Supergirl originated as a DC Comics character in the late 1950s. With her voluminous blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, she became the ultimate American heroine. Like her kin, Superman, Supergirl epitomizes the idea of an unbreakable spirit in a world plagued by corruption and greed.
While we hardly share a physical resemblance — I stand at a feeble 5-foot-2 and can lift 10 pounds — I still wanted to be just as super growing up. It became a running joke among my group of friends that I had the same go-getting, save-the-world, rah-rah-rah bravado that you’d find in a comic book. Now, at only 20 years old, I already have my own byline for MTV News, was named one of Her Campus’s 22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women, and headline my own global nonprofit, Project Consent. To the rest of the world, I very well may be a Supergirl.
But my reality apart from this is much harsher than what the glossy veneer might suggest. Not unlike Supergirl herself, there is another version of myself that is considerably less than super. Of all the villains I’ve had to face, the hardest to overcome has been my own mental health.
I was diagnosed with high-functioning depression my freshman year of college, seven months into a dark, long downward spiral. On the surface, I appeared to be doing impeccably: By day, I played the role of the hardworking, perky college girl. I went through the motions of my life as if nothing was wrong. I continued working with my organization and wrote feature after feature. I even flew around the country for internships and speaking engagements. But by night, in the seclusion of privacy, that same work drive took a twisted turn.
For the majority of my life, I’ve always been considered “driven” — a once admirable quality that took a nosedive when my depression emerged. The worse I felt, the harder I worked myself. By the end of my freshman year, I was running on less than three hours of sleep per night. Every minute spent on anything other than my career felt like a minute wasted, and when I failed — even when I merely felt like I was performing poorly — my whole world seemed like it was turning in on itself.
Feelings of worthlessness overwhelmed me and I started having extreme thoughts of self-hatred, ones that verged on contemplation of suicide. I berated the quality of everything I created, which only made me want to try harder. I told myself that I deserved to feel inadequate, that creative people need to suffer for their craft and enduring hardship would ultimately lead to better outcomes. And if I couldn’t achieve this unattainable degree of success and productivity, I figured, then I didn’t see the point in living at all.
My close friends eventually took notice of my erratic behavior — the not sleeping, the not eating, the excessive comments of self-loathing — and demanded that I seek help. The words “workaholic” and “perfectionist” were thrown around, but none of us would have ever pegged depression as the root cause of such obsessive behavior. I met with a therapist near the end of my freshman year. I explained to him all that I was feeling and walked away with a half dozen pamphlets on depression in high-achieving youths.
Before this diagnosis, I equated depression with dramatically lying in bed and endlessly crying to the soundtrack of It’s a Wonderful Life. This misunderstanding hits on one of the biggest misconceptions perpetuated about mental health: that all mental illnesses look the same on everyone. I learned that, in actuality, the symptoms of high-functioning depression vary from those that you would find in other cases of depression. High-functioning depression targets people who are industrious and ambitious, according to Medical Daily, and while these traits aren’t inherently bad, they can become dangerous when left unchecked. I found this out firsthand: Even though I didn’t feel outright sadness, I did experience frequent bouts of hopelessness. I was going through the motions of my life without feeling any real joy; I ricocheted between irritability and numbness, and was unable to appreciate the highs of life and disproportionately felt all the lows.
For months after my initial diagnosis, I was terrified of this revelation about my mental health. I initially refused treatment because I didn’t want to admit to the world that there was something wrong with me. Even if it meant putting on a forced smile and pretending all was well, I was determined to continue on with the same old habits.
But at the same time, I knew that denying help wouldn’t just hurt myself, but also those who loved me and wanted me to be as genuinely happy as I was pretending to be. It was during my third attempt at therapy that I experienced what professionals call a “breakthrough.” I was sitting in my therapist’s office, staring at the oatmeal-colored walls, when he said something that would resonate with me over the sessions to follow: “Depression does not make a person.”
For most of my life, I based my self-worth on what I could do. My entire value was dependent on what I could achieve; I never felt that I deserved to be happy just because. When I was diagnosed, therefore, it felt like depression had ruined some fundamental part of me and my ability to achieve. I never realized how detrimental that mind-set was until I was on the brink of seriously harming myself.
When I did realize this, though, I finally felt able to accept therapy as a necessary procedure to be the best version of myself and started focusing on leading a more balanced life. I learned that millions of people suffer from depression and every single one of them is still worthy and capable. From Ellen DeGeneres to J.K. Rowling, plenty of role models have shown us that a single obstacle or struggle cannot break the strength of the human spirit. Depression should never define anyone, I realized. Even myself.
I may never be the kind of Supergirl I idolized growing up. The prospect of emotional invincibility was long ago ripped out of my hands and thrown far beyond my grasp. But I don’t think I’d be half the person I am now had I been able to achieve that ultimately unattainable goal. I got back up when life got the worst of me, and though I may not be able to leap into burning buildings to continuously be a savior to others, I learned how to walk through my own fire and save myself. And at the end of the day, I think that makes me a Supergirl in my own way.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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