When I was a sophomore, I lived on South Green. I shared a hallway and bathroom with four other men. Our rooms were incredibly close and the walls were paper-thin. Thus, the nights sounded like loud sex and the days, like guitar practice. Dim and grimy light barely bled through the windows. The central heating was fickle at best. Respite from the world I knew was rare, so yes, I was snug in my bed with my decently priced, mid-to-high-range headphones on most of the time. But when life in my cold and cluttered pod strained me to the edges of my patience and sanity, I could always rely on a special technique to alleviate stress.
Any time I needed a breather, I’d trek outside my brick stone tenement onto the banks of the Hocking River, which my room conveniently overlooked (actually, my domicile had a view of the roaring highway that runs parallel to the river, a parking lot pocked with bedraggled concrete chunks and a tall, black tree often plump with talkative crows). Trudging up the embankment, past the bike path and down the slopes that lead to the water’s edge, I’d often meander. Mumble to myself. Look nuts. Try and get the blood flowing and set the creative juices in motion, not for any project in particular besides that of keeping sane, which I suppose is a project in its own right, in that it takes unexpected amounts of effort.
Those banks were good to me. I found profound respite from the stresses of collegiate life in the white din of the highway and the gentle, slick whisper of the mucky water, which sounded mellifluous compared to whatever the hell my long-haired bohemian neighbor called the sharp screams his violin vomited (he bought it halfway through the year; I should have been thankful for the guitar). The banks were pasture and seclusion.
Meditative places are important and unfortunately, the majority go unnoticed. A labyrinth and prayer beads, or a yoga mat and sage, are not necessary components for mental, or spiritual — still have no idea what that means — relief. Rather, allowing yourself time to breathe and letting your body wander is the secret to alleviating constricting feelings. Babble. Mumble. Jitter. Slog. Take your brain for a walk, and your body to the banks.
Being under 24-hour surveillance feels like prison. My room is right outside the nurse’s station. Blinds and door open. No privacy.
If I need to use the bathroom, the nurse has to bring in a portable toilet with handles you see old people use. She even stays to watch while I do my business. I have an IV in my hand giving me fluids. I am stuck in this sterile, white hell until there isn’t a single drop of alcohol in my system, which might take awhile.
The doctors say that only then will I be in the right mind to talk about what I have done to myself. But they’re wrong. I’m thinking fine, maybe even thinking clearly for the first time in years. Tears are streaming down my face and I stare at the ceiling wishing more than anything that I could just go home and forget what happened.
Above my door in the Intensive Care Unit, the dry-erase board reads “high-risk patient.”
How in the hell did I get in this situation? What was I doing in the ICU being watched like a 20-year-old criminal that Saturday after Thanksgiving of 2012? How did I lose control, and why would I put my family through this? Why, that time, was it so severe?
No matter how many questions I asked, I had to remind myself how lucky I was that I was still alive to ask them. I had been given a second chance. I was one of the lucky ones. Mental illness is real, and I want my story to not only spread awareness, but to let others know they are not alone.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, and for every suicide, there are many more attempts. It is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. There is often a strong link between suicide and mental disorders, but there are also a large number of suicides that happen impulsively after experiencing trauma, disaster, violence, etc.
Despite these statistics, there are many people suffering from mental illness who never get diagnosed. There are different reasons, ranging from an inability to afford help to the general stigma associated with mental illness.
But why is this stigma even here? Why do so many people want to hide the fact that they are in pain?
My depression started in middle school when I went through my first heartbreak. As a young teenager, I felt like it was the end of the world, but I had no idea that this one stressor in my life would snowball and start collecting many other things. I was 14 and I felt insignificant, unwanted, and worthless. I felt ashamed of the way I looked and was so nervous to say the wrong thing I started to not speak at all. I blamed myself for all of the bad things going on in my life, so I decided I deserved to be punished. What I didn’t know was that the beginning of my self-inflicted punishment would just be the start of a painful and dangerous road ahead.
My mom always told me I was impulsive, and that due to family history, would likely have an addictive personality. She couldn’t have been more right. I started taking apart my shaving razors to make tiny little cuts all over my body almost every day. This first, impulsive action turned into my addiction.
