International Relations class, 2006. The teacher's assistant is drawing a diagram to explain anarchy on the board. I'm half paying attention, half thinking about the anarchy going on in my own mind.
"Anarchy means there are no rules," she says. At that moment I decide to be done with the rules.
I've struggled with depression since high school, a hyper-competitive all-girls boarding school in Connecticut. Sometime during my freshman year, I began fixating on an endless loop of thoughts that I was never interesting enough, smart enough, pretty enough, popular enough. That loop never stopped cranking.
I became convinced my mediocrity and awkwardness kept me from relishing what were supposed to be the most joyful, formative and carefree years of my life. At night, driving around with my friends after we first got our licenses, I would stare out the window reminding myself how not-good-enough I was while they smoked cigarettes and sang along with the new Strokes album.
I used my self-doubt to catapult myself forward. I set perpetually unrealistic expectations, ones I would inevitably never meet. I never stopped chasing after those high standards, desperately hoping that one day I might prove myself wrong. I got straight As, sang in the all-state choir, starred in school plays, won awards for my writing.
I shrugged off my achievements, paradoxically assuming they were a given, and focused incessantly instead on my inadequacies. I was a terrible athlete, had trouble focusing in class, couldn't get certain boys to pay attention to me during sweaty school dances. I expected everything of myself, which pretty much guaranteed I would always fall short, find yet another reason to despise my existence.
I got into my first-choice college, Northwestern University, and off I went to Chicago, where my affliction followed me. To the rest of the world, I could have been on the cover of a glossy fundraising magazine. And just like in high school, I usually felt okay enough to convince everyone around me that at my core, I was an enthusiastic, spontaneous, charismatic young woman.
It was true that I could be all of those things, and that I experienced moments of happiness. The flame of self-hate that burned deep inside was rarely stoked into a full-blown wildfire.
But sometimes, the world around me, with all its highs and lows and nuance and beauty, would completely disappear. The high-functioning social butterfly would be crippled, shoved back into a cocoon full of her failures, immobilized for hours or even days at a time. During those moments, I would only know the darkest corners of myself.
But sometimes, the world around me, with all its highs and lows and nuance and beauty, would completely disappear. During those moments, I would only know the darkest corners of myself.
That darkness reached a crescendo that afternoon in International Relations class. I knew my roommates would be at an event for our sorority that evening. I told them I had a sore throat and couldn't make it. I went to the drugstore and bought a bottle of Tylenol PM.
I still remember walking home in the dark, wondering if I'd be accepted into a prestigious writing seminar I'd applied to the night before. I reminded myself that soon the seminar, along with everything else, would be irrelevant. I felt that overwhelming relief again.
The last thing I can recall from that night is yanking a sheet of paper out of my journal to write "I'm sorry" to everyone I loved, and then leaning over the side of my bed to throw up.
Estimates show that one in 12 college students makes some kind of suicide plan. The National Institute of Mental Health pegs depression as the most common medical health problem for college students. Those students are part of a group of roughly 350 million human beings worldwide who struggle with depression.
"It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble," the author Andrew Solomon, who has struggled with depression his entire adult life, writes in his Pulitzer Prize-finalist book The Noonday Demon. "That more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less."
Depression is an ugly, selfish, all-consuming disease. It's the worst kind of vicious cycle. You feel guilty because you don't actually have anything tangible to be sad about. That paralyzing guilt makes you feel even more depressed. You alienate those closest to you because you don't want to bother them with your pain, even though you need them more than ever.
According to Solomon, fewer than half of people with depression receive any kind of treatment, and fewer than half of those individuals find it effective. The mind is an ever-changing enigma that can be impossible to regulate. Emotions come and go in a nebulous, uncontrollable swirl.
Depression is an ugly, selfish, all-consuming disease. It's the worst kind of vicious cycle.
During joyful moments, it's extraordinarily difficult to empathize with your depressed self.
During depressive episodes, you can't remember ever experiencing true happiness or imagine ever feeling it again.
