Mandeq Ahmed, “both”
“I can’t abandon
the person I used to be
so I carry her”
–a Tumblr poet, herkindoftea.tumblr.com
“Part of us
is unfailing. As light
as sun through water. Though water
is reckless. Waves crash.”
–Carole Glasser Langille, from “Out of Habit,” In Cannon Cave
“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
SEVERE DEPRESSION PSYCH, reads my hospital record. SUICIDAL IDEATION. In bold. All caps. Letters that will never go away.
Stories. People all over the world are claiming them as their own and speaking out about them. My best friend Olivia, in an incredible act of bravery and strength, just told some of hers at http://myensomusings.wordpress.com. (Read it and be floored. Moved. Inspired. Perhaps even changed.) The power of her story, along with a desire to not only know others in this way but also participate in this knowing by being known, has inspired me to tell more of my own. So, here’s a window into mine.
Two weeks ago, I got out of the hospital after vying with a severe kidney infection. I misinterpreted my symptoms and was treating myself for another condition with which I have already been diagnosed instead of seeking treatment for the infection I really had.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, I shook uncontrollably, couldn’t keep anything down, watched my fever rise and rise. The doctor who first saw me in the ER said that I had the highest white blood cell count of any patient he had seen in his entire career–he later compared it to the numbers he sees in Stage Four leukemia patients half an hour before they die. My body was fighting with everything it had just to stay alive.
My fever spiked that night to 104.6, and wouldn’t lower, despite all the medication the doctors tried. That kind of fever can cause brain damage, seizures, and death. As a last resort, my nurses covered my body with ice to prevent me from seizing, and hopefully save my life. They did. I remained in the hospital fighting my infection for six days before being released and having to rest another seven days before returning to my college classes.
Today, as I was poring over my doctors’ notes (the ones they give you when you’re discharged) in a thick manila envelope, I came across the bolded letters in my patient history. Bolded letters in my past. Present. SEVERE DEPRESSION PSYCH. SUICIDAL IDEATION. Always there.
I remember when two social workers came during my hospital haze of fever and painkillers to act concerned and ask me whether I was having “any more of that” since my hospitalization for it last March. Anger flashed through me. Any more of that? I thought to myself. Any more of that? My whole life is battling that. Any more of that? Leave me be. “No,” I answered aloud. “Not of note.”
Melancholy has been inextricably threaded through my history; I think of it as a color-tone in the tapestry of my life, more prominent in certain lights than in others. Since childhood, I’ve been mostly quiet and introspective, down on myself, perfectionistic. I struggled with severe bouts of depression and self-harm in high school, but I had always thought of college as my source of hope and way out – a way out of the small town in upstate New York where I grew up, a way away from destructive relationships, a way to experience freshness and freedom in ways I never before had imagined. So I made sure everyone knew I was serious about getting away and flew 3,000 miles to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.
College was a whole new kettle of fish. I changed a lot over the course of these last four years–dyed my hair then let it go natural again, started running, lost a lot of weight, became a philosophy addict, read buckets of new books, essays, and journal articles, learned more about just how little I really knew, became passionate about issues like race, ethnicity, gender, conflict and reconciliation, and all kinds of other things that I knew nearly nothing about in high school, fell in love, was shaped by my study abroad experience in Ireland, got into yoga and Pilates, became a vegetarian, started working toward veganism, examined my spiritual beliefs again and again, allowing them to shift organically as I learned and grew, made lifelong friends, joined the Sailing Team, did more hiking and ocean swimming than I’ve done in the rest of my life TOTAL, became more independent, developed my perception of my own identity, dreamed big about the future, drank gallons of coffee and tea, wrote, lived fluidly, (all so good) then
almost lost my best friend to suicide. Let the love of my life go. Grappled with my health as thing after thing went wrong. Let the melancholy grow and rise. Stopped being able to get out of bed and face the world on a regular basis. Took four Incompletes in classes the fall of my junior year because I was so depressed (both situationally and physiologically) that I couldn’t get my work done. Was only able to complete two of them over Christmas break. Watched the deadline sail by and the “I”s be replaced with “F”s. (For someone whose identity was so tied to her grades, I’m surprised I survived that, let alone that in combination with everything else.)
I started a new semester (Spring 2014), and got behind again because I still hadn’t dealt with the core issue of my depression. I beat myself up about both of those things. My best friend at school went abroad. I took more phone calls about other suicide attempts of my best friend from home. I felt totally hopeless and powerless to help or even be myself for her. I contemplated leaving school. I contemplated killing myself.
Then I was raped by an acquaintance while on a casual date. I said nothing, and reached out to no one. I watched time stop as my chest filled again and again with the kind of pain that no physical ailment can explain. Time remained frozen until, in a breathless, desperate moment, I called a friend on campus, telling her that I had stopped taking care of myself and that I didn’t feel safe here – that I needed help. We drove together to the hospital, where she sat holding my hand until I was admitted to the psych ward for severe depression and suicidal ideation.
And now, eight months later, I’m here. Alive. After months of intensive therapy and intentional work on my part to process through my past and build self-awareness, mindfulness, holistic health, and gratitude into my moment-by-moment life, I am seeing changes.
But what I’m here to testify to isn’t my journey from “being in a bad place” to “being in a good place.” (I don’t believe it works like that at all. Change isn’t linear in my experience – it’s more seasonal, like life in a garden. I’m not by any means ready for an ultimate victory cry.)
I’m here to testify that it happens. I’m here to testify that it happened, and is happening, for me. I’m here as a reminder that mental illness affects everyone, everywhere, whether directly or by proxy–loved ones, friends, family members, acquaintances, every person we don’t know but to whom our hearts go out. I’m here to let my voice join the voices of so many before me–it is real, it is everywhere, and it needs to be brought into the light. When will we stop stigmatizing it and instead start facing it–facing it with the love, compassion, and care required of any illness? When will we start throwing our hands in instead of throwing them up? When will we start participating in the healing?
I carry my past and myself with me. I carry this heaviness, this propensity for uncontrolled sadness and bouts of deep depression, these flashbacks to the rape, this loss and grief and void. I carry the person I’ve been.
I combat these things with the knowledge that I am capable of overcoming adversity.
I remind myself daily that I don’t just carry the bad things–that I also carry with me the support of my friends, family, and incredible boyfriend, Oliver. I carry with me hope and love and a will to live. I carry with me the desire to let people in similar circumstances know that they are not alone, and help them in any way that I can. I carry with me all of the parts of myself that are in tension with one another, and do my best to hold them there. It’s not my fault that I was raped. It’s not my fault that I hit my breaking point and needed professional help to get back on my feet. It’s not my fault that this stays with me, and always will. I am unashamed. Here and now, I own my story. I own my mental illness. I own my past. These alone do not define me.
Self-acceptance is always a journey, but I’ll say it now – I love who I am. Why have I felt ashamed to say that, or even feel that? Why should I feel ashamed to say that? There is no shame in being unashamedly oneself. None. No shame. And I guess to do that–to be unashamedly myself–I had to start here.
Peace. Joy. Wherever you are, may they be yours in abundance today.