who stares back


We often find ourselves caught in the reflection of a mirror at some point in every day. Despite all the surrounding hustle and bustle, a single glance can draw us, mesmerized by the contrast of what we would like to see and what we actually see.

My fixation on this divide began years ago, in seventh grade. A giddy, eager middle school student, I had never tasted the bitter sensation of disappointment before. At the least, I could not recall the feeling. Sixth grade had been a smooth transition into middle school filled with engaging yet manageable classes. I walked in with my chin propped high in confidence, but  quickly felt my nerves kick in after receiving my schedule and seeing I had the notoriously difficult Algebra teacher. The rumors of this class had spooked me all throughout the summer with stories that “getting a 100 on any test was impossible” or that “high school students wouldn’t even be able to pass the assessments.”Just one class managed to crush the cheery young spirit inside of me.

I can distinctly remember receiving my first C on a test, the feeling of fear swarming every inch of my body, a fear that continued throughout my school year. What would my parents think? How could I do so poorly after studying for numerous hours? Why was I not good enough? I went home each day, staring in the mirror.

I wanted to see a bold student one who survived on perfection for breakfast, lunch and dinner, someone with grit and an innumerable stack of tests and quizzes branded with 100s fuming with the chemical smell of thick, red Sharpie marker. I brought back my loose bangs out of the landscape of my eyes and found a rainstorm. My immense internal disappointment knocked my happiness and tears often filled my eyes. As I started to crumble, not only did my grades negatively upset me, but the evils of anonymous online platforms began to poison my self-confidence.

Formspring (also known as ask.fm) was popular during the time; I felt a thrill as I received messages and questions from unknown users, but I never expected to read messages teeming with some of the most hateful words I would ever encounter. For some reason, I could not look away. I was gaining affirmation that the insecurities about my intelligence and appearance were warranted simply because other people shared the same unfavorable opinions about me.

Yet I was my biggest bully. The opinions of my parents scared me, the opinions of my peers worried me, but the opinions of my own destroyed me. My mind, my self-confidence, deteriorated, while I watched from my mirror. . And soon, past the overwhelming tears came a new sensation—pain. Sneaking off to the bathroom with a blade hidden inside my sleeves swiftly became my reality. Broken wounds laced my emotional insides as well as the pale skin on my outside.

Entering high school, I was so entirely wrapped around adjusting to unaccustomed academic challenges and budding friendships that I ignored my mental health and self-harming tendencies, pushed aside as trivial matters in comparison to the towering demands of school. I also found myself entering a new relationship, while subconsciously clinging onto the belief that if someone else could love me even with all my flaws and imperfections, maybe I could be able to love myself too. I was able to share my struggles and rather than judge me, my boyfriend at the time embraced me wholeheartedly. The person staring back seemed more comfortable and put up a glowing smile, so bright that it concealed the gloomy darkness still within her soul, growing by the minute… a darkness she pretended wasn’t there.

Inside of me, though, a monster was maturing, gnawing at every vulnerable crevice and corner. Multiple times I caught myself allowing my negative mentality to overrule all my actions and thoughts with regards to my boyfriend and doubted how secure we actually were. My relationship collapsed because I let insecurities take reign and rule my every thought and action. I would compare myself to the other girls he talked to, mistaking his smile with them for an irrational thought of He’s so much happier with other people. I guess I can’t make him happy anymore. After a few days of this behavior presenting itself constantly, he told me he needed space. A two-year relationship ended due to the tumultuous events of a few days.

Still, though, my first three years of high school seemed relatively manageable. My footsteps were mostly safe even if I stumbled and fell onto the cold concrete every once in a while; I was still able to pick myself up and wipe off my bloodied knees to keep going, to keep reaching for my goals of entering my dream school and earning stellar grades and enjoying the activities to which II  devoted numerous hours..

And my drive carried me into my senior year. Phew, one more year. I can do it. I believed that if I could achieve my dreams through my dedication to my education, then I could finally crush the nasty demon inside of me and truly find a more permanent radiance. I entered my final year with fresh exuberance and excitement, inspiring leadership positions and a new boyfriend who I could call my best friend. I could look in the mirror and see something refreshing—hope.

