I was a sophomore in high school when my sister, two years older than I was and a senior ready to head off for college, told our family that she was depressed.
The news didn’t come as much of a surprise to us. For weeks on end before the announcement, she would lock herself in her room, speaking to no one besides her boyfriend. On one particularly awful night, she said that “voices in her head were telling her to commit suicide.”
At the time, the word “depressed” meant nothing to me — it was a catch-all for victims of some horrendous crime, or an excuse for people too lazy to get past their own problems. Victims on Law & Order were depressed; girls with loving and supportive families were not. Despite a history of depression on my father’s side of the family, my parents were suspicious of my sister. Were these suicidal thoughts real, a cry for attention, or something else entirely?
My parents are “label” people. If you have pneumonia, or mono — some physical disease that’s easily diagnosable — they’re supportive, kind, and caring. For ailments that are more ambiguous, they’re apt to call you a “complainer” or “weak.” Their inexperience with mental illness contributed to their ignorance more than any lack of genuine compassion. My sister’s admission was the first time my parents actually confronted the vacuous and indeterminate nature of mental illness head-on.
Within weeks, we thought we had found a cure, thinking depression could be written off like the flu. My sister had been taking Accutane, an acne medication known to cause devastating side-effects for people prone to depressing thoughts. My sister’s prescription ran its course, and my parents took her off the drug. Within weeks, she felt better and visibly calmed. I wrote the incident off months later as a symptom of a bad experience with an unpredictable drug. I had taken Accutane myself a few months earlier, with few noticeable effects beyond dry skin and occasionally high fever. Only later, in my freshman year of college, did I begin to understand what she had gone through. While I’ll sometimes use the breakup with my longtime girlfriend as the starting point for my downward spiral, it signaled my depression much like the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death signaled the beginning of World War I — less of a cause and more a useful demarcation point.
I began to hate myself for reasons I couldn’t rationally explain: my appearance, my bad attempts at jokes, my shyness…I joined the school newspaper and felt comfortable there, but was intensely self-critical. Everything I wrote was awful. I would say to myself: I’ll never be a good writer or break a story worth caring about. I grew suspicious of my friends, wondering when their early-freshman year friendliness would wear off. When someone knocked on my door, I often pretended to be asleep.
I had never been this way. In high school, as my sister was struggling, I had hardly thought about my mental health. I experienced good days and bad days, like most neurotic teenagers. During those years I never took the time to listen to my sister. I simply wrote off her story as a side effect of an unreliable drug.
When it became apparent to my family midway through my freshman year that my personality had changed, they all reached out — my sister most of all. I didn’t know how to describe or rationalize what I had been going through. My girlfriend broke up with me, so I was sad? No, that wasn’t it. I was upset about going away to college? No, my college was close to home and I adored my freshman year classes.
After winter break, I realized that I was treating my own mental health with the same apathy that I had given my sister’s illness. I searched for causes and solutions, rather than telling anyone how I felt. I never explained how I would drown myself in activities and work so I would never have a moment alone and think about how much I hated myself.
My friends aren’t stupid, nor are my emotions particularly subtle, so they figured something was up. I avoided parties like the plague and refused to meet new people. I started seeing a counselor on campus, but stopped after a few sessions. For a few weeks near the end of the spring semester, I would wake up and go to bed each night thinking of killing myself.
I don’t want to give any validation to the feelings I’ve been experiencing, but to add my voice to my sister’s. I wasn’t there for her when I needed to be, and I refused her help when she recognized my struggle. I would ignore her texts, “forget” to call her back when I missed a call, and work around any conversation that veered into my mental health.
Some of my college classmates have done a tremendous job bringing the discussion about mental health to the forefront. Yet, in my experience, this discussion was absent in my own family. When kids set high expectations for themselves with early success in high school, it’s devastating to provide a reality check.
And what about all the cousins, aunts and grandparents? Nearly every time I visit my grandparents, I hear a slew of compliments and well-wishes. I felt undeserving, almost like I was misleading them. They had some glorified ideal version of me in their mind that I would never live up to. How could they know that I wasn’t some star-studded student, but someone who thought about suicide more often than some glamorous future?
It’s become okay — more often than not — to speak about mental health at my college. For me, the place that conversation needs to continue at is at the dinner table, in the living room, on the rides to softball and soccer games.
My sister was willing to breach the silence and talk to me. Finally, around the start of final exams, I opened up to my parents and her to tell them I was struggling. I didn’t say that I had thought about suicide, because I didn’t want them to assume guilt for a struggle they played no role in. My parents have been positive figures in my life; I didn’t want them to think they had failed me in some way.
They were supportive — happy, even — that I felt comfortable enough to open up.
Yet, I still felt guilty for hiding the depth of my ongoing self-loathing. I framed everything in the past tense: “I thought this” or “I struggled with this.” I wanted to put a tidy, clean bow on the event for them so they could compartmentalize it as something that happened and wasn’t still happening.
My explanation ultimately fell short. I think that one day, we can reach a place where I can be fully open about everything I have felt. My family’s early positive responses have been an assurance, but even after my sister’s struggle, my parents still can’t comprehend how incomprehensible mental health can be.
I don’t know what the future holds. I love my parents, my sister and my friends. I know there are people that care about me and want me to be happy, and I’m grateful for that. But I can’t avoid the thoughts that a packed funeral at age nineteen would be a much better legacy than a life where I hate myself.
I would like to think that I wrote this as some rallying call for people to open up about mental health to their families, but I’m no poster child for that. I couldn’t even tell the full truth, and every day is still a nagging struggle. But, I’m sure you’re stronger than me (especially if you’ve endured reading this long), so maybe you’ll be different.
I surely hope so.
The author is a rising college sophomore. Photography by Rebecca Heilweil.