To My Graduating Class, Who Knew Me Before My Mental Illness Diagnosis
I remember sitting in the front row of many white plastic chairs in June of 2009 – it was our family, friends and acquaintances of the same hometown; we had grown up together with the same passionate teachers, we learned the same equations, including those matters of the heart that were incalculable. And we were graduating from high school.
I remember sitting in that chair, looking out at parents and siblings and the school building itself. I was taking inventory of all of the things that I had done, what I had accomplished and what more good fortune would fall into my lap. I was fifth in my class. I sprinted with gusto on the track, wove in and out of bodies on the soccer field and kept my heart alive and thumping. I donated 70 used bicycles to South Africa, Ghana and Central America with the generous help of so many of my peers. I expected only the best for my future. My sights were set on going to college, going to medical school and I didn’t foreshadow any obstacles.
Some of you may be aware that I left for college out of state, and was in minimal contact with anybody from high school from that point forward.
Some of you may remember my infrequent and spontaneous hometown visits, and you may remember seeing me a little bit emaciated, or on my way there. I developed anorexia nervosa as I began college. If any have been aware of my post-high school story at all, the anorexia might be the only thing stowed into awareness, because it was the most visible.
But there is a story behind the weight loss. The anorexia was a symptom of something else.
It was never about body image or feeling unattractive. I worried endlessly about what my old friends would think of me, after witnessing my eating disorder in full fledge. Did they think I was now superficial? But eating disorders aren’t about that. It was a way of coping with a more painful reality in my life that fell upon me. Feeling the pain of hunger in my gut helped me to deal with the baseline anxiety and fear that I lived with on a daily basis. It calmed my nerves and my mind:
In April of 2011, I was diagnosed with a mental illness called schizoaffective disorder. It is a form of schizophrenia, accompanied with severe depression. Not eating was my way of coping with the complete unraveling of my mind. And it was a way of coping with the reality that the mind has the capacity to unravel altogether. Mine did. Flagrantly.
I was hospitalized once, then twice, I went to a residential facility, and was hospitalized three more times for self-harm and suicidal ideation. I experienced a couple of severe psychotic episodes. They were filled with delusions, paranoia, hallucinations and complete departure from reality. And bouncing back, and entering the world again, took me several years. I did it all while I was still in college, and I will state unapologetically that I graduated with a 3.91 GPA; but I only achieved that because I desperately sought to prove that the capacity of my mind was still in tact, so I buried myself in my books and seminars. And I abandoned a social life.
I have hidden the schizoaffective disorder from many people, not entirely because of shame, but also because of the fear of being misunderstood.
But by reaching out, I found understanding. And I found I wasn’t alone. And that is something we can all offer each other.
There were many people in our graduating class who we didn’t know were struggling as well. There was a subgroup of people with mental illness bubbling under the surface, or already as parts of their lives.
One of our classmates, B, was sitting in one of those 200 white chairs along with us. She was one of us who kept to herself, with her few close friends and immersed herself in fringe hobbies that, looking back, were pretty damn cool for a girl our age then. Archery! Bad ass. I found out seven years after our graduation, in an unexpected Facebook message exchange, that B had quite a story to tell. Little did all of us know, she had been living with depression, anxiety and a sexual trauma history (from when she was 14) throughout her time in high school.
Another one of us, E, dealt with panic attacks and severe anxiety, while maintaining an exuberant personality – though that was never necessary. She did it by her own brave choice, within the infrequent moments of freedom during her struggles.
We are all older now, and I’m imagining we have all learned that struggling is now a part of adult life.
It isn’t necessarily mental illness, but an unidentifiable restlessness that visits us with varying frequency. It is a discomfort, to varying depths.
May you all have peace and freedom while “adulting.”
Take care of yourselves.
Do not put down that cookie or brownie or donut because you “should.” Savor it.
Do not turn a blind eye to the suffering that happens around you, and inside of you.
And remember, you are still my family.
To other survivors or those in recovery, trust me: your mind is still vibrant and capable, still pulsing with sharp neurons, all cells and tissues that will be steadfast and loyal to you – even though they may have seemed to abandon you. You will get through it. You will see your mind come back. Please, be deeply appreciative for the moments of peace that visit you.