After plastering a fake smile on my face all day at school, I would come home and be so consumed in pain I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was mad at myself for feeling so sad. I was sad for so many reasons I couldn’t find the root of my problem anymore, and I felt like if anybody on the outside knew, they would tell me how stupid I was because my life was just fine. Nobody would understand me because I didn’t even understand myself. So I would argue with myself. I had so many voices in my head telling me what I should do that my head started to spin. I wondered if any of it was real, and when I felt so breathless I didn’t think I could go on, I cut. I cut just deep enough for blood to form into little pools on my arm. At the same time I was punishing myself, it reminded me that I was alive. It was the release I needed and the only outlet I knew.
I was lost in the mess of myself.
Many children who consistently see counselors often have experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse, have experienced some sort of trauma, or suffer from anxiety. Some children also live in poverty, so combine all of that together and throw in going to school, and sometimes kids don’t know how to cope with the stress. That’s when they start looking for a way out of their problems, and suicide seems to be an available option.
For people a little older, the triggers for depression can change. Krystal Hernandez, a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services at OU, explained that anyone, no matter the age, might be vulnerable to depression. Stressors such as a job/career loss, trauma, body image, managing academic pressures, dating, and decrease in self-esteem can all play a role in depression. Factors such as family history, culture, and individual coping skills also can play a role.
Hernandez explains that mental disorders are typically caused by a combination of biological and environment factors, and some individuals have a “biological/genetic vulnerability to develop mental illness, and their environment at a given time may serve to help protect them or put them at a greater risk of a disorder.” This disproves the argument that a person can just decide to not be depressed anymore. Sometimes there is more to it than what a person can do on his or her own.
Family has always been my No. 1 priority. I come from a big family full of aunts, uncles, cousins, and we are all close.
I was a junior in high school when my cousin Jena was pregnant with her first child. Earlier that year she got married and moved out of state, but after some marital problems decided to return home to the support of her family. Her mom, Cindy, was overjoyed with excitement about having a grandchild. I could see in her eyes how happy she was.
Jena was 25 and had reached her sixth month of pregnancy. The day was Friday, Nov. 13, and anyone superstitious was already weary of the day. I was sitting in class when I got a note to get my things and go to the office. When I walked into the office and saw my mom and dad, my heart dropped. I stayed quiet until we walked out of the school and got into the car. My mom already had tears in her eyes when she told me that Aunt Cindy and Uncle Ralph had come home from work and couldn’t find Jena. They went downstairs to check on her and found her hanging from a rope from the ceiling.
She and the baby were gone.
I didn’t know it then, but Jena had been suffering from bipolar disorder as well as manic depression. My first reaction — shared by some other family members — was shock and anger. I kept thinking, How could she be so selfish? And why would she do this to her family? I thought she took the easy way out and left her family to pick up the pieces.
But it didn’t take me long to realize how wrong I was to think that. The real questions should have been what was she going through? What kind of pain was hurting her so much that she couldn’t bear it any longer? None of the rest of the family knew how much she was suffering, but if we did, would it have made a difference?
Mental illness is real and it is invasive.
I started college at Ohio University in 2011 as a journalism student in the Scripps School. I was living the dream. School always came easy to me, so drinking every night while still making the Dean’s List wasn’t uncommon. I didn’t have a care in the world besides having fun.
The euphoria didn’t last long. By the last quarter of my freshman year I started to feel a familiar sense of sadness creeping into my chest. My first reaction was embarrassment. I was living the dream in college and knew not even my friends would believe me if I told them I had a problem. I hadn’t suffered from depression since early high school, but I knew that it would destroy me if I let it, so I gathered my courage and for the first time, told my mom that I needed help. I saw my family doctor and he prescribed Celexa, an anti-anxiety/depression medication.
They say college is where you find yourself. But I can honestly say college is where I lost myself. Into my sophomore year, my anxiety grew stronger. To try and curb my anxiety, I started binge drinking almost every night. I was fully immersed into the party scene, being around asshole guys who only wanted to sleep with me and attention-seeking girls who didn’t care what happened to me. Life started to blur and as hard as I tried, I just didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere.
I didn’t know it at the time, but all I wanted was love. But I was looking for it in all the wrong places.
The frustration and anxiety continued to build. I felt used and unwanted. All I wanted was for someone to reach out to me and love me for me, not for the party and the crazy nights, not for my looks, and not for convenience.
It was November 2012 and I went home for Thanksgiving break. That next weekend, I went out to the bars with some family and friends and my binge-drinking habits continued. Into the night, I could see the crowd getting drunker, and the more we drank, the more attention I started getting from guys. After finding out my boyfriend got back with his ex a couple days before, I was pushed over the edge. I felt so violated and thought the only reason I ever got attention was for all of the wrong reasons.
