“A patient of mine dated her boyfriend for two years and suffered from severe depression,” the psychiatrist told me. “She confided in her boyfriend that she was on medication, and when they split, he told all their mutual friends that she was a psycho on meds.” He leaned forward in his chair and looked at me. “Do you want people to think that’s what you are?”
I had only met this psychiatrist four or five times when he asked me this. His words felt like a noose tightening around my neck, the anecdote a rope that cut off all the oxygen to my body. I felt devastated — no, violated — by what I interpreted as his implication that I, too, would be seen as a “psycho on meds” should I tell anyone about being medicated. I had entered his office no longer afraid to acknowledge that it was time to try a chemical route for my symptoms; I placed my most vulnerable self in this man’s hands so he could help me. But he crushed me like an eggshell. He took my innermost insecurities and plastered them across my face, like a label or a sign: “You have a certain image to uphold. You do not need people knowing that you take medicine for a mental illness.”
Ending up in that office was the final step in my years-long experience with therapy and non-medicinal treatment for my mental illness. Two years before, I had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. I had always felt anxious about things from a young age, but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that the anxiety took a real hold on my life. There were moments when I would forget how to breathe and would curl up on the floor, certain my heart would soon explode. Depression came into my life at a much later stage, after losing my mom to cancer at 17. I would later learn that this depression was more deeply embedded than the trauma of my mom’s death; it was also part of my genetics and physiology.
Beginning college felt like an opportunity for a fresh start. But instead of truly starting anew, I fell prey to the distorted ideal that collegiate life is inherently fun and perfect. And, on paper, it seemed like my new life was perfect: I had good grades, lots of friends, and a family that loved me — what did I have to be depressed about? But over time, the positive and energetic version of myself, to whom my college friends had become so accustomed, started to feel like a plastic film wrapped around me, threatening to suffocate me. One minute I’d be laughing with friends and the next I’d be hiding in a bathroom stall sobbing into my sweatshirt. I had been torn into two separate, irreconcilable parts; the star community leader and social butterfly was also drowning in a wave of crippling depression and anxiety.
But despite how prevalent these feelings were, they were a part of my life that I let very few people know about, let alone see on a daily basis. I could not even acknowledge the true destructive depths of these feelings until, during sophomore year, I found myself standing on the edge of a bridge on my college’s campus, ready to jump. For so long, I had functionally operated on a level that seemed to supersede my feelings. I was convinced that I could effectively suppress the fear and insecurities that often dominated my thoughts. Yet, as I looked out onto the stretch of freeway under the bridge, those fears and insecurities consumed me.
I choked back tears as I contemplated my impending suicide attempt. What had started as a late-night run to clear my head had ended with me precariously balancing on the edge of a slippery bridge wall. Something inside was screaming at me to get down, begging me to think rationally about what I was about to do, but the despair in my heart was so heavy I thought it alone could drag me off the bridge into the traffic below. In that moment, I could think about nothing but how dying would end the torturous battle of being at odds with myself.
It wasn’t until my brain forced the image of my dad and brother into my head that I paused from stepping off the wall. It pleaded with me to consider how devastated my family would be if I died. The faces of my friends from both childhood and college came into view and all I could picture was the pain I would cause them. A jolt of energy coursed through my body like a bolt of electricity and I stumbled back off the wall and onto the sidewalk. Curled up in a ball on the cold pavement, I began to cry in horror at what I had almost done. After five minutes of shaking, a small but resilient part of myself attempted to soothe the pain and stop the tears. I sat up and took some deep breaths. “It’s time we truly dealt with this,” the small part said. I got up off the sidewalk and walked back to my dorm, rattled but sure of what I’d need to do next.
The night on the bridge was followed by a long and tiresome journey of reparation and restoration. When I had come home late from my “run,” my friends were so terrified that they decided to intervene. The next week they got in touch with my family and had me recommended to my university’s behavioral health services. While I understood their fear for my safety, it didn’t make coming to terms with my mental illness much easier. For a long time, I resented the need to speak with a therapist or a psychiatrist. I felt damaged, and I believed that therapy was punishment for being broken rather than a way to reconcile with that fragmentation itself.
Now, I feel that I partly owe my second chance at life to my therapist. She was a gatekeeper to an entire scope of self-perception that I did not know I possessed. My preconceived notions about her role in my life were quickly dismissed: She was not a fixer, but a teacher. Our sessions served as a safe space in which I could divulge my deepest worries and doubts without feeling any sense of shame or guilt. In that room, I no longer felt like two separate people; there was a profound sense of integration that was slowly healing the wounded parts of myself. For so long I had condemned any feelings of anxiety or depression to a dark and lonely place within myself in the hopes that they would eventually disappear. With the help of my therapist, I extended my hand to those struggling emotions and offered them sanctuary. Instead of dismissing my demons, I now embrace them.
However, the journey to becoming the stronger and more grounded person I am today has not been without struggle. While I have progressed immensely, I have also experienced pain, frustration, and so many ups and downs you would think my life runs on a high-frequency wavelength. Forgiving myself for almost ending my life has been one of the hardest things to accomplish. There are moments when I still punish myself for what feels like personal failure; the days that I can’t get out of bed feel like condemnation. Self-deprecation has always been a specialty of mine, but it’s a toxic habit I’ve had to learn to leave behind.
Now, a new feeling comes with the darker days — the assurance of resilience, that I can come out of the pain of those moments. I have learned to commend myself for the good days instead of condemning myself for the bad ones.
This stronger sense of self has helped me face people whose ignorance about mental health threatens to hurt my progress — like the psychiatrist who cruelly used my insecurities to pressure me into silence. That day, I leaned forward in my chair and locked eyes with him.
“If people think I am a ‘psycho,’ then that’s their problem,” I said. “I will not pretend to be anything other than myself to preserve a reputation. You need to adjust your thinking on how you speak to your patients.”
I picked up my jacket and walked out of the room to the sound of his stammering protests. I felt reaffirmed that my decision to give myself all possible options was not something to be ashamed of, and two weeks later was matched with a much more compassionate psychiatrist who started me on a promising treatment of medication. With this help, I’m working to be a person who can unite joy and pain into a stronger, more complex identity. I’ve learned that there are always opportunities to take steps forward even when it feels like you are moving backward. There is always a chance to step back down from that bridge.
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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