Sunday, January 24, 2016

Notes on a rough patch

"Hotel Room," Edward Hopper. 1931.

Content warning: suicidal thoughts.

I hit a rough patch the first semester of sophomore year. A rough patch kind of like the one I had between the ages of twelve and fourteen--it consisted of a lot of ugly crying, daily journaling (which I mentioned in this TED-Ed blog post), and wondering if things ever got better. Things did get better. Oh, of course there was high school heartbreak and the laborious applications to 14 (!) colleges that deserved its own circle in Dante's Inferno. There was coming back to my triple in Unit 3, my freshman dorm, and throwing myself on the ground to cry because I didn't feel like I could make it up the ladder to my bed. There was losing myself in the sweating, frenetic crush of people at parties because sometimes numbness felt better than feeling so much.

But all of this angst, I figured, was situational. Every time I recognized the hollow feeling, a sort of stranger in the night I had known so well from the age of twelve, I called it something else: just the stress of college apps, just the growing pains of freshman year, just--

And then there was a point, this past semester, when I didn't know what to call it, because I had good grades and lovely friends and I could even (finally) find my way around campus.

So why were there these times when I felt like my legs were leaden and I couldn't move, crying until my whole body was shaking or worst of all, feeling so vacant that I couldn't even shake myself to tears? These times gave me a simultaneous terror of social interaction--I skipped a friend's birthday party because I didn't feel up to it--yet a desperate feeling of needing to call someone but not wanting to burden anyone and also not even knowing what to say.

One time I called my sister. My voice cracked and she asked me if I was OK. No, not really, I admitted. We talked. I felt a little better.

One time I found myself with that leaden, paralyzed feeling, and I threw my phone to a faraway corner of my bed and lay curled up breathing raggedly, sensing the ominous ticking-away of time. I became angrier and angrier at myself, and the imperative to move, to do something, to be productive somehow, knocked me out of bed, crawling on the floor, and staggering out of my room like some kind of real-life reenactment of an Evolution of Man poster.

It was terrifying, and I had no idea what to call it or why it was happening. I went to drop-in counseling at the University Health Center in between classes one day to talk about what had happened, my voice occasionally cracking. The kindly counselor asked me if I'd had thoughts of suicide.

Yes, I answered.

Had I made any plans? she wondered, and I said no. The thing is, I didn't really want to die. I just thought about dying in the same way that I thought, some mornings, about emailing professors to say I was sick to not go to class--it entered my mind, but I (thankfully) had deep inhibitions: sometimes, the thought of what I would be giving up (a riveting discussion in class, or spending time with the people I love dearly), and other times, some dogma that I half-believed, that you don't lie to teachers, or that it is a good thing to be alive.

It feels strange when your instincts are so counter to your interests. Thinking about suicide is not fun, but maybe the worst part about it is not that the feeling itself is there; it's the recognition of the huge contradiction what you feel vs. what you know is right. And that contradiction makes you wonder "What's wrong with me?" The urgency of that question is only exacerbated by isolation, the feeling that nobody else is grappling with the same disconnect between wants and should-wants. Loads of people say "I don't want to go to school today" in casual conversation. Fewer people say, "Wow, I've really been thinking a lot about suicide lately."

I want to emphasize that when I use the phrase "thinking about" here I don't mean imminent planning, I literally just mean the thought of me dying entered my mind. The same way you might daydream about driving a McLaren P1 down the Pacific Coast Highway, or think up names for hypothetical offspring, or randomly remember some kid you sat next to in second grade. You don't really ask for these thoughts. They just come. And then, in the case of thoughts about death, they can affect how you see the things around you.

You know those brainteaser activities that give you an object, like a brick or a fork or a cup, and ask you to list as many uses for the object as possible within some kind of time constraint? The curse of your mind being in an unhealthy place is that the answer to the question, of "What can you do with [x]?" is always the same. When you feel OK, calm, and content, the world around you is benign--maybe even benevolent. But when you feel at war with your own mind, the world around you becomes frightening.

The over-the-counter painkillers in your purse.

The oncoming train in a subway station.

The kitchen knife.

How many things can you do with these?

I told the counselor at the University Health Center that it made me feel bad that I thought about (reminder: thought about = thought about X entered head, not desired to commit) suicide every time I was in a subway station. She looked unfazed, and asked me if I approached the trains or distanced myself.

