Trigger warning: This article references self-injury and suicide.
This article is about severe depression. It is not about coping strategies or recovery. I could say much more about those topics, but my endeavor here is to give life to the experience of depression. A list of symptoms cannot capture the seemingly unending suffering that severe depression brings, or explain how a person can come to believe that her life is not worth living.
It began as anxiety. This wasn’t typical stress about work or exams – it was constant and severe. Without a clear cause for my anxiety, and feeling that I had a lack of control over my emotional state, my body became my external source of anxiety. And food became one thing I had control over. I permitted myself no more than 600 calories per day; choosing to ignore my hunger gave me the sense of control that my seemingly source-less, spiraling anxiety had taken from me.
Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and the increasing despair that accompanied it, I began cutting my wrist with a knife. But I was ashamed that I was continually starving and cutting myself—I viewed these behaviors as childish and overly dramatic, so I resolved to eat more and not engage in self-injury. I didn’t realize at the time that these behaviors served a function for me: they were my way of coping with my ever-present anguish. Without these coping mechanisms, I had no escape from my emotional pain and began to lose hope that I’d ever be free from it.
Up to this point, I had been able for the most part to act like everything was fine. It soon became harder and harder to pretend, so I began spending less and less time with my friends. It didn’t even occur to me to tell them that I wasn’t okay and I had no idea why—I felt as though my despondency had become a burden that I was inflicting upon them.
After a couple of months, my emotional state fluctuated only between despair and numbness. Either I was in so much pain that all I could do was cry until I could barely breathe, or I felt almost dead inside, devoid of all personality, energy: anything that made me me. In either state, what persisted was a sense of total hopelessness and utter exhaustion. It took every ounce of energy I had simply to get out of bed in the morning, and most days I didn’t feel as though anything other than pain awaited me once I did.
This existence, filled alternately with intense pain and hollow numbness, became unbearable. I was plagued by thoughts of suicide. I prayed for cars to hit me, I watched trains come and go, longing to throw myself in front of them. I tried and tried to think of a method in which I was sure I would die, but would be least burdensome, least gruesome for whomever would ultimately find me. But each time I thought about what would happen after I killed myself—perhaps one of my friends would find me, my family would have to identify my body and pack up all of my belongings—I couldn’t free myself from my pain by bestowing it upon the people who care about me. My guilt alone was keeping me alive.
Finally, I began seeing a therapist and taking an antidepressant. The medication helped, a bit. I had more energy and spent less time wanting to die. After being deeply depressed for a while, I had forgotten what it felt like to be healthy. It seemed like my mood had improved with the medication, but I felt as though pain had simply become a fundamental part of my life.
When the Fall semester started, I was glad to be back at Swarthmore and feeling a bit like my old self. A month later though, the medication I was taking no longer seemed to be working for me. I rapidly sank further into depression and again began to fear that I would never be free from the pain, hollowness, and hopelessness I felt.
I had been prescribed sleeping pills along with the antidepressants. At one point, I switched from one type of sleeping pill to another, but I still had a bottle of the old pills left over. A number of times I thought I should get rid of the extra pills, but I always decided against it. I suppose I needed to know that I had a way to escape the life that had yet again become unbearable. I began to feel as though I was putting off my suicide rather than deciding not to go through with it.
My therapist suggested that I take time off from school and complete an intensive therapy program at a hospital near home. I could not even imagine having to stray from the normal course that I expected my life to follow. Diverting from this path, as well as admitting that something was seriously wrong with me, that I no longer had control over my mind or emotions, was truly more terrifying to me than my own death.
On November 5th, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. My guilt about the pain I would cause to the people I love made me hesitate a very long time. Once I swallowed the first pill, though, I felt numb, almost relieved. I calmly swallowed about 30 more and lay down on my bed to die.
I have no memory of the following 24 hours. Thankfully my overdose only cost me one day of my life. What I know is that my friend noticed that I wasn’t at practice or dinner that day. She came to check on me and immediately guessed what had happened. I was taken to the hospital, and my friend came with me in the ambulance. The EMTs repeatedly asked her how much I had had to drink. They wouldn’t listen to her when she told them that I had attempted suicide.
A few more of my friends joined me in the ER that night. They were wiping away tears from my face when a psychiatrist came to evaluate me. He said to my friends: “It looks like you’re taking care of a baby.”
The next day, my friends received an email from the deans’ office, asking them not to discuss my suicide attempt with anyone. I don’t believe any harm was meant by the email, but their harsh language served to almost scare my friends into silence about my attempt. The email did not make my friends feel encouraged to seek support. I received the unintended message that my suicide attempt was shameful and not appropriate for discussion.
There were a number of other interactions with both mental health professionals and deans that, though unintentionally, exacerbated the shame and guilt I felt and served to perpetuate the stigmatization of the human beings who are suffering from mental illnesses. I hope that my candor about my own experience will serve some small part in reducing that stigma.
I am now feeling happy to be alive, which is something that I have never truly felt before. Following my hospitalization, I was transferred to the residential program that my therapist had been suggesting for me all along. It was exactly what I needed – I learned skills for coping with my depression, as well as how to speak more honestly about my emotions. Now that I am back at Swat, I speak with my therapist twice a week and drive to another therapist once a week to do DBT, a therapy that teaches specific coping skills. It can be difficult to have a whole other set of responsibilities that most of my peers don’t even think about. But I am so grateful that I am still here and able to work towards recovery and help others.
By Laura Fitzgerald
Speak2Swatties is Swarthmore’s student-run peer counseling and mental health advocacy organization. Speak2Swatties is confidential. Speak to one of our peer counselors in person or call our hotline at 765-727-0555.