Many doctors like to compare an antidepressant regimen to a diabetic regulating their blood sugar levels. "You wouldn't just stop taking your insulin because you feel better," they say. "Why would you stop taking pills that help your mood?"
But it's not so simple. Diabetes and other physical ailments are largely quantifiable. Consciousness, on the other hand, is a labyrinth of mysteries and malleable feelings. We can only ever consciously acknowledge a tiny sample of the deep complexities baked into our brains. You can't measure an antidepressant's effectiveness with a ruler or scale.
Instead, you rely on various cocktails of pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements and exercise routines, tracking incremental changes with the same imprecise mind that got you feeling depressed in the first place. Using the depressed mind as a tool to rewire itself can feel like an impossible feat.
I've heard the only true cure for depression is a deep and profound sense of self love. In order to achieve that, you must train yourself to love every part of yourself, darkness and all. But how can you love something you're so desperate to change? How can you use that love as a weapon to extinguish the very thing you are training yourself to love?
I awoke the morning after my overdose in a hospital bed, a catheter shoved up inside me, a stomach full of charcoal. My roommates had found me unconscious and called 911. Over the next few days, they paraded, traumatized, through the hospital, flowers and teddy bears and inspirational books in hand. I lay there in a numb trance, unable to process the gravity of what I had done.
I spent a week in a rehab center where they took away my sharp objects and walked with me to the bathroom every time I had to pee and checked on me once an hour while I slept. My parents spent a small fortune on bipolar tests and psychiatric evaluations and came away with a diagnosis of generalized depression punctuated by a tendency to overthink things.
I dropped out of school and moved back into my dad's house, the house I grew up in. I started taking Lexapro. I listened to Thich Nhat Hahn meditation podcasts and read mindfulness books by Pema Chodron. I did yoga every day.
I got into that writing seminar but declined. Instead, I enrolled in an intensive group therapy program, where I realized that other people, grandparents and teenagers, poor and rich, gay and straight, black and white, suffer from the same shit that I do.
I had long conversations with my father, learning that depression is deeply embedded in the roots of our family tree. He told me about my great-great uncle, who shot himself after immigrating to the United States from Eastern Europe. He recounted how depression had played out in his own life, how he suffered a severe bout of it during my early teens and could barely get out of bed. How he kept himself moving forward only for my brother and me.
I discovered that medication can actually work, that brain chemicals can be regulated, that I didn't have to feel the way I'd felt my whole life. Antidepressants weren't a cure-all, but they helped keep my toxic thoughts at a safe distance, especially when augmented by yoga and psychotherapy and patient loved ones.
I discovered that medication can actually work, that brain chemicals can be regulated, that I didn't have to feel the way I'd felt my whole life.
Depression began to feel like a manageable challenge rather than an untamed beast. I had power over it, and not vice versa.
Midway through my group therapy program, one of our participants jumped off a highway overpass at rush hour and died. She had spent the last session talking about how she was a bad mother because she let her young sons watch too much television.
The weight of what I had done to myself, how I'd come so close to giving up everything, finally overtook me. I vowed to get well enough to return to school.
I managed to graduate from Northwestern almost-on-time, walking across the stage in my bright purple cap and gown with the rest of my class. I landed an internship at San Francisco magazine and moved west.
I spent the next decade managing my depression in a way that one might manage any other commitment in their life. I still had bouts of self-doubt, some stronger than others, but each time I felt like crawling back into that failure cocoon I would recover after a couple days. I glided through a motley lineup of therapists, to each of whom I recited the story of my suicide attempt and my familiar array of issues.
It almost started to feel like any other hobby, hanging out with those therapists. There was the Argentine woman with braces and a formal handshake who told me in her clipped accent that low self-esteem was nothing but a crutch. The hip young surfer chick whom I would have rather been friends with. The awkward social work student who saw me on a sliding-scale fee after I quit my to work, unpaid, for a political campaign. The grandmotherly lady who fell asleep, sitting up, during multiple sessions.
