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there have been many low points, but perhaps one of the lowest was when i hadn’t left my dorm room in three days. crumpled tissues covered the floor by the bed, and i was sleeping 12 hours at a time. this was bad. very bad. i was attending an ivy league institution frequently mistaken for a big football college that cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to have the privilege of attending (“i could have bought multiple lexus SUVs with that money,” my mom likes to remind me). instead i was holed up hiding out from the world, skipping weeks of classes and skipping meetings that i was supposed to chair. everything was caught in limbo at the intersection of intense guilt/embarrassment at my lack of responsible living and not really giving a shit. i finally went to a campus counselor, bought and read a crap ton of bestseller fiction books, withdrew from my classes before the semester was up and decided to take a break before i spiraled down any further.
just a year earlier, it had been a completely different story. classes were going well, i made good friends, rose quickly to leadership positions in student groups, had a great church community, landed solid internships and was loving everything. it was FUN. until suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
i don’t know if i can pinpoint exactly what caused the big turn of events to the Dark Ages. it could’ve been that i was overwhelmed with too many responsibilities. maybe classes got harder to keep up with. maybe it was brain chemistry, or maybe it was hereditary. maybe it was easier to pity myself and not try to do anything anymore. maybe it was laziness. maybe society put too many expectations on me. maybe i put too many expectations on myself. maybe it was because overachieving kids are more prone to seeing things in black and white, all or nothing, and feeling too invested in success to know what to do with failure, to the point that any slight stumble quickly leads to an all-out freefall. just a guess.
but when i realized i was going to have to either withdraw from my classes or fail all of them, it stung. i wasn’t someone who failed classes. i pulled allnighters and #GSD. i procrastinated like crazy, but i buckled down when the time came and got the job done… except that i didn’t. and felt like i couldn’t anymore. and then i felt like, what was the point? and then felt like i didn’t know who i was anymore.
i wavered in that space for a while. the funny thing is, i’m not even really sure anymore how long it was or when exactly it was, because it feels like so long ago. and even when it was going on, i think a lot of people really didn’t understand what was happening and i barely bothered to explain it.
i was depressed but i didn’t look like the zoloft commercials. i couldn’t function properly when it came to holding responsibilities or interacting with people in positions of authority. going to a class and having to face a teacher i hadn’t seen in weeks felt like an insurmountable challenge. seems so simple, but it felt impossible. i marveled at how other people lived their lives without concern, just getting on with things and doing what they had to do without agonizing over it.
i could, however, party like a pro. everything i did successfully during this time was characterized by escape and avoidance, accumulating more and more failures at life, and wanting to rid myself of guilt and embarrassment, leading to more escape and avoidance. books became my escape. drinks became my escape. hanging out all day and working a low-stress job became my escape. sleep became my escape. i didn’t have to face the responsibilities of the world this way — and ultimately, i didn’t have to face the fact that i was a failure.
that fear and belief so deeply colored my every thought and action that i felt paralyzed. i couldn’t take chances on trying to accomplish anything serious again, because i knew i would fail. so i avoided everything challenging. i also hated myself for being fully aware of what i was thinking and not being able to snap out of it. i came to loathe people who would tell me to snap out of it, while also loathing myself for not doing it. it was like watching myself spiral downward in slow motion and feeling helpless to change anything. i didn’t try to kill myself and didn’t want to, but i did have what psychologists would call “passive suicidal ideation.” i kept envisioning the barrel of a gun pointed toward my eyeballs to the point that if it had actually happened, i wouldn’t have been surprised.
i realize at this point that you might be feeling either (a) confuzzlement (b) pity (c) judginess or (d) recognition. on the occasions that i’ve overshared my story to strangers and friends, i’ve often braced myself for C only to unexpectedly encounter D. and it’s that train of Ds that has caused me to continue oversharing.
ultimately what caused me to come out of this time was a slow and steady winning mix of therapy and medication capped off by finding my husband and my daughter, who helped me see that failure isn’t having a string of Incompletes on a report card, or even getting fired from an internship. failure is giving up.
by the grace of God and the kick in the pants from a new baby, something clicked deep down in my soul and i stopped giving up. i nervously went back to the classroom. i got another internship. i got married. i took zealous care of my kid. in retrospect it’s amazing that we pulled it off, but i even went back to college full time for one last semester to bang out the rest of my credits and get that stinking ivy league degree while my husband stayed with the baby and my parents. (on a side note, it is amazing how well you can do just by attending classes and completing all the readings. so much learning!!)
when i went to graduation, my graduation, it was a tremendous moment. i clawed my way there. i didn’t give up, and i felt that i had truly earned it. my whole extended family came out in support, and i felt so blessed and lucky.
so this is basically my biggest story of failure, the one that’s shaped who i am today, except that it’s not about failure anymore. things have progressed onward and upward, and i’ve had my share of problems and pitfalls but nothing as paralyzing as before. i will probably always have a tendency toward the depressive, but i’ve also learned enough about myself to know the signs and triggers and to know what i need to thrive. love, faith, and community, yes, but also mundane things like establishing routine, not staying up too late, and not trying to do too much. (ok, sometimes i still do too much and stay up too late.)
i recently said something to my 9-year-old that made her exclaim “you used to go to therapy? are you CRAZY??” and i was taken aback, first just by the fact that she had any idea what therapy was, and second by the fact that she thought therapy was something reserved for crazies. no, it’s actually the sane people who seek out therapy. the truly crazy ones never realize how much they could use it. (and believe me, i know a number of those.)
the thing that strikes me is that so many of us have experienced bouts of soul-crushing dark times in our lives, but really — you would hardly know it, would you? not every instance of depression looks the same, and not every outcome is the same. when i hear about my friends’ past challenges and difficulties, whether related to my own experiences or not, i wish i could’ve done more to be supportive. i wish i could’ve asked how they were doing and commiserated. as i read their stories, i wish i could hug them through the screen.
at the very least, i can share my story and let you know — you who are struggling with the meaning of life while others go about their merry business — that you are not alone. many others stand with you, or have stood in your place.
you are not crazy… or maybe we all are. but we can get through. don’t give up.