To Bedlam and Part Way Back

All credit for the title goes to Anne Sexton.

I. Questions

There is a standard set of questions that get asked when people are first attempting to get to know one another: favorite color, biggest fear, the one thing you would bring to a deserted island. Some of my answers change, but when people ask me about the happiest day of my life, I always say the same thing: the day I was accepted into MIT.

The early action decisions were released at 12:17pm on December 17th, 2011. My hands were shaking as I navigated to the website. My fingertips were so sweaty I could barely keep pressure on my computer’s track pad. I closed my eyes as the page loaded and when I opened them, my world was different.

People never ask about the worst day. It makes sense, really, as small talk with a stranger is like skipping a flat rock across the ocean, making small ripples in each others’ realities without ever breaking the surface. But if they were to ask, they might be surprised to learn that lowest low was just as much tied to MIT as the greatest day of my life so far.

The worst day was April 26th, 2013. It was exactly 495 days after my best day. This may seem like no time at all, but many things happened in between.

II. Before

I was a very bouncy little kid. My energy bubbled over through my words. I spoke quickly and at length about anything and everything, to anyone who would listen to me. While other kids in my class played soccer in the yard, I trailed the supervising teacher rambling about books, nature and science. I was one of those kids who fell in love with being older, with growing into a tall, beautiful person with a brain full of wisdom and wit.

When I entered the seventh grade, I switched to a new, private, all-girls school across town. On my first day, I wore a gigantic white training bra for the first time under my uniform. When my group changed for gym class, I noticed two girls in real, feminine purple underwear looking at my Sasquatch of a bra and smiling knowingly at each other. My first lesson in middle school was that when people didn’t like something about you, they would let you know.

And there were a lot of things they didn’t like about me.

They didn’t like my short hair. They didn’t like way I spoke. How I could ramble forever about subjects that interested me. How I would raise my hand too many times in class and seem too happy, too excited about learning something new. I made strange jokes and laughed at strange things.

The lesson was pounded into me, far more intensely than any academic knowledge — you are not one of us. Me and them. Me and them. Me versus them. They outnumbered me heavily on all fronts. Every day I would come home from school drenched in sweat and weighed down by the fight. My backpack would hit the wood floor with a hollow thud. To me, it sounded like my heart falling out of my chest.

And so I did what every party does in the face of inevitable, horrific defeat: I surrendered. My white flag was growing out my hair, wearing trendy clothes that felt like a Halloween costume and systematically normalizing every aspect of myself that my classmates found offensive. I was still my weird, energetic self around my family, but I lived a different life at school.

The lifeline that kept me from being sucked under by my anxiety was my schoolwork. I had always been intelligent, and since I felt like I was doing a terrible job at all other aspects of being a functioning person, achieving in school was the only thing that made me feel normal. I began to study like I was possessed. My assignments began to rise way beyond the requirements for passing. I worked late into the night, my eyes swollen and bleary from staring into my computer screen. I wanted 100% on every assignment. I wanted more than 100%. The perpetual state of exhaustion from working so hard kept the anxiety at bay.

High school had some good moments. I had some excellent teachers and had learning opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten at any another school in my town. I had a few people with whom I had become close. But the majority of my time was spent propping up my self-worth with my grades and awards. My heart had become just a backpack full of books and nothing else, hitting the ground day after day after day. Thud. Thud. Thud.

The summer after my sophomore year, my family drove into Boston for a day to see a Red Sox game and took a tour of MIT. From the moment the tour guide started speaking, I fell totally and completely in love. People seemed so dynamic, so strange and wonderful, so excited to teach and be taught. See, I told myself; there is nothing wrong with you. There are other people like you and they go to this school.

I became obsessed with going to MIT. Never in my life had I wanted something so badly. My quest for academic perfection became feverish, fueled by the idea that if I could just get accepted into this school, I would finally feel normal. I would finally find what I had been missing all of these years.

So what if I was awful at everything except schoolwork? It wouldn’t matter once I got to MIT. I would finally become the tall, confident girl with a ton of friends. All I needed was the right environment.

Getting accepted to MIT would be my validation. It would mean that I could achieve the impossible if I worked hard enough. It would prove that I was special. All I had ever wanted was to feel special and loved and accepted by my peers. And there it would be, in writing, and no one could ever take it away from me.

And on December 17th, 2011, my wish came true.

III. During

The days leading up to my arrival on campus were made of cotton candy. They were equal parts sweet and surreal, and they melted away quickly. I became very active on my class’ Facebook page. Every time someone liked a post I had made, I grinned like an idiot at my computer screen. I couldn’t wait to meet all of my new friends in person.

