A lot of people say depression is like this black fog that follows you around. It hangs around your shoulders, spills over onto your forehead, until it eventually slides down your body into a puddle at your feet. And as much as you try to hide this fog by spraying perfume on it, or covering it up under a stale smile… it is still there. It’s always there crawling up your spine and whispering in your ear “You’re nothing.”
Let’s just say me and this “fog” have been best friends for as long as I could remember. We’d grown up together, survived together, and even loved together. The entire span of my teenage years had been spent holding hands with depression. But while we were involved, I had always managed to keep our attachment under control.
That is until I went away to college.
I had struggled my freshman and sophomore years, not being able to get out of bed for class, failing assignments, isolating myself from making new friendships, or eating until I was sick just so I wouldn’t feel empty. But I would not know how life threatening my depression would become until my junior year at Spelman. By then my depression had matured right along with me. All of a sudden feelings of self hate were not the only thought that bashed around in my skull. Now there was this stubborn idea that kept saying
“Well, you could always just kill yourself you know. At least you’ll stop hurting.”
Believe it or not, those words brought me a sickening sense of comfort. Those images of me closing my eyes for the last time gave me…. peace. Peace knowing there was something better than this overwhelming sadness that was leaving me emotionally and physically weak. But I kept telling myself they were just thoughts, and I would never be crazy enough to actually try anything.
I was convinced this was something I could handle on my own.
As the school year progressed, I continued to watch myself slowly deteriorate. I wasn’t eating regularly, I was losing interest in my relationships and in my major, the suicidal thoughts were growing, and even worse…. I was developing social anxiety.
What’s that feel like? Well just imagine that every time you’re around a group of people you immediately think they are thinking less of you. You feel like they can see your every flaw, and they know that a loser like you doesn’t belong around them. They’re practically laughing at you, as you fail to fit in or make sense in their conversations.
Now imagine that all of this is only in your head.
If you can’t, I’ll just tell you that crowds started to be an issue for me. Large group settings on campus such as Market Friday’s at Spelman, Hump Wednesday’s at Morehouse, parties or even sometimes walking into the cafeteria left me feeling so anxious I found myself immediately leaving as I stifled uncontrollable tears. I had no choice but to step away from the HBCU social life I had grown to love.
Still I was convinced this was something I could handle on my own.
Even as things were spiraling out of control, I was still in denial about the state of my mental health. The only way I wound up in counseling at Spelman was because of an anonymous referral by a concerned friend. She’d finally gotten tired of watching me play Russian Roulette with my life and decided that if I didn’t want to seek help, she’d seek it for me. I was immediately assigned a therapist, before I could even think about refusing. But as things progressed with my counseling, another side of my depression decided to rear its ugly head…. the urge to harm myself.
Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t take a razor to my arm because I wanted attention nor did I want to kill myself. I simply began doing it to wake myself up out of the deep pit of my emotions. When my depression was most severe, I would become so numb that I couldn’t feel anything. Sometimes physical pain was the only way I could come back up to the surface. So I became the girl with band aids on her arm, constantly tugging on her sleeves to hide them.
Soon after I was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed me a mood medication, to help stabilize my episodes of depression. At that point I began feeling like things were finally moving in the right direction….. but boy, was I wrong. After two months on meds, regular meetings with my therapist and psychiatrist, I started to fall off the wagon. My medication was making me extremely tired, and my class load was picking up. I began seeing less and less of the counseling center, all while my depressive symptoms were worsening. Even an increased dosage of my prescription wasn’t helping.
Still I convinced myself this was something I could handle on my own.
Things soon came to a fiery crash and burn around spring break. I was an emotional, unstable wreck, which lead to an explosive low in my depression that I barely survived. I knew that I had to do something and something fast. So I went back to the counseling center for help. After one session with my therapist she suggested a referral to an outside facility. She was extremely concerned with mental health, and at that point I kind of was too. But in my head, I was simply being referred to another therapist to be diagnosed and maybe assigned new meds. But in reality, I had just been committed to a psychiatric hospital.
I don’t think I’ve been so afraid in my life. Here I was being taken to a hospital I knew nothing about, with limited contact to family or friends. Even when I realized what was happening and tried to refuse, it was no use. I no longer had a say in where I could go. I was placed in handcuffs and put in the in back seat of a campus police car, which I was told was protocol for “this kind of situation”. I was told I was being restrained because I was a danger to myself, but honestly self harm was the LAST thing on my mind. All I could do was cry and duck my head hoping no one would see me as we drove off campus.
When I finally arrived at the hospital all my belongings were taken from me. I was left with only the outfit I had worn to class and an ID bracelet around my wrist. I felt even more embarrassed because I had decided to wear heels that day.
After a mountain of paper work, I was finally admitted to the “cottage” or living area for the patients. I soon realized I was the only black woman there. Everyone else was mostly white and much older than me. Our only common ground was that we were each suffering from various forms of mental illnesses or drug addictions. Still, I kept telling myself:
“I don’t belong here, I’m not like… these people.“
Not knowing how wrong I actually was.
