Editor's Note: This column discusses issues and events that might be traumatizing, or triggering, for some, namely suicide.
“Hi, Honey. I haven’t heard from you in a while and wanted to see how things are going,” my mom texted me one afternoon. “Shaking in bed,” I replied.
I don’t remember much about that October afternoon. What comes back to me are only blurry memories of working with a friend in Marquand Library until for no apparent reason, I broke down in tears. The first month of my freshman year had been a quick downward spiral into the depression, anxiety, and panic attacks for which I had been treated during my sophomore and junior years of high school. The campus on which I had spent years growing up with my brothers no longer felt like a wonderland, but instead an unrecognizable and unfamiliar place that others expected me to call home.
I had never felt any urge to end my life until that moment. Even though I had been going regularly to Counseling and Psychological Services for appointments and my parents knew how I was feeling, it still wasn’t enough. Had my mom not texted me, I know what would have happened. I had already convinced myself that no one would notice if I was gone.
The months following those texts were a haze of commuting from home to campus for classes. Each morning, my parents would drop me off in the University Store parking lot. They would watch helplessly as I trudged back to my dorm, slowly working myself into a panic as I anticipated the worst that would happen that day.
I spent that spring recovering and finally broke my silence about my struggles with depression and anxiety the following summer. I realized that my next three years at Princeton had to be different if I wanted to make it through college alive. Only my parents and one close friend knew the full extent of what my first year at Princeton had been like, and I was tired of feeling like an impostor for answering with “good” when people asked me how I was doing.
In January 2015, my friend committed suicide in the dorm room next to mine. I called my parents three to four times a day for the next two weeks, sobbing as I explained how she still returned to me in my dreams. It was through grief counseling at CPS that I no longer saw myself as just a student merely passing through Princeton, but as an agent for change. I committed to dedicating the remainder of my time at the University to sharing my own story by challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues however I could and encouraging other students to be vulnerable with each other.
Some days are inevitably worse than others. I returned to CPS this year after winter break, during which another friend committed suicide, I underwent a major surgery, and my grandmother passed away. My counselor and I have talked about what it is like to be a Princeton student while living with a profound sense of guilt. Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and wonder how I, even after all I have gone through, failed to see the warning signs. My family and friends have reminded me not to feel guilty because it can be hard to see what others are hiding behind their smiles. As much as I understand this reasoning, the cruel reality is that I survived, and two of my friends did not. This is something I know I will have to live with well beyond graduation.
Though I wish it were not the case, a story like mine is not uncommon, especially here at Princeton. After working for three years on the Me Too Monologues, a performance piece created out of anonymous student submissions related to their own experiences with mental health, I have gained an acute understanding of how students struggle. I invite you to see the performances of the Me Too Monologues this weekend and take advantage of this opportunity to engage with these issues that consume our emotional energy but are rarely discussed. So much work remains to be done, and yet, in conversations with dozens of underclassmen, especially with my own ’zees, I am hopeful that Princeton’s next leaders can and will work towards a campus in which mental health issues are no longer stigmatized.
The irony is not lost on me that I could only appreciate life after I came so close to losing my own. For those who might be experiencing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness like the ones I have described, please feel free to reach out to me. And to my fellow survivors: know that I stand with you — and others do too.
Matt Błażejewski is a senior from Trenton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.