Darkness, my old friend...

There’s this stigma surrounding mental health that I just can’t get past. We’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to know about it. We’re supposed to hide it away like a dirty little secret and hope no one ever finds out.

The stigma is worse for people who have contemplated, attempted, or died by suicide. Her life isn’t even that bad. How could he be so selfish? Doesn’t she know there’s so much to live for? I can’t believe he took the easy way out. She’s such a coward.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on mental illness. I won’t pretend to know everything there is to know about the everyday struggles people endure.

But I am an expert on my mental illness. I know everything there is to know about my struggles.

From the time that I was eleven years old, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. If I look above the surface, I can pinpoint it to the year my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. But if I look a little closer, chip away at the ice and dive a little deeper into the cold, hard truth, I can accept that it started before that.

Part of me felt broken, unwhole, unstable, because for as long as I’ve known, I’ve been a nomad. Some moves were my mom’s choice, and others were mine. But I know I never stayed in one place long enough to put down roots there. To participate. To be more than the shy, quiet new girl who would rather read a book than make friends.

And then part of me felt like an outsider. Like I would never fit in anywhere, because I never tried. Because I didn’t feel the need to get comfortable somewhere, only to move again.

Fast forward two years, and I’m thirteen years old. I’ve just started high school, which I’d been assured by all adults in my life would be “THE BEST YEARS OF YOUR LIFE! THEY’LL BE SO GOOD, IN FACT, THAT YOU’LL WISH YOU COULD GO BACK OVER AND OVER AGAIN!”

It wasn’t the case. Two months of summer bridge still didn’t earn me any friends. And one month into a new school where everyone seemed smarter and skinnier and prettier and more well-adjusted than me didn’t earn me any either. I was a fish out of water.

When I was at school, I couldn’t breathe. Anxiety rippled through me on a daily basis, nearly crippling me most times.

Everything would go black. My heart would palpitate. My whole body felt ice cold, but on the outside, I was sweating. I’d feel nauseated. Sometimes, I’d get sick. And just as I came out of it, a debilitating headache would plague me for the rest of the day.

When I was at home, I couldn’t breathe. That fear of letting my mom down, of being punished for it disabled me. But how could I explain that I couldn’t concentrate on school because I felt like I was drowning the minute I walked through those glass doors? How could I explain that I was a prisoner to my own mind? How could I tell my mom, who bragged about my intelligence, my talents, and my passion for English that I so clearly got from her, that I was failing because of some obvious sort of chemical imbalance? How could I tell her that the very same mind that felt excited when seeing word problems, the same mind that started racing with ideas for costumes when my English teacher wanted us to memorize a monologue from Romeo and Juliet, the same mind that was intrigued by the quadratic equation and the periodic table of the elements and learning about the Civil War, was the very thing that helped my grades drop?

I was anxious all the time, and soon, that anxiety morphed back into my depression, which doubled when I spent the day at school doing nothing but imagining conversations with my mom about my schoolwork, and then quadrupled when I got home and had to face her anger. And even worse, her disappointment.

Soon, it all became too much.

I had decided to talk to her.

I went home, and I did some—not all—of my homework, and I ate dinner, and I took a shower, and I sat on the couch that had been her bed for the past two years, and I asked if I could talk to her. And looking back on it, maybe she was tired. She had been through so much, from chemotherapy and radiation, to starting her first semester of college, to raising me and my sister with no one’s help, to still cooking and cleaning regularly so the little shack we called a house felt like home, that being tired didn’t seem too far off from the truth. But to my thirteen-year-old self, who was deathly afraid of that look in her eyes, and the scold in her voice, it felt like I was being blown off when she said, “Go to sleep, Jasmine. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I was gutted. And so I got up and went to my bed, wrapped myself in my blanket, and I cried myself to sleep. And in the morning, with red, swollen eyes, I got on the bus and went to school. I remember three things very clearly about that day: the first is that I was going to kill myself. I didn’t really have an elaborate plan. I was just going to walk off the curb into oncoming traffic, and that would be that. The second is that I realized, the very minute a classmate grabbed my arm and asked if I was coming into school, that I needed help. And the third is that I went and asked for it.

