This is Not a Story of Success

Please note that the following includes mentions of suicide, alcohol abuse, overdose, and psychiatric hospitalization.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. If you or someone you know needs immediate psychiatric care, please dial 9–1–1.

This is not a story of success.

As a relatively recent but not quite fresh Yale alumnus, I should be settling into my young adult life by now. Not only have I wrapped up my Bright College Years, I’ve also spent a full year as a somewhat real adult.

This fall, many of my former classmates will start law school, finish Fulbrights, get married, move to Hong Kong, get promotions, or do many of the other wonderful things you announce in a Facebook life event to the fanfare of a few hundred likes and dozens of scattered loves and wows.

I’m working retail full-time and living in a part of Indiana whose most memorable contribution to the history books comes in the form of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”

While others of my classmates spent the past year exploring Madrid or finishing up their MPH, I have spent mine trying just to stay alive.

This is not a story of success.

I’ve struggled with mental illness my whole life. I’ve had minor depressive episodes here and there. I’ve struggled with my weight. I’ve abused alcohol. But this year has been different.

In the summer of 2015, I had what I thought then was the perfect post-grad life. I was off to start my graduate education at Purdue with full funding, I had graduated with distinction in my major, my long-term boyfriend had just met my family to resounding success, and I felt both happy and fulfilled.

By the summer of 2016, I had been to more than one psychiatric hospital in more than one state, spent a night in jail, and attempted suicide twice. In just one year’s time, I’ve found myself with no graduate school, no boyfriend, and no future plans of which to speak.

By all of the usual Yale metrics, and especially compared to dozens of my peers, my post-graduate life has been a complete failure.

I’m not out pursuing my dreams. I haven’t even sold out successfully. I’m not making any money, and I’m definitely not changing the world. And that’s okay.

Early on in 2016, on the heels of a turbulent end to a long relationship, I attempted suicide for the first time. Shortly afterwards I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and I was told that I may be experiencing what’s known to mental health professionals as a “mixed episode.” In other words, since February of this year, I have been experiencing simultaneous symptoms of Bipolar mania and severe depression. Along with turning my already difficult breakup into a disaster, my symptoms also made it impossible for me to stay enrolled in school and hold on to my dream summer internship. With each of the blows my illness has dealt to my personal and professional lives, it has also made recovery seem more and more impossible. After all, how do you recover from an illness that causes triggers for itself?

The truth is that I’m not quite sure. Like I said, this is not a story of success. Just over one month ago I was hospitalized again for suicidal ideation. Some mornings, I still question whether or not it’s worth it to get out of bed. I haven’t triumphed over my illness. My recovery is far from over. And that’s okay. Sometimes, I find it hard to log onto my Facebook and find that yet another one of my classmates is living one of the many life paths I once imagined for myself. Sometimes, I wonder what it might be like to have had my life go as planned. Other times I remind myself that I’m literally lucky to be alive. I remind myself that I was lucky to get a today, and I’ll be lucky to get a tomorrow, and that’s good enough.

While I definitely consider my story a work-in-progress, it’s taken a lot of help to get me this far. I know for a fact that Yalies can be bad at asking for help, but it’s important to remember that we all need it from time to time, and that includes professional help. From the friends who called 911 after my overdose, to the psychiatrist who first discovered I needed antipsychotic mood stabilizers, I have a lot of people to thank for getting me this far in my journey. I owe it to all of them to try and push myself to find my own definition of success.

The traditional Ivy League metrics of success aren’t meant for those of us with serious mental illnesses. I’m not going to spend the next year of my life teaching English in rural China. I won’t make six figures at Goldman or BCG. Success for me comes in the form of being able to keep a job with health benefits (that I happen to like), taking all of my medications on time, and deciding every morning that it’s a day worth living. You may not find me in a Yale brochure any time soon, but I’m alive, and sometimes, that has to be good enough.

Javier Cienfuegos is a 2015 graduate of Yale College and a full-time sales consultant at Best Buy in Lafayette, IN.