I was in the 7th grade the first time I tried to kill myself.
It was a feeble attempt, for sure; I remember the silent sobs wracking my still-developing body, awkward limbs flailing under tangled sheets and bedspread as I pressed my face into my pillow, hard, willing my breathing to stop.
This soon became a nightly pursuit — tossing, turning, weeping and gasping for breath. The most frustrating part was that I didn’t really understand why I felt this way. I had just moved schools and it was taking me a while to adjust, but even I knew that that wasn’t the extent of the problem, that something deeper was happening that I couldn’t comprehend, slowly drilling holes into my mental constitution. As the nights went by, it became less about the challenge of whether or not I could do it and more about the internal battle that accompanied it: “Do it. You have to.” “But why?” “You need to.” “But why?!” And so it went, silent struggles that a 12-year-old should not have to confront.
I got through it, eventually. I traded nights of wrestling with myself for sleep and the dreams and nightmares that came with it. But once you experience that feeling of sinking, of a loss of control, it stays with you. There is no going back.
For years I tried to place blame. Maybe it was the stress I placed on myself at school. Maybe it was my parents’ failed but still existent marriage. Maybe it was the disconnect I felt from everyone else when I really thought about it, the occasional feeling that I was floating through life via external observation, sometimes stopping to look in the mirror and experiencing the shock of realizing that that’s what I look like, that’s who I am. No, that last one was a symptom. There was no blame to place. It was inside of me, clawing away, wanting an explanation, wondering why. Why did I suddenly feel like crying with no provocation? Why did the thought occasionally strike me as I drove my first car around a bend how easy it would be to jerk the wheel a little bit to the right and possibly experience a truly selfish novelty as I slammed headfirst into that tree?
I hated feeling sorry for myself. As far as logic could tell me, I had no reason to feel sorry for myself. I was smart; I was talented; I was successful and had friends. My parents may have had their own issues, but I knew they loved me with all their hearts. I was not a victim of any abuse, I had not really been bullied and I had an ostensibly bright future ahead of me…if I could manage to make it that far. When I thought about life, when I wrote it down on paper, I liked it. I wanted more of it.
But see, that’s the thing — depression doesn’t care what life looks like on paper. It doesn’t give a damn about what you tell yourself about how great life is and could be. What it does is slams the sheer gravity of being down upon you when you least expect it, ties weights to your ankles and drowns you in a sea of anxiety, of “what if”s and “not good enough”s. And that is something that took me a long time to understand and an even longer time to talk about.
In my family, in my culture, mental illness is especially taboo. Brown girls go to college and do well and get married and have happy families — or if you manage to come from a more liberal background, they find what they love and go after it and that’s that. Brown girls do not have eating disorders. They do not feel sad for no reason. They don’t acknowledge labels like “bipolar” or “manic depressive” or “anxiety disorder.” They don’t seek counseling; as far as brown girls should be concerned, sometimes people feel sad but you figure out why and you fix it and move on.
When I called my mother my sophomore year of college on one of the worst days of my life, I was at my breaking point. I needed her to understand, and bless her, she tried. I could hear the fear and uncertainty in her voice as I told her about the panic attacks, the sleeplessness, the bouts of crying. I did my best to make her understand what it had taken me years to recognize: that it wasn’t her fault, or my fault, or anyone’s fault, really; it’s just a thing that happens and sometimes it happens to me. I wanted to absolve her of the guilt that she did not deserve to feel.
“I think…I think I need to see a counselor.”
“Okay. Whatever you need to do, whoever you need to talk to.”
“I just think talking to somebody external will help me sort things out.”
Silence. Then a shaky breath from the other side of the phone.
“You know I love you, right? I love you. I will always be here for you no matter what.”
Another silence, another shaky breath, this time from my end.
I never had the guts to say what I actually wanted to say — “I’m afraid.” I couldn’t bear to burden her more than I already had. I went to the university counselor once, bawled at her as she sympathetically nodded, talked about my family and the pressure I put on myself without really knowing why and I told her what I couldn’t tell my mother — “I’m afraid.” She asked me to come back for a couple of sessions to work out some of the sources of my anxiety and see how deeply this struggle I had lay within me. I nodded as I wiped my nose and took her card.
I never went back. On the way out of the counseling center, I’d run into a acquaintance. I’d tried to avert my eyes, but she saw me and waved.
“Where are you coming from?” she asked, smiling.
My face burned. “Uh, the health center. I just had an annual check-up…thought I might be getting a cold.”
We made small talk until I hastily made up an excuse and escaped the conversation. I was ashamed. It was too dangerous — I’d almost been found out! I couldn’t deal with the fact that someone might think I wasn’t normal.
This is my secret shame. Mental illness is my greatest fear. It is not something people want to talk about or something people like to hear about. It is uncomfortable and unpleasant and hard to understand, and so we avoid it with throw away phrases like “it gets better” or conversely, by vilifying the victim — “She’s just looking for attention.” The thing is, it doesn’t get better; rather, if you’re resourceful and determined and lucky, you get better at handling it.
It’s been almost nine years since I first felt that first pang of depression. I have actively tried to work through it, and it is a constant struggle. Some days I feel utterly joyful, like I could take on the world and never look back. Other days I am that seventh-grader again, suffocating and flailing and not really knowing why.
I have my worst days, and though I am afraid of them, I am prepared for them. I know they will come eventually. I remember one day I had to excuse myself from a gym class to get though a panic attack in a bathroom stall. When I came home, I looked up if it was possible to overdose on the muscle relaxants a doctor had prescribed to me a couple months ago. I wasn’t going to do anything, of course; I just wanted to satisfy a curiosity, that’s all.
That’s all, right?
I wrote this essay out of a compulsion to survive. Whether one suffers from it or not, we have to overcome our collective fear of mental illness and talk about it, even though it’s never easy. We owe it to ourselves and to others, so maybe we can stop this constant asking of why, why, why? This internal battle with depression is the reason for almost every instance of my self-sabotage, my inability to trust others, my disbelief in ever having a committed relationship. How could I ever expose this side of myself to someone and expect them to stay? I am afraid.
But I have to try not to be. I deserve to try.
We perpetuate the idea that mental illness is not something worth openly acknowledging even though an estimated 19 million Americans suffer from depression, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Maybe the girl I ran into that day outside of the counseling center was also one of those 19 million.
I wouldn’t know. It’s not something you talk about.