One year into my graduate program at Harvard, I found myself in the grips of the worst bout of depression I’ve ever experienced. I say ‘worst’ because this was my fourth time grappling with this demon that had stalked me since age ten. Previously, I had been able to claw my way back from all kinds of challenges: a childhood in which I endured mental and emotional cruelty at the hands of my mentally-ill mother; the murder of my father when I was in high school; the lonely years spent in college far away from my family. This time, I just couldn’t get up. I literally could not get up from my bed for almost six weeks, missing a huge chunk of classes that semester and countless hours at my job with Harvard Library Technical Services.
Precipitating this crisis was a decision I had made in the fall of 2014 to put off applications to doctoral programs, a dream I had been working toward for four years at that point. As I began to accept the implications of my choice, I started to feel as if I had relinquished the entire purpose of my life. It sounds dramatic, but I pushed my social life, extracurriculars, dating and so forth to the periphery in the singular pursuit of academic excellence. I truly believed that a life in academia was my calling and all else was secondary.
The choke-hold of depression that semester jeopardized my academic standing, frayed my friendships, compromised my financial well-being and wreaked havoc upon my life in ways that I am still tabulating. A dear friend of mine in my graduate program took me by the hand and led me toward the services and professionals that would help me emerge from a fog of inertia and hopelessness. What my friend Nora did for me with such kindness and generosity is an act for which I am ever grateful.
Fitfully over the weeks and months that followed, I laid the groundwork for recovery with the help of medication, my therapist and psychiatrist, exercise, taking up new hobbies and the love and care of my friends. As anyone who has suffered from depression knows, you don’t experience discrete periods of depression versus ‘not-depression.’ Rather, you lap along each day using every fiber of your being to keep your head above water as much as possible.
To this day, I remain mystified as to why this particular experience of depression had crippled me as it did because I had survived worse. Growing up, my family and I were at a loss for how to simultaneously love our mom and insulate ourselves from the effects of her mental illness which for decades has gone unchecked by any kind of treatment plan. Without notice, our mom can devolve into extended fits of paranoia, mania, abusive language, physical violence, threats of blackmail, and what many might describe as sociopathic behavior. Her mind is such that once she develops a narrative about a given situation, she is unwilling, perhaps unable, to respond to new information making it impossible to have a dialogue or negotiate with her or to “talk her down.” Once she is locked into an “episode,” the only recourse is to endure a barrage of abuse or to retreat elsewhere until the episode passes. For my siblings and me, there was nothing unusual about fleeing to our older sister’s apartment in Houston over summers or to be questioned by police about various incidents within the family and then have to go on to school.
When I look back on all of these crises, I can hear my grandmother whom I revere in the back of my mind telling me, “Be good, be brave, and be yourself.” Going through depression in graduate school galvanized me to do more with my experiences. No longer was it enough for me simply to be good or to be brave or to be myself without apology. I wanted to follow a fourth admonition my grandmother gave me which is to “stand on your own two feet.” Having had such a chaotic upbringing, I turned to reading and learning and education as my refuge. Looking at the world from a cool, academic remove has often felt more comfortable to me than having to explain to other people or even to myself what my life is really like. Naturally, I wanted to educate myself about mental health issues and then to use my learning in the service of others in the spirit of my alma mater Howard University’s motto “Veritas et Utilitas” — Truth and Service. That’s why in the semester after my mental health crisis, I took a course in Harvard’s Department of Psychology entitled “Stress, Coping, and Resilience.”
This was an upper-level undergraduate course led by a Harvard Junior Fellow whom I will call “Dr. Horowitz.” Dr. Horowitz facilitated our course in such a way that led my classmates and me to feel as if we were all in an ongoing dialogue with one another. I absorbed the finer points of so many concepts ranging from self-care to psychopathy to positive interventions and we were also required to engage in our own positive interventions such as writing down three good things that occurred during the day and writing a letter of gratitude to someone with whom we hadn’t had much contact recently.
This past summer after graduating from my program at Harvard, I spent some time with friends in New York City where I learned about this incredible service called Crisis Text Line. My friend Katie is a Columbia University alumna and public health professional who introduced me to CTL and encouraged me to apply as a volunteer with the program. I believe Crisis Text Line is a great example of how technology can be harnessed to improve people’s lives and in this instance, to save them. Too often, we hear about new apps and start-ups that claim they will revolutionize their fields. Crisis Text Line is different because it’s not premised on magic and fairy tales but on crisis counselors reaching people through text to walk them through the kinds of trauma that we all will inevitably face in life. As of this writing, I am in my third week of training as a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line and I’m hard pressed to think of anything I’ve done in my life that makes me feel so rewarded and proud.
What I love the most about the Crisis Text Line training so far is the emphasis on saving lives. It’s not a service that promises or suggests a happy ending to our texters. Having gone through my share of battles in life, I know there is no such thing as a happy ending. Whether you’re experiencing depression or you’re suicidal or dealing with substance abuse or grieving the loss of a loved one, each day is a fight that you have to meet with every resource you can. In America especially, our mental health infrastructure at the state and federal level is inadequate for dealing with the mental health and substance abuse issues that run rampant through our communities. I’m grateful that Crisis Text Line and others are stepping in to try to begin to fill the void. And I certainly don’t believe as a society that we talk enough about mental health nor do we have the language to tackle this subject honestly, openly, and effectively. I am not a mental health professional or a psychologist (as critical as they are) but I don’t think you should have to be one to be able to talk about this issue that reverberates on a social, economic, and political level. I feel that this is my mission: to give everyone the chance as my grandmother always told me to stand on their own two feet. I want to start a dialogue. I’m just getting started and I hope that my friends, family, and all the people I’m able to reach on this platform and many more will join me in breaking through the stigma and misinformation about mental health and giving it the attention and resources it deserves.