Editor's Note: This column discusses issues and events that might be traumatizing, or triggering, for some, namely suicide. The author was granted anonymity due to the intensely personal nature of the events described.
I wasn’t here for most of this semester.
You might have seen my body walking to class or biking to practice, but mentally? I wasn’t there. I was completely checked out. I spent days in bed, staring at the wall, and when I did get up, I walked around in a zombie-like trance. I have very few memories from the period of January through April. Maybe it’s my mind’s way of protecting me from the horror that was those few months.
I have bipolar disorder, type II, but I didn’t know that until this April. In September, they told me it was depression, gave me some pills, and that was that. But the pills didn’t work; they made me worse, which is often the case for people with bipolar disorders who are prescribed anti-depressants. By October, I was hurting myself. By March, I was suicidal. By April, I had a note and a plan. And no one knew, because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. But right at my point of crisis, when two or three more bad days would have resulted in my death, my best friend forced me to see someone at McCosh. She knew I was bad, but didn’t know how bad. I credit her with saving my life, both in this instance and in many others. So, I saw someone. And someone else. They told me about bipolar disorder, that I had it, and what I could do to help it. They said it was a chemical imbalance in my brain, and gave me hope. Hope that maybe I wasn’t the messed up, lazy, incompetent person that much of this year had led me to believe that I was.
I began to realize that the infrequent week-long periods in which I caught up (and even got ahead on!) my work, deep cleaned my room at 2 a.m., exercised constantly, and talked excessively were episodes of hypomania. After these times, the plummet back into depression was sudden and dangerous. It hurt. So, I was put on a new medication, this time a mood stabilizer. After almost a month of popping Lamictal every day, I began to feel good. I had joy in my life; I had hope and plans for the future. I wanted to live. The heaviness and crushing weight of despair that had ruled me for three years had been lifted. And this wasn’t hypomania; it was real, and it felt sustainable. I remember texting my best friend one Friday. She and the rest of my team were away competing for the weekend, but I was injured, so I had stayed at school. I said, “Is this how normal people feel all the time?” Her reply, “YES” made me cry. And I never cry. I had missed out on so much. Three years of my life were dominated by the pathology in my brain. But I try not to dwell in the past.
Every day, I am still haunted by the lingering fear that it can change. That, one day, I might wake up with the weight of depression crashing down on me, that I won’t be able to leave my bed, that I might once again consider ending my life. I am scared of that. Very scared. Bipolar disorder is never going to go away. It will be a problem I will face for the rest of my life. But I can do everything I can to prevent it from controlling me. I take the small white pill every morning, I surround myself with incredible people, I spend time in beautiful places, and I try to be kind to everyone I meet.
But how did I let it get so bad? How did I get to the point where I was willing to end my life to make it all stop? It was a combination of many factors, including that I couldn’t leave my bed most of the time. But the main reason why I didn’t seek help sooner was embarrassment, shame. The stigma associated with mental illness is real. It’s why I hide my pills when people come over, why I told my professor I had a stomach bug when I really couldn’t move because I was so depressed, why I smiled and said, “I’m fine,” even as my world was crashing down around me. It’s also why I don’t want to associate my name with this story. I’m not willing yet to be completely open about my struggle with bipolar disorder. I hope that someday I will be able to share my story, with my name attached, but, for now, I worry such openness will come back to hurt me in my professional career and personal life. I haven’t even told my parents yet. I pay for my prescriptions out of pocket. Thankfully, they’re cheap. Big pharma hasn’t hijacked generic psychiatric drugs, yet. So I remain anonymous, because the stigma is real.
I don’t understand this stigma, and yet I buy into it. I find it extremely difficult to tell anyone, even my closest friends, about how I’m feeling. When my psychiatrist asks me how I’m doing, I reflexively respond, “Great! How are you?” I’m obviously not “great!” I’m seeing a psychiatrist. As much as I love Princeton, the culture can be toxic. The race to have the highest GPA, have the most fun on weekends, land the best internship, and, eventually, get the best job while simultaneously projecting an image of perfect ease is dangerous. In addition, as an athlete, you’re encouraged to push yourself to your breaking point, to “suck it up” when your body is screaming in pain. Too often, this translates to hiding mental anguish as well. No one is willing to openly acknowledge their struggles because I think we all have some imposter syndrome. Everyone I know has at one point questioned whether they really belong here. Admitting you’re struggling would prove that you can’t handle Princeton, right? Paradoxically, it’s not a sign of weakness to share that you’re having a tough time; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, harder than any workout or exam.
The particular stigma about psychiatric medication is the worst of all. I often find a general discomfort with the idea of being medicated, and I felt it myself before I realized how life-changing it can be. My medication literally gave me back my life. I am a functional human because of it. It doesn’t give me an advantage over anyone; it doesn’t make me super happy, or energetic, or productive. Rather, it puts me on a level playing field with those whose brain chemistry is naturally not out of whack.
I’m not making policy recommendations here. I don’t think that any University directive can solve the mental health crisis on campus, or in the country. But I do believe that being aware that mental health issues are real, that they can affect you, your roommate, friend, teammate, peer, or even the stranger you pass every day walking to lecture, can help. If anything can lessen the shame around mental illness, it’s visibility. If you know that a lot of people around you are struggling, it’s less embarrassing to admit to your own difficulties. University policies are not going to help those with mental illnesses reach out and seek help: personal attitudes will. The resources we have at Princeton are fantastic, but how can they help if you feel so much shame in accessing them? With very minimal effort, every single person on this campus can dramatically change the conversation about mental health. When someone asks, “How are you?” and you’re not doing so great, tell them that! The first few words are always the hardest.
And for people who, right now, are where I was in recent months, those for whom the stigma and shame make it impossible to get help, I want to tell them that it can get better. It’s such a cliché, but it has truth to it. Most do. When I was in the depths of my depression, I scoffed when people said this. How can it possibly get better? But it can, and when it does, you wonder why you ever wanted to leave this place. The world is amazing. Emotions are meant to be felt, experiences and conversations are meant to inspire, and your work is meant to excite. You are meant to love. Not just romantically, but love your friends, and love the sky, love the air you breathe, and the books you read. Life outside your head is real, and it is wonderful.