Looking back on the start of the year, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. This unfamiliar sense of all the puzzle pieces fitting perfectly to form a beautiful picture inundated me. And to top it all off, I miraculously was accepted to my dream school, one of the best undergraduate business schools in the country, early decision no less. Everything I had worked for had come true; I honestly believed that anything was possible. My life during that time was pure euphoria; my tears, if any, were filled with joy; my giggles and smiles, now plenty, were genuine and harmonized seamlessly with the laughs of my boyfriend or the cheers of my growing number of close friends.

But it all changed.

The remaining portion of my senior year was like one big fire that grew in intensity as time went on, and I was trapped within the flames, desperately looking for a way out but burning with every passing moment.  The change probably will not make logical sense to you at first considering all the positive accomplishments of my senior year. Trust me, it didn’t make sense to me then and it still doesn’t completely to this day. But that’s the nature of mental health: in no way does it necessarily operate to fit the context of your life.

Starting around mid-January, about a month after being accepted to college, I noticed the darkness creeping back into my thoughts. My life was vacant without the busy pressure of college applications and never-ending workloads so what filled the void was the beast that had grown inside my soul. The piercing edges of the blades started to entice me and whisper to my subconscious in an effort to lure me into doing what I had tried so hard to escape. January and February marked the start of my downfall.Yet, I ignored my mental wellbeing and labeled it as simply a phase. I had nothing substantial to be sad about; I was accepted by my dream university, was dating a guy I really liked and was thoroughly enjoying school. Acknowledging that something was off felt foolish to me so I continued to put on a smile.

By March, the weight of my misery and hazardous thoughts started to crush me. My knees were shaking and my shoulders were bruised. The event that really accelerated my emotional deterioration was finding out that one of my peers, who I had thought was a very close friend of mine, engaged in an inappropriate hangout with my boyfriend, which I   found out from a series of text messages between him and another friend.

This news shattered me. Ever since seventh grade, it had been an incredibly difficult task to open myself up and trust people,. My self-harm skyrocketed and my whole attitude became sullen and paranoid. But I still decided to stay with my boyfriend after this not only because I truly cared and loved him, but also because I was afraid deep down that letting him go would push me further down into mental darkness. I kept my cutting a secret from him because I was scared he would feel that he “failed” as a boyfriend but he found out a few weeks later and could not grapple with staying with me when I had kept such an activity from him, especially after he thought I had conquered the monsters in my head. I was devastated and as I write about the situation months later, I can still feel the immense sorrow and pain within my heart. My life around me was disintegrating because of something I could not even control. At that level, my mental health was and is in no way my choice; I would have done anything in the world to evade the haunted house of my mind.

From the end of March through all of May, my soul was dying. I was losing every facet of my personality that made me “Lea.” Dozens of cuts lined the surface of my arms like an abstract painting as well as my stomach, chest and neck. I was so wrapped around the concept of death that it no longer scared me. I rarely talked to anyone and loathed conversations at school. I could not be my true self. I told myself that people would scowl at my weakness and the “girl holding her own pity party.” But for the first time in my life, slapping a smile onto my face and lifting my spoken words with an ounce of energy became so exhausting that nothing was worth living for me anymore. I can remember looking at myself in the mirror one day right before I headed off to bed, hand-written suicide notes in hand, and drowning myself in the violent melancholy of my eyes. I started to cry because I was unrecognizable; I had never seen myself that miserable in my whole existence.

I sincerely wanted to die.

And I almost did.

After prom, a group of my classmates and I traveled down at 1 AM to Seaside, a popular beach and boardwalk area in New Jersey. I had gotten nightmares a few days prior about the trip and imagined myself dying at the beach. In the pit of my stomach, I was anxious for the weekend to come and dreaded the uncomfortable feeling I knew I would encounter from being around other people with alcohol. The first two days I found enjoyable moments but also was admittedly emotional at some points and felt strong pangs of wanting to be alone. For the sake of my friends and the fact that I wanted to try and enjoy my senior weekend, I put all my energy into looking cheerful.

