Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – Kathleen

As a special two-part series, I am extremely humbled and proud to share the words of Kathleen MacDonald – someone I consider to be such an inspiration to myself and so many others.

I first met Kathleen during my sophomore year at JMU. As many readers know, I was part of a sorority in college. Every year, during February, my sorority would put together a “Speak Out” for Eating Disorder Awareness Month. The “Speak Out” functioned as a safe space, where students were encouraged to come listen and share stories related to struggles with body image and eating disorders. The event was in honor of a sorority member, Leslie George, who passed away after losing her battle with bulimia. Kathleen (for reasons you will later read), hosted this event every year. 

When I heard her story for the first time, I was blown away. She seemed like the happiest, most loving, kind-hearted, vibrant person in the room. I couldn’t fathom that she had gone through the experiences she was explaining to all of us.

Kathleen’s words changed my life. She changed my views on beauty and self-love. And more so than that, she taught me that inner demons are often so easily hidden from the outside world.

These two parts will be lengthy, but they are without a doubt worth the read. Check it out:

By most accounts, I should not be alive today.  To this day, I am not sure why I survived what so many others have not.

No one ever sets out to have the deadliest of all mental illnesses: an eating disorder, and all its accompanying symptoms of depression, moodiness, etc.

No one ever sets out on a diet, hoping that one day they will be suicidal.

And even though I am guilty of having once said, “I wish I could have anorexia for just a little while,” it still wasn’t a “choice” for me to suffer from that mean and terrible disease.

When the eating disorder took root, it changed my brain chemistry and rid me of the ability to have good sense.  Ironically, despite being trapped in its prison, and despite all of the hell the eating disorder brought to my life, for the majority of the years I suffered, I never felt like I had a serious problem. I never felt I was ‘sick enough’ compared to people who were thinner than me. Most people didn’t know that I lived daily with humiliating inner-embarrassment, pain, and shame because of what I saw in the mirror.  To boot, at my worst, when I was severely suicidal because of the eating disorder, the day I reached out for help after using laxatives for 18 years, my doctor patted me on the knee and told me, “I wish I had more patients as thin as you” (a comment that he and I eventually discussed, in depth, with good results).

I want to start my saying: To all those who suffer with eating and/or body image issues, depression, and suicidal thoughts, and to all those who love someone suffering, I hope with all my heart that the words in this blog might meet you with compassion and kindness, encouraging you to realize that you are not alone, and that you deserve to believe in a day where you live free from whatever is making you endure thoughts of suicide.  I hope that, no matter if you’re a sufferer, or a loved one or friend of someone suffering, after reading this, you begin to realize what I began to realize back on June 13, 2002: that no one was created to die by suicide, that you are beautiful and wonderfully made…and that YOU deserve to love yourself, and treat yourself with loving-kindness, every single day.

My story is a long and complex one, but like many people, what pushed me to develop an eating disorder was nothing out of the ordinary.  When I was about 10 years old, I began to feel pressures to look thin and pretty.  Coincidentally, around the same time, I broke my nose.  Because I never had my nose ‘set’ by a doctor, my nose changed shape and it became the subject of discussions and teasing; I was called “mogul nose”, among other things. Up until then, I never gave a thought to whether what I looked like was pretty/not pretty, good/bad, attractive/unattractive. When I broke my nose, I became acutely aware of what I looked like to other people, and acutely aware that people did not like my face.  This caused me to feel intense confusion and sadness because, at just 10 years old, I realized that all the things I thought people liked about me – my kind-hearted, loving nature, and strong relationships with friends and family- didn’t matter, because I wasn’t “pretty.”

When puberty hit, I grew even more uncomfortable with my appearance, not because I noticed the changes so much, but because other people started commenting on my body and its (natural) weight gain.  Our society sends a very loud message to (especially) young women that “thin is pretty.” I didn’t handle the teasing about my body very well. The utter confusion that wreaked havoc on my mind and spirit was horrendously painful.

Fast forward ahead two years – two years of me feeling heartbreakingly ugly. I’m 12 years old.  It was the first time I watched an after-school-special about a young woman who falls victim to anorexia. The movie made eating disorders look easy and attractive. The movie made it seem like anorexia fixed that girl’s life. It made her pretty and made everyone value her more.  That movie, coupled with my lack of self-worth and the pressure I felt to be thin and pretty, compelled me to take a simple step the next day that would change my life forever.  The day after watching the movie, I skipped lunch for the first time.

I was 12 years old.

Like most people who suffer from an eating disorder, I never intended to have one, let alone to have it take up over half of my life.  I thought my ‘diet’ of skipping lunch would make my happy, pretty, and well-liked.  I thought that I would only be on a ‘diet’ until I lost a few pounds. Surely then I would receive approval from my friends and family. Surely then they would think that my body looked good.  I had no idea that this ‘diet’ would actually drive all of my friends away.

The next time I ate lunch was 18 years later.

It may seem odd that I can remember the exact day, but it’s because, on that day, I actually called my mother to say, “I ate lunch.”  Most adults don’t call their parents to report that they ate something –they call to tell them about a job promotion, an engagement, or a completed graduate program. I called because I had eaten some food.

But for me, it was a big deal.  It was the first time I had eaten during the day (outside of a hospital setting) and kept it down, in 18 years.  I was scared to not purge, but I was also so proud of myself.

My mother, however, wasn’t able to be excited with me –and looking back, I don’t blame her.  She had suffered 18 years of hell because of the way the eating disorder made me feel (moody, depressed, angry, etc.).  In response to my phone call, she said, “Great. Now, what are you finally going to do with your life?”  I faked a response that wouldn’t let her know how deeply her words hurt, and we hung up the phone.

When we hung up, any feeling of hope and accomplishment I had immediately turned to visceral and deep sadness, intense self-hatred, hopelessness and suicidal planning.  I sat there realizing that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life beyond that moment of eating lunch. I felt ridiculous knowing that I actually thought eating was an accomplishment.

Just when I thought I had finally made a breakthrough, my heart sank and I cried because I felt like such a failure.

So I called in sick to work, and I stayed home and I wept.

I wept about what a waste my life had become.

I wept thinking about what a waste I had been for 18 years –focusing so much on whether or not I was fat and basing my happiness on whether or not my pants fit the differently than the day before.

I wept because I had disappointed my family, disappointed myself, and lost all of my friends.

I wept because I, a former 4.0 student, had been kicked out of college twice because of the eating disorder and my resultant inability to handle going to class.  (Oh, and after re-entering college at age 28, they told me not to come back second semester because I was still too sick to feel attractive enough to attend class. Yes, that’s how warped my brain was.)

I wept because I had depleted IRA’s and at least $60,000 in mutual funds to pay for food, laxatives, food, laxatives, alcohol, and more food and more laxatives.

I wept because I had wrecked my credit after failing to pay doctor bills, student loans, rent, etc.

And most of all, I wept because I realized that I might never be able to get rid of the thoughts that had been controlling my life, making me miserable every single moment that I was alive.

The thought of having to live this way for the rest of my life felt unbearable.

I finally decided that if I couldn’t overcome my body image issues, bulimia, and anorexia, I did not want to live.

Unlike what I saw in the movie when I was 12 years old, what I was going through was not simple or pretty. It was not about being thin, it was not about getting attention or winning friends.  Up until the day that I ate lunch, I honestly believed that the thinness I had sustained for those 18 years would someday, somehow reward me –it didn’t.

Being thin never ever resulted in anything positive.

So, I purged my lunch.  Disgusted with myself, I ate more, and purged that, until I eventually felt numb.  I remember crawling into bed and begging God not to let me wake up.

But I did wake up.

The next morning, after weighing myself and glaring in disgust at my puffy post-bingeing/purging face in the mirror, I broke down crying over my bathroom sink. I was alone and tired and felt so ugly. I just wanted the vicious cycle of my pain to end.  I stared into the mirror, looking for any sign of hope in my eyes.  I saw none.

What I saw was someone looking back at me who was so very tired of just barely “getting by.”  I saw someone who was so very tired of depriving their body and mind, but someone who couldn’t seem to stop the deprivation.  I saw someone so very very tired of life being so empty.

