“I AM WEAK”
I have only ever self-harmed once in my life. It was sometime early in 2015. I did it more to prove to myself that I could than because I thought that it would actually help. “I AM WEAK.” That’s what I cut into my arms with the box-cutter in our dorm room. If anyone ever noticed, they never said anything. Over time, the “WEAK” that I wrote on my left arm faded away (I was worried that someone would walk in on me and so I did it quickly). That left the words “I AM” staring up at me from my right arm. I was embarrassed that I had cut myself. Cutting was something that hormonal teenagers looking for attention did, not supposed adults. I liked how it looked though. There were times when I would look at the phrase on my wrist and fill it in with however I was feeling: I AM STRONG, I AM GOOD, I AM WORTHLESS, etc. Sometimes, however, I would look down at those words as a complete sentence. “I AM.” I still don’t look at them with pride, but every time that my eyes drift down and notice the faint outline of those words it is a reminder that I still exist.
I’m not writing this to try and make you feel bad for me. I really don’t want your pity. There are people out there who have real, significant problems in their lives. Problems more significant than a brain that doesn't know how to shut up and be happy. No, the reason I’m writing this is to tell my story. Partly for the people in my life who I care about, and who deserve to know what I never had the courage to tell them in person. And partly for myself, because writing seems to help me get out of my head for a while.
I’m going to try to keep this as concise as possible, because I've had to tell it so many times to so many people that it’s just gotten stale to me. So here it goes…
I had never been diagnosed with depression, or any sort of mental illness, before I attended Notre Dame. My mom said that she was worried that something might be wrong with me once, because I would get really upset before piano lessons, but after that I changed my attitude and she never brought it up again. Also, I became very despondent one night in high school after I failed to turn in an internship that my parents hoped that I would turn in. My friends asked me to hang out and I just blew them off. I didn't want to see anyone. Looking at that last example, it’s probably likely that I was depressed long before I was ever formally diagnosed. My depression was just easy to hide in high school. I looked at my life and felt like I was happy. I had a great group of friends, was doing great in school, participating in lots of choirs and sports. It was easy to look at how things were going and say, “Yeah, everything’s going great, of course I’m happy.”
When I got to college, I didn't have friends, success, or extracurriculars to hide behind. I was naked. It was easy, and arrogant, to assume that success in high school would translate to success in college. I felt confident my senior year of high school. All of those times I wondered if I would ever make friends freshman year were a thing of the past. I was a new man, more than ready to take on the world. (Obviously) that was not the case at all. I’m still not sure why things were so bad that first year at Notre Dame. Maybe it was because I didn't have a roommate around to latch onto and wear down until he liked me and included, like I did the second time around. Maybe it was, like I've said to people before, that I just didn't have the same support network in college that I had had in high school. Or maybe I was just too immature to know that success requires work. For whatever reason, my first year at Notre Dame was incredibly hard. I struggled in class and didn't feel close to anyone. After I was formally diagnosed with “Mild Depression from Adjustment Disorder” over Easter break of that first year, I just stopped going to class. I stopped going to the dining hall. I stopped doing anything. I would eat 1 meal a day, because I felt like I had to, and lay in bed for as long as I could. Finally, about 2 weeks before finals, Fr. Ralph, our dorm rector, knocked on my door and said he needed to talk with me. I said “Okay,” and proceeded to lay in bed for 15 more minutes. Eventually, he knocked again, and said that he really needed to speak with me. I asked if I had time to shower and he said “no.” So I went to go talk with the rector, still in my pajamas approaching noon on a weekday. He told me that if I didn't withdraw that day, that I would fail all of my classes. To be honest, I was relieved. Finally, someone had made the decision for me that I couldn't make for myself. I filled out the paperwork and called my parents. I wouldn't say that they were happy, but they just wanted me to be happy and healthy, so they understood. I left pretty soon after the paperwork went through, but not after a big group of guys from my dorm took me to lunch. I've always appreciated that. They made me feel like family even when they hardly knew me.
Being home was hard. I watched friends from high school get nice internships and gush about opportunities to travel abroad, all while I was working at Qdoba trying to prove to my parents that I was mentally stable enough to go overseas like I wanted. They eventually agreed to let me go, but it was pretty obvious that I wasn't okay. I missed the first flight I was supposed to take to Spain, because I overslept and never packed. Then I was supposed to call them and tell the family that I wasn't going to make it, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I was crushed when they called late that night asking where I was. I lied and said that I wasn't sure that I was supposed to come because I had never received confirmation that they would pick me up. That was the first of several times that I let my Spanish family down. I managed to book another flight the next week and began my international adventure: the story that everyone wanted to hear when I got back. Honestly, it was hard. Anyone who has ever met me can attest to the fact that I’m not a people person, and being in a foreign country forced to teach a 13-year-old boy, who was almost as shy as I was, was a monumental task. One that was made even more difficult by my still very-much-present depression. I won’t go into details, but I did very little to actually experience the country. I didn't go out with the other Au Pairs, and I didn't start going out to explore on my own until very late in my trip. My family was kind enough to take me to Avila and Toledo, so I did get to see more than a very small section of Madrid, but I definitely did not take advantage of the opportunity like people think I did. The mom cried when she dropped me off at the airport to go home. I felt so guilty. I didn't DESERVE her love. I was a failure. Her son would leave my tutelage no better at English than if I had never come at all. They used to send me emails regularly, but it became too hard for me to respond. They still send me Christmas presents. I want them to know that I still care about them, but I’m so ashamed that they were so great to me when I was so horrible to them.
