Reaves: Pulling the Thread

A personal exploration of mental illness and a call to end its stigma.

by Alex Reaves | 9/29/16 12:30am

I spent most of my first week at Dartmouth in the infirmary. None of my bones were broken and I wasn’t reeling from the flu, but I was still in a great deal of pain. Though most people couldn’t see it, if they looked close enough they could have noticed cracks, little fractures revealing the sickness within.

I’ve struggled with mental illness for several years. It started when I was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 12. Anxiety followed shortly afterward. They were my secret shame, what everyone in my family knew but refused to talk about. My mother even struggled to say the word “anti-depressants,” as if it were an incantation that would curse us all. I felt horribly guilty for the burden I had created and treated my illness as a mere footnote in my life.

I probably would have continued ignoring my mental health had I not completely broken down my senior year of high school. My body felt so weighed down with stress that there were days I couldn’t get out of bed. Even simple tasks like getting food and using the bathroom suddenly became uphill battles. I was barely functioning. Fortunately, I was hospitalized and got the help I needed, and for a time I thought I was cured.

Then I got to campus. My first moments at Dartmouth were horrendous, heavy with misery and alienation. A new life was rushing towards me like a great flood, and I was afraid I would drown. I began to retreat inside myself, barely speaking to anyone. Knots tied themselves in my stomach and I stopped eating. I would have panic attacks while lying in bed, thinking my heart would beat itself to exhaustion and give out. I hacked away at myself with a razor blade, leaving white flesh exposed and blood running down my leg. Downward I fell until I was seriously considering killing myself with an overdose of pills. If this was life, was it worth living?

This may sound dramatic. But had my dean not taken me to Dick’s House, I would probably be lying in a morgue. I saw suicide as poison dangling in my throat from a string, and decided that if my illness was too much to bear, I’d cut it. That night the cord was close to snapping, but I was saved in the nick of time.

Others weren’t so lucky. In 2013, there were 11.1 suicides for every 100,000 young adults. I’m willing to bet that mental anguish played a part in their deaths. At times, college can be extremely stressful and frustrating, making those already on the edge fall off. In an ideal world, any student suffering from psychological issues would get the help they need and realize that their life is worth living. But the circumstances today simply don’t allow that to happen.

Mental illness is surrounded by a stigma that is almost impenetrable. It usually isn’t discussed and is instead swept under the rug and left to petrify. Worse yet, when it is discussed it is joked about. On more than one occasion, I have heard my peers mock Cornell University students’ propensity for suicide. Even one of my professors made what was meant to be a supposedly humorous crack about killing herself.

I cringe every time comments like these are made. They are a painful accusation that I am sick and different, a sort of freak who doesn’t belong. It’s already hard enough to suffer from a mental illness; I don’t need the added ridicule.

The “othering” of those with psychological disorders isn’t limited to college campuses. Mentally ill people are often depicted as dangerous, strange or just simply unfavorable in the media. This makes it harder for people to reach out for help. After all, nobody wants the label “crazy” slapped on their forehead.

My heart aches for all the students who are suffering though their sickness alone, as if it’s a weight they must carry by themselves. We can only go so long until it becomes too much and we’re crushed. No one should be made to feel as if being ill is something they chose and therefore deserve.

Everyone, whether on campuses such as Dartmouth’s or at work after graduation, must realize how much offhand comments and misperceptions can “other” those with mental illness and exacerbate the issue. Mental illness is not a joking matter, as many seem to believe, but a real illness with real — and potentially fatal — effects on those who suffer from it.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I wrote this in Dick’s House. In a moment of vulnerability, I tried to overdose on Prozac. The days that followed made me happy that I failed. One careless instant could have cost me the rest of my life. But mental illness does that: it tricks us into thinking that death is the best choice. It isn’t, and without a strong support system, I may not have realized that.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who care about me, and I write this for those who aren’t so lucky and are still struggling to realize their worth.

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