Exhausted of the cycle, I pulled out my laptop and decided to search one last time online for help.  Of course, in all of my Google searching, I didn’t find a single free treatment option. All I found that day was one single nebulous sounding group called The Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action (EDC).  There was a “Get Involved” button, so I clicked on it, typed in my name and email address, and shut off my laptop. Then I started officially making my plan.

About a month later, I received an email from the EDC.  They needed a speaker to present to Members of Congress and their staff as to why people with eating disorders deserved insurance coverage for treatment.  I called the then Policy Director of the EDC, Dr. Jeanine Cogan, and told her why I thought I could help them out as a speaker at their Congressional Briefing.

On June 13, 2002, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak.  Little did the EDC, or my only remaining friend, Jim (who accompanied me to DC), know, I had a plan.

At the Congressional Briefing, first, a doctor spoke. He gave definitions and talked about what a “typical” eating disordered patient is like. The whole time he spoke, I tried to act as if nothing he said resembled me at all, trying to convince myself that if I didn’t fit his mold, I couldn’t possibly be someone who was sick and slowly dying.

Then, a woman named Kitty Westin got up to talk about her daughter who suffered from anorexia.  Her daughter’s name was Anna. When Kitty got up to speak, she brought along a picture of Anna –a big 18×20 poster-sized picture.  In the picture, Anna was smiling, sitting somewhere in the mountains, looking into the camera with a peaceful contentment in her blue eyes.  Anna looked healthy and alive.  But as Kitty continued to speak, I realized that the reason she was telling Anna’s story was because Anna was not alive to tell it on her own.

Anna had committed suicide because of her torturous battle with anorexia.

Anna was the first person I knew of who did exactly what I had wanted to do so many times over the course of my 18 years suffering.  And, Anna was the first person who made me realize how scared I was of my plan.

But after Kitty finished, I got up and calmly read my speech as if I was ‘fine.’ To give you an idea of just how fine I was that day, here is how I ended my speech:

“I wake up knowing that if I continue being sick, I will die. I wake up, therefore, wanting to go to therapy so I don’t die and become a statistic… I do not want to live my life as a result of these disorders. I want to live my life beyond anorexia and bulimia and all the years of torment and mistakes made… I never dreamed that throwing my lunch away one day would, 18 years later, result in me seriously considering suicide– for two years, every day, all day.”

I wasn’t fine.

And I was doing more than “seriously considering” suicide like my speech suggested. My plan was that June 13, 2002 would be the end of my life.  I had planned my suicide, and no one knew.  

I had planned to give my speech and then follow-through on my plan –in hopes that it would make people take note of the seriousness of eating disorders.

The Congressional Briefing concluded and there was a line of people waiting to talk to me.  I thought they wanted to congratulate me on how good my speech was.  But every person said something along the lines of, “You have to get help.  You’re going to die.”  I just kept telling everyone, “No, don’t worry. I used to have an eating disorder.  I’m fine now.”

I do not remember any of the 20 or so people who hugged me after my speech, except for two.  The very last people I spoke with that day were Mr. and Mrs. Ron George.  I will never ever forget how Mr. George, trying to refrain from gently sobbing, his face red and wet with tears, took hold of me and said, “I lost my daughter to bulimia, you need help or you’re going to die.”  And as I hugged him, I wanted so very much to collapse in his arms and beg for help…  But I couldn’t.  I had a plan.  So, I’m pretty sure I probably looked at him and said, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

Yet something happened at that Congressional Briefing –a miracle.  Between witnessing Kitty’s agonizing pain, and hearing Mr. George pour out his heart about losing his daughter Leslie (all the while holding me, a complete stranger), something clicked inside my soul.  It was in those moments that an undeniable surge of some unearthly spirit of hope took over, and I somehow mustered up the wherewithal to vow to myself that I would do everything in my power to finally stop. I would finally stop maintaining my thin-as-possible frame. I would finally stop exercising to maintain my weight and self-worth. I would finally stop using laxatives. I would stop purging and starving. I would stop believing that I had been sick for “too long” to get help. I would stop believing I was ugly.  And perhaps most importantly, I would stop believing that suicide was an option.

I am very humbled to tell you that instead of June 13, 2002 being the day I took my own life, it became the day that I began my final recovery process…and I never looked back.

Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – Julie

Today’s piece is one I have been dying to share for a while now, well before I came up with the idea for this month’s collaborative project. 

This is a piece written by my aunt, Julie. In many ways, she has been someone I have idolized for so long. As I grew up, I was always so proud to have so many interests in common with her. To me, she was like the success story I wanted to one day become. 

I first read this piece a few years ago. I still remember how relieved I felt when I finished it. I remember feeling like “Oh…okay!  She’s not flawless, she’s human. Cool, I can be that. That’s attainable.” It was as if, in that moment, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I remember feeling this urge to share the story with everyone I knew, in hopes that they would feel the same. 

This was long before I started to go to therapy, mind you. This was well before I was comfortable admitting that I struggled with anxiety and depression. This piece was one of the first real eye-opening experiences I ever had with regards to anything involving mental health. It was one of the first times I realized that maybe I wasn’t okay, and if I wasn’t, that wasn’t wrong. It was one of the first times I didn’t feel alone. 

When I knew I wanted to share pieces for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, this is the first one that came to mind. Not only is Julie an extremely talented (published) writer, but she’s also a volunteer counselor for the Crisis Text Line

In case you have never heard of it, the Crisis Text Line is a 24/7 support service for anyone, in any type of crisis, at any time. It is an AMAZING resource. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Although I could go on for hours, I don’t want to ramble too long before introducing Julie’s piece. I hope it touches you in some of the same ways it did for me. Here it is:

 

The Fall of Strangers
Julie Greicius

Sometimes I write that she runs to the edge of the rooftop. Fifteen stories below, I’m running uphill on the sidewalk. She speeds up for momentum, so that she’ll fly past the instant when she might change her mind. The park isn’t safe at this hour, so I’m under the streetlights. I feel strong, so I lengthen my stride and decide to run farther. She vaults out past the edge, and gives herself to gravity just as I’m fighting it. For a second, she’s in flight. Our hearts are pounding. A few more steps and I’ll catch up to her.

Other times I write it straight: In 1996 I witnessed a suicide in New York City. I abandon imaginary details. I don’t really think she was running. Not at her age, in her state, or in those shoes: sullen mauve pumps, one of which landed askew next to her. It would be wrong to say she launched like a diver, or dove like a bird of prey. For all I know she might have been pushed. I only know for sure what I finally saw: her body on the pavement, head smashed beyond recovery, brains fanned out across the sidewalk.

I was working that year as a biographer’s assistant, at a small desk built into the underside of a loft bed in a one-bedroom apartment. Those were the early days of telecommuting. The woman I worked for lived just across town on the Upper East Side. We’d check in by phone, but most of the time I worked alone, interrupted by field trips to public libraries or longer getaways to private archives to find letters and diaries that belonged to people I had never met, most of whom were already dead. When I worked at home, days often ended at five o’clock with me realizing I hadn’t spoken a word to another living person all day.

I loved my job, loved holding the aged, handwritten letters of strangers, examining the journals of others and exploring the idiosyncrasies of families that were impeccable on the outside and daft on the inside. They felt familiar. I grew fond of the people I researched, and they became my community by proxy. I had freedom to work when and where I pleased, and to disappear whenever I wanted to. I lived with my fiancé, who was finishing medical school and rarely at home. When he was, he was fitfully asleep, or a shadow of himself, consumed by work.

I was good at being alone, I thought, even though I was lonely some of the time and mildly depressed—a condition I dismissed as indigenous to New York, something I could handle.

At the end of the day, every day, I got out to run. Running in Manhattan put me back among people. And there were no people I would rather have mingled among more than the people of New York City. I would run from our apartment on 107th street through the neighborhoods on Amsterdam and Columbus, past the bodegas and towering apartment projects over to the giant hill at the upper western corner of Central Park. I’d run into the park and make a double loop around the reservoir. I’d pass people on rollerblades, lovers in arms, children with nannies. And by the time I got to the East Side the crowd was all Burberry and fine terriers on leashes. When I wanted a shorter run, I ran through Riverside Park along the Hudson, over broken crack vials and, further south, through the islands of flower gardens set in the cobblestone. I ran by people on park benches staring alone at the river, people with children and dogs, teenagers in tunnels. I ran in every kind of weather, from the worst heat to the heaviest snow. Running was my drug, my release, my state of grace.