People warned me that it might be a big adjustment going from a class of 27 girls to a class of over 1000 people. That it might feel weird living in a big city, miles away from home. I might feel strange when everyone in my class came from the top of their high schools. I barely heard them. I was finally going to be surrounded by people like myself. I was going to become the girl I was never able to be in high school. I would look in the mirror and respect the person looking back at me.

In late August, I said goodbye to my parents and moved into my new dorm room. My body felt light and electric with excitement.

My education was soon to begin, and unfortunately, most of my lessons were not about science or engineering, but about my own flawed thinking. Just because people appreciated my posts on Facebook did in no way mean they would instantly be my friends offline. Just because I didn’t want to believe that going to MIT would be a big adjustment from high school didn’t make it any less true. Just because I wanted to reinvent myself in college didn’t make it any easier when I was still very much in the grips of the anxiety that had followed me from high school. And just because I was a very bright kid at my high school did not guarantee that I would soar through my classes at MIT.

The disappointment didn’t sink in until about the fifth week of the semester. And in those five weeks I tried very hard to make the idealized “college me” a reality. I pretended that my anxiety and social issues didn’t exist. I felt like if I just feigned self-confidence for long enough, it had to eventually metastasize into real self-confidence. I confidently joined a sorority and walked on to the women’s crew team. I went to parties and wore uncomfortable clothes. I felt a buzz from the validation that people seemed to like me. It didn’t last.

I could only laugh off my insecurities for so long. As the fall semester progressed, my grades got worse and worse. The only part of my personality that I was not faking, the constant that got me through high school was slipping away. I worked harder and harder but somehow got less and less work done. I eventually stopped sleeping. I would go straight from working on homework all night to morning crew practice. I started becoming too tired to keep up my facade of confidence.

The anxiety that had motivated me in the past translated to a new feeling: complete and total sadness.

I retreated into myself. I spent hours on Facebook, scrolling through photos of people having what seemed to be a wonderful freshman year. People I had met on the Facebook group. People who were supposed to be my friends.

To make matters worse, people from back home continued to send me emails asking about all of the great things I was doing at my dream school and all the fun I was sure to be having. Too ashamed to tell the truth, I lied to all of them and wrote back that things were great. I was too afraid to even tell my family or my closest friends.

The fall semester ended with a long, drawn-out case of the flu and barely squeaking by in all of my classes. I failed chemistry and would have to take it again in the spring. As the new semester started, I began to feel like there was nothing left inside of me except for the heavy weight of sadness. I had made friends with some wonderful people in the fall, but my brain convinced me that they didn’t really like me and that I was better off not bothering them with my sad sorry self. They were exceptional people and they deserved equally exceptional friends.

Some people say that being at MIT is like drinking from a firehose. I felt like MIT was a massive river and I was an old dam covered in cracks that I had tried fruitlessly to hide. The current was relentless and the pressure sought out my structural weaknesses, eking water through the holes until they became bigger and bigger. Eventually I would be swept away and nothing would remain to show that I had tried to hold back the water for a long time.

Something needed to change, so I called MIT Mental Health on a whim. As I still had no idea that I was suffering from depression, my appointment was intended to discuss what I called “test anxiety,” a sickening feeling that came over me every time I took an exam. There was a box of tissues on the table in between me and the therapist. It took her less than two minutes to push them over to me. And I then started crying.

I cried through our first seven sessions. The therapist identified that I was suffering from generalized anxiety and depression. She sent me to get medication from a psychiatrist. He explained to me that the medication process was trial and error, and it would take weeks before I would feel any different. He told me to be patient.

My Mom came down to visit at the beginning of April. We talked for hours in her hotel room and I finally worked up the courage to let her know that I was suffering from depression. She said she knew that I was trying to hide how difficult MIT had been and that she was always on my side. We worked on a plan to finish the semester as best I could. I felt safe and loved for the first time all semester. But she had to leave and the safety left with her.

On my worst day, April 26th, 2013, at around 4pm in the afternoon, I checked the results of a physics exam I had taken earlier that day. I felt hopeful that things were going to get better — I had studied hard, I had told my Mom about my depression, I had been in therapy for a few weeks and on medication that was making me feel ill physically, but should make me feel better mentally. I was doing everything people had told me to do. Logically, things had to improve.

But mental illness does not care about logic. And when my grade on the physics test came up as a 32, I began to feel sick to my very core. I watched my cursor blink on the page…1…2…3, and as if on cue, I felt every shred of hope leave my body in a painful sob. My legs felt numb, my heart ached and my mind began to race. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be at MIT. But where would I go? Would things be better somewhere else?