I still worried constantly about a whole assortment of things: my performance at work, money, finding true love, my social life. I struggled with substance abuse and dated a some guys who didn't treat me that well. I felt like my professional success was more of a result of my inimitable bullshitting skills than talent and dedication. But I was moving forward without having to fumble through long periods of darkness.
Lexapro made me perpetually tired and a couple dozen pounds heavier. Sometimes I would go to bed at 7pm and not wake up until the next morning. My friends teased me for falling asleep in the middle of parties, for flaking on plans because I was "busy" and knowing that I was actually passed out on the couch.
Eventually, I decided to switch medications to one with fewer side effects that had worked well for my dad. I didn't have good mental health insurance, so I went to a fluorescent-lit, linoleum-floored walk-in clinic in the basement of a community center.
Schizophrenic homeless people stumbled around the waiting room, and the dial-a-psychiatrist spent five minutes sizing me up before he wrote me a prescription for the new pills. On the way out, he asked me why someone so pretty and successful would ever be depressed.
Right around my 30th birthday, I quit my job as deputy national editor of The Huffington Post and moved to Latin America alone. I wanted to take a "gap year" after half a decade in a fast-paced newsroom and dreamt of "seeing the world with my eyes, and not through my computer screen," as I frequently put it.
I took a three-month supply of antidepressants with me. On the way down, they were stolen out of my checked luggage. In broken Spanish, I tried to find a doctor who would re-prescribe them to me, but I soon discovered they didn't manufacture that brand outside the U.S. A friend managed to smuggle me some when she met up with me a few weeks later.
Taking the pills while I traveled grew from a minor annoyance into a chore, then into a chore that didn't feel like it was worth dealing with. But each time someone came to visit me, I made sure they'd bring a new supply so I'd never run out.
My travels eventually brought me down to Panama, to environmental research institute in the middle of the jungle, where I decided to stay and open up a journalism school. I got an apartment in a colonial neighborhood in Panama City, splitting my time between there and a tent on open-air platform in the jungle.
I discovered I loved teaching. I made tons of interesting new friends. I fell in love with a smart, funny and handsome guy who treated me better than anyone from my prior relationships. I was exhilarated, living in a neon tropical euphoria, ideas and inspiration constantly searing through my mind.
I didn't know what to make of all the happiness chemicals. Is this what life could actually feel like? It was nothing I'd ever experienced before. What was the catch?
Along the way, my final bottle of antidepressants diminished and then ran out completely. I decided not to refill it. What the heck, I thought. I'm feeling better than I ever have in my life. I don't need these anymore. I threw the empty bottle in the trash and proudly told my friends and family that I'd conquered my depression once and for all.
Depression is a sneaky villain, one that slowly creeps back into your consciousness, footprint by footprint. One day you feel down on yourself and the next day you feel fine. Then the darkness comes back more forcefully and you're hanging out in bed a little longer. Then a few days go by and you realize you haven't had any positive thoughts. Then all your favorite activities start to feel like obligations and all your obligations start to feel like insurmountable burdens.
You start measuring your days based on when you can take a nap. You make up reasons to yell at your boyfriend. You dread daylight because it means you can't hide in your room (or on your open-air jungle platform). Then your flip-flop breaks on a cobblestone street and you double over onto the nearest stoop in a fit of tears. The thought of buying a new pair of shoes feels as impossible as summiting Kilimanjaro.
One day you feel down on yourself and the next day you feel fine. Then the darkness comes back more forcefully and you're hanging out in bed a little longer. Then a few days go by and you realize you haven't had any positive thoughts.
I started taking my medication again right around the broken sandal incident. I waited for it to start working again. And I waited. And waited.
In the meantime, I had 12 journalism students hungry for my leadership. I threw myself into my curriculum, guiding them between Panama City and the jungle, devising creative field trips and workshops and lesson plans. I used my work to mask the unyielding anxiety that had set up camp inside my body.
