To the college student who is silently suffering from a mental illness, unable or afraid to seek help, this is for you.
There is a phrase in collegiate culture that has become as famous as the collective Friday morning hangover or the much loved routine of eating Ramen for dinner. One’s ears can easily detect this statement during midterms or finals week — although it also does make an appearance throughout the remainder of the semester in a slightly more subtle fashion.
Do the words “I’m having a mental breakdown” ring any bells in that undergraduate head of yours which you likely are, at this very moment, finding yourself banging against a library desk amidst your abyss of statistics homework?
We are all guilty of uttering this phrase. I, personally, was one of the few subjects that practically coined this sentiment as my most predictable one-liner.
That’s saying a lot coming from someone who is a self-proclaimed stereotypical sorority girl who “seriously exaggerates like literally everything” that emanates from my permanently jungle juice stained mouth.
I initially thought little of the intended nature of this discourse as I continually spewed out that overdramatized, redundant phrase throughout every corner of my college campus. That is, until I had a real mental breakdown which landed me in none other than the psych ward.
Granted, I can assure you that this all sounds much worse than it actually is. The staff there were very comforting and encouraging and I learned more about myself in that short three-day span than I did throughout the entire duration of my (lengthy) college career.
That being said, a voluntary crisis unit in a renowned east coast medical center is not exactly the place where one would uncover pure serenity and unleash their inner-Buddha, yet it is, in fact, a break from the perils and stressors of the “outside world” nonetheless.
The evident stigma which surrounds frequently debilitating mental illnesses such as Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, among others, not only normalizes a traditionally medically-centered term such as “mental breakdown” but also shames those who do undergo real states of extreme cognitive stress or potentially life-threatening depressive episodes.
This pattern of fearing a personal breakdown, and damning it as shameful and inadequate, perpetuates a standard of mental health ambiguity that prevents thousands of people from seeking the proper care that they so deserve.
On the same note, for those that make up the anomalous group of people–such as myself–whom actively decide to seek treatment even if it exists in the form of voluntary hospitalization, this same embedded notion of shame is internalized and oftentimes manifest itself. Thus, inhibiting one from sharing their experience publicly.
Speaking of which, the last thing I want to do right now is share such a personal story with the entire world for the sheer fact that I am afraid. I’m afraid that people in my life–whether they be loved ones or casual acquaintances–will form a different, particularly negative, opinion of me upon reading this.
I’m afraid that future employers will come across this while evaluating me, and will therefore deem me as someone who is “unfit” to work at their company based on my history of mental illness.
I’m afraid that once I put these thoughts on paper, I will never be able to retrieve them back and will subsequently be barred from my ongoing pursuit of cultivating a “proper” image of myself which poses as a facade of the real me.
Above all else, what I am most afraid of, however, is not sharing my story with others who need to hear it in order to convince themselves that they should seek help.
Although it is immensely difficult for me to do, I have decided that the fears and risks which pose as major threats for the future of my public identity are worth exploring in the name of speaking out for those who are unable to speak out for themselves on these issues.
I will start by admitting that a combination of severe depressive symptoms, such as suicidal ideations and patterns of self-harm alongside issues with anxiety and an all-encompassing eating disorder, initiated the perfect storm of unstable emotions which ultimately led to my demise.
This consequently landed me in the hospital pending a psychiatric evaluation. I was living in an off-campus rental house with some of my sisters at the time, and it was upon their recommendation that I decided to go through with this life-saving plan of action.
Looking back now, those girls didn’t just think that it would be the best way for me to get my life in order–they genuinely feared that my life would be at risk had I kept “living” in the manner which I had been for the previous five months.
I will never forget the day that our esteemed chapter president, who also happened to be my roommate and best friend, admitted to me that she and my other roommate were terrified to leave me in the house alone over winter break because they feared that when they came back I might no longer be alive.
Their fears were certainly merited by the fact that I was in the most unstable, manically depressed state that I had ever been in thus far. At the time I was experiencing suicidal thoughts everyday, multiple times a day, and I only retreated from my bed on the seldom occasions when my roommates would physically force me to do so.
My eating disorder had become so severe that I had lost nearly 30 pounds in two months, stopped menstruating, and couldn’t even stand upright without feeling as if I was going to pass out.
I knew I had to do this–not just for me–but to give my loved ones the long overdue peace of mind which they rightfully deserved. So, I packed up some comfy clothes and plenty of shit to read and headed off to the emergency room of my local hospital.
I wasn’t just scared–I was absolutely petrified of going through with this. I, the girl who, aside from my psychiatric diagnoses, was so healthy that the last time I had even been to that specific (or any) hospital, was during the time of my birth.
Despite my persistent feelings of unsettledness, I prided myself on holding it together for the many hours in which I waited to be officially admitted. When my sisters left, that’s when I completely lost it.
