[Content warning for discussion of depression and suicidal ideation]
I graduated from college three years ago. My family was ecstatic. After four long years of exams, 10-page papers, and struggling to stay awake during lectures, I was getting a bachelor’s degree. I was one step closer to the elusive status of “independent adult” that had seemed so foreign to me since I was a kid.
I had a lot of advantages, but it wasn’t an easy path at all. My anxiety and depression had peaked my sophomore year in high school, leading me to be home schooled for 11th and 12th grades. I didn’t go to a prom, a senior trip, or walk across a stage in cap and gown. Years ago my mom asked me for one request: that I wear a dress when I graduated from middle school and high school, and for my wedding. When I graduated from middle school, I wore a bright red, flowy dress that showed off my legs and arms. For high school, I ordered a $30 diploma online and stayed in my pajamas for most of the summer.
Eighteen-year-old me didn’t want to go to college; after failing so miserably at being a teenager, she didn’t even think she could. But Wayne State welcomed me with open arms and almost 40K in tuition. It had always been obvious that getting a college education was expected of me, so I swallowed the rising tide of dread and enrolled in my first semester of classes.
It wasn’t all bad — college helped me come closer to figuring out where I fit into the complicated tapestry of society, but my patch was fraying the whole time. So much was going on, constantly, that I didn’t have time to tend to it. I began to unravel further. Right before the start of junior year, I was fantasizing in vivid detail about my death. At the end of August, I attended a journalism retreat on the edge of a beautiful, pristine lake, surrounded by boisterous, intelligent, interesting people, and I felt numb. Angry. Apocalyptic. I sat in silence as conversation flowed easily around me, because I completely lacked the ability to pretend everything was OK. I fantasized about waiting until everyone was asleep and the cabins were dark, when I would walk out barefoot across the dewy grass and follow the starlight into the lake until my feet lost contact with the sand.
While everyone else spent the afternoon studying or talking or laughing, I sat alone in my room, writing on Post-It notes. I created a beautiful, energetic woman who suffered from chronic depression, married to a man who loved her dearly. He’s an anesthetist at a local hospital. He tries his best to help her cope with her life-threatening illness, but finally, she says she’s had enough. “If love could’ve healed me, it would’ve done so by now,” she says. She says there’s one thing he can do for her: End it. Let her go. So he does. He steals vials of Propofol from the hospital. In the comfort of their home, he hooks her up to an IV. He lets her drift off peacefully to sleep, to oblivion. He says goodbye.
Then he stands trial for her murder.
To me, lying on that bed in that lakeside cabin, it was the most beautiful love story I’d ever heard. I thought of how much that would mean to me—for someone to give me permission. To say it’s OK, I’ve tried as hard as I could, and it’s OK. I can go. They won’t make me stay. I can rest now.
The permission doesn’t come. That next morning, I wake up early and drag myself to the welcome center building, one of only two places in the complex that has Wi-Fi. I power on my laptop. I log into Skype. It’s time for my interview with a publishing company for a remote editing internship position. I paste on my smile, and I lie. I tell the interviewer how passionate I am about the company, their books, and how much I would love to work with them. I emphasize how much of a hard worker I am, and how I can take on as much work as they can offer me. We joke and laugh.
Within 15 minutes, it’s over. I log off, and hours later haul myself to the dining hall for dinner. Everyone else is already there. As they eat and talk and laugh, I open my laptop back up and try to finish editing the dozens of stories that are due for the Back to School edition of Wayne State’s newspaper the next day. Once I leave the retreat, I’ll spend an hour and a half driving to campus and the rest of the day, a Sunday, helping publish the paper. Three days of nonstop labor, while I’m trying so hard not to crack any more than I already have. But it’s what I signed up for. So even though I’m inattentive and quiet and not doing a single bit of the networking I’m supposed to be doing at this retreat, I still try to lie. I’m not present, but I’m here. Somewhat.
The journalism adviser tells me to close the laptop; she doesn’t want me to be working now—that’s not the point of the event. I log out again, but I can’t eat. I can’t grab ahold of any of the fragments of conversation swirling around me, either, and without the distraction of work, I feel myself breaking. The tears build in my eyes, and I mentally berate myself. Don’t you fucking dare. Don’t you dare. I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to think of anything that can make the pain recede. You can break once you get home, but please, please, not now. The other people at the table notice. “What’s wrong?” Headache, I say. Migraine headache. Another lie. There’s always another lie. The moment the words are out my mouth, the fatigue overwhelms me. The dam breaks. I burst into tears.