After I got back I tried to keep moving forward with my life. I took a class to become a CNA (Certified Nurse’s Aide), and mostly enjoyed it. It wasn't as “medical” as I was hoping for, though, so I enrolled in the EMT class at St. Vincent’s Hospital. This was much closer to an actual college class. The textbook is several inches thick, and I haven’t read a word of it. I had hoped that things would be different this time. That my experiences had actually changed me. I hadn't studied much for the CNA class, but I hadn't needed to. Now, however, I needed to study… to put in the work. I never did, though. The fact that my work could literally save a life should have been enough to motivate me… but it wasn't. I put off the clinicals and CPR class until, literally, the last possible week. After I turned in all of my clinical hours though, the teacher told me that I hadn't completed enough of the coursework and that I would fail the class… that I shouldn't show up the next day to prepare for the skills test. That drive home was probably the closest that I have ever come to actually committing suicide. I thought long and hard about driving into the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane. I had failed again. I was a FAILURE. I had been given great opportunities to succeed and all I did was throw them away. Ultimately, I was too weak to turn the wheel. I got home and lied to my mom about how the last day of class was, telling her that I was going to skills practice the next day. I went up to my room and finished the stack of homework that had built up on my desk. I would at least prove to myself that I could do it. I drove to class the next day and turned the homework in. As I was walking away, the teacher came out and asked if I would wait around while he added this all up. I needed an 80% to pass the class, and ended up with something like an 80.4%. He let me take the skills test that weekend. I passed. I still haven’t taken the written exam, and I’m not sure that I ever will, but I owe more to my teacher than he will likely ever know for giving me another chance.
I knew not long after I dropped out that I wanted to come back to the University of Notre Dame. I emailed my adviser about filling out the paper work while I was still in Spain, but I was informed that the application wasn't due until the following April.
“Can I be honest? I’m going back to school on Sunday… and I’m terrified. I know that I CAN do it, but I’m terrified that my mind is going to fail me again. That I’ll return and it’ll be the same thing. I see this as my last chance to succeed. I've been blessed with too many second chances.”
That’s what I wrote on August 22 at 2:20am. For a while after I arrived, I was worried that things would be the same. My roommates seemed nice, but I remember telling my therapist that I didn't feel a connection with them, that I wasn't sure that we would ever actually be friends. Looking back now I feel like an idiot. My roommates put up with my intense introversion way longer than most people. By the time Christmas break rolled around, I almost felt comfortable calling them friends. By the time I dropped out, they felt more like brothers. That’s why it was so hard for me to understand why I was still struggling SO much. I was attending therapy every 2 weeks, developing a good group of friends, even working out regularly. For some reason, though, I could never put forth the effort in class that I know I’m capable of. My therapist would blame this on the academically strenuous nature of Notre Dame, and of the misconception that other students have about how hard their peers are working. Our self esteem is so closely tied to academics that performing poorly causes us to view ourselves as less valuable people. To some extent, a large extent, I definitely agree with that. In many ways, academics has been the only way that I have ever measured myself. But having that taken away from me, I looked at the rest of my life and realized that it was barren. I didn't, still don’t really, feel passionate about anything. I like to think that I’m a good person, but what evidence do I really have to support that? I don’t devote my free time to helping at food pantries or other charitable organizations. I like to believe that I’m a strong-willed person, but what evidence do I have to support that? I haven’t studied more than a few hours for any college test and I don’t pursue any passions. I like to believe that I’m a nice person, but what evidence do I have to support that? Most people who have met me would characterize me as aloof at best. How do I know that I’m ACTUALLY depressed, and not just lazy and weak? I have been given great gifts. I feel like any normal person would be able to turn my moderate skills into a very successful life, but I CAN’T EVEN FINISH ONE WHOLE YEAR OF COLLEGE.
By now, I hope you understand why I had to drop out again. I stayed on campus for weeks after I was technically supposed to leave, so that I would be able to spend as much time as possible with my friends. It killed me to leave them behind like that. To let someone else important to me down again… but I had to. There are no awards for surviving college. No medical school or job is going to give me a chance just because I finished. I don’t want to look back on my time in college and wonder what could have been. I need to have my head on straight. More importantly, though, I need to be happy.
