In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I was diagnosed with depression. This discovery came as a huge surprise not only to me, but to those closest to me as well. Although for a couple of months my family and I knew that something wasn’t quite right, hearing an actual “diagnosis” hit me like a wrecking ball. At the age of fifteen, I was too busy trying not to fail Math and deciding whether I was Team Blair or Serena (All hail Queen B) to worry about a mental illness. I was nowhere near ready to undergo the long and arduous healing process that I am still undergoing today. Not that anyone ever is.
The first person I confided in was someone I considered one of my closest friends. Her response? “Depression is not even a real thing. Shake it off.” The second was my dad, who to this day has done nothing but his very best to try to understand and help me. His response? “If you want to be happy, be. You’re in control of your emotions.” These were some of the well-meaning yet hollow words that made me feel like depression was but a figment of my imagination.
I’ll never forget my nine-year-old sister walking into my bedroom one day after school and saying, “Luuly, why have you been crying so much? Did I do something to make you sad?” “No, princess. I just did badly on my test. I promise I’ll feel well enough to play with you tomorrow.” This was a lie I so desperately wished to be true. After a few weeks of continuous rejection, she felt defeated. Soon after, she stopped asking to play with me at all.
Then I started to wonder. How could I be making this up? I couldn’t be. How could I choose to stay in bed for hours on end over spending time with one of the most important people in my life? There’s no chance I was doing this deliberately. Right?
Fast-forward eight months and I was already on my third type of pills. Prozac didn’t work? Let’s try Zoloft. It’s making you drowsy? Let’s see what else we can prescribe you. Maybe we’ll increase your dose. That should do the trick.
My life consisted of pills on pills on pills. Then therapy for two hours every Saturday. Then more pills. I was half depressed, half numb to everything around me, and completely confused as to which of the two I preferred. I started to doubt that I would ever feel better. That’s when I said, “Fuck it. I’ve already hit rock bottom, how much worse can things actually get?” Spoiler alert: It got worse.
Mid-junior year, I stopped taking my medication and started suffering from horrible withdrawals. Cold sweats, headaches, nausea, the works. Everything the label on the bottle said would happen if I stopped taking my pills abruptly, did happen.
During a therapy session like any other, one of my psychiatrists asked me if I had been taking my medicine consistently. Then I thought of something similar to what comedian Amy Schumer once said. “Do you ever just wonder what would happen if you were honest for once? Just for the hell of it?” So I decided to tell the truth. I told him that I had stopped taking my pills because I hated feeling like my happiness depended on 150 milligrams of medicine a day. I still remember the interaction that ensued.
– “If you had Cancer would you go to Chemo?”
– “So why do you think of this illness as any different? At what point along the line did someone convince you depression wasn’t a real disorder? I’ve been studying this my whole life. I can promise you that it is.”
This sparked an inner dialogue about mental health. Why is it that depression and other mental illnesses are seen as less “valid” and serious than other diseases? Why is it so taboo to tell others that we struggle with depression? Why do we trivialize the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States?
College (and life in general) is a rollercoaster in and of itself and mental illness has made it all the more difficult to navigate. Partially to hide from others and partially to lie to myself, I started putting on a façade and created this persona that has now become my reality. Every day, I smile a little wider, laugh a little louder, and crack as many jokes as I can, hoping to mask how I really feel. For so long I’ve told myself: “Ok how does a ‘depressed person’ act? Let’s do the opposite of that.”
There are mornings when I wake up and I know, almost instantly, that I’m not capable of dealing with my responsibilities for the day. There have been so many times when I opened the Short-Term Illness Notification Form (the STINF page we all know so well) and debated whether or not I should fill it out. Then I remember the dean’s warning email we all received.
“Use it. Don’t abuse it. To be used only in case of an incapacitating illness.”
A million thoughts cross my mind. “Incapacitating.” Does this fall under that category? I feel incapacitated. I think it’s debilitating. What if they ask for a doctor’s note? Should I lie and say I had food poisoning? Will people think I’m just lazy or hungover? Should I just go? Yeah, I should probably just go to class.
It’s no secret that Duke is an incredibly high-stress environment for all of us. In the midst of classes, extracurricular activities, and the many other things that occupy our time, I think it’s easy for many of us to forget about our mental health. We all race to Wilson to secure that wristband for 4:30 Spinning, since being physically fit and staying “healthy” is such a priority to us. So why is our mental health perpetually on the back burner?
I wish I had a great takeaway to share. I wish that I could say that depression taught me everything I know and “made me the person I am today.” I wish I could say I’m on the other side of it now and I’m so grateful for my experiences and what they have taught me. To some extent, all of this in true. But mostly, depression is simply a bitch.
Because of it, my best friend deemed me “too much to deal with” when I needed her the most. Because of it, there are days when I’m not physically capable of getting out of bed. Because of it, I’ve repeatedly doubted my self-worth.
Again, I don’t really have a moral to this story. But the point is that maybe there doesn’t need to be. I think that the first step is to make this topic ok to talk about, so that we can break down the stigma step by step. Then maybe, one day, it will be socially acceptable to STINF due to depression.