After hours of them holding my hands, consoling me, and showering me with crappy vending machine snacks, I was left all alone in that stark cold room and for the first time in my life I had no one to turn to but myself.
When I was moved up to a room in the middle of the night, I felt slightly less anxious although I was still uncertain of whether or not I had made the right decision.
I noticed that people in the hospital–both professional staff and fellow patients–continuously repeated the same words to me. They constantly reminded me of how beautiful, smart, and strong I was.
With that, another question often arose which was: “What is a girl like you doing in here?” This made me question my commitment to pursuing this avenue of treatment. “I don’t belong here,” I often thought to myself. And yet, I absolutely did.
Despite my outgoing and bubbly demeanor, my evident ambitions as a student, my extrinsic persona as a sorority girl with lots of friends (whom it seemed came by the busload for visiting hours) and my role as a loving daughter, sister, and granddaughter, on the inside I was unwell.
I had been so unwell, in fact, that I was incapable of acknowledging all of the outstanding qualities that I did possess while those around me could so easily see them, clear as day.
I began to appreciate the incredibly fulfilling life that I did have and simultaneously started to uphold an immense sense of gratitude for all of the amazing and supportive people who make up this imperfect story of mine.
This feeling struck me fervently on the specific occasions when I would either see a loved one during visiting hours, or likewise, as I would hear their voices on the other side of the dingy payphone which I was struggling to use. These exchanges were often so uplifting and familiar in an environment which was so sterile and unfamiliar, that they almost always brought me to tears.
In the time I spent in that ICU for the mind, I attended every single group therapy session that was offered. I wrote, read Christian devotionals, set aside time for meditation, and worked tirelessly to prove to myself and to the hospital staff that I was more than ready to go home and start a new life for myself.
I’m beyond thrilled to reveal that I did exactly that. When depression sufferers typically describe their experience with the illness they often utilize the analogy of feeling as though they are fully submerged in darkness, unable to find even the most minuscule glimmer of light no matter how promising the situation they are in may be.
I felt this exact same way for many months which oftentimes rendered me incapable of simply getting out of bed as I was unable to garner the basic desire to merely arise and experience life.
Yet, something happened in the hospital that set off a switch in my mind–and I am not referring to what many attribute as a direct effect of medication. What I experienced was so much more pure and profound.
It was as though I had completely escaped from the blinding shadows of doom and darkness. I felt as if I had literally stepped into a light, one that I suppose had always been there in spite of the fact that I was too blind to see it amongst my own self-deprecating delusions.
I am living proof that breaking down may simply be a predecessor of breaking through. Sometimes we need to take a hard stumble, solely so we can feel the weight of the earth at the bottom as it grounds us and reminds us that we have landed on this planet in the first place entirely by chance.
So why not value the chance that we ourselves, are, and likewise, the chances we’ve been given? In this world full of extremes which we live in it is easy to inadvertently ignore the enormity of opposing reactions.
This is especially true of those whom suffer from mental illness where everything seems unimaginably difficult, painful, strenuous, and at times pointless. It is during those times which you must keep this phrase in mind: there cannot exist one extreme without the other on the opposing end of the spectrum.
There is no night without day. There is no depression without elation. There is no anxiety without calm. And there is no dark without light.
What is certain, however, is that the nature of human emotion exists in tandem with this pendulum of extremes. That’s not to say that one can decide to feel elation over depression when they are physiologically incapable of doing so due to an illness.
Despite this, what is guaranteed is the fact that one can, however, actively choose to seek a path towards recovery and healing. It will be scary and it will take some time, but the decision to seek treatment for mental illness–whether that be via a voluntary crisis evaluation, an outpatient therapist or through one’s own religion and spirituality–is one that may not only save your life, it will lead you on the right path in which you will finally be able to start truly living.
Therefore, although you may not find the light as fast as I did, the day will come where you will be able to see it–just promise yourself that you’ll never stop trying to find it. It is there, and it will never fade away, as long as you maintain the courage to persistently chase after it.
Do not be ashamed of your illness, or for seeking out treatment for it. Just as you would seek medical attention for a broken leg, it is critical that you do the same for your mind.
Even once you begin undergoing treatment, you will still likely feel the embarrassment and shame which our society perpetuates in relation to diagnoses such as these.
Remember, that although mental illness may be an invisible illness, you yourself are not a product of the societal norms which deem you as fragile and broken. This is your life and only you can choose to take control over it in opposition of negative banter and ignorant viewpoints.
Do not let yourself suffer a day longer than you have to. You are worthy of this life and you are entitled to love and happiness.
Breaking through the barriers set forth before you may seem like a lofty feat but it is one that is attainable. The only true barrier which will ultimately inhibit your desire for recovery exist within the hindrances of your all-consuming negative thoughts. And when those delusions initially break you down–let them.
They will dismantle you at first but, in the long run, they may also serve as the catalyst that will guide you to your breakthrough.