Distanced, I said, always. In fact, that's the reason I stand so far away from the red/yellow lines: long before I think "if I stand close, I can get on board earlier," I think "if I jumped, it would kill me."

"Good," she said, beaming.

I looked at her bemusedly. I've just told you that innocuous subway trains make me think about death. What do you mean "Good?" I thought.

She added that I had good coping mechanisms. I walked away from the things I knew could kill me. I didn't "practice," drawing closer to them--because I didn't actually want to die. I felt comforted.

A few weeks later, I went to visit a counselor for a previously scheduled appointment. I told him that I had started doing things that younger and more cynical me would have scoffed at as something akin to New Age mumbo-jumbo: trying to meditate, writing self-affirmations, like "You are loved" and "You are good enough." Forcing myself to write them, even--especially--when I felt like shit was a good exercise.

I know now not to take my mental health for granted. I may always have to work a little at it, but that's OK. Other people, too, have unruly corners of their minds they try to keep on a leash: tempers or apathies, impatient attentions or distracting desires, anxieties that set hearts pounding and palms sweating. These corners don't make us lesser. The writer in me says that it is in learning how to play nicely with them that we find the hard, beautiful struggles of our best stories, and our world's epic myths.

In the week after my rough patch, I would go on walks and feel euphoric, like I was inhaling colors: the purple of a flower, the blueness of the sky. Maybe it took thinking about death an awful lot to feel so much gratitude for being alive.

How are you feeling now? the counselor asked me.

I'm feeling good, I said, and it was true.

some links:
Suicide is Preventable
International Suicide Prevention Wiki
If you go to Berkeley, University Health Services, Student to Student Peer Counseling, and You Mean More
Hyperbole and a Half's "Adventures in Depression"


  1. You are not alone! Take care! "This too shall pass"...

  2. My closest friend growing up had depression, and would think just like you Adora, I don't think he could intellectualise like you have but he learned to manage it as he got older, simply, amazing piece you have written, thank you for writing it.

  3. Sounds like you have a good counsellor there and you did the right thing to ask her, even if just to check (better safe than sorry). I hope someone who needs help will read your piece and be moved to seek it. It's too easy to think "I'm not supposed to need counselling", or "all counsellors live in a world of psychiatric mumbo-jumbo", and therefore stay away when actually they could have helped. A friend of mine tried to kill himself a couple of years ago, thankfully he was not successful, but I ended up standing over his bed in the hospital emergency room talking with FIVE doctors and nurses (as we couldn't establish what exactly he had taken, so they were all on high alert just watching him to see what happens). I wasn't there when he made the attempt, but when he called his family in China to say goodbye, they phoned me in a panic and we got the ambulance to knock his door down. I told them how I'd been aware of his depression and had been doing my best to help him as a friend, but this goes to prove that sometimes you just have to call in the pros. Well guess what, they eventually figured out that his depression was a side-effect of his long-term use of sleeping pills. He hadn't read the instructions that say don't take them for more than a week or two, and he never thought of that as a possible cause of his feelings. I of course know very well you're not supposed to get hooked on sleeping pills, but I hadn't thought of asking that question. I'm glad his attempt failed and the doctors were able to figure it out and really help him, but the same result could have been had with a lot less drama and risk if we'd got him a routine checkup appointment earlier. And who knows how many other possible things we wouldn't think of but they would. Good friends are indeed valuable but professional help does have its uses as well. We did unfortunately have another Chinese student who really did kill herself, apparently over one of her grades. How I wish I could have met her first and said something. I feel like I want to meet as many of them as possible so that I can be there for the ones who get down. Trouble is, the ones who need the most help tend to be the ones who hide away and don't want to see anybody at all. I'm not sure exactly how I would have encouraged her to keep going (I'd have to listen first), but one thing I do know from personal experience of my own past is, you have to believe there's a good reason to stay alive and ride it out. Even if you don't know what that reason is, have faith that in future you will find it, and then you'll be glad you stayed around for it. If you believe in God, maybe he's got a plan. If not, at least believe there's bigger reasons for staying alive than what you've thought of so far. The tiniest sliver of a chance that things might work out differently is worth hanging around for. And whoever came up with the idea that falling on your sword is somehow the honorable or right thing to do when you're low is probably in league with the Devil. Have faith that there's flaws in this kind of thinking, even when you can't see them. And by the way, I stay as far away from platform edges as possible, and have done even before I saw the Australian "dumb ways to die" advertisement.