Nineteen is an irrelevant birthday. When you turn sixteen in Massachusetts, you are eligible for your learner’s permit, the first step towards freedom (which I achieved after a few months of anxiety behind the wheel); seventeen came with the privilege of seeing an R-rated movie in theaters (minus the ones I had already snuck into); eighteen was notable for the “legality,” the all-access pass into adulthood that, for the most part, stayed hidden in the back of my wallet; twenty marked a new decade; and the illustrious twenty-one was the icing on the cake, my most recent birthday, and – so far – one of the happiest years of my life.
But when I think of nineteen, I envision an uncharacteristically snowy April evening. My jacket is too light, and my beige Converse sneakers are soaked from trudging along the slick sidewalk of North Pleasant Street. Music blares through my earbuds, the same song on repeat, the lyrics weaving sharply in and out of my head like a needle and thread:
How to escape a familiar theme? An idea you’re at home in. If you’re not careful it could crush you, like a straightjacket.
When I think of nineteen, I think of throwing up my lunch in the library bathroom, my ears wired for the characteristic creak of the door. The way the fear of getting fat coincided with the fear of getting caught. I think of the unbearable urge to burst out crying and the physical inability of my tear ducts to relieve my pent-up emotion. I think of my drunken haze and a rickety metal fire-escape, of looking down, an uninvited voice echoing softly through my head (What if you fell?). I think of a rainy May afternoon, weeks after finishing my freshman year. I am lying in bed when my mom walks in and sits by my side. “I can tell you’re depressed,” she says, “and I want you to go talk to someone.”
The tears finally come.
Not many people know I’ve taken antidepressants (at least until now, they didn’t). I take an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for the chronic anxiety and depression I was diagnosed with almost two years ago. Before that, I was unaware that my father, and various other members of my family, suffered from the same or similar mental illnesses, and even took medication to combat them.
It wasn’t until my second semester that I considered my constant emptiness – jarred by feeling overwhelmed, weighed down, and stressed out almost daily – could potentially stem from a neurological problem. I took the online surveys, read the Psychology Today and WebMD articles, and they all provided the same conclusion: that mentally, I was a goddamn mess.
I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, though, to accept what was apparent and obvious. I wasn’t depressed, I didn’t have an anxiety problem; I just wasn’t doing college right. I was bad at getting my work done, bad at living up to expectations, bad at having fun, and bad at being happy.
According to a statistic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four college students suffers from some type of mental illness. Why is it that I was not aware of this startling data until my mother forced me into counseling? Why do they teach us so much about abstinence in health class, but neglect to inform us about mental health? If there’s a guide to safe sex and drug abuse, why can’t there be one on what to do when you don’t want to exist anymore? Freshman-year-me, scrolling through Instagram snapshots of countless other eighteen and nineteen-year-olds having the time of their lives, would have found this statistic a simple supposition. Something hard to accept. That was the hardest part about being diagnosed, anyway. Accepting.
It is hard to accept that you have a diagnosable mental health condition when, to the outside world, you look just fine; you are smiling on social media with the rest of them. Being truly vulnerable, in a technological society marred by perfectionism, feels impossible. Mental illness terminology slides in and out of our daily speech, has become its own form of vocabulary (“I’m super depressed about those exam results,” “I’m so bipolar sometimes,” “I color coded all my notes for class, I’m so OCD”), but in conversations about the medical, diagnosable reality of these conditions, people tense up. It is one thing to deny the existence of mental illness; it’s another to just barely scratch at the surface of it.
Disclosing my diagnosis of anxiety and depression to those I considered closest to me was initially one of my greatest fears. It felt like an excuse for my negativity, for my missed calls and unanswered texts, for not being myself. I’d sit in the library for hours with piles of unfinished work, a blank screen staring back at me, but never muster the courage to ask a professor for extra time, never admit to anyone that I was struggling with school because of the invisible monster holding my mind hostage. I hope that someday it will stop feeling like an excuse.
Sharing my story with a close few has been, while nerve wracking, ultimately liberating. However, as I think about disclosing it to a larger audience, I find myself stuck in the same quandary: my experience is surprisingly easy to write about, yet I can never imagine myself having a conversation of such depth about it. I think about campus organizations such as Active Minds, an organization on campuses across the country that is breaking the silence on mental illness, about the hashtags I see occasionally on social media that attempt to raise awareness, and I think to myself, we’re doing better. At least, I hope we’re doing better. I’m doing better, but I have not told anyone this, unless you count the private word document on my laptop.
I want so desperately to hold back, but now is a better time than ever for a full disclosure. There is no questioning my mental illness anymore; I have accepted it in the way that I have accepted that the sky is blue and my hair is brown and the world is a scary and simple place all at the same time. I have not yet accepted the disclosure of it.
Am I reluctant to talk about my depression and anxiety because it makes me uncomfortable, or do I hold back out of fear of making others uncomfortable?
Does it make you uncomfortable?