By the time I left my apartment that afternoon the sun was setting. I ran down West Side Drive, from 107th down to 72nd Street and back again, and then on past my own block. A light rain started to fall. Ahead, I saw the lights of fire trucks in front of a building—maybe a fire alarm or a car accident. There were no police lines, up, and no one seemed distressed. So I kept to my path.

A group of people stood looking, their eyes all pointing to something on the ground. As I passed them, I suddenly saw her: a woman in her mid-fifties, curly hair, gray skirt, a single shoe on the ground near her foot. Cinderella. Her head had made a pit in the pavement. But there was no pit. The side of her skull was flattened against the ground. Her brain speckled the sidewalk all the way to the small bushes that bordered the building from which she had dropped. The same sidewalk where I suddenly realized my feet were falling. Now I was on tiptoe, horrified, leaping past what I had already disgraced.

Of all the thousands of ways we encounter strangers, meeting someone at the moment of their death is possibly second in intensity only to meeting them at the moment of their birth. Between those extremes, we pass by with indifference in grocery stores or airports, or confront with clear intention on battlefields or in bars. But to witness this woman alone on the pavement, destroyed, was more than I knew what to do with. I had no basis for processing it, no precedent for understanding the absurdity of how we had just made contact.  

A few minutes faster and I might have blocked her, stopped her, or obstructed her fall. Maybe just one person on the street below would have been enough to change her mind. Then again, she might have struck and killed me. But I wasn’t there when she fell. Should I have been? I was no one: a pedestrian, a jogger, a passerby. The cement was there to catch her.

I stopped running and sat on the curb. There were footsteps behind me, and then a hand on my shoulder.

*

Over the next several years, my fiancé, Mike, became my husband, and we moved to the suburbs of San Francisco to raise our two children. One afternoon my friend Stephanie called and asked if I would go to see Jason, a friend of hers whom I’d never met. She was traveling, and had received an email from him saying he was in trouble. He had stopped drinking a while ago, but was drunk today, far gone, and sounded like he might be thinking about taking his own life.

I don’t know what made her think I was qualified to give that kind of support. My husband said it might be safer—for Jason and maybe for me, too—to call 911. That might have been true.

“What am I going to find?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just think he needs someone.”

I drove to his house. I didn’t find it easily, but soon realized that he lived in a house behind a house.

When I reached his door, I noticed the lights inside were off. Maybe I was already too late. I wondered if he was hurt or if I was going to get hurt. A small sign on the door read JASON—a note to help people find him. He wanted to be found.

I opened the screen door and rang the doorbell. I waited, then knocked. Still nothing. I opened the mail slot and yelled into it. “Hey Jason! Answer the door!”

Another minute passed, enough to scare me.

Finally I heard someone coming. He opened the door. His eyes were red and glassy. At the base of his bleached-blonde hair were black roots, tousled as if he’d been sleeping. He wore sweat pants and a T-shirt. “Hey,” he said. The apartment smelled like cigarettes and maybe pot. Definitely alcohol.

“I’m a friend of Stephanie’s,” I said. “She said you weren’t feeling so hot so I came over.”

“Stephanie,” he said slowly. “That girl. She’s good people.”

He opened the door wide and let me in.

“She was worried about you.”

“Yeah. I don’t know. I have a fever or something.”

His apartment was dark and stuffy. A small plant struggled on the kitchen table. He sat down on a small couch by sliding glass doors.

I sat down in a chair facing him. And there we were. I remembered once sitting in a therapist’s office back in New York. I was crying and crying—I couldn’t handle it after all—and she leaned down to the floor and pushed a box of tissues toward me without ever lifting her ass off her chair. I never went back.

I didn’t come there to sit back and stare at this man. I had nothing to say to him politely over a coffee table.

I said, “I’d rather sit on your side. I came here to make sure you’re okay.”

I stood up and climbed over the coffee table straight to him, sat next to him and took him in my arms. He fell into me and I squeezed him hard. He shifted and turned so he could fit more closely. He sighed. “Thank you,” he said. He pulled his legs close to his body and curled up. I think I said, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

He wasn’t crying. He breathed heavily in big sighs. Maybe he was relaxing, or just trying to breathe. I didn’t know how much he’d had to drink, but I guessed a lot.

We were quiet for a while. I had rushed over quickly after my friend called, right after a shower.

“Your hair is wet,” he said. “You smell so clean.”

“I think I know how you feel,” I told him. “I’ve felt exactly the way you’re feeling right now.”

“When?” he asked. “Tell me.”

But I couldn’t. The answer was “yesterday.” I thought it would terrify him.

*

Yesterday: I pulled the point of a razor across my skin and made a cut on the back of my left hand, on the flesh between my finger and thumb.

I wasn’t even close to admitting what I had been feeling in the previous weeks. I kept my life in a rush of accomplishment, so the empty spaces would blur, and was now at a halt, alone, leaning against a counter in my bathroom.

The pain stung, corrosive, but the color was rich and red—unmistakably healthy. The sight of it made me feel strangely robust, in spite of how I felt emotionally. Here was the blood that propelled me forward, the same blood that could tell me I was young and fertile, or mortally injured. I took my time, in no rush to see it end. Then I thought of my children and husband and job and responsibilities, covered the cut with a sober band-aid, and left the house.

I wondered, if someone was going to confront herself finally and truly, if it could only be done violently.

But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to die. I want to look over the edge, to confront the stranger in myself, and stand my ground.

*

“A while ago,” I lied. “I cut myself to sort of punctuate what I was feeling. It was like this huge cavern of loneliness and despair opened up in me, and I could make it small and manageable and put a band-aid on it. I didn’t think anyone else would understand.”

“I know,” he said.

But he didn’t know, didn’t see that the band-aid was still on my hand.

“So I’m here and you don’t have to be alone,” I told him.

“You know, you sound like you’re good at this,” he said. “The way you just showed up and let me hold on to you. Like you know twelve-step programs.”

“I don’t know. I guess I think it’s something we all need at one time or another.”

“That’s how sponsors are supposed to be in AA. They’re supposed to be there for you.”

“I mostly know them from The Wire.”

“I love The Wire!”

“Yes, well, Bubs is all I know about AA.”

“Bubs!”

There was Jason, this stranger in my arms, suddenly very much alive. In that apartment, I might have found anything. Or he might have never even let me in the front door. He would need therapy from someone more professional than me, or an intervention, but at the moment, he just wanted to shoot the shit.

We talked about television, about his sponsor, and about differences between suburban and city life. I said it wasn’t as easy to walk outside and enjoy the anonymous comfort of humanity like you can in the city when you feel alone. Jason agreed, or nodded, or mmhmm’d.

“But do you do this a lot?”

“You mean show up at stranger’s homes when they’re sad and sit on the couch with them?”

He laughed.

“No, I don’t.”

“And Stephanie just asked you to come over?”

“Yeah.”

“Stephanie. Shit. You know when you let people lean on you, when you help people, you forget about your own problems.”

Stephanie had called more friends, people Jason knew, and in a little while they showed up with their baby and gave Jason more distraction, more love, held on to him when it was time for me to go home to my own family.

That night he called. He sounded happy, relieved—and maybe a little in disbelief that the world had come through for him, stood in his way of a path he didn’t really want to take at all. And I told him that he rescued me, too. Months later I told him that it really was the day before that I had been feeling the way that he had. That it was my own vulnerability that qualified me to hold him up, to really understand how he felt, to hold him like some kind of fragile scaffold.

*

One of the bystanders had come over to me. He must have seen me run straight through the crime scene (was it a crime?), and I was ashamed.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I nodded. That anyone should be asking how I was doing when a woman lay dead twenty feet away astonished me.

But I wanted the comfort. I asked him what happened, who she was. He said no one knew.