The anxiety comes next, because now everyone knows I’m damaged, but now I can escape. I walk outside and call my mom. I tell her I want to come home, that I can’t take it, but I leave out the details: the suicide note I wrote in my electronic diary the night before, the disability porn I wrote on Post-Its, the fantasy of drowning myself in the lake. The adviser comes out to talk to me, console me. This time, I don’t lie. But again, I omit. I tell her I’m tired, I’m depressed, and I can’t function. She tells me how much she admires my honesty, and my self-awareness. She hugs me. The sentiment is nice, but it isn’t enough. Throughout the day, other students tentatively reach out to offer support without knowing what it’s for. That’s also nice, but it’s still not enough. I’m not Them—I’m an Other. You can’t share your darkest secrets with people you just met. You can’t admit how tempting that lake is. It’s not fair, and it wouldn’t end well. Those eggshells they’re already walking on would turn into land mines. You will become That Suicidal Girl. So you thank them, but you don’t engage any further. Your illness should be a footnote, not the main event.
The rest of the day passes slowly. I rein in the tears, but I’m tired. I want it to be over. All of it. But I know this routine like the back of my hand. I go into auto-pilot mode. It’s not enough to be convincing, but it’s all I have.
Eventually, morning comes. It’s time to pack up and head out. I take the ride back alone, which is fine by me. I want to go home, take a long, hot shower, and sleep for a week. But I head straight for the campus newsroom. The editor-in-chief exclaims that she’s surprised to see me back so soon. I made good time, I say with a shrug. And then I hunker down in silence and get back to work.
I stay in the newsroom until after midnight—over 12 hours. At that point, the newspaper still isn’t finished, but the EIC sends the rest of us off out of sympathy. I drag myself home, shower, and sleep. Classes begin just three days later.
I get the internship.
The journalism institute has its first meeting a month after the retreat. I lie in bed fully clothed, staring at the ceiling, ten minutes before it starts. It’s mandatory, but I can’t move. I don’t want to move. Then I get the first phone call. I send it to voicemail. I get a half dozen more calls before I finally answer. “Where are you?” one of my fellow members asks. “You have to be here. If you don’t come, it’s going to be like a mini hurricane. You need to call her.” I agree and call the adviser’s cell. She asks me how I’m doing. “Bad,” I say blandly, my voice croaking. She says she has to go but she’ll call me back later. The call never comes. I check my Facebook a couple days later and find out I’ve been removed from the institute’s private group without a word or warning.
Four days later, I admit to my therapist that I’m hanging on by a thread. I’m ready to omit the crucial bits like I usually do, but my body language gives it away. My voice is monotone, my face slack, my eyes downcast. I reply with one-word answers up until I slip and admit I’ve spent the last week plagued by violent thoughts.
She calls in the psychiatrist. They spend half an hour attempting to convince me to admit myself to the ER. “You can leave at any time,” my therapist says. “Just please, go. I’m scared for you. I could call the police, because you have all the symptoms, but I won’t do that to you. But please, go.” I’m too tired to argue, but the veiled threat will stay with me for years to come. They call my dad. He drives me to the hospital, interrogating me the whole time. “Do you want to go or not?” he asks with frustration. I answer noncommittally. What choice do I have? We arrive, and my mom meets us there. I lie in a flimsy robe in the ER, a catheter port burning in my right arm, and wait. And wait. When a nurse finally arrives, I tell her I’m ready to go. She says I’m officially on suicide watch, and if I don’t consent to be admitted to the psychiatric ward for at least 72 hours, they will transfer me to another hospital that has no check-out policy at all. Another veiled threat. You can leave any time, I remember my therapist saying. It seems I’m not the only one who shields myself with untruths.