I was upset, but held it together until I got home. My feelings of worthlessness and being used told me it was my fault. So I quietly went up to my room when I got home, grabbed a razor from the bathroom and took it apart. I wanted to make the pain I felt inside physical. I used to do this all the time years before. I knew I could hide it. So I pressed the blade onto my wrist just like before, but I looked down and knew this was bad. Too bad to keep this mistake a secret because I knew I needed to go to the hospital.
I immediately felt embarrassed, stupid, guilty, and so wrong for what I did. My mom and sister rushed me into the car and as I walked in with a blood-covered towel on my arm and tears streaming down my face, I saw Aunt Cindy, on call as an ER nurse. She had to deal with losing her daughter and grandchild from suicide a few years earlier. Now she had to deal with me.
Why is it so hard to talk about feeling sad? Why do we feel like we always have to have a smile? I knew I was embarrassed to talk to my family about it, and that’s why the first time they found out (besides my mom) was when I had stitches in my wrist. I isolated myself from my family and friends. I felt like I didn’t have a good enough excuse for feeling so down, and too ashamed to tell them I was upset about a boy.
But we are social creatures. As Hernandez would put it, “Suicidality is also characterized as a relational phenomenon, as someone contemplating suicide may feel lonely and isolated from others, withdrawn from those critical social bonds, or worry about feeling like a burden to loved ones.”
People act and react to situations in very different ways. Sometimes the people who appear the happiest are the ones struggling the most. But we won’t know about it until we ask. Sometimes all it takes is something simple to let someone know you care, and that simple thing might be the thing that makes someone decide this life is worth it. Depression isn’t something that can’t be cured. We are stronger than we think, and our words hold strength. The trick is being brave enough to say them before it’s too late.
Caitlin was beautiful. She was my cousin and one of my best friends. Cait was exuberant, positive, smart, creative, unique…the list could go on. She taught me that deep in one’s soul is where you find true beauty. She taught me not to judge, but to accept. Her friends called her a bundle of sunshine and a lover of light. It was impossible not to be affected by Cait. Just her presence could light up a room, and her smile was unforgettable. She was 23-years-old and had the power to change the world.
But no one knew there was a darker side to Cait. Yes, from the outside it looked like she had everything going for her. She just graduated from college and had her whole life ahead of her.
It was two months after I got out of the hospital. I had only told immediate family what had happened, but didn’t talk about it with the rest of my family. It was February 2013 when my mom called. It was late, and I was hanging out with some friends. The first thing my mom said was, “I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I think you need to know now.”
Cait, just like Jena, had been struggling with bipolar disorder and manic depression. And just like Jena, no one knew she was struggling with something so serious. Cait’s parents didn’t know what else to do, so Cait was placed in a mental hospital with 24/7 surveillance. It was in this place, the place that was supposed to be the safest, that Cait attempted suicide by hanging. By the time the nurses found her, her oxygen supply had been cut so long she was in a coma.
Cait lasted two weeks in that coma.We all prayed as our beautiful Cait lay in a peaceful slumber, but her oxygen deprivation proved too much for her body. Even if she woke up, it wouldn’t be Cait anymore…
Just a short two months before, I had been sitting in my own hospital bed. If I had opened up to her about what had happened to me, would it have made a difference? Would it have shown her a glimpse of how much it would hurt the family to lose me, so much so that she would decide against suicide herself?
I ask myself these questions every day. Could I have made an impact? Could I have saved her? Even though we were miles apart, we were going through a similar situation at the same time. And now I live with this regret that I could’ve stopped it.
I don’t want to have to lose anyone else to this disease. If all it takes is a simple reminder that someone matters, I want to share my story with everyone in hopes that it will shed a new light on this life, and show that no matter how much pain you are in, you matter. It doesn’t matter how someone acts on the outside it’s what goes on inside that counts. I still struggle sometimes. It’s easy to fall into a darkness of stress and sadness that consumes me, but I know it can be overcome, and I know this life is worth living.
If you or someone you know is struggling and in need of help, don’t wait to take action. Here are some places that can help.
Katie Curry is a senior at Ohio University majoring in journalism and minoring in world religion. She loves to cook, draw, and spend time with her family and friends. She is preparing to move to Atlanta, GA, to intern for CNN spring semester.