“Did she live there?” I asked, indicating the building above her.

“I don’t know. If she did, nobody knew her,” he said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” I said, and stood up. “Thank you.”

I couldn’t pick up where I left off. I walked home because it didn’t make sense to run. Nothing made sense. I had no idea how long that feeling would last.

At home, I turned on the television to keep me company. Four different channels had shows about suicide. They were melodramas, made-for-TV movies, a talk show, and stand-up comedy. I turned it off.

I walked back up to the scene. The entire block had been tied off with bright yellow tape and flares at 109th and Broadway to prevent cars from coming down the street. From a distance I could see the woman’s body was covered now, her shoe still lying next to her.

I wondered who she was, what had provoked her, what weight had brought her down. There was nothing in the papers the next day, nor any day after.

I called a friend and she came over. We put our feet up and had a drink. She spent the night and slept next to me in my bed like my sister used to. We talked in the dark and soon fell asleep.

** Originally published in the anthology Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, editing by Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist **

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Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – Chase

When Chase and I talked about the idea of him writing a piece for this month, I can honestly say I did not expect this outcome in the least. I mean that in two ways. First of all, his writing blew me away. But secondly, I was also almost angry at myself for not wholeheartedly understanding Chase’s relationship with his depression until now.

Chase is someone I’ve known for years. I’ve told him many times how I felt that, from such an early point in our friendship, it seemed so easy to be open and honest with him and his friends. We used to just get drunk sometimes and share some dark shit and it never seemed weird or uncomfortable. But how could I feel like I was able to be so honest with someone, yet simultaneously not realize the extent to which they’re struggling?

That’s the thing about depression and suicide though. Most people don’t realize the severity of other’s struggles, until, in some cases, it’s too late. That’s why I loved this piece, though. It’s such a perfect example of the complex relationship between inner demons and outside support.

Chase’s words and vulnerable and honest, but I don’t think I need to explain them much more than I already have because they truly speak for themselves. I hope, if nothing else, they’re a simple reminder that these feelings are so real and so valid. Without further ado, check it out:

You become so infatuated with the thoughts of being alone, having nothing, looking in the mirror and hating yourself. Day in and day out you wake up and hurt. You lay in bed, not wanting to lift your head from the pillow because the only time you feel at ease is when you dream. Fake smiles and fraud laughs make you seem okay, but deep down you just want to be in a dark room. Silence is your only friend.

This darkness has taken over my life for over a decade. The depression has never left me, it only comes and goes like summer storms. Sometimes there are rainbows at the end, and sometimes there are flooded streets – each time a different result.

When it comes, the storms bring lightning like slit wrists and broken knuckles. The thunder is multiple missed phone calls and voicemails from loved ones, crying for you to answer the phone. Torrential down pours where your mind seems unable to find any sort of happiness, leaving you aching to end your own life because you cannot bear to cope with the pains of everyday being. The occasional rainbow is your only hope at wanting to stay in this life – the only thing reminding you that it can be beautiful.

My depression has led to suicidal thoughts and actions. I was generally sad. I hated my mental and physical states and who I had become. My life, as it seemed to most people though, was a good life. Good guy, good health, good job, good friends, good family. Everything was fine. But I could never seem to see that. To me, the negatives outweighed the positives in all aspects. I was a whirlwind of hate, anger, self-harm, and sadness, believing that this world would be a better place if I could drown myself in the ocean and never be found.

That was my goal. On Thanksgiving of 2013. I was going to swim as far as I could, out into the sea. Far enough that I could not have the strength or willpower to swim back to land. Hoping I would eventually go delusional from hypothermia, my chest cavity churning with salt water. My mind and body would go numb and I’d sink to ocean’s floor where no one would find me. That’s what I thought I needed to make me feel at ease again. To feel whole.

I was stopped though, as thunder rolled in. One last voicemail that I would listen to before I made my attempt to swim out into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. The words that someone said to me still ring in my head. That night, I listened to those words again and again, repeating the voicemail over and over. The syllables silenced the provoking sounds of the waves crashing on the cold, hard sand, as I sat, ready to end this once and for all. As I contemplated my fate, those three words stuck, and the pain slowly drifted out to sea. The storm ended and this time the rainbow came.
Love conquers all.

Thank you,
Chase

September is National Suicide Prevention Month

I’m extremely excited to mention that I am working on another collaborative project for this coming month. As I’m sure you can tell from the title, the pieces will revolve around the idea of suicide and suicide prevention.

Having said that, I’m approaching this topic very apprehensively. This is without a doubt the most sensitive subject matter I’ve attempted to tackle yet.

I want to preface this by saying I am far from an expert. Although I will share my own experiences, and some pieces written by family and friends, these are only a couple of viewpoints in the wide world of opinions and experiences related to suicide and mental health in general.

The intention behind these stories is simply to create dialogue. In my opinion, we still don’t often make open conversation about such sensitive subject matter very readily available. How are people supposed to know how to seek help/cope/understand what they’re feeling if resources aren’t easily accessible and dialogue isn’t actively promoted?

According to Mental Health America, Suicide is now the 8th leading cause of death among Americans (it used to be the 10th according to the CDCP). Over 40,000 Americans take their lives each year.

Why does this matter so much to me?? Because I think that this topic is so much more complex than we often talk about. Those numbers and statistics cannot even begin to encompass such a multi-dimensional concept. It’s honestly difficult for me to even put into words what I mean by this because of how intricate I believe the topic of suicide is.

Here are the ideas floating around in my brain to support what I’m trying to get at though:

  1. That number of “40,000 American’s” doesn’t even include suicide attempt survivors or people with suicidal thoughts that have not yet acted on them
  2. The question of why people have suicidal thoughts is extremely complicated and difficult to answer (and it’s not a one-size-fits all type of situation)
  3. Suicide affects friends and family members too. On top of that, the extent to which it affects these people differs from person to person.
  4. Wanting to die doesn’t always mean you literally want to die,  but it still feels all too real, and explaining what I mean by this is almost impossible.
  5. There is a massive stigma surrounding the topic that negatively impacts those struggling even more.
  6. Shame is such a huge factor that plays into all of this, and I believe the only way to learn and teach others that there is literally nothing to be ashamed of is to talk about it more!!!

Some of these posts will be from the point of view of those who have lost a loved ones to suicide. Some will be from the point of view of those struggling with suicidal thoughts themselves. Some of these will have comedic undertones, and some will be much more serious.

I hope that if you can take away one thing from this, it’s that there is no right or wrong way to share these experiences and feelings. And even more so than that, I hope that if you can relate to any of these words, you are able to begin to realize that you are so far from alone.

Also, a quick disclaimer: because this is such a delicate topic, please, as readers, keep in mind that each piece I share is, without a doubt, intended to be as sensitive and compassionate as possible. 

I will start sharing posts for this month after Labor Day!

**Also, if you are interested in writing something for this month and I haven’t reached out to you yet, please feel free to contact me!! I would LOVE to share your words**

MHAM Post #19: A Great Friend

Today is officially the last day of May… wow. This month and this project have flown by! I’m not entirely sure if today will be the definitive end point of my Mental Health Awareness Month posts (also more to come about an upcoming project soon), but I did save this post for the “last day” for a reason. 

This piece is written by a good friend of mine who chooses to be anonymous (~corporate jobs ya know~). Like I’ve said before though, I think each of these posts has so much weight, regardless of whether or not they have a specific name attached. 

This month has been all about speaking up, sharing your unique experiences, and feeling more understood in the process. I love this post because it encompasses just that. 

The writer shares her journey with her mental health and how she found her voice over time. I really feel that her struggles and her silence are so perfectly described in a way that we call all identify with, and her end points help to bring it all full circle.

Here it isssssssssssssss:

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.” ― David Benioff, City of Thieves

As the pressure of performing well in college dug its way into my psyche, I began to sleep less and less. For three years, I managed. All-nighters are not unusual in college to cram for an exam or essay, and I could always reset my system once whatever was keeping me up was over. I never recognized it as an actual issue, and often fed my undiagnosed insomnia with cups of coffee and giant red bulls. I’d crash, sleep, and repeat.