I asked for help. I walked to a small bungalow that housed a local chapter of Shields for Families, and I told the receptionist that I wanted to kill myself, my voice sounding clearer and surer than it ever did before. She walked me across the street to Augustus F. Hawkins Mental Health Center, where I spent the day with a therapist before he advised me I would be hospitalized.

“It’ll be like a vacation,” he’d said.

And sure, it may sound silly to think of it that way, but it was. I was on two medications throughout my stay, which continued for a month afterward. I took Lexapro and Abilify after breakfast, and I spent an hour a day in group therapy with other kids like me, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I fit in. I felt normal. I felt like there was finally some sense in the world, because I wasn’t the only one who was crippled by her own mind.

I was released to go home a week later, and my therapist, Jonathan, who I’d known from the first time mental illness ailed me, began to see me twice a week.

Fast forward to nine years later, and I’m sitting in my bed, in my apartment, in Chicago, IL, recently hired permanently at the best job I could hope for with only a high school diploma, with an amazing relationship with my mom and two of my sisters, having recently reconnected with one best friend and finding out the other is pregnant, and I should be happier than I’ve ever been, but I’m not. That sinking, anxious, awfully blue feeling is back.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I get the call that my sister was shot in the head, while lying in bed in her apartment, my beautiful niece and nephew, and her wife beside her as they watch it happen. And that feeling multiplies.

Fast forward a few more, and I’ve done an entire month’s worth of 40+ hour weeks at work while operating on two hours of sleep a night—if that—, working myself to the bone while trying not to share that I’m deathly afraid for my sister to move back to her apartment and even more afraid that my mom’s decision to stop formal treatment for her fourth recurrence will have the worst ending. And I go to work and I plaster on a smile and I put on my customer service voice, which seems more like a costume than anything else. And I recite the pledge, “My name is Jasmine, last initial S, as in Sam,” when someone is angry with my answer, and I pretend like this stranger calling me a bitch doesn’t just pile on to everything else I’m feeling.

Fast forward a few more, and I’m in my sister’s bedroom in California, the evening of my mom’s wedding, lying in bed with a pillow clutched to my chest and a heart-shaped rock in my hand as I sob my heart out because I don’t want to go back to Chicago. I don’t want to go back to my life. I want to stay here, in this little room that has more boxes full of my sister’s things than should be humanly possible, with my mom angry with me in the next room and my two best friends just a whisper away, and my dog pawing at my hand because she wants attention. And although I’m surrounded by love, I feel more alone than ever.

I feel more crippled than ever.

And I come home to my apartment, which feels more empty and eerily silent than anything I’ve experienced in my life. And when people ask how I’m doing, I say I’m okay. Even though I’m not. Even though I’m so far from it I’m not on the same continent. And when people ask to hang out, I do, nine times out of ten. Because God forbid they see the chink in the armor and find out I’m that girl who can’t be honest about what she’s going through. And when things get a little rough, I find myself scrolling through posts on to write love on her arms. and The Mighty, finding solace in the fact that I am not alone, and my mental illness isn’t a singular struggle.

 

I can’t tell you why I chose, almost ten years ago now, not to end my life. Maybe it was love that I don’t recall feeling but knew was out there that kept me trapped in a world I hated. And I can’t tell you why I choose, every day that the weight in my heart gets heavier and heavier, to continue to live. Maybe it’s the prospect of moving back to California and spending time with my family, and friends, and my best friend’s beautiful children.

All I can tell you is that I did. I kept living then. And I keep living now.

So the thirteen-year-old who feels scared and alone can feel like he/she isn’t. So people will be just a little kinder to each other. So I can tell my story. So I can continue to write fiction and tell the story of other people who suffer similarly. So I can add another layer to other peoples’ image and perception of me.  So you can hear my voice.

Because my voice is worth much more than my silence.