Speak2Swatties: Let’s Talk About Depression and Suicide

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.


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9 comments

  1. 0
    Swat Alum '05 says:

    As an alum, someone who has also experienced mental health challenges, and a present-day mental health therapist, I want to say thank you for courageously sharing your story of depression and recovery. I am sadden by the ways in which the college’s actions further created an environment of shame and guilt. But I feel so proud to learn that students have created a resource such as Speak2Swatties. It truly warms my heart. I wonder, is there a way that alumni can provide support?

    In response to the comments regarding the use of marijuana and prescription anti-depressants to treat depression, I am not a doctor, but I’d like to say that everyone is different, and our bodies can respond differently to the same substance. Some medications can be more effective for some than others. Some people will experience certain side effects while others will not. Each person’s level of depression can differ. The level of medication compliance also makes a big difference. From hearing personal accounts, it sounds like marijuana can be effective in alleviating depressed and anxious mood, but I’m not sure how effective it is in allowing people to stabilize their mood. One advantage to exploring prescription anti-depressants is having the additional support of a doctor who will help to monitor progress, efficacy and side effects. As a therapist, I always recommend seeking out therapy treatment regardless of whether or not you pursue medication treatment.

  2. 0
    Thanks a million says:

    As someone who was also deeply suicidal throughout adolescence, I thank you for sharing your story so openly, and I’m shocked at how the administration and health professionals treated you and your friends. This is exactly why I want to enter the field of mental health.

    There has been a lot of discussion of how the administration deals with sexual assault, thankfully, and I would like the same to happen about how they deal with the mental well-being of students.

  3. 0
    Anonymous says:

    First of all, you are very brave to write this very personal op ed. Although I would prefer not being anonymous, I must do so for personal reasons. In high school, I almost got to the point of depression you speak about. I was beginning to have suicidal thoughts, combined with anxiety and a feeling of emptiness. But weed saved me. My first psychedelic experiences helped relieve the feelings of anxiety. They helped me become determined. I exercised more, lost weight (I was very overweight), and moved towards resolving body issues. Looking back, many psychologists agree that psychedelic drugs in manageable quantities, and endorphins from exercise help relieve depression better than antidepressants.

    I only raise this point because I’m very concerned about the role of prescription antidepressants in our society. It’s clear that the medical system peddles them as a false panacea. My question is, what was your experience? They definitely wear off, they are not sustainable. Yet today we Americans look to them as a silver bullet. Ive had friends whose depression was worsened by prescription drugs. Im concerned. I want to help those who suffer depression, but I just can’t see our current system as effective. How can we change it?

    1. 0
      Laura Fitzgerald '14 says:

      As Rafi said, there is no medication that will work for everyone suffering from the same illness, be it psychological or physical. While the first antidepressant I took seemed to lose its effectiveness for me, I have been taking a different antidepressant for a number of months and it has been extremely effective for me in reducing depressive symptoms. I certainly agree with you that medication alone may not be sufficient for treating depression; making positive lifestyle changes, developing new coping strategies, and participating in therapy are some of the ways in which true healing can occur. However, the medication I am taking has reduced the severe depressive symptoms I experienced, making it possible for me to have the energy and resolve to work towards recovery.

    2. 0
      Rafi Ellenson '16 ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      I’m happy to see that your psychological issues were able to be resolved with nontraditional medicine. I think it’s wonderful you found an alternate path that works well for you.

      This being said, you’re making a sweeping generalization as to the benefits of weed and the detrimental effects of psychiatric medications. I agree with you that these medications are peddled a little too frequently these days, but you’re denying the help that they have given to so many people.

      Just as not all medications are not for all people, the same holds for pot. I wouldn’t recommend lithium to someone feeling general depression, but I also wouldn’t give weed to someone with violent mood swings. Exercise and pot cannot always do it all – as much as we all might like them to. (Bear in mind, all I know about medication is from articles and my therapist, I am by no means a psychiatrist.)

      Again, I don’t want to negate your experience, but when you insult the efficacy of certain medications, it shames those taking them. I encourage people to take or do whatever it takes to make themselves feel better and healthier. Pot or Prozac, whichever.

  4. 0
    Thank You says:

    This is an amazing story. Thank you so much for being willing to share it with us. Depression is too often kept secret, and it’s so great to hear about such a personal experience. Thank you.

  5. 0
    Marian '14 says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly brave piece. As someone who spent a year out of school for very similar reasons, I can sympathize with a lot of this experience and with how hard it can be to take time away. Although I didn’t choose to take it, my “gap year” (as my family jokingly calls it) was the best thing that could have happened to me. It wasn’t fun, easy, or how I pictured spending that year of my life. But taking that time has allowed me to place the rest of my life back on course with what I imagined for myself. I would really encourage anyone who is thinking of taking time away to get help to do it. Recovery is possible–and although things may never match up exactly with what you imagined your future would be, you will be able to create a new “normal” that feels far better than the present.

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