A Mind That He Would Set Free

Johane Alexis-Phanor
7 min readOct 31, 2021

I don’t remember how long I was trapped in that room. Days blended into weeks which blended into months. All I know is that in January of 2011, I moved back home to live with my mother after having dropped out of medical school. And in that year, I experienced the worst depressive episode I had ever experienced before that time or would ever experience after that time. My mind became trapped inside my body. I can only describe it as some form of locked-in-syndrome. My mind was fully conscious and functioning but it was incapable to will my body to leave the room. Unlike locked-in-syndrome, I still had all my motor functions. I still could move and speak, but instead of exercising the free will to get up, I felt like a prisoner trapped in a bed in that dark room.

I had tried 3 times to complete my first year as a medical student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). The first time, I lasted only 47 days in school. The second time in the 2007–2008 academic year, I managed to complete the first semester. Then finally, in the 2009–2010 academic year, I would make it halfway through the second semester before ceasing to attend classes. By May of 2010, it was clear to the academic board that after having tried 3 times and being granted 2 leaves of absences, I would not be given any more chances to pursue a medical degree. I was asked to formally withdraw.

But my illness didn’t start in medical school. It started in March of 2006 when I was a senior at Wellesley College. But at the time, I failed to recognize the insidious signs of the disease. After years of being the sole caretaker of a chronically sick mother, I faced several family illnesses which gravely impacted me and broke me down. At one point, my mother, my grandmother and my uncle were all hospitalized at once. I traveled back and forth from Wellesley to Boston where I would visit my mother at Beth Israel Hospital and then walk a few blocks to visit my grandmother and my uncle at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. At the end of this stressful stage in my life, my grandmother who was like a second mother to me, passed away. The day of my grandmother’s wake, I was accepted into medical school. A few weeks after, I graduated from Wellesley. And a couple of months later in the Fall of 2006, I began medical school. Looking back now, I realize that I never allowed myself the time to heal from the grief over my grandmother’s death or to care for the child who had been looking after a sick parent since the age of 7.

A relic of the past- my white coat from medical school
My White Robe from Medical School

The years of chronic stress and the lack of self-care culminated into a thunderstorm of depressive symptoms once I arrived to medical school. At the end of each school-day, I felt overwhelmed and could not bear to stay in the school-building. I would rush home every afternoon and promptly get into bed and stay there. It became very difficult for me to study. I could not focus. Thinking that I just needed to find the perfect study spot, I would spend hours moving from the medical library to an open study room to a coffee shop close by and then finally to my living room apartment where I was no more successful in reviewing that day’s lessons. Other times, I felt this heavy oppressive feeling. It was as if I was being pushed down into the ground every time I tried to sit and study. My sleeping habits changed to the point where it became extremely difficult for me to wake up in the mornings. Needless to say, it was impossible for me to function as a medical student. And though I took leaves of absences thinking that all I needed was time to rest, I would come back to school somewhat better equipped to be a student but never having received the proper healing and restoration that I so desperately needed.

And that is how I came to be trapped in that room. I left medical school and everything I had worked so hard for at that point in my life was gone. Everything that I took pride in and everything that I had built my identity on: my intelligence, my drive, my academic accomplishments, and my long held dream to become a physician were all taken away from me. The real me was buried somewhere deep inside and what was left was a shell of my former self.

I lay in bed day and night in a dark room physically unable to leave. The only time I had any human interaction was when my mother would come in to hand me a meal coincidentally in what looked like an inmate’s stainless steel plate. At one point, my mind told me to take the dresser and to push it in front of the door. This would ensure that I would have no unnecessary interactions with my mother. My mother knocked, pleaded with me to open the door. She threatened to call the police but I did not relent.

I was severely depressed in medical school but this was something different. In school, I would occasionally make it to class. Even if I spent the whole day in bed, I would get up in the middle of the night to walk the bridge over Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester and into the shopping area with restaurants to buy a meal. But this time, I could not even leave my room. I felt paralyzed.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

The physical prison that I had created for myself mirrored my mental imprisonment. Most of the time I slept, but when I woke up I would hear my mother singing and praying in the room next to me. She never stopped praying for me and I would hear her on the phone line with other friends interceding to God on my behalf. I had no recognition of when the days began and when they ended. The curtains were drawn, the lights were shut off, my dresser was pressed firmly against my bedroom door, and I lay under a thick blanket.

I desperately wanted to leave and I wanted to be set free but I was physically unable to escape. I could not find the urge nor the strength to leave that room. Neither my mind nor my spirit could speak to my limbs to say, “Get up!” It was like being in a pseudo-vegetative state.

One night, I dreamt that I was walking alone through a massive fortress. I was looking for a way out but the fortified walls were so tall that I could not even see over them. This stronghold was so enormous that I was dwarfed in size in comparison. I walked and walked lost in that citadel searching desperately for an exit. When I could not walk anymore, in despair I collapsed into a ball on the floor knowing that I would never be able to leave. When I woke up from the dream, I whispered to God quietly, “Lord, please help me.”

I don’t know how long it took and why I opened the door when my mother knocked but one morning, I opened the door to my mother. She handed me the phone and said, “Someone wants to speak to you.” It was a woman by the name of Ms. Yolande Paraison. She said, “I’ve been praying for you, Johane. Do you want to come to church with me?” I said “yes” not thinking much of it. But this was the answer to the quiet prayer I had made to God to save me.

With God’s strength, I went to church the next weekend with Ms. Yolande. I had not left that room in months, but on that Sunday, I managed to get dressed and make it to church. My mother was surprised. Even Ms. Yolande was surprised. Today, I can say with certainty that God heard my prayer and He brought me out utter darkness.

It has been a long journey of healing and restoration since that time and though the road to recovery has not been perfect, I have never returned to that prison and I never will.

This piece was inspired by Clifford Whittingham Beers, mental health advocate and author of “A Mind that Found Itself”

Joy for the Depressed Black Girl is all the wisdom and knowledge I’ve gained from living with severe depression for 15 years. It is information I wish someone had shared with me at 22 years old at the onset of my mental health struggles. This series covers everything from faith and spirituality, career, and relationships; gives useful resources; and provides a holistic approach to healing.

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Johane Alexis-Phanor

I write about racial & gender equity, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, faith, and mental health to empower Black communities | Fundraising Consultant