Through the Looking Glass: Making Space for Stories

by Annie Fagan | 11/13/14 7:48pm

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by Annie Ma / Annie Ma

On the biology foreign study program in Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands this past winter, I was surrounded by some of the most diverse and engaging ecosystems in the world. Spider monkeys cavorted outside the classroom — scorpions lurked under the bathroom sink. As someone who grew up catching insects in Mason jars and playing in the mud, I felt alive. That’s not to say that the program wasn’t challenging. We wrote scientific papers every four to five days and moved to a new field station each week. I stayed up late and woke up early, but I felt happy and fulfilled.

All this makes it hard for me to explain why, as my classmates spent the program’s last week exploring the beautiful coral reefs of Little Cayman Island, I found myself in the middle of a serious mental breakdown.

When it began, I felt numb. I couldn’t focus. Interacting with peers left me feeling suffocated, so I told everyone I wasn’t feeling well and avoided the group. Within a day or two, however, I was completely overwhelmed by feelings of sorrow and loss. I felt weak and tired. For 48 hours, I woke up only to bring food back to my bed. I ate little. I cried alone, often and without being able to explain why. I felt hopelessly, deeply sad. My struggle was apparent to the rest of the group — my classmates constantly asked me how I was doing. I found their questions exhausting. I didn’t know how to handle what I was feeling, let alone explain it to others. I was depressed.

These feelings were not new to me. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder my freshman year of high school, and I had experienced depressive episodes before. But this time, I had neither the energy nor the emotional capacity to recognize that I was really in trouble. It was a grim spiral, and it could have gone on indefinitely were it not for several people whom I am lucky to have in my life.

Over Skype, my mom and my partner pushed me to seek help. I mustered all of my remaining energy to tell my best friend, who immediately reached out to our professor. This professor responded with compassion and acceptance. She shared stories of loved ones who had struggled with the same issues and supported my decision to drop out of the class for the rest of the week. This professor also encouraged me to tell the other students what was going on. As someone who has been relatively open about my struggle with mental illness, I was surprised to find how vulnerable and frightened this suggestion made me feel. But I couldn’t face the prospect of spending any more energy pretending to be okay. Explaining my depressive relapse to my classmates was one of the most surreal and humbling experiences of my life. I had never felt so utterly incapacitated by this illness.

With my mom’s encouragement, I began taking the backup medication I had brought on the FSP “just in case.” I slept. I wrote a few sentences in my journal every day. Within a week, I was able to eat quietly with my friends at mealtime. I summoned the energy to go night diving with my group. When I spotted a blue-brown octopus skimming along the sea floor, I felt a tiny glimmer of excitement for the first time in what felt like a very long time. (Was that a good sign? I tried not to think about it. Hoping was still painful.) Two nights before we left Little Cayman, I went to a Mardi Gras party with my classmates and professor and watched them dance together under a moonlit sky. Very slowly and somewhat surely, I began to return to myself.

What brought all this on for me? I’m still not sure. Depression can be triggered by sudden life changes or stress, but it can also come on inexplicably and with very little warning. According to William R. Marchand, M.D., half of those who have experienced one significant depressive episode will relapse again. So maybe it was the academic and social stress of the FSP that got to me. Or maybe it was just time.

When I returned to Dartmouth in the spring, feeling better, I still worried about handling the chaos of an academic term. I met with my undergraduate dean to make a contingency plan in case I relapsed again. She informed me that she would only be able to support me academically if I had a record of having sought counseling. I felt trapped by that ultimatum. It was controlling and impersonal, but I didn’t think I had a choice. I pursued therapy outside of the Dartmouth bubble and met with multiple counselors in the Upper Valley area throughout the term. None seemed to be a good fit. I found myself borrowing friends’ cars, missing classes and shelling out hundreds of dollars for out-of-network counseling. I got tired of the debilitating rigmarole of reciting my entire medical history to strangers. By week seven, I had given up.

Looking back on this, I resent that my dean’s response to my request for support was so bureaucratic. When it comes to mental illness, everyone’s needs are different. Some people benefit from therapy, others use medication and many need neither or both of those things. It was wrong of anyone to tell me that I had to jump through certain hoops in order to receive academic support for a medical condition.

When I tell my story, people ask me what they should do for friends who are struggling with depression. It’s easier for me to say what not to do. Sometimes well-meaning people try to tell me that what I’m feeling isn’t real. They insist that I’ll feel better soon. This is like telling me about the finish line during the first five minutes of a 100-mile race — you might be right, but it’s impossible for me to see or understand that. Other people try to make me feel better. Most of the time, this is a fool’s game. The only thing that works for me is medication. In the meantime, attempts to cheer me up usually just leave me feeling inadequate. I know what kind of a response you’re hoping for, and I just can’t give it to you.

What does work for me, sometimes, is support. My sophomore spring I experienced a series of personal tragedies and fell into a depression for a couple of weeks. One night I walked to a friend’s room and fell crying into his arms. He was unprepared but he knew enough to listen. It was a relief that someone else knew what was happening. I felt safer. Other times, like this past winter, I needed someone to connect me to serious help because I was unable to do that myself. Sometimes, even I don’t know what I need. But the majority of the time, it’s just helpful to have someone around that I trust — to recognize my feelings as legitimate, to accept that I am sad and may stay that way for a while. Being comfortable with another’s sadness is a difficult job. If you think that someone you know may be having a hard time, reach out. Let a professional know if you are concerned for their safety. Otherwise, be present. Ask for nothing. Listen. Accept.

These days, I’m doing really well. This past spring I left my sorority, a decision that’s put me a little bit closer to finding happiness at Dartmouth. I spent the summer working for the Dartmouth Outing Club, cleaning cabins, splitting wood and sleeping under the stars. I play a lot of frisbee. I sleep seven to eight hours a night. I’m busy, but I feel loved on a daily basis.

So why am I telling you all of this?

Partially for myself. It’s freeing. And partially for you. I think my story may surprise some of you. I’m a senior at Dartmouth and a captain of my sports team. I helped train more than 300 trip leaders for the Dartmouth Outing Club first-year trips program. I’ve done research in the biology department and studied abroad twice. I have a loving family and partner and a vibrant social life. I’m that girl you see in Collis, the one with the starry jeans and the big glasses. If you’ve ever spoken to me, you probably thought I had my act together.

But mental health problems can and do touch many of us here at Dartmouth. My story is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is our community’s silence on mental health issues. Our peers and classmates suffer from anxiety, learning disabilities, eating disorders, PTSD, addiction and more. And my perspective is only one of many.

What works for me may not work for others. I cannot and would not speak for anyone else. Meanwhile, stories about struggles with mental health — especially those of womyn, queer people, people of color and other marginalized communities at this institution — still remain largely untold at Dartmouth. We must make space for these stories on our campus and in our lives.