But something changed senior year. Everything felt chaotic. After going abroad my spring semester junior year, I felt displaced amongst my friends and overwhelmed with what exactly I was going to do beyond the safe and secure bubble of a college town. I didn’t get either of the first two jobs I applied to, and the fear of failure was crushing me. Sleepless nights turned into sleepless weeks, and I couldn’t verbalize what was happening to me. No one wants to be sick their last semester senior year, but I was. Chronic insomnia is what they call a “co-morbid” condition (sounds a little dramatic, TBH), and often sits beside it’s ugly stepsisters, Anxiety and Depression. Pair that with a thyroid imbalance and a looming feeling of uncertainty, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I wouldn’t have gotten help on my own. I didn’t recognize any of my thoughts as harmful, or my actions as out of character, but my wonderful friends did. I am lucky to have had friends that recognized I was not okay, even when I couldn’t admit that to myself.

The most ironic thing about my experience, is that one of my majors was Communication Studies in college. You would think as a proficient writer who was enrolled in interpersonal communications and leadership classes – that focused on how to bridge gaps between different groups and personalities –  I would have these skills to tackle the crushing fear of failure. I studied the autism spectrum and learned how to communicate effectively with people that are seen as “other” and “different,” yet, when I felt like an outsider, I lost my voice. I couldn’t speak. The stigma crushed me. I was a happy-go-lucky senior, a fairly good student and super involved my college community. My friends know me as a loud, outgoing person. Yet when I had these sudden fears of not fitting in, or not getting a job that I pulled three back to back all-nighters to apply for, I lost my ability to articulate my feelings.

As illustrated through this blog, mental health is a tricky subject. We all have different coping mechanisms and ways out of the dark, and there’s no “one size fits all” solution. When I sat down to write this, I struggled for a while to articulate what truly happened to me senior year. I still struggle with insomnia, but feel very far removed from the way I felt three years ago. But if I learned anything from my experience, it’s that the stigma around mental health issues is pointless. I am glad that this blog gives us all a chance to air it out.

If you take anything from this post and this month, I want it to be those last two lines. The stigma IS (for lack of a better synonym lol) pointless. We are all just human. We all have good days and bad. We all have our struggles. By sharing what we’re going through, we can remind each other, and ourselves, that we are so far from alone. 

Also, check out this writer on Tumblr here: @todayitwasalltheearth (it’s filled with awesome poems/words/art!!)

MHAM Post #17: Someone I’m Lucky to Know

Sometimes you meet people that positively impact you when you’re least expecting it. That’s how I feel about the writer of this piece. 

When we first met, it felt easy from the start to share intimate details about each other. I told her about my family, and my fears, and my aspirations as if I had known her for years. 

When she told me that she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, I actually felt more comfortable talking to her. Is that weird? For those of you who don’t know, my dad also has Borderline Personality Disorder. 

Getting to know this writer, in turn, helped me get to know my dad and for that I can’t thank her enough. 

Needless to say, her words are cool AF and I’m very lucky to share them here: 

Living with Borderline Personality Disorder is not beautiful.
Every day, it is fighting a battle every that I’m not sure I’m ever going to win.

Rewind seven years ago to when I was age 15. When I was first diagnosed. I was in a relationship with a male who physically and mentally abused me. One broken arm, scratched cornea, and a couple hospital visits later – I felt that I deserved it. I apologized for his mistakes, like the 6 times that he cheated on me. However, I was cheating on him as well… with multiple people both men and women. Living with borderline personality disorder is living with unstable relationships including the relationship that you have
with yourself.

For 8 years, I self-harmed. Attempting and thinking about suicide occurred very frequently. I felt that this was “normal” and when someone tried to tell me otherwise… it did not end well. My temper was out of control – one minute I would be cheerful and then the next, for whatever reason, I would be punching holes in walls and screaming things that never made
any sense. I have lost many friends due to my mental illness. Looking back on it now, I can understand why. I wasn’t a good friend and I wouldn’t have wanted to be my friend either. I was using the people around me for my own selfish reasons and I didn’t care. I was manipulating every single person in my life. When I was a senior in high school, one of my better friends committed suicide. As usual, no one saw it coming. I remember getting the news and feeling my heart break for the first time. This was a sadness I didn’t recognize. Being in a major depressive state was a constant in my life, but when this happened – it
was a sadness mixed with jealousy and confusion. I did not attend school for roughly 2 weeks after that. I wasn’t able to move. I remember my mom lied to my school and told them I was absent because I had mono. It was easier than explaining to them that I have BPD.

One of the biggest things that I personally face with BPD is dissociation. When I’m faced with certain situations in my life that trigger me to feel sad or nervous, I pretend like they don’t exist. I literally stop feeling and thinking about things entirely. I can’t control this and in turn, it has caused me to have an awful memory of even the good things that have
happened in my life. After I come out of a dissociative state, I often feel like I’ve grown into new skin. When I dissociate I leave everything about my life behind. I don’t talk to my friends, family, and I don’t leave my house. I don’t do anything. I’m just there physically but not mentally. Though my BPD is not as bad now as it used to be, every now and then I will dissociate. This has caused tremendous frustration with my college friends and it’s taken a lot of time to explain to them why I do this in order to help them better understand. If
there is one thing I have learned, it’s that BPD is a very confusing disease. You can never genuinely understand it unless you’re living with it. My family has supported me as best they can. However, I have an older brother who suffers from Bipolar 1 Disorder. He is also a heroin addict. Their focus has more so been on helping him throughout my life and in a twisted way, it’s actually helped me understand myself better.

College was my turning point. Freshman year I wasn’t necessarily in a good place because I didn’t have any friends and I dissociated a lot. Sophomore year, I decided to be an RA. I gained all these amazing and positive new people in my life. I also got into the nursing program at school because I realized that I wanted to help adolescents with mental illness. I wanted to be that person who was there for someone who felt alone – I wanted to help them understand that they are never alone no matte how alone they feel. Although I don’t know how it feels to be them, I want to try and understand. I know all too well how it feels to be misunderstood constantly. Junior year I was doing well. I stopped cutting and I dumped my loser abusive boyfriend (woohoo!) I had friends, true and genuine friends, for the first time in my entire life. I felt like I belonged somewhere. I fell in love with a woman. For the first time, I was in love…. and then senior year had its ups and downs. I got broken up with. That sent me into a depressive dissociative state. I started fucking around with a lot of people. Drinking too much. Almost… almost self-harmed again. I got to a really low point. Then I realized something: I have come so far since the beginning. I just recently graduated with my BSN in nursing. I have grown tremendously since I was that out of control 15-year-old girl. When I was at a low point… I wrote a poem:

That Unlovable Girl
I wonder when I will stop being “that girl”
That girl who had the bones in her wrists
severed by a boy with a thick temper
That girl who is into girls
That girl who is into guys
That girl who only fucks guys
That girl who is there,
palms open, ready to feed your loneliness
That girl who you have no intention of keeping,
but you still kiss her goodbye
That girl who fucked you as hard as she hated herself
That girl who swam on her back
through your bloodstream and decided to call it home

 “A day will come” my mother sighs,
“when you will find someone who knows how to love you”
That girl wonders how they know this,
where did they learn how to love her
Who taught them how to stitch every broken
piece of diamond back together
Where did they learn to dance with the chaos
that fills her raging and empathetic heart
Her quick wit and swollen fist full of apologies
“I promise you,” my mother says,
“every atom in your being will be enough.”

 My BPD has often caused me to feel unlovable. But I know that the only person who believes I am unlovable is myself. I now know that I am stronger than my mental illness. I will have days that totally suck, but I’m alive. Through everything, I am still fucking alive. My journey is to be cherished. Dark days are only dark if you believe they have to be. Paint your own fucking picture, write your own story, and know that whatever society tells
you is “wrong” with you – only makes you a whole lot brighter. Mental illness needs to be talked about more and the stigma needs to be broken. We are all compromised and we all have our own shit. I would be terribly boring without my mental illness. Who knows, I might wake up tomorrow and have a really shitty day; I might fall into a spiral. That’s okay though. I know the future is out here. 

http://www.bpdworld.org/helplines/usa-helplines.html

MHAM Post #15: Maggie

Today’s piece is actually written by a friend of a friend whom I’ve never even met. I just wanted to stress this fact, because the amount of support and enthusiasm I have received about this project over the past month is so amazing/heartwarming/mind-blowing to me. 