My phone buzzed loudly in the silence of my room, interrupting my thought. It took an enormous amount of effort to leave my desk chair and go over to the bed to read the message, but I made it. It was my friend Kristen and the text was simply: “HI.”

It broke me. I replied asking her to come over. She asked if I was alright. I replied that I was not. Fifteen minutes later, she was seated cross-legged on my bed beside me. We had known each other for barely two months at the time. Our friendship was still in the awkward, young phase. We were still learning about each other. But she sat next to me for an hour, holding my hand and listening. I was truly honest for the first time in eight years, for the first time since I was the scared, shorthaired girl lost and alone in middle school. I told her everything. I told her that I had never felt more alone. I cried until my soul felt like it had been scrubbed with steel wool.

Kristen listened patiently to the entire story. She never suggested anything, simply nodded along and squeezed my hand occasionally. When I fell silent, she said that she was happy I told her about my depression. It was the night of the SpringFest concert and she apologized profusely, but she had made promises to go with her friends. As she was leaving, she turned to me and said that she was glad to have me in her life. I watched the door swing shut behind her.

IV. After

A long time has passed since then. I am glad that I chose not to leave MIT. I worked on being patient with myself. I continued to work with a therapist and psychiatrist. I finished my freshman and sophomore years at MIT. I met amazing, inspiring people. I had many sad days, but more and more happier ones. I was six weeks into my junior year when intense pain from a spinal condition forced me to take a Medical Withdrawal to get treatment. This physical condition also gave me a chance to spend some time away from MIT and work actively on taking care of my mental health.

I would love to sound knowledgeable and confident and fully recovered as I write this. Truth be told, while I am taking steps down the road to recovery, I am still learning about my anxiety and depression and they still affect me. I don’t know if a new worst day lies ahead of me, or a new best day. I am trying hard to see these days for what they are — tiny fractions of a long, long life. Moments are significant and intense, but the truth of our character lies in what we repeatedly do.

I’ve made many mistakes, in thought and in action, but no matter how small and alone my depression or the world made me feel, I would go to bed and I would wake up in the morning. I would go to crew practice and be awful at it, but I would go. I would enter classrooms of people who terrified me and listen to lectures that I did not fully understand, but I would sit and I would listen.

MIT is filled with people who persist no matter how much courage it takes. This is what makes it such a special place. This is why the happiest day of my life was the day I got to join this extraordinary group of people. Would my experience have been better had I not assumed MIT would fix me? Yes. Would it have been easier if I was not weighed down by mental illness? Of course. Would I have gotten more help if I had reached out sooner? Absolutely.

But even so, MIT is a very tough place. And the enormous amount of talent and beauty and confidence that seems to surround you can make you feel like you don’t matter. I had access to proper medical care and academic support. I was fortunate enough to have wonderful, supportive parents and friends who cared about me, even if I didn’t always let myself believe it.

Some people are not as lucky as I was. Everyone’s story is completely their own and every person’s experience at MIT is different. But it doesn’t seem right that anyone’s should end in suicide. We need to be better. We need to carry on the tradition that made MIT so special to me and countless others — that this is a place where people are loved and accepted exactly as they are.

Kristen helped me because she reached out to me. Sometimes an offer of “you can talk to me any time” is intimidating when you don’t feel like your problem is worth that person’s time. While freshmen have a large network of advisors and mentors in their dorms, courses and extra-curricular groups, your first year of college is a huge transition. It takes an enormous of amount of courage to admit to yourself, let alone others, that you need help for the first time in your adult life.

We need to actively check in with one another. During my lowest period, it would have helped me immeasurably if someone had come up to me and told me that I meant something to them. We need to be more involved in each other’s lives through the best days and the worst days and all of the days in between. We cannot wait on tragedy to remind us to tell our friends how much they mean to us.

We need to talk less about grades and more about learning. We need to stop the glorifying of dangerous personal habits and challenging ourselves to point where our health is compromised.

We need to remember that social media is never the full story and that everyone has moments of sadness in their lives. Facebook is made up of two-dimensional caricatures of multi-dimensional lives. It is simply not the truth.

We should never force anyone to defend their mental health or treat it as less important than their physical health. We must remember that mental illness does not discriminate and that it can bring down even the most intelligent, confident, athletic people. Mental illness is a fault in chemistry or circumstance, and not a fault in character. When more people understand this, individuals affected by mental illness will feel less ashamed and scared to reach out for help.

I am so much more than my best day and my worst day. It’s taken me a long time to believe it, but I am loved and I am important to the people in my life. I am no longer ashamed of having anxiety and depression. I hope to return to MIT next year, and when I do, I promise that I will do as much as I can to make it a better place. I promise to live my life with honesty and compassion. And maybe, in time, I will live it with happiness.