I stay in the hospital for a week. I tell my mom to send an email to the EIC of the school newspaper, telling her I won’t be coming in to work. We concoct a lie together, this time — anaphylactic shock. Unexpected allergy to something I ate. My boss tries to visit, send flowers. I don’t know what my mom tells her to brush her off, but it works. I’m free from my newspaper duties for two weeks. My parents suggest I take the rest of the semester off to heal. I decline, but I do withdraw from a Spanish conversation class. I don’t have the patience to grasp for threads of connection anymore. When I return to the newsroom, the EIC takes a moment to welcome me back and say she’s glad I’m OK. I smile uncomfortably, because it’s all I can do.
At the end of the school year, many of my classmates and colleagues graduate. My GPA has dropped because of the withdrawal, but I immediately enroll in senior classes. I keep my internship, and my spot on the newspaper. I undertake a senior honor thesis project that is 20 pages long. I conduct research both in person and online. I keep a full course load. Soon winter semester comes and I’m staring graduation in the face. I’m cracking again.
“You know once you graduate, you’re cut off,” my dad jokes. “You’re on your own.” I want to rest. I want to take at least a year off before I start searching for employment. But my mom is out of work again, and my dad’s interrogation continues. “Have you applied to any jobs? Why not? Well, when are you going to start?” Other people ask if I’m going to apply to grad school. Two different professors recommend that I apply to the Dow Jones News Editing program, and all the pressure wears me down. I apply and take the editing test. I won’t get in, I think confidently, but at least it will shut my dad up for a while.
I get the internship. It will require me to fly across the country and live in New York for the summer…to work at The New York Times.
After I turn in my honors thesis, finish my exams, and receive my final GPA of 3.8, which earns me summa cum laude, I don my cap and gown and make my way to Ford Field on a gray, dreary day for commencement. My mom has glued patches and sequins to my cap so they can find me in the crowd. Everyone in my immediate family is there to celebrate me. But I don’t feel relief. I feel…numb.
So I go on auto-pilot. I lie. When the announcer directs honors graduates to stand, I turn, smile, and wave toward the section where I know my family is waiting. There’s a checklist in my brain. Turn. Smile. Wave. Stand tall. Pose. Later that day my mom will tell me that my grandmother was pleasantly surprised to see how happy I looked, and how happy she was for me. This time, faking it works. All the while, I ask myself, why don’t I feel happy?
After I walk across the stage, I’ll only have three weeks to prepare before I leave for Philadelphia for my editing internship training. It’s an intensive, weeklong program. I apply for a scholarship with the journalism department right before graduation and receive it, giving me $2,000 to spend as I see fit to prepare for my adventures in the Big Apple. The stars align in another way, and I end up with an internship in a city where a longtime friend is currently living, and her parents agree to house me rent-free in a cushy Midtown high-rise.
Inside, I still wonder: Why don’t I feel happy? The numbness has become my constant companion. So I lie, to myself and others. Oh, of course I’m excited. Of course I can’t wait to start.
I cry when my parents drop me off at the airport. When I finally arrive at the Philly university with luggage in tow, the student advisers show me to my dorm room. The room is bare bones like most dorm rooms are during the summer, but it triggers unwelcome memories of the room I stayed in when I was hospitalized as a teenager. The advisers notice. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, it’s just been a long trip. I’m really tired.”
Fatigue is my favorite lie because it’s always the closest to the truth. When they’re gone, I allow a few tears to fall. The memories of suffocation and imprisonment come racing back. I force them away as best as I can.
Over the next week, I spend roughly ten hours a day with a dozen other smart, friendly, wonderful interns. We spend full days in class, learning every minute detail about Associated Press and New York Times style. We learn the names and capitals of every country. We’re quizzed every day. And once we’re done, we head back to the dorms for dinner and study well into the night so we can do it all again the next day.
It’s exhausting and frankly depressing, but the lighthearted sarcasm and irreverence from my classmates/fellow prisoners are infectious. There are times I laugh until I gasp for breath, and eventually I feel confident enough to volunteer answers during class. I begin to trade my own barbs and somehow gain a reputation as a comedienne.
Toward the end of the week, the professor calls me out into the hallway while the rest of the class is at work. He tells me how impressed he is with my energy, my intelligence, my wit. But he’s frankly bewildered that it took me so long to reveal my best qualities. He says I’ll do wonderfully at The New York Times, but he offers one piece of advice: “Don’t lie.” His tone conveys his mild frustration, but it’s softened by kindness. The subtext is clear: You belong here. You are valuable. Stop trying to hide your brilliance.