The smallest things would send my mood plummeting down an icy black diamond ski slope: a student forgetting to turn in an assignment, a news article I'd missed, hearing about someone else's success. I started fights with my boyfriend daily. I felt tired and drained 100 percent of the time.
One morning, leading a lecture on the power of storytelling, I fantasized about what my own life story would look like if I ended it with flair. I would leave a legacy. Foundations would be named in my honor. And most importantly, I would never have to suffer again.
When I got home, I crept upstairs and peeked over the balcony's edge. A cheerful, languid Latin American afternoon unfolded below. A stray dog wandered past a pair of giggling tourists, a young mother balanced her baby on her hip, reggaeton blared out the window of a passing taxi.
I felt so disconnected I may as well have been watching a movie. I sprinted downstairs and into my bedroom, nose-diving onto my bed, burying my face between the pillow and the mattress, shaking, using that little dark space to muffle my sobs.
One of our most important rules for students in the jungle is to "toughen the fuck up." You can learn how to power your way through a monsoon-like rainstorm, or homesickness, or digging a trench in the mud, or discovering that a family of fire ants had made a comfortable home inside your half-eaten jar of peanut butter.
So I felt the opposite of tough when I realized my depression had ballooned into something I could no longer handle myself. That it was controlling me instead of me controlling it.
I felt the opposite of tough when I realized my depression had ballooned into something I could no longer handle myself. That it was controlling me instead of me controlling it.
With the support of my boyfriend and coworkers, I decided to return to the United States shortly after the semester ended to find some real, professional help. I felt like a failure for leaving my community behind. For returning to the safe and loving four walls of my dad's house, once more, just as I had in college.
I've been back in the U.S. for about a month now, and I've come to discover that asking for help when I needed it actually was my version of "toughening the fuck up." I'm back on medication that actually works. I'm doing yoga and meditating and journaling and spending quality time with people I care about. I'm writing and networking and reigniting the girlboss inside me.
Slowly but surely, my depression is lifting, just as it did a decade ago. It's beginning to feel like something I have control over again. My life has purpose. Giving myself time to heal has allowed me to rediscover strength, compassion, resilience and self-love. I probably won't return to Panama, but the loss of that opportunity means there's space for a new one.
I recently had dinner with one of my mentors, a woman who runs the yoga studio I went to growing up. She used to suffer from a debilitating form of depression that left her hospitalized for much of her adult life until she reached middle age. A regular yoga practice helped her to recover. Now, she brings yoga into schools and prisons and marginalized areas in the hopes that other people who struggle might find similar relief.
I recounted my story for her, and she reminded me that my life -- that any life -- is extraordinary if you allow it to be. That I deserved to get myself back to a place where I truly believed that. Then she told me something I'll never forget.
"Your depression is a gift," she said. "For the rest of your life, you will be able to deeply understand the suffering and pain of others. Use that. Help them realize they're not alone."
I've been wanting to write publicly about my depression, my flirtations with suicide, the harsh storms that have blustered through the arc of my life, for many years. Until now I've been too afraid to share my story. I didn't want to be pegged as that "depression girl" if someone were to Google me before a job interview or a first date.
But the more I talk openly about my struggles, the more I realize that my story is not unique. I've met so many people who walk around every day like I so often do, smiles slapped across their faces, crippled by a scalding pain on the inside. They're ashamed to talk about it and even more ashamed to ask for help.
The more I talk openly about my struggles, the more I realize that my story is not unique.
Maybe someday we'll all be less afraid to share our stories with one another. Maybe we will feel a little less alone when we find each other. Maybe, as we continue to talk about it, some of the stigma around mental health will begin to dissolve.
Maybe even one person will read what I have to say and feel a tiny bit better. Maybe she'll start to understand that she's not on this journey by herself. That help is out there if she can bring herself to ask for it. That she might be battling depression, but she's winning the battle simply by waking up each morning and continuing to live her life.
That she, like me, is a survivor.
Note: If reading my story makes you want to share your own, please write to me on Facebook. I would love to hear from you.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.