The fact that someone I don’t even know on a personal level would be so inspired to open up about her experiences for the sake of others is so crazy and beautiful. 

I really enjoyed this piece because Maggie, the writer, doesn’t focus too much on specific diagnoses. She just shares times in her life where things got especially trying, and in turn, negatively impacted her already existing mental health struggles. 

I think that’s an extremely important thing to remember. Mental health is a part of all of us, right? Whether good or bad. Some of us have a genetic predisposition to certain diagnoses. Some of us have more negative experiences with regards to our mental health than others. Some of us have labels that we can attach to our struggles. Regardless, we all have good and bad experiences in life, and those experiences impact our mental health. Regardless of predisposition, confirmed diagnoses, etc, our life experiences shape us and make us who we are. Our mental health is directly tied to all of that. 

Maggie’s piece does a great job at explaining just how drastically certain events in her life made these kinds of impacts on her. 

I am happy to share her story here: 

This is difficult for me to start, because my experience with mental illness has been both a marathon and series of short, painful sprints. I didn’t meet my triggers until late in college, and didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling until after a terrifying and heartbreaking night in the emergency room.  

My case is different than some. I never worried about talking about what I was feeling. In
fact, I ALWAYS talked about what I was feeling, whether it was to someone else, or within my ever present (sometimes deafening) internal dialogue.  From an early age, I was assessing and labeling what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt, and if something wasn’t right, or I wasn’t where I wanted it to be, I fixed it.  Big surprise, I now work in healthcare. 

When I was in high school, I experienced hardship as everyone does, and instead of dealing with the things I couldn’t understand or label, I started digging deep to bury the hard things. This continued throughout college, until I ran out of space to bury the shitty stuff.  The biggest problem with this was that, because of the fact that I didn’t understand and couldn’t put a label on my feelings, I couldn’t find the means to talk about them. I wasn’t talking about what I was going through, but not because I was afraid or because I didn’t want to. I literally couldn’t.  I had dealt with death and hardship, and while these are horrendous and devastating things, this was DIFFERENT.  I stopped sleeping, I overate, drank an unbelievable amount, and completely stopped working out.  I managed to push through the end of college with minimal visible harm, and slid into my gap year. During this year, I took my physical health to the forefront, but did not think much about my mental health. Because physicality is such a huge part of my life, my mental health
improved with the improvement of my physical health.  However, I was not making a concerted effort to better myself as a whole, and I was doing myself a disservice without even knowing it. I thought my dark period in college was a come and go “rough patch” that I wouldn’t go back to, and DAMN was I absolutely wrong.

I have always been driven, determined, outgoing, outspoken, and didn’t give a flying fuck about what anyone thought about me, until I started dating the person I thought was my forever partner. We met right before I started grad school, and immediately clicked. I had never felt that way about anyone before, and things moved much too quickly.  We were living together after only a few months. The fights we had were vicious and sometimes very scary for others. Things spiraled downhill almost as quickly, and I saw a side of myself that I wish to NEVER see again. I let someone else dictate my life. I made all decisions based on this person. I didn’t realize it until almost a year after the fact, but I was living in constant fear that if I said or did the wrong thing, or didn’t consistently put this other person first, that he would leave me and my one true love would be gone forever, and he didn’t let me forget it. One of our infamous fights hit an all-time low, and I tried to kill myself. Waking up to the pure sadness that I saw was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced, and I would not wish that feeling on anyone in the world. Despite this, I stayed with this
person another two years, and it was a constant ebb and flow of amazing days and some of the ugliest days I’ve seen. I let myself get to a point where I told myself I had nowhere to go but inward. I knew what I was feeling, but I was so paralyzed by fear that if I expressed myself, he would leave and I would be left with nothing. Little did I know, I am fucking everything and more (and so are you).

Last summer, his beautiful mother passed away, and to say that it was devastating is an understatement. I didn’t deal with this loss, because I didn’t feel as though it was mine, and I knew I needed to be his rock.  After this, I made the move to NYC, and I was biding my time until he was able to move up here as well. In this time, he became distant and meaner than ever. I was constantly anxious and terrified that I was doing the wrong thing. Later I came to find that he had started dating someone else, but it was just too hard for him to tell me (insert eye roll here). I. Was. Devastated. I lost 20 pounds in less than a month. I wasn’t sleeping. My work suffered, and my already broken relationships with my family and friends suffered even more. 

Here comes the upswing (you knew it was coming at some point).  Instead of letting this person continue to define me, I decided to redefine me. I told myself, “I live in the greatest city in the free world, take advantage and just do you boo boo”. I started just doing things that I wanted to do, whether I had someone to do them with or not. A random happy hour by myself, where I met an amazing woman my age in the same boat (WHAT?! WHY?!). Check. John Legend concert. Check. All you can eat pizza fundraiser for breast cancer. Check. Training for, and soon to run, a half marathon. Check. Signing up for my first marathon. Check. Getting accepted to a doctorate program. Check.

During this time, I worked with some of the greatest and most supportive earth angels on the planet. They took me under their wings, and didn’t comment on my obvious, rapid weight loss, they didn’t try to tell me what to do, they were just there for me  even though they hadn’t known me for very long. They let me talk when I wanted to, and, most importantly, they didn’t judge me for feeling. They are now some of my best friends in the world, and if it wasn’t for this shitty situation, I wouldn’t have been able to expand my bad ass squad with these rock stars. Not only did I make new friends, but my best friends (which includes my family) were truly amazing (which is the understatement of the century). They dealt with, and still deal with, my breakdowns at all hours with unbeatable
grace and always had a kind word or a laugh to share. 

I have also been able to pay it forward. I am not the only one of my friends that has struggled with one of many mental health issues. We have created an open dialogue that may look terrifying to the outside eye, but it’s our safe space.  Doing this has also given me an incredible amount of perspective when I am having my bad days. We are not alone. We can do this. We are a tribe that gets shit done in grand fashion.

While I will always struggle with the need to fix and label, it’s getting easier with each day and a lot of hard work.  I will never let someone else define who I am. I will continue to be the outspoken (sometimes too blunt), funny, lighthearted person I always was, but my bad days are quite a bit different now. I know the bad feelings will not last forever. I know that I am not only enough, but I go above and beyond.  I have a bad ass team behind me, and I don’t have a clue how I got so lucky to have them all in my life. I am a mother fucking queen.

MHAM Post #14: A Mentor

The writer of this piece is someone I consider to be not just a friend, but in many ways, a mentor as well.

I actually couldn’t even tell you when I first met this writer. I was probably like 8? I attended the same camp every summer throughout my childhood, and as a teenager I began working there too. That is when me and this writer became closer. 

Growing up, if you had asked me to describe him, I would say he was filled with nothing but love, positivity, and happiness. This writer literally made the kids at camp light up with joy every day. He seemed to be constantly be overflowing with energy and passion.

I know I’ve said it a million times before, but you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. So many people you are surrounded by everyday are battling their inner demons in silence. 

It means so much to me that the writer of this piece was willing to share his words. I’m so happy to know that we are able to still connect now, years after working together, to share our experiences with mental health. 

As you will see in this piece, it is HARD to open up about what you’re going through. Mental health struggles are a catch-22 in that sense. Not only do they cause you to feel unstable, but they often also make you feel less capable of opening up about what you’re going through. Then, to top it off, the stigma surrounding mental health makes it, in many ways, even more difficult to share your experiences openly. It’s no surprise than so many people grapple with these issues silently. 