I’m sure that there’s something more that I could say here, but I think I've said everything that matters. It’s already way longer than I meant it to be. In these next few paragraphs I’m going to answer a few questions that some people have asked me or that I imagine people might want to ask.
What does it feel like?
Obviously this one is kind of tricky to answer, because it’s different for every person and even varies from day to day. If I ever feel depression physically, which I don’t usually, it most commonly feels like a heaviness in my whole body. I just want to lay down and not get up. Other times, though, it feels like a ball behind my sternum that’s wound too tightly making me desperate to get up and move around.
Mentally, though, I think that this video does a pretty good job of showing that state of mind.
If you watched the whole thing then you’re probably saying, “There’s no way I would pay for something like that.” If it actually existed, I’m not sure that I wouldn't. Dying happy vs living miserably, constantly consumed by your own failures… I don’t know.
Now, I’m definitely not in some depressed mood all the time. I can still be happy, ecstatic even. It’s just that I get down on myself a lot more frequently and severely than the average person, or that’s my impression anyway.
How Can I Help?
A fair number of people have asked me this, both for myself and for people they know, and I’m still honestly not sure. I've found that the best way to get through to me is to share a similar experience or feeling, but if I get the impression that you don’t actually understand I won’t end up telling you anything. Obviously, just being there and asking me how I’m doing every so often is appreciated, even if I never actually tell you anything.
However, some of my issues and symptoms may be slightly different than the ones you have experience with/knowledge of. That’s because during one of my final therapy sessions at Notre Dame, I said something that prompted my therapist to recommend that I take a personality test. I didn't think that it would reveal anything, but apparently I tested positive for something called Schizoid Personality Disorder. I’m still skeptical, and a LOT more testing and therapy is necessary before any sort of diagnosis like that will be formally administered, but it might explain some of the difficulties that I have.
Basically, SPD would mean that I tend to lack interest in/avoid close personal relationships. For example, at the risk of revealing too much personal information, over Spring Break this year I brought up how much I had been struggling to my parents. One night, my dad came down to the basement where I was playing video games and got very emotional. He wanted me to know that he loved me and that he was always there for me. While he was hugging me and clearly demonstrating just how much he cared for me, I bit my lip to stop from laughing. For some reason, I imagined that he thought that this would be some kind of Good Will Hunting moment, where I would break down and realize that everything would be okay because I had people who loved me.
I guess the point I’m trying to make with that story is: sometimes love and care just isn't enough. Depression is a mental illness, as much as you can hope that your affection and support can help someone, that isn't always the case. Make sure that they know you care, but don’t get discouraged and feel like their problems somehow mean that you've failed as a friend, parent, significant other, etc.
Why are you depressed?
This might seem like the sort of thing that I wouldn't know. Or if I did that it would be easy enough to just address that issue and get on my life. At least, that’s what I thought for a long time. Actually spending time in therapy and focusing on my own mental health, however, has shown me that this isn't the case.
In the simplest terms possible, I’m depressed because I’m too hard on myself. I give everyone around me the benefit of the doubt, but don’t give myself that same benefit. I can see how the people around me are good, intelligent, hard-working people, but can’t see those same traits in myself. Also, I have a very hard time trusting anything positive that anyone has to say about me. I think part of that is because I, for some reason, believe that everyone in my life is settling for me. That they’re only friends with me because I’m the best option available at this moment in time. My family loves me because they’re my family and they have to: that’s what families do.
I can write that, read how ridiculous that sounds, hear other people tell me how ridiculous that is, and still not be able to shake those thoughts. That is just a part of mental illness. Just because I can recognize the symptoms, doesn't mean that I can simply think them away. The road to recovery involves finding out how to change my most basic thought processes, how I see the world, and working to make those changes permanent. In some ways, it’s a little like learning to walk again, or rebuilding my shot in basketball. I have been looking at myself this way for most of my life, whether I realized it or not, and now I have to learn how to think all over again.
Have you ever tried to kill yourself?
I kind of answered this in my unexpectedly long narrative section, but no. I haven’t. I've thought about it a LOT, though. There was time late last year when, for some reason, I couldn't get the thought out of my head. Whenever my brain would finish a thought, a voice would interject, “Well, you could always kill yourself.” Sometimes it was morbidly funny, like “I wonder what’s for lunch today? Well, you could always kill yourself.” Other times, though, it wasn't so funny.
On one of my worst days, I wrote down:
“Not sure if I’m strong or weak for not taking a knife to my wrist…
Now laugh and smile like it’s all a joke.”
Maybe I am weak… but if I’m too weak to commit suicide then I’m content living my life simply knowing that I am.
Alright, it’s 3:40am, and I think I said everything that I wanted to say.
Thanks for reading, even if you didn't read the whole thing (it’s ridiculously long) I appreciate it.
Feel free to message me any questions or comments, especially if they have to do with someone struggling with depression, I’m happy to help however I can.