Last week, I wrote about ending the toxic friendship that defined my high school experience. For the sake of brevity, I omitted another central facet of the problem, one that I believe deserves its own meditation here: my years-long struggle against – and gradual acceptance of – my anxiety and depression.
I went to a relatively small, private high school, and everyone knew who the kids with “issues” were – or, to use a gentler euphemism, the kids who were having a hard time. They wore shapeless clothes and terrible eyeliner. They dyed their hair black and green and blue, but never seemed to wash it. They existed, in a meaningful way, only to each other.
I, on the other hand, was captain of the swim team, and the leader of three or four more student groups to boot. I ran with the popular crowd but was friendly enough to seem approachable. I woke up early every day to blow-dry my hair.
Truthfully, it was a dark time.
At some level, I knew something was wrong. I spent entire nights lying awake, sweating and unable to breathe. When I did manage to sleep, I dreamed of mass murderers or nuclear bombs and woke up screaming. Periodically, social interactions would become unbearable, even with friends – I was too wound up to have a meaningful conversation. I was worried about what to say next. I was worried about what to do that weekend, what to do that summer, what to do with my life. Worries bombarded me in endless, convulsive succession, and so I compensated with augmenting: more friends, more fun, more accolades.
It worked, in that it made me look invincible – which, in my misery and confusion, was what I thought I wanted. If I was in fact depressed, then that meant I was secretly a weird goth kid with bad hair. It meant I was not successful or beloved.
My parents, I later learned, suspected something was off with me, but never asked about it. They were afraid that my being depressed would mean they had failed me. (Which, of course, makes no sense at all – I was depressed, and they failed me by not reaching out.)
I, in turn, was afraid it meant I’d failed them.
Finally, one free period, I snuck over to the mental health counselor on campus. An emaciated woman with stringy, malting hair, Karen said how many great things she’d heard about me. “Well,” I said, nervously picking at my cuticles, “I don’t feel good.” I dithered, then finally added, “And I get really anxious sometimes.”
Karen nodded. “Do you ever think about hurting yourself?”
I was stunned – self-harm had never even occurred to me. I was an athlete; my body was my strength. “No.”
“Do you ever have suicidal thoughts?”
Her rewording of the same question shocked me even more. I definitely did not have suicidal thoughts.
“You’ll be fine,” Karen proclaimed. We chatted a little more. I was relieved – a medical professional said I was fine! – but I still wanted to come back next week.
We set a time, but at the last minute, Karen had to cancel. There was apparently another student who needed her help more. We rescheduled; again, she cancelled. Not once did she suggest I try seeing a regular therapist if I wanted someone to talk to, even though she herself had a private practice.
She told me I was fine, and I believed her – which, I am certain, was more damaging to me than never having gone to a therapist at all.
The harrowing thing about mental health is that there are often no outward signs of distress. In some cases, the only barometer for gauging your wellness is how you feel – and as I can attest, it’s not always easy to know this. Throughout my teenage years, my anxiety was so unrelenting that it became normal. And besides, I reassured myself, I wasn’t suicidal. Or schizophrenic. Or bipolar.
To harken back to the days of technological yore, it was as though my life was a TV channel with bad reception. The picture was blurry, the audio was spotted with white noise, and yet the show played on.
It could be so much worse, I’d remind myself, shuddering as I passed the goths in the hall. I could actually have a problem.
And yet, I kept surviving. I didn’t get into my top choice college, but I was still going to a Really Good School, so I willed myself to be excited. I told myself things would be different.
They were: They were worse. My Really Good School and I were a mismatch from the start. My intended major’s department was in upheaval; my professors were inattentive and uninspired.
Desperate to excel in something, I joined a sorority. And though I genuinely liked my sisters, the Greek system struck me as hierarchical and oppressive; being at the top of the hierarchy gave me no real pleasure*. I’d wanted college to be a time of personal and intellectual growth. Instead, I had seventy best friends who looked and acted pretty much exactly like me, and a pair of monogrammed flip-flops.
I changed majors again and again and was still dissatisfied. So, in an attempt to somehow relive my swimmer days, I started exercising. It quickly became my form of escapism, my drug of choice.
I became addicted.
All told, I only lost about ten pounds – again, hardly enough to qualify as dangerous, but on my small frame, I looked sickly. Or at least, my concerned friends told me that I did. I thought I looked great – but I was worried, at any time, that I might get “fat” again.
To be clear: my sorority did not give me an eating disorder, my anxiety and depression did (on the contrary, my sisters expressed their concern time and time again for my well-being. I laughed them off). I didn’t know how to address my mental health, so I became obsessed with my physical “health” in the most depraved way. Organic, raw everything. Calorie counting. Endless hours at the gym.
Anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder can tell you how time-consuming it is. Obsessively planning your meals, doing your interminable workouts, convincing yourself you’re not that hungry. You’re constantly struggling to lose just more pound, or to maintain your withered physique.
Finally, I decided to make a change – not, unfortunately, because my kind and loving friends had asked me to, but because I was simply exhausted. I went to the campus health center and asked to see a psychologist. The prospect of another Karen incensed and terrified me, but I knew I had no other option. I was most decidedly not okay, and I vowed that I would not let anyone dissuade me.
The woman who did my intake interview seemed barely older than me, and wore a large gold cross. I hated her immediately.
“What brings you here today?” she asked.
“I don’t trust you,” I said. “But I really need your help.”
Check back next week for more of Estelle’s story.
*At the time, I was enrolled in a relatively small private university, where the Greek system seemed especially superfluous. Other friends of mine who attended large state schools found their sororities to be important support networks, both for friendships during college and career opportunities afterwards.