Today is October 10, World Mental Health Day.
Each year, I’ve silently commemorated this day, but until today I’ve never publicly shared my own struggles with mental illness. I’ve whispered to a few close friends what happened to me over ten years ago, but I have always been too ashamed to talk openly about my battle with depression and suicide when I was a teenager. I’m no longer ashamed.
When I was 16, my world turned upside down. During my sophomore year of high school, I went from being a happy, normal teenage girl to suicidal in the period of a few months. To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened; there was no triggering event or traumatic circumstances that caused my slide into severe depression, but every day, I felt my world become a little bit darker. Food had no taste, the world became colorless and dull, and things I previously enjoyed no longer brought me happiness. Eventually, I could not bring myself to get out of bed in the mornings and I thought about suicide on a regular basis. I felt like I had to be perfect, and that I was disappointing people if I wasn’t. To be totally honest, I felt worse than useless, and felt like the world would have been better without me.
My writings became darker and darker until I wanted to end my own life in the middle of the night in May of 2005, the spring of my sophomore year. I woke up in a padded room in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. There was nothing but a bed inside the room, and a nurse had to accompany me when I showered or went to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t try to kill myself when I was alone. I remember nothing of that dark, dark night—I do not recall my parents driving me to the hospital or getting checked in or falling asleep. I stayed in the psych ward for a week, and was finally released with multiple prescriptions of medications to take and appointments with a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
For a little more than a year, I switched from medication to medication, trying to find the right combination that would magically make me feel better, and I saw the counselor each week and the psychiatrist each month, lying to my friends about where I had to go after school.
Then, on a youth trip to Germany several months later, I had another suicidal episode and was taken to a hospital near Cologne. It was the same routine in a different place. I remember nothing of the trip there or being checked into the hospital; I remember waking up and being in another room with just a bed in it, doctors with German-accented English, and a big observation window where the nurses could watch me around the clock. I felt like an animal in the zoo as doctors in white coats would gather on the other side of the observation window and write notes on their clipboards. I do not know how long I stayed at that hospital. It could have been two days or two weeks. The entire rest of the trip was a blur—I do not even recall the transatlantic flight home.
After I returned, I again cycled through a host of different medications, trying to find something that would work. I continued meeting with a therapist who wasn’t that helpful and a psychiatrist who was amazing. And I started practicing yoga, five or six days a week.
Slowly, I came out of the fog that had haunted me. I eventually stopped seeing my psychiatrist and therapist. I finally discontinued my meds, but kept up my regular yoga practice. And a couple of years after that first stay in the psychiatric ward, I felt back to normal. Like waking up from a nightmare, I was back to being myself again.
I’m writing my story today for a few different reasons:
Firstly, I felt a huge sense of shame for over ten years for having struggled with suicide and depression in my past. But I’ve now come to realization that you should feel no more shame about struggling with mental health than physical health (which is to say, none). I shouldn’t feel any more stigma to share my story about depression in high school than if I broke my arm or tore my ACL as a teenager. I am no longer ashamed to tell my story.
Secondly, when I was going through my battle with mental health in high school, I knew no one else who had struggled with depression or suicide, much less anyone who had come out alive and well on the other side. Not knowing anyone else who was going through something similar made me feel much more ashamed and isolated than if I had known depression is a fairly common illness, affecting more than 16.1 million American adults each year. At the time, I could not even fathom a time in the future when I would ever feel happy again, when I would stop dreaming about swallowing pills or fantasizing about walking off our roof or hanging myself. If you are struggling with mental illness, know that you are not alone, and that it is possible to recover completely. Over ten years later, I’m living life to the fullest, I have a wonderful son and a job I love, and I’m grateful to still be here to tell my story. Know that there are lots of different treatment options, and sometimes it takes awhile to find out what works. Not all therapists are created equal—find one that understands your needs. Yoga for me was a lifesaver and more effective than the therapist I was seeing. Keep trying even if it feels like things aren’t working—it took me a long time to get the right combination of support, medication, and doing yoga. Know that you are not alone, and that you can heal.
Thirdly, if you never struggle with mental illness but want to support a friend or family member who is going through it, I want to offer a few words of advice based on my own experience. Although this may sound obvious, never, ever shame someone who is struggling with depression. When I got out of the psychiatric ward, my high school tennis coach let me know how disappointed she was that I’d missed a big tennis meet (WTF). I had a few people who were probably trying to help, but would say things like, “Just think happy thoughts!” or “You need to start loving yourself” or “Stop being so sad all the time, and realize you have so many great things in your life.” This is like telling a diabetic person to just control their blood sugar. These comments just made me feel even worse—it made me feel that feeling depressed or thinking suicidal thoughts was my own fault and personal failing, rather than a chemical imbalance in my brain that I had no control over.
Things that you should do if you have a friend going through a mental illness: continue to tell your loved ones that they’re valuable. I had a good friend who was a Catholic priest who continued to tell me that I mattered and my life was important even through the very worst of my depression; he saved my life on more than one occasion. My Dad and brother used to write me notes and leave them on my bed with song lyrics (“I think I can make it now the rain is gone”) or just an “I love you.” Continue to be there for that person, even if they try to push you away. Let them know that you’re there to listen, and actually show up to listen. If they are opening up to you, don’t try to make the focus about you or say you know exactly what they’re going through if you don’t. Don’t even think about saying some shit like, “Everything happens for a reason” to someone in a serious situation like this (this seems like an obvious thing to me, but I actually got comments like that surprisingly often). Try not to take it personally if they try to push you away. Be there, listen, and be supportive.
|My brother really took the whole "be supportive" thing literally|
And finally, although I don’t want to put my contact details here on the internet, if you do know me personally, know that you can call me or message me any time of the day or night if you’re going through something similar and want someone to talk to about it. The Samaritans is also a great organization for people going through any sort of crisis—big or small. They operate a free hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you are connected to a trained volunteer who will confidentially listen and offer support to you. When I was sixteen and it was three in the morning and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I called them.
Know that you are valuable, know that you are loved, and know that things can get better.