I know that I have not felt happiness for the past two years. I’m not sure I ever have. Since age eight, I’ve stayed up reading to avoid panic attacks in the dark. I’d stay up for over 24 hours frequently because I could only sleep when I was too exhausted to think. I had to be talking or arguing, always. This was just part of me. To me, that was life. To the world, it was thriving. But in reality, I was suffering.
In December of my freshman year, this mix of underlying issues finally came to a head. I discovered I was incredibly depressed after months of barely functioning. Yale is lonely when you can’t leave your bed. I spent two weeks straight there at the height of my depression, eating 2–3 times a week, and losing 20 pounds. My six-person suite thought I was out of town.
Months before that, I could feel that something was going very wrong. My ability to write seemed to be permanently falling apart. Each paper I wrote meant I wouldn’t be able to get the motivation to start another one a month from then. How do you say, “Yes, I knew I had to do that assignment, but I just lay in bed because I never really wanted to do it”? How do you explain that failure to yourself?
When I was finally diagnosed with depression midway through my spring semester at Yale and 17 years into a life with anxiety and panic disorders, I didn’t believe the diagnosis. The diagnosis did do one incredible thing, though. That day, I broke down sobbing as I told my suitemate. He said, “I know.” I learned for the first time in our seven months living together that he had depression too. When he described his depression, I heard a description that sounded like my experience. At the time, it felt unbelievably lucky that there was anyone who also thought like me. Now, it’s terrifying that the first conversation that accurately described depression happened months after I didn’t write a final paper, and had thought, maybe something was wrong with me.
Now, I talk openly about mental illness with anyone who asks me a question: “Do you have any mental health and counseling horror stories to share with me?” or “What are the side effects like?” or “Are you worried that you’re dependent on those drugs?” These questions aren’t questions about mental illness. Side effects, issues scheduling meetings, drug tolerance: None of these things are my mental illness. They’re consequences of it. I talk around my mental illness, not about it. The only people I actually discuss my mental illness with are either doctors or others with mental illness.
The reason those conversations don’t happen is that my pain often doesn’t register as bad news to my peers when I discuss mental health. My peers hear my accounts of lack of sleep as bragging about how much control I was able to exert over my brain. This is Yale. We’re here because, despite all the times our brain said it was tired or wanted to do something fun, we said no. We exert our will over unhappiness. Our brain is the tool we control totally. In this culture, medication that takes away our control is a brutal lobotomy. It’s the reason that many open conversations become uncomfortable for others as soon as I mention my daily ration of pills — it’s just not in our vernacular to have a brain that we don’t control or even especially like.
Albert Camus’s question, “Should I kill myself or get a cup of coffee?”, sounds terrifying. For those of us who can feel the ways that our thoughts and self are outside of our control, it makes perfect sense that mental health and counseling doesn’t ship everyone off campus who asks the same questions.
Two years after I came to Yale as a freshman, I’m beginning my second freshman year. I’ve had conversations that would have never happened that first year. I’m not terrified of myself; I’m asking what that “I” is.
Ask yourself what parts of you are you. Conversations about mental illness are happening at Yale. Saying that you don’t have total control of “you” and that your thoughts aren’t all “yours” doesn’t need to sound terrifying or incomprehensible. They can sound like conversations about all of us, or a better discussion of mental illness than whether you should talk to someone or try treating yourself.
Camus also wrote: “Don’t let them tell us stories. Don’t let them say of the man sentenced to death: ‘He is going to pay his debt to society,’ but: ‘They are going to cut off his head.’ It looks like nothing. But it does make a little difference.” Camus demands we strip the sugar coating from our descriptions of real pain. Now, I don’t say I’m dealing with the side effects of medication. I say that I am surviving because of them.
CORMAC MULLIN is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .