Through The Looking Glass: Ask Me Something

by Annette Denekas | 5/30/18 2:30am

annette
Source: Courtesy of Annette Denekas / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

I ask a lot of questions.

My friends frequently joke that I “grill” them with all that I’m wondering about. When my roommate arrives home in the evening, an approximate 15 inquiries about her day await her. In general, I like to know details, I enjoy learning about people and I hate silent pauses in conversation. I prefer to hear about someone else than talk about myself — that’s how I’ve always been most comfortable.

This inquisitive trait is not a quality I dislike about myself. I suppose there are a few people who find it annoying (i.e. think to themselves, “Why won’t this girl leave me alone already?!”) but generally it is quite handy in social situations, such as women’s rush or all the various mingling events I’ve attended in my four years at Dartmouth. But it’s what the questions mask that is more problematic.

Talking about myself — especially the deeper parts of myself that dive beyond the shallow Collis lunch conversation topics surrounding classes, what happened last night or who else got a job — is terrifying. I hate it. I do not mesh well with attention; my constant questions serve as a quick and foolproof method for shifting the spotlight away from myself. Smiling, nodding and listening is so much easier than uttering words for judgment. If I do begin to talk extensively about myself, a nagging voice in my head echoes, “Annette, she does not care. See? She just looked away. She’s bored.” Swiftly, I finish my sentence and change the topic with another inquiry.

Questions are my defense mechanism. I cannot begin to count the number of conversations I’ve come away from feeling like I learned everything about someone else but revealed basically nothing about myself — and feeling consequential relief. I refuse to open up to people, to the extent that when a friend asked how I was doing a day after my grandma passed away last term, I caught myself answering, “I’m fine! Anyway, how did the midterm go for you?”

But as the conventional story usually goes, I am not fine. I disguise my self-doubts with (what I try to present to others as) visible bubbliness, friendliness and curiosity in order to compensate for the vast, pernicious dilemmas that exist out of sight.

I take daily medication for depression and anxiety. I’ve seen a therapist on and off since my sophomore year of college. I have days when I must physically force myself to leave my room. My relationship with food and body image, quite frankly, really sucks. I’ve stopped attending most events with crowds because of my social anxiety. I often go to bed feeling fearful of what my mood will be upon waking up. My dad told me he did not think I should return to Dartmouth for my senior year of college, and instead suggested I take mental health leave. I refused to speak to my mom, whom I love more than anyone, all of last summer for reasons I still cannot pinpoint. I silently shake with anger when someone jokes about having an anxiety attack, because I know what an actual, crushing, terrifying anxiety attack really feels like.

Most of my friends do not know anything about these internal and thought-consuming problems, and probably would never even suspect I struggle with them. I never talk about them. And I’m really good at hiding them.

Though I am just one in the crowd (according to the 2016 Dartmouth Health Survey, a quarter of the student body has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety), the fact that I am not alone does not discount the reality of my struggles — a thought that I write really as an attempt to convince myself that my inner dilemmas are worth sharing, and a notion that applies to any individual suffering from mental illness. Furthermore, I am not writing to give another commentary about how Dartmouth fosters shallow superficiality. I am one among many, yet again, who contributes to an unhealthy, Duck-Syndrome-steeped campus culture that expects perfection in all senses of the word. We should go out three days a week but still perform well academically; drink but stay thin; study or chat with friends late into the night but wake up early to get KAF before class; maintain strong friendships but take various abroad and off-terms; be happy and healthy while functioning in this high-stress, high-achieving environment that is Dartmouth. This perfection-driven, competitive atmosphere in which we immerse ourselves for four years allows mental health issues to fester and exacerbate, as it did for me. We are a community composed of starkly paradoxical expectations, but that fact has been established.

The true purpose of this piece is far more personal for me. It is an exercise in opening up, in exposing my flawed self, in releasing deep insecurities, in revealing something that has profoundly impacted my Dartmouth experience. I should be honest in that writing this column causes me a fair amount of anxiety in itself, not only due to the stigma surrounding mental health problems but also because my own words are now “out there” in cyberspace for others to judge from behind their screens. As always, the nagging question of “Will people actually care what I have to say?” echoes through my thoughts.

But I refuse to maintain the unhealthy, cyclical façade any further. As my Dartmouth chapter closes, I feel a staggering need to share this exposé of sorts with the community in which I have been deeply, and sometimes suffocatingly, enmeshed for four rollercoaster-like years. It has taken me a long time to realize that shrouding problems in secrecy only perpetuates and worsens them, considering that my countless attempts to stifle down feelings inevitably result in bubbling-over breaking points.

This piece is a conscious effort to talk about me, a seemingly simple action that is inexplicably difficult. Here’s the honest, open Annette: the same girl who enjoys taking Occom walks with her wonderful friends to gossip, who snuggles with her supportive roommate every night, who laughs hysterically when she FaceTimes her sister and best friend from home, who loves watching “Jeopardy” with her parents and who takes numerous selfies and unflattering Snapchats of herself everyday, but who also struggles with very real depression and anxiety.

I still like to ask questions. And to some degree, those Collis lunch conversations are enjoyable. Yet the next time someone inquires about me, I want to really answer, to talk about myself, to expose my true thoughts rather than shifting the attention or responding with a surface-level disclosure — or at least try. So ask me something.