A few days later, I am in New York. The scope of the city, the skyscraper I’m now working in, and the publication itself is too much to bear. Anxiety overtakes me. I go on auto-pilot. I edit dutifully, often receiving praise, but I can’t make small talk. I can’t wander the newsroom, making friends and business connections. The long hours, tight deadlines, and stern, no-nonsense environment drain me quickly. But I smile. I accept any and every assignment with gratitude and enthusiasm. I greet my colleagues with “good afternoon” and bid them “good night.” I ask them how they’re doing. I go along with the other interns to bars, outdoor movies, and restaurants. I go out to business lunches with my co-workers. I make sure to get email addresses and phone numbers. “Keep in touch,” they say. I say I will.
On the last day of my internship, I ask my boss for a chat. I want to know how I did. I want to know how I can improve. These are the things intelligent, professional, assertive employees do to prove their worth. It is another checklist.
He tells me I am brilliant. He tells me I am, by far, one of the best interns he has ever had during his long NYT career. I believe him. He is not lying. But his tone turns to one of mild frustration, and my heart sinks, hearing the “but” before it’s even uttered:
I am too quiet, too soft, too passive. He does not think I am cut out for the competitive, fast-paced environment of a newspaper like The New York Times. I rein the tears back, and in a confident voice I pull from the deepest recesses of my being, I tell him my passivity is something I am aware of and working on. I thank him for his constructive criticism, and his mentorship. “Keep in touch,” he says. I say I will.
I hold back tears the whole ride back to my friend’s apartment.
I have been lying my whole life; it is no surprise that people have begun to sense it. But still, I wonder…
If I had told my internship professor that I wasn’t lying, that being in a classroom setting again, so soon after graduating, so soon after being hospitalized for suicidal ideation, was triggering me, would he have nodded and understood? Would he have made an effort to accommodate me? Or would he have covertly added a note to my progress report, recommending that the NYT staff reconsider my position in their program?
If I had told my internship supervisor that I have depression and anxiety and did not have the energy stored to be both competent and personable at the same time, would he have encouraged me to do my best and commend me for making it through anyway? Or would he have taken my answer as confirmation that I am unfit?
If I had told my friend—who I have known for years and often confide in, through the relative safety of the Internet, about my mental health problems—that every day I stood on the subway platform waiting for the train, I fantasized about walking onto the tracks, would she have empathized? Or would she have freaked out, panicked, thinking any time I spent out of her sight might end in my violent death?
If I openly admit to the world that I am suffering, that I am tired, that I have made peace with the fact that I may not experience a peaceful or natural death…will they understand? Will the judgment and frustration disappear from their voices? Or will that admission make them disappear instead?
Months before I joined the journalism institute and attended that summer retreat, I first encountered the adviser as a sophomore requesting a course override. She interrogated me for over an hour about my grades, my extracurricular activities, and my personality, and to her everything but my grades came up wanting. “Why haven’t I ever seen you in here before? Why aren’t you more involved in the journalism department? Why don’t you have any internships? And for God’s sake, why aren’t you more perky?”
I lied. I said I was shy. I tiptoed around the vicious specter of my depression, which hovered over me at all times and made college just another obstacle to clear, not an experience to savor. Then I left her office and filed a complaint.
She had bruised me without even knowing me, but she was still right, wasn’t she? So a year later, I applied to her institute—another item on the checklist. In my interview, I outed myself as mentally ill to her and a panel of senior institute members. They praised me for my honesty and accepted me into the program. I attended the retreat in the midst of one of the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever had, and I confided in the adviser, once again. A month later, I called her cell phone and said, in as many words as I could manage at the time, that I was not OK.
With one click of a button, my profile photo disappeared from the private Facebook group. It was as if I had never been there at all. She knew I was depressed because I told her. She knew I was struggling, because she saw it. But there I was, locked out, a month later. Is this what it looked like, what it felt like, I wondered, when eggshells turned to land mines? If I had given into the impulse to walk into the waves, would she have said she “never saw it coming”? That she’d wished there was more she could’ve done?
“Don’t lie,” the professor had said.
If only I didn’t have to.