Having the courage to share your experiences is extremely commendable, so, without further ado, check it out: 

When I graduated from high school in 1997, I had the vaguest notion of what bipolar disorder was. I certainly did not understand its destructive power, its ability to tear away at the life one built with terrifying swiftness. I would not know that I was bipolar until August of 2009. What I do remember knowing without any doubt when I was seventeen, and entering my first year at Penn State, was that I did not feel emotionally well-balanced. I do not mean this in the sense that I was feeling down, or going through a transition in my life that made me feel more stressed and emotionally drained. I felt shame, guilt, embarrassment, hopelessness, and uselessness to such a degree that I would hide from the world for days at a time, which progressed to weeks, and eventually months. I eventually spent the better part of seven years locked away in a studio apartment with the blinds drawn, trapped in my own mind.

No family, friends, or medical professionals knew of the way I lived until March of 2008, when I hit a breaking point, but I was not properly diagnosed with cyclothymic bipolar disorder until August of 2009. It was only then that I allowed myself to begin healing. Until recently, I rarely spoke or wrote about my mental health condition for various reasons that were grounded in the shame that fueled my protracted silence, in addition to the pernicious stigma that unfortunately continues to surround mental health issues. My voicelessness, however, did not stop me from learning about my own condition. I read as much as I could in the scientific literature, in addition to memoirs about people’s experiences associated with being bipolar. I am finally able to share my story more readily; I hope it helps anyone who reads it.

Nearly everyone I have known has felt depressed at some point in their life, which is a normal phenomenon. They understand that depression tends to shut people down and draw them inward mentally. Most people, however, are fairly resilient and find that mental balance without any help, so they are soon back on their feet and functioning normally. This resiliency is the line in the sand where my diagnosis separates me from those who are able to bounce back. It is critical that I emphasize two points. First, this separation is not my choice. I would never choose to continue to be depressed. Second, the severity of the depression that I suffer from is far more serious than what most people have ever had to deal with.

Looking back, it makes sense that I was bipolar at Penn State. I loved learning, reading, hanging out with friends, and playing competitive sports. Yet, very soon after I started college, I began to withdraw. The life that I worked very hard to build throughout high school was fading as life started feeling less important to me, for reasons that I may never know. Feeling that depressed, my natural reaction was to hide, both physically and emotionally. As professors and friends told me, when they did happen to see me, it was as if I just fell off the face of the earth. From time to time I did leave my apartment, and some classes were able to motivate me enough to participate and do well. For the majority of the time, however, I was hiding in my apartment. I cried, read, and slept. A few times a week I would eat. I was fortunate to have loving parents who worked hard to put me through school, which made me more ashamed of my lack of attendance and participation in college. Until I spoke out years later, my parents paid my tuition, I tried to recover from my depression, and I would continue to fail most of the time. When I was not failing because of never attending class, I was withdrawing from a semester of courses that I never went to. I was not a party animal who blew off everything academic. I was a lost person hiding from the world, and trying to run from my mind and my pain. This was my life for many years. When I was supposed to have graduated from Penn State, I remained in my apartment and lived off of my own savings from high school. My sporadic academic victories against bipolar disorder were marked with As on my transcript. My academic shortcomings were not indicative of blowing off college; they were the markers of my suffering. Medical research strongly suggests that people with a bipolar disorder often lose social functioning that is so easy for others and do not recover it for many years. I am living proof of that.

Throughout those difficult years in my life, there were a few genuinely bright spots. I did have windows in my house of misery that brought rays of happiness into my life. I enjoyed photography, and I especially enjoyed working with children in the summer when I had to live at home. To be sure, my years working at a summer camp saved my life, and sparked my interest in education. I am certain of this, which makes me grateful for the happiness and sense of purpose the children brought into my life. I do not speak much about working with children in this particular summer camp beyond the superficial comments of how fun it was. The truth is, that summer camp holds such a special place in my heart that I find it hard to articulate how much it really means to me.

In early 2008, I finally hit bottom and broke down in front of my parents. The stress and emotional toll that the silence brought was starting to kill me. I was a shell of my former self. I told them everything. I explained how their son left his apartment once every few weeks to every two months, and learned to subsist by getting food delivered. I apologized for wasting their money, and for failing them. One of the most profound moments of my life came after I apologized. My father picked me up off the ground, wiped the tears from my eyes, and told me that the only thing lost was money and time, but that I was still here, still alive, and should be proud of that, not ashamed. From that moment on, I never allowed myself to feel like I was too weak to overcome this disorder.

It has not been an easy road, but the faith I placed in myself has helped me tremendously. I never completed my degree at Penn State, but I am proud to say that I am a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who is currently pursuing a masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. I am studying how institutions of higher education can do more to promote mental health awareness. I have a wonderful wife, and three beautiful children who have redefined what it means to be happy and to love unconditionally. There are indeed quite a few things in this world that are far more powerful than the destructive nature of bipolar disorder. Most of all, I have learned to stop hating who I am and what I suffer from, and began to love the face I see in the mirror, as well as the mind behind that face.

Although my own struggles with bipolar disorder prevented me from actively raising awareness over the years, I truly believe that my academic and professional work regarding mental health conditions, combined with my efforts to raise my voice and share my story, are in themselves forms of activism and resistance to the stigma associated with living with bipolar disorder. I learned that my lived experience, combined with what I learned throughout the past 20 years, can effectively be used toward making the lives of others like me thrive. No one should ever make others feel like they are not worthy of love or acceptance, or loving and accepting themselves. Loving oneself is a radical act. Loving oneself is an act of resistance in a world where so many forces seek to make groups of people feel lesser. There is much work to do….

MHAM Post #13: Lydia

I remember going into my freshman year of college and feeling so passionately that a sorority would never be the right place for me. I just couldn’t help but feel that it was almost, in a way, a cop out, or the “easy way out” when it came to making friends. It seemed like, if you had pay to be in the group, there’s just no way the friendships you’d make could be genuine.

I know I sound beyond cliche, but I cannot put into words how wrong those preconceived notions were. Being in my sorority taught me so much about trust and compassion and sincere acceptance. I honestly have never felt like I belonged anywhere more. It is, without a doubt, the reason I have a lot of the amazing friends I do. 

From an outsider looking in, you probably don’t realize it, but a good deal of the people that have been willing to open themselves up for the sake of this blog over the past month have been friends that I made through my sorority. 

Being in a big sorority has it flaws though. It’s just impossible to truly get to know every single member on an intimate level in the short few years you have together. 

Lydia, the writer of this piece, is someone I genuinely wish I had had the opportunity to get to know better before I graduated. The great thing though, is that college friendships don’t need to be contained to college. I’m lucky that I am still able to get to know Lydia now, even years after graduating. 

Earlier this year, she wrote an amazing, gut-wrenching piece about depression, suicide, and coping with the pain. Her words were just so powerful that, when I came up with this month’s blog idea, asking her to share something was a no-brainer.

I’ve never told her this, but I have so much respect for Lydia. She has taught me to always remember that you never know what someone else is going through or coping with. 

Needless to say, I’m extremely happy to share her words here: 

I am here but not there.
I have found myself yet I am still searching.
Standing at the top, my eyes stare forward,
trembling to look down before I let myself plunge.
Falling beneath the black, deeper into a hole
that may never close.
The ditch is stable but its width fluctuates –
I can still fit.
I imagine a day where I outgrow the hole but maybe I don’t want to.
Maybe the depth of its darkness is a place to hide.
I dig with weary hands and brittle bones until
the dirt consumes me.
Until my heartbeat stalls and my breath screams into the empty air.
Until I realize the only way out is to climb back up without searching
for a short-cut.
The hole has found its place in my chest, my eyes, and my brain.
I will fill the hollow dwellings with my own light.

I walked into my bedroom at home last week with a new pillow added by my mother that read: “joy is in the journey”. I did not think much of the cliché until I walked into an office the next day, where the same exact pillow sat on the couch. A center where I finally accepted treatment for an eating disorder – the very hole that has welcomed depression and anxiety into its darkness. I dug into the depth of the void and I found emptiness. My mind’s control is consuming and I cannot fix this on my own.

I constantly find signs where there may be no significance at all, but nonetheless, a simple pillow ignited a decision. “I need help” came in a soft and quivering voice, but I’ve never felt so strong. I am ready to breathe freely, to dismiss the overwhelming voices, to change my learned behaviors, to start living. Recovery will be a process and there is no satisfactory result. The journey itself holds purpose and the timeline to rebuild is continuous. A hole can leak and crack, maybe re-open, but closure does not determine progression.

