The things we leave behind

'Taking that first step toward mental wellness changed my life.'

by Jessica Smith

[Ed. note: This essay is another installment in Double X Science's "I Am Mental Illness" series.]

My eyes are closed behind polarized sunglasses I paid too much for. Controlling my breath, watching colors pulse on the inside of my eyelids, I am thankful for a daily ride in the slowest elevator ever and at the same time annoyed. Someone joined me just as the doors were closing.

Thirty seconds later, the doors open onto the third floor, and I step out. I am now the girl you see: calm, poised, ambitious, determined, independent. The woman. Whatever.

Today I'll keep my sunglasses on until I reach my desk…because I want to.

Every year at about this time, the graduate school sends out an email. The end of the semester is a hard time for students, it says. It can be particularly tough for graduate students who are prone to increased mental pressure, stress and anxiety. Visit the counseling center.

It's been nearly two years since I took that advice. Taking that first step toward mental wellness changed my life.

The day before my 7th birthday, I spent some serious time thinking about what it meant to be 7 years old. I could no longer be the little kid that I was at 6. I'm not sure how or why or what I thought I knew, but everything was changing. I was just one grade level away from learning from my peer group that I was the poor kid. The one with the single mother. The one who probably wouldn't make it though the system.

In 3rd grade, I had head lice and missed a field trip. In 4th grade, a popular girl put a Jolly Rancher in my hair. In 5th grade, I was the girl in Wal-Mart clothes. In 6th grade, all my friends were boys. In 7th grade, I ate alone on field trips. In 8th grade, I was voted Most Likely to Succeed. In 12th grade, Most Intellectual.

My grandmother finished second grade. My mother finished high school. I was about to take it one step further.

Finish high school. Check. Go to college. Check. Get a bunch of scholarships and breeze through classes. Check.

Break up with abusive college boyfriend during sophomore year. Check.

Go home to find ex-boyfriend slumped on the floor with a shotgun between his knees.

Go back to class two days later. Do not pass GO. Do not let anyone see you falter.

I finished college with a 3.9 GPA, and then I plunged headfirst into a Ph.D. program, and then I started crying. All. The. Damn. Time.

I couldn't speak to my advisor without crying. I couldn't walk into his office without tensing up. I could barely speak to him at all. It became a joke after a while. He'd always keep a box of Kleenex handy. Sometimes he'd go about checking his emails or editing a paper until I could compose myself, and that was OK. I needed those moments. Then we'd talk about football, and I would cry. We'd talk about a class, and I would cry. We'd talk about eating lunch, and I would sob uncontrollably, oftentimes laughing in embarrassment through my tears.

I passed my written exams. I got married a few months later. My dad died three weeks before my wedding. I never knew him. No one needed to know.

Graduate school continued to be an emotional roller-coaster. The learning curve was almost unbearable for a student who had never learned to fail.

After a particularly stressful fall semester leading up to a major conference presentation, I promised my husband that I would seek counseling as soon as I got back from the conference. The ups and downs of graduate school were getting to be too much…for both of us.

"I want to be swaddled. Wrap me up in a giant white cloth and hold me as tight as possible," I said to my husband as I pressed my forehead -- eyes squeezed shut -- into his chest. "I need to hold it all in. There's too much. I can't keep it all together."

Therapy helped. I talked. I stared at a corner of the room. I fidgeted. I took my shoes off. I put them back on. I cried. Of course. I carried on with therapy in private for more than a year before I told anyone. I carried on talking. We talked about ways to overcome grief and guilt, and how to manage my rampant anxiety. Only talking. I told my therapist on Day 1 that I didn't want to be medicated.

I eventually opened up to my advisor. I let him know that I was in therapy, and everything was fine until it all fell apart.

I had a panic attack in someone else's lab. I spent 24 hours wrought with embarrassment, angry that my unrelenting tears were met with condescension, utterly confused by my inability to control my emotions.

And then I wanted the pills. Whatever they were. Whatever people used to make this stuff stop. I wanted them.

See therapist. Check. See university psychiatrist. Check. Fill prescription for Lexapro. Check. Take the first pill.

My tears dried up immediately. I couldn't cry at all. The psychiatrist had warned that this might happen, and I was thrilled.

Weeks later I was back to the curious, inquisitive version of myself that I remembered from grade school. I raised my hand to ask questions during seminars. I answered questions. I made jokes with people who had no idea how funny I could be. I joked with my advisor about his inability to make me cry.

But it's not just the tears that have dried up. My anxiety is gone. I don't worry about driving some place new from the moment I get into the car because I'm already thinking about how much I dislike backing out of parking spots even though I have no idea what the parking situation is going to be like. I don't worry that it's too late to ask that question because the conversation has already turned and then get frustrated when someone else asks that question. I don't worry that my voice will shake. I don't worry that my questions are stupid. The chatter is gone.

It's been 9 months now. I left the safety of my lab and worked at a newspaper this summer. A big one. In a big city. I'm writing my dissertation. I have lunch with my advisor as often as possible. And though you wouldn't have known it if I hadn't let you in, I Am Mental Illness.

[Jessica Smith is a full-time student and part-time writer at Big Name University, a haven for socially awkward prep school kids east of the Mississippi. She drinks and swears and takes long naps in her spare time.]

[Image credit, Scott Maxwell, LuMaxArt, via Wikimedia Commons.]

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