I am tired of the social stigma surrounding depression and other mental illnesses. Every time an article pops up in my news feed about someone struggling with mental illness, I cringe at the comments section. I find it hard to comprehend how we, as a society, allow people’s misinformed attitudes toward mental health to persist. For lack of a better idea, I’ve decided to publicly share my own experiences with depression in the hopes that someone might read this and cause them to sway their outlook on the matter.
When I was a kid, I was sexually abused. I kept it a secret for years and put intense pressure on myself to excel at everything I did. I was a straight-A student, an excellent athlete, and craved approval from authority figures and my peers. Despite the internal turmoil and numbness to life I felt, I presented myself as a very pulled together young woman and, for many years, managed to keep it that way. Before my first year in high school, my childhood best friend’s father died suddenly and I finally allowed myself to feel something other than “fine.” My “downward spiral,” as I have come to call it, began soon after and a few months later I no longer wanted to be alive. One evening after lacrosse practice, I ran to the Golden Gate Bridge with the intention of jumping. Ironically, my parents were at my high school attending a meeting about suicide prevention but somehow knew that something was wrong. They raced home, and with the help of a friend from my team they tracked me down and the police were waiting for me at the bridge. I spent the next week in the psychiatric ward, and on the eighth day, after a heartbreaking meeting with my parents, two strangers picked me up and flew me across the country on a red-eye flight to a wilderness camp in North Carolina while my parents tried to figure out what to do. As I was backpacking with a handful of other girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains I finally wrote them a letter and opened up about the childhood abuse. Although talking about what had happened was a big first step, it was just the beginning of my journey to find peace within myself. After wilderness I went to a therapeutic boarding school where I learned more about myself than I thought possible and then finished high school at a traditional boarding school in BC, Canada. Although I felt much better than I had previously, I still didn’t feel great, which was extremely deflating. After a few years of intense therapy under my belt, I felt like I should have been “fixed” and was reluctant to admit to others that I was still unhappy. I relented that I would likely never know what being a happy person was like.
Putting my high school years behind me definitely helped some; heading to college was exciting and I had a great first semester at Colorado College. My new friends were amazingly supportive as I opened up about my past and I had a ton of fun adventures. Then, during winter break on New Year’s Eve, my grandmother passed away. Thankfully, I was with friends at our house outside San Francisco and they were extraordinarily kind and comforting as I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I had lost one of the most important people in my life. The months after my grandma's death were devastating and I struggled to keep my head above water, so to speak.
One year later, in late 2013, I decided leave Colorado College. It was, by no means, an easy decision! I had made wonderful friends, enjoyed my professors, and loved the block plan. The problem? I wasn’t happy. I was struggling to get out of an unhealthy relationship, my long battle with depression hadn’t yet been won, and a few dreadful situations on campus that didn’t live up to my open-minded, San Francisco-esque standards left me needing serious change. I felt like I was heading toward a dark place again, which was terrifying. I needed out. My hesitations about CC were solidified upon my exit interview, which proved to be more of a lackadaisical “see ya later” and “sorry about what happened” from the administration rather than any attempt to make things right. Needless to say, although leaving CC was a huge step for me, I have never regretted my decision. I digress.
I moved back home to San Francisco for the spring of 2014 and did my first ever stint at a public school, the College of Marin, to keep up with my classes and decide what my next steps were going to be. It pains me to admit that in the weeks prior to my first day of classes at COM, I was embarrassed to tell any friends or family that I would be going to a community college for a semester. I felt like I was somehow throwing my 15+ years of private school education down the drain; obviously, that is a load of horse crap, but at the time I was afraid of letting my parents (and myself) down and I was still in disbelief that I had actually left CC. My qualms about COM quickly dissipated after my first couple weeks of class and I look back on my time there with fondness.
Not only did I make great friends and take interesting classes, but I also had so much free time for myself (which turned out to be more important for my mental health than I had ever considered)! Outside of school, I had an amazing support system. I lived with my parents for the first time since I had left for boarding school, which was definitely an adjustment for all of us, but in the best way possible. The ability to come home and be around people who loved me unconditionally and to be able to have a bad day without pretending otherwise was huge. I went to therapy, took my dog to the beach, ate as much Cowgirl Creamery cheese as I wanted to, reconnected with old friends and forged new friendships in unexpected places. Essentially, I had a fresh start and a new outlook on where I wanted to go in life.
I stayed in San Francisco for the summer and was excited to work downtown for the second time as an intern at a business run by a family friend. I loved my coworkers and liked having a routine everyday, and I was dating an amazing guy who lived just across the bridge. I was starting to make great progress emotionally, but I didn’t feel great physically; I mysteriously lost weight, felt weak, and my joints ached. After the first few months of appointments, procedures, and tests at UCSF, I lost count of how many different doctors couldn’t tell me what was going on. Eventually, a rheumatologist came to the vague conclusion that I have a connective tissue disease (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, etc.) that is undifferentiated as of yet. The day I found out I have a condition that will likely affect me for the rest of my life was rough. I had taken the morning off from my internship to go to meet with the rheumatologist and when I arrived at work later that day, I sat in my boss’ office and sobbed. Lack of control has never been easy for me, and I’m still coming to grips with this situation.
Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to dwell on my health because I had decided to take a full year off from school and had an internship secured at the Orvis headquarters in Manchester, VT, for the fall. What an adventure that turned out to be! I lived with my godparents and their crew of hunting dogs and it truly felt like home. Working at Orvis felt more like a vacation than a job – I genuinely enjoyed showing up every day. I laughed more days than not and continued to heal with the help of all of my incredibly kind godparents and coworkers from the office, most likely unbeknownst to them. The outdoors was now my therapy, and I spent as much time on the river with a box of flies or in the woods with the dogs as I could. Not everything was great; I made mistakes, lost significant people in my life and still had bad days here and there, but I realized how much I had grown and that being “happy” was within my reach.
Although I was sad to leave Vermont at Christmas and drive to our ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho to work for the subsequent winter and spring months, I left feeling much more enthusiastic about life in general. I continued to grow and heal, still spending much of my spare time outside and enjoying the company of my dog, Ginger. My dad and I were able to spend some much needed time together and work on our relationship, which I am so thankful for. The moment when I realized that I really was going to be okay happened when someone very dear to my heart went through a personal crisis that deeply affected me. Historically, events such as this are catalysts for my depression to flare up again; this time, though, I was able to appropriately grieve and support my friend while I continued to live and enjoy my life instead of losing hope and throwing in the towel. I can’t describe the relief I felt. Finally, what I had been trying to achieve essentially my entire life had arrived.
This past summer, albeit too busy and rushed, was outstanding for me emotionally. For the first time in many years, our entire family was together for more than two weeks and I loved every messy second of it. One of the hardest aspects of living away from home during high school was that I wasn’t able to be there for my younger sister, so being able to spend time together this summer was a blessing. The smile I wore each day was sincere, not a façade.
I accepted a position at the University of Montana for this fall and am so pleased to say that I love it! Even in classes much bigger than I’m accustomed to, my professors have gotten to know me on a personal level and each new friend has brought something special into my life.
I keep growing every day and am so glad to be alive. It has been an exhausting journey to get to where I am today, and I can’t thank my friends and family enough for standing by me through my long process of healing. Something I used to hate hearing from various mental health professionals was that it will get better, but they were right. I hope that anyone struggling with depression will keep fighting and seek the support they need. There is always hope!