The next day we went to the beach and I was the first one to sprint into the freezing ocean, soaking every inch of the salty water as my feet felt the grooves of the broken seashells beneath me. I was fiercely cold but felt a thrill in the danger of being farther into the ocean than anyone else and the paralyzing chill. About an hour later, everyone had settled into the relaxing vibe of the beach with some sun tanning and others joyously running off to the boardwalk to play games. Feeling my head pounding with the thoughts of suicide and torment, I sat alone on the side, head in my hands and my soaked, tangled hair dangling in front of my vision. They don’t care about you, Lea. Don’t you want to die right now? Imagine how fun that would be. I looked back at my friends and only felt anger. They didn’t do anything particularly wrong but my thoughts were being controlled and I was not strong enough to separate myself from the deception.

I walked about 5 miles down the sand in an effort to disappear with nothing except the swimsuit on my body. My legs collapsed from the fatigue. I laid on the sand, staring up at the blazing sun, and decided I would stay there all night and either eventually die from the cold, lack of food and water or the ocean. In that moment, if I looked in my mirror I would have seen absolutely nothing. Everything in me had given up and surrendered to death.

And the next thing I knew, my eyes slowly opened as grains of sand struck me like bullets in every direction. I had fallen asleep and the wind was gaining strength as the sun started to set. Part of me still wanted to stay there forever but the images of a confused family mourning over my lifeless body rushed to my mind. Even though a part of me wanted to go, this would not be the way. Frazzled, I walked for a seemingly endless amount of miles, feeling the cuts under my bare feet from the sand and wood and the shivers from wearing barely anything. Fear loomed over me after hearing a few strangers murmur weird comments to me on the streets and noticing a man follow me out of the corner of my eye. When I saw our house, I broke down and rushed inside, unable to brave myself to look at the pained expressions of my closest friends. I learned that I had been gone for about 8 hours and that a few of my friends had even notified the police out of desperation.

This near-suicidal experience was a giant wake-up call about the extremity of my mental health. Yet the strongest feeling was guilt. I felt immense grief for making my friends go through the worry and suffering. I told myself that I needed to get better once I returned from my trip.

Unfortunately, I still wasn’t aggressive enough to defeat whatever was plaguing my mind. My condition was worsening. Around the beginning of June one night I did not know what to do anymore. My internal desire for suicide and death clobbered my mind to an uncontrollable point, and I realized I had to get serious help. The next morning, I rushed to my trustworthy counselor’s office and told her that there was no more hope in sight. I could see the sense of urgency in her eyes as she contacted my parents to immediately come to school and discuss my options. I couldn’t bear to look at my mom and dad as my counselor explained to them that I had almost committed suicide. With both shock and heavy sorrow, my parents attentively sat through the discussion, having a difficulty wrapping their minds around the gravity of their daughter’s reality.

My parents did not deserve this.

The next day, I was taken to a facility for a psychiatric evaluation. After about an hour of questioning, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed antidepressants.  Starting the following day,I would immediately be put into an inpatient partial hospitalization program.y. I would not be returning to school and I would spend my day at a treatment center with therapy and counseling.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to process finally knowing what was wrong with me. Still, I was relieved to learn from my psychiatrist  that my illness was biological and not just a figment of my imagination but equally fearful knowing that the depression was out of my control.

By this point, I was worn out both emotionally and mentally. Was it worth it to tell? I wasn’t quite so sure. Getting help was what I thought I wanted but the strain I put on my parents was unbearably tense and after a week of program, I realized that I was not a comfortable fit for group therapy and even there, I could not relate to the extreme stories of the other patients. I My depression trapped me in a glass box, forcing me to watch everyone else live freely as I struggled to look for an escape. I leaned towards using my individual therapy sessions to try and break down this box.

I now have a better control over my depression. Though I have this mental illness, I understand it is a separate part of me and it is not inherently who I am. My recovery is still day-by-day but with each passing day, I feel I have mustered up enough courage so that I can look in the mirror and see past the scars that line my skin. I see my soul once more and she tenderly smiles and whispers to me, “Lea, you are beautiful. You are more than enough and you are much more than your dark past. I love you. Live on.”

Lea Chen is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Photography by Sarah Neukrug. 


One thought on “who stares back”

  1. Lea, you’re my inspiration, and the world wouldn’t have been the same without you. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece, and thank you for staying. I hope that one day, I can be half as incredible as you are.


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