I remember immediately balling myself up in a chair and crying, realizing that no one could tell me how long it would be before I could go home. I remember being told I was on suicide watch and couldn’t even eat with the rest of the patients or sleep in my room. I remember seeing another patient urinate on the floor right in front of me. I remember watching another be practically tackled by staff after an angry outburst.
I remember having to speak to my parents after they found out their daughter had been suffering from severe depression and was hospitalized. I remember hearing them both cry as if one of my suicide attempts were actually successful. I remember finally realizing that my depression was a mental illness. I remember finally realizing my life was something I needed to fight for.
I ended up spending four days at the hospital, during which I was prescribed new anti-depressive medication and diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I soon found myself falling into a routine and getting used to my new home. It went a little something like this:
- First I’d be woken up daily at 7 am. I then would squirm into the shower, brush my teeth and partially eat breakfast. Next was morning group in which the staff delegated the hospital rules (by day two I had almost memorized them).
- Following that, I stood in line for my meds, quickly swallowed them and either waited to meet with my doctor or snuck in a few chapters of reading. Close to noon we’d have our first group therapy session of the day. Then we’d line up to be escorted to the cafeteria by hospital staff for lunch (you were only allowed to go to the caf if you weren’t on suicide watch).
- After lunch was vitals, two more group therapy sessions and a small window of free time in which I usually called my family (only an hour per phone call & staff approval for long distance calls). Then we’d line up for dinner again and finally end the day with a few hours of free time before lights out.
Shockingly, I got to know some of the other patients there. In reality we all were not that much different, just people who’s mental illnesses had taken control. Men and women who I probably wouldn’t think twice to speak to on the streets were now my friends. It was easy because for the first time in my life my depression wasn’t something I had to hide. Everyone knew and I could talk about it openly… the hospital soon became comforting.
But the arrival of a new patient one day really served as a turning point in my story. He was a student I recognized from Morehouse, one I’d actually come into contact with multiple times. I had made judgements about him before, thinking he was crazy because of the stories that proceeded him back on campus. However, we were both there for depression and were even on the same medication. Getting to know him, and relaying our stories on how uniquely stressful the Atlanta University Center can be, opened my eyes to the severity of mental illness amongst HBCU students. The staff at the hospital told me they’d seen their share of Spelmanites throughout the years, and I couldn’t even be shocked. So many students at Spelman and Morehouse were literally battling to hold on to their lives in the fight against mental illness…. yet no one was talking about it. I knew then that I really wasn’t alone.
After I was discharged from the hospital, I literally had to pick up the pieces from my life. I wasn’t allowed to return back to campus and was placed on a week long medical leave by the college. I was in jeopardy of being kicked out of campus housing because I was now a hazard to my own safety. Spelman also suggested I take the rest of the semester off, which ultimately would leave me unable to graduate on time. I wasn’t able to communicate with my teachers about my two week absence, and my word about the status of my mental health improving wasn’t good enough. My parents had to defend me, while I sat on the sidelines with my whole life hanging in the balance.
In those moments, I had to swallow one of the biggest pills of my life. I really had to come to terms with the fact that my destructive actions towards myself had serious consequences. Being on the brink of losing everything I had worked for, including my freedom and most importantly my life, was the biggest wake up call I ever had. Being hospitalized was honestly the best thing that happened to me because it forced me to come to terms with myself. I wasn’t just holding hands with depression, depression had become an integral part of who I was.
Thankfully everything worked out and I was allowed to return back to campus, my dorm room, as well as my classes along with a stable plan for continued counseling and medication. My teachers were notified by the disabilities services at Spelman about my diagnosis, and I was able to start putting myself back together. Now that my dark secret was out, I could finally breathe. I was a new person, with an outlook that wasn’t just focused on my health but the health of my brothers and sisters in the AUC.
In college it’s very easy to get caught up in appearances, and working your ass off to convince other people there’s nothing wrong with you. You get so stressed out that you don’t even realize your mental health is declining. Whether life, loss, or love be the trigger the process towards getting better is still possible. You have to realize you are not alone. Most people walking around with a pretty smile and a cute outfit are secretly broken on the inside, trust me I know because I was one of those people. If you keep ignoring your mental health for the benefit of others, it will get so severe that it will swallow you whole… like it did me. Now as a senior I still struggle with my depression at times and I don’t have all the answers on how to cope, but I do have my story. I also have an amazing family and group of friends that were right at my side the whole time, loving and supporting me to health. Depression is no longer a skeleton in my closet, but my opportunity to help other people.
I admit it can be hard to talk about this kind of stuff, I’m still extremely nervous as I write this, but I realize that being honest about who I am and what I’ve been through didn’t ruin me like I thought it would….. it actually saved my life.