Whatever the hole may be for you, if your mind had the power to form the hollow dwellings, you also have the strength to fill them – but you do not need to know how to do so on your own. There is no manual to healing, no concrete image of a fixed hole to follow as you read the instructions. Making the effort to begin is greater than the endpoint. No matter your pace, purely start; rid yourself of the pressure to reach your sense of perfection. Put down the guide and stop planning for success – if the “joy is in the journey”, then you’re already there.

Read Lydia’s other piece here: https://themighty.com/2016/11/sharing-your-suicidal-thoughts-with-a-therapist/

MHAM Post #10: Alyssa

I’ve always felt really fortunate to have friends that live all over the country (and world). But over the past couple years, as I’ve struggled/coped/moved/grown/changed, I’ve been guilty of letting some longer-distance friendships slip. 

This month’s project has taught me that regardless of distance, time, or space, most people still care about you, and most friendships, thankfully, are for the long haul. 

I met Alyssa freshman year of college. I have watched her grow, change, cope, and learn so much over the period of time since then. I am so happy to see the person she has become, and I’m even happier to share her story about a portion of her journey. 

In this piece, Alyssa talks about one of her biggest triggers related to her mental health. She also shares some really important insights on medication. It’s important to remember that different things help different people. I loved Alyssa’s blunt honesty in this. If you know her at all, you can see her personality shine through her writing. 

These words are her to the T, and I’m happy to share them here:

I really don’t know how to start this out, so I am going to start with a quote that helps with my frustrations… “Telling someone with mental health issues that all they need to do is be more positive and they can make themselves happy, is like telling someone who has asthma that all they need to do is breath harder because there is plenty of air.”

I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, wrongly diagnosed with bi-polar, and I am currently being evaluated for PMDD. I hate being labeled. But these labels have allowed me to learn about myself on a deeper level than I think any unlabeled person has. Every day, I learn something new about myself. Whether it is a new trigger, an effective coping strategy, or that I did a great job self-managing. Even though sighing is considered rude, I’ll sigh all fucking day if it helps me not physically shake or burst into tears. And sometimes I reflect and learn I did a terrible job self-managing today and need to make some phones calls to apologize.

Every reaction has a consequence, and every person has a memory. You may feel like there is a person inside of your chest, breaking every rib, trying to get out, but reacting poorly to that sensation normally results in burnt bridges, slipping deeper into a self-loathing cycle, and becoming more recluse. Mental health issues are difficult, because self-management is pretty much an ongoing conversation with yourself. You build yourself up or you break yourself down. I’ve learned that, even with practice and self-love, the volume of that voice can either break your ears drums (cue the panic attack), or be muffed, sometimes only by an extremely annoying number of sighs and gratitude lists.

Where I am today is why I can admit that I hated myself for a very long time. I am my own worst critic, and sometimes I rip myself apart over something as stupid as an Instagram comment because, “what if they don’t realize I’m being sarcastic and I just lost a friend?” This anxious concern has always been something I’ve struggled with. When I was younger it was more along the lines of, “did I remember every single friend’s initials in my AIM profile?!” Seemingly stupid shit, but it climaxed when I was in college.

Like I said, anxiety and depression has been a part of me my whole life, but there are definitely triggers that have made it worse. For the sake of length, I am only going to touch on the biggest trigger, and how refusing to process traumatic events can be detrimental.

Before I went into my freshman year of college, I woke up to a friend physically taking advantage of me. No one believed me when I told them, and said I was being dramatic. I didn’t report anything, I didn’t stand up for myself, and I allowed that dirty, used feeling to control my decision as I kept quiet. Two more girls were hurt by him and I’m still working on not blaming myself for that. I developed so much self-hate, that sometimes I acted on that hate, and it perpetuated the vicious cycle of stress, reaction, and guilt. *If anyone out there has experienced this and does not know who to talk to, please reach out, I am here and can help you link up with a professional to meet your needs.*

From there, my mental health struggles continued to get worse because I was not loving myself. I wasn’t even attempting to. I put on dirty band-aids, like blacking out, having sex with people I didn’t care about, and staying quiet about what was going on inside of my head, instead of choosing to love myself. I had opportunities to talk, and would share sometimes with friends, but never too much because, “what if they think I’m too dramatic?”

I took what, to me, felt like the easy way out, and went to a general medicine doctor and talked about my symptoms. He diagnosed me with depression and bi-polar disorder. He put me on Lexapro and Zyprexa and HOLY FUCK did shit get even worse and worse fast. I wanted a quick fix, but that speed lane took me straight to suicide city, and those thoughts were loud and always present.

I went back two weeks later to say “I don’t think this is right, everything is worse”. All he did was increase my medication. I don’t remember much of September and October of 2015. The first week of November my friends and I had all been at a pregame at the house next door. I remember exactly what I was wearing and I remember standing there, feeling like I was just over it. I was looking at everyone’s smiling faces, listening to my friends sing, loudly shouting about which party to go to, and I didn’t feel like I was even there. I slipped out and went back to my house, smoked about 5 cigs in a row, and grabbed the two pills bottles with about 20 10mg of Lexapro and 20 5mg of Zyprexa, and just held them in my hand, eerily calm. I sat there and cried on and off until I fell asleep.

I may have suicidal thoughts, but death within itself is too final, and I am thankful I am afraid of that. When I’m in that moment though, it feels like there are two voices in my head. One saying, “fuck it, life is not really even real, I can’t even think straight with how many feelings I have right now, I just want it all to fucking stop”. And a contrasting little voice saying, “life is still here, death is so final and unknown”. These continuous reel of thoughts, paired with a waterfall of loud tears, equals an indecisive and exhausted human standing in the middle of the room stunned and unable to move until she’s exhausted herself to the point of falling asleep.

Disclaimer* I called my parents the next day, I took myself off the medication, went through withdrawal symptoms, and as a result, was kicked out of my Athletic Training major because of my lack of performance in clinic and two failed classes. Thankfully, I was able to show documentation that my doctor did not refer me to a talk therapist and had upped my medication. My major advisors informed me I would be suspended from the Athletic Training program and could come back the next Fall. Meaning, I wasn’t graduating with my friends, and had to add another year of tuition to expenses. But more importantly than that, it meant I got a second chance to manage this correctly. This was terrible news, but I could either continue hating myself, or I could choose to love myself, be fearless, and vocalize how I feel and what my thoughts are. I chose to vocalize, and graduated a year later with a double major, acceptance to graduate school, and a one-way ticket to California.  

It’s fucking annoying going to doctor after doctor, having some kook push medication down your throat like its sweet-tarts, and feel like you’re losing your personality from the medication. It hurts looking at your parents as they try to hide their fear from you, and watching your siblings be confused by your differences. It just about kills you when you make the, “it’s getting bad again” call. But at the same time, I have been lucky enough to be able to have that open conversation with my family. I had to look at my Dad within the last month and say the thoughts came back, they aren’t loud but they’re back. Seeing how that horrified and broke my Dad is why I will never let this control me completely, even if the voices are like banshees screaming in my head. I’m working on not seeing myself as selfish or sickly, but in turn, realizing that I am so fortunate to have a family that allows for open communication and has embodied a safe and loving environment full of support. Not everyone is that lucky.

If there is one thing I have learned in my journey with mental health, it is that everyone’s experience and perspective is different. Everyone’s management is going to be different. Medication didn’t work for me, but it could save someone else’s life and that’s beautiful. I struggle daily with anxiety and depression and I combat that by loving myself and setting appropriate goals for myself depending on how I feel that day. 

The biggest message I want anyone who is suffering from mental health issues to understand, is that there is nothing wrong with you and you aren’t dramatic. TALK about how you feel. What’s “wrong” with you is something that provides you with an opportunity to learn more about yourself, develop your identity, create personal coping strategies, and have an increased level of empathy. The brain is crazy my friends, it’s the only thing that has named itself in this world. Learn about your brain, your thoughts, and talk about it. I am far from having control over my labels, but I can now say I am proud of where I am and I love myself.