I am totally not okay and that’s (kind of) fine

I don’t remember how old I was when I first started showing symptoms of depression, but I will never forget how old I was when someone first did something about it.

med school was pretty rough for me. I didn’t really want to be there, but things weren’t fantastic at home, so I spent a lot of time on campus just trying to escape. the upshot of that — because I guess every cloud has a silver lining — was that I ended up making a few really good friends, and one of those friends was bryce.

I hope bryce doesn’t mind me telling this story, because it’s the story of how he probably ended up saving my life.

it was our second year, and life was taking its toll on me. my parents had just been through an extremely bitter, protracted and messy divorce, and I was two years into a degree that I was increasingly sure I didn’t want to finish. I was struggling to come to terms with a sexuality that was at odds with a faith community from which I felt ostracised. (I hadn’t yet told anyone I was queer, and wouldn’t for a while yet, which was rough in its own way — being in the closet is a very particular kind of torture.) I wasn’t sleeping or eating or doing any of the things you’re meant to do to take care of yourself, which was my way of punishing myself for…existing? for not being good enough? I wasn’t sure. I just knew that the life I was living wasn’t the life I was meant to be living, and I was filled with the conviction that it was my fault somehow.

I tried praying about it. I tried writing in my diary about it. I tried drowning my feelings in work, in the usual maladaptive coping mechanisms — insomnia, caffeine, tv marathons, unreciprocated crushes on emotionally unavailable boys. none of it worked, and part of the reason why is because I didn’t really understand what the problem was. I just knew that I was tired all the time. I think I assumed everyone else felt that way too and was just better at dealing with it.

enter bryce, stage right.

we were sitting together at lunch between classes, and he looked at me — just sort of stared at me for a second, like he was actually seeing me — and he asked, “are you okay?”

immediately defensive, I replied, “yeah, why?”

bryce, who is three months older than me in age and infinitely my elder in wisdom, replied, “because you’re usually really good at hiding how tired you look, so if you look tired, something really must be wrong.”

that, in a nutshell, is the story of how I realised I was depressed.

I didn’t want to believe him, at first. I am extremely stubborn and have an ego large enough to have its own gravitational pull, and I didn’t want to believe that there was anything wrong with me. the stigma surrounding mental illness is so huge and toxic and pervasive, and to be told that you are mentally ill is to take on that stigma. bryce wasn’t the first person to ask me if I was okay. teachers had been trying since I was a teenager. I didn’t listen because I didn’t want to believe that anything could be wrong with me, that the cloud of stigma could be associated with me.

I still don’t want to believe it, sometimes. when I look at the list of diagnoses on my care plan — bipolar, borderline, depressed, anxious, maladaptive (did they just put a bunch of sticky notes on a dartboard and take aim?) — I feel as though this must all be a mistake. there are days when I ask myself what’s wrong with me, what I did to get here, why me and not other people. I understand why people don’t get help, because it took me a long time to get help. it took a lot of people asking me if I was okay before I answered honestly that I wasn’t. it’s a tough question to ask, but it’s a tougher question to answer.

but as I tell bryce every time I see him — not so often these days, since he lives on the other side of the state — I am so, so glad he asked, because I needed people to keep asking me. I needed all my teachers in high school to ask, even though I wasn’t ready to answer them yet, and I needed my other friends over the years to ask me, even though I wasn’t ready to answer them yet either. and I needed bryce to ask me one lunchtime between classes in our second year of medical school, because I was finally ready to answer, and answering him saved my life.

since posts like this generally end in a take-home message, I guess I have two.

if you have a friend or loved one you’re worried about, take the time to ask them if they’re okay. don’t just do it today. don’t wait for the right moment. ask them. maybe they won’t be ready to answer. I wasn’t ready for years. ask them anyway. you might be the first step on their path to getting the help they need. even if you aren’t, you might be the reminder they need that there are people in their life who care about them enough to ask. all those teachers in high school who asked me if I was okay? I wasn’t ready to answer them yet, but I did appreciate them asking. I was a snotty little brat, of course, and never told them that, but they helped me more than they knew. sometimes just knowing that people care enough to ask is the push you need to last one more day. sometimes one more day is more than you thought you’d get.

and if you aren’t okay, I promise it’s all right to admit that. I know it’s scary to say it out loud. I still struggle with it. I see a therapist every week, and when he asks me how my week has been, I have to stop myself from lying and saying it’s been fine. hand to my heart, the hardest thing I have to do most weeks is admit to the medical professionals who are paid to help me that I actually do need their help. pride is a helluva drug. but you are not the only person living through this. I know it feels like you are. that’s the thing about mental illness — it isolates you. it makes you feel like you are the only person who is this weak, this helpless, this hopeless. you aren’t. so many of us feel like this, and so many of us have been where you are, and so many of us need help too. it’s not just you, and you are not any less a person for admitting that you’re struggling.

today is about awareness-raising, and that’s great, but mental illness kills people every day. if you know someone who you think might need help, don’t wait to reach out. and if you’re struggling, don’t wait to ask. I started on my road to recovery the day I finally accepted that I wasn’t okay. it’s been a rough road, and I have many miles left to travel, but the one thing I’ll never regret is taking that first step.

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