On the Edge: A Story of Depression and Hope at MSU

I am standing alone on the small wooden pier of Bozeman Beach. I’m standing on the edge, staring into the water, preparing to drown myself.

The cold winter nips at my exposed fingertips. The wind whips my hair, slamming it against my face. Before me my breath appears in a heavy mist. I hate winter; I always have. These harsh conditions would usually send me running for the indoors, but at this moment I pay no attention to them. I am counting, urging myself to jump. To step. To fall.

I wonder what the water would feel like. I wonder how long it will take. This is my only option, I feel. No other way will suffice. This is the only way to end the numbness that consumes my soul and fills my being.

I start the countdown again. Take your time but do it now. Three … Two …  One …

I’m not the kind of person who gets depressed.

I’m not disillusioned or cynical; I’m active, and I had a loving childhood filled with happiness. I’ve always worn my emotions on my sleeve, it’s true, and I have often been accused of being too sensitive. But I’m also resilient and hopeful. I have faced misfortune of varying degree. I have cried my eyes out, and then I have picked myself up and simply moved on. I take pride in my strength, and even when I’m weak, I can control my inner turmoil and maintain my outward appearance of stability. I’m level-headed. I set a good example.

So depression snuck up on me. Part of the unexpectedness was my own misconceptions about the illness. I thought it looked like breakdowns of momentous proportion, akin to those depicted in Hollywood films. I thought it manifested itself in violent outbursts, frantic behavior and constantly trembling hands. I thought it meant endless crying, dark clothing, self-harm and having experienced some sort of trauma. I thought it was something other people dealt with.

But my depression didn’t look like any of those things, and I descended into it suddenly and without warning. I was busy with balancing school and work and my personal life. I was stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. But I was used to that. That was normal. What was unusual, at first, was the sadness. It was a growing sadness, a looming desperation that passed from day to day intensifying without cause. Soon it paired itself with self-hatred, the kind of which I had never felt before. It felt like perpetual screaming in my head, telling me I was worthless and everything I did was wrong. Then apathy appeared. I completely lost interest in the little things I enjoy most —  ice cream, reading microhistories, walks in the sun — none of it held any appeal.

Then, nothing.

My depression at its worst wasn’t a black cloud or a constant companion by my side, it was an overwhelming hopelessness and a feeling like nothing mattered. It was like a buzzing headache that wouldn’t go away, a forbidding and encompassing sense that I was utterly alone. Nothing was worth preserving. Not my work, not my relationships, not my life.

The perpetual numbness was paired with an occasional crushing anxiety, like a hand reaching into my chest and squeezing. This combination overwhelmed me and filled every inch of my being. It took what was left of my soul and wrung it dry. It destroyed everything that had made me who I was. I was simultaneously paralyzed with anxiety and paralyzed with lethargy.

But I wasn’t actually paralyzed. I moved through my daily and weekly tasks in a foggy haze, but I managed to keep my life in seeming order. I fulfilled my responsibilities at work, went to classes, did my homework, and could even smile and laugh. I was often successful. I passed classes and aced tests. I ran a profitable business. I kept up my health and appearance. I was lauded for my accomplishments. I was praised for being put together. But the whole time that darkness stayed with me and clouded every achievement with self-hatred and despair. I was teetering on the edge, and no one knew.

In retrospect, that terrifies me.

The most haunting aspect was that depression took away my ability to write. It seems trivial and small, but I would look at words I had written and I couldn’t feel them. Writing had been my pride and my salvation. It is the one thing I’ve ever claimed to be good at. It is how I deal with every emotion and every feeling — by pouring my heart out onto a page. But in the depths of darkness the words stared back at me, and they were empty. I would be staring at a blank page, and the blinding buzz in my head would only intensify. No one cares what you have to think, I thought to myself. You’ll only let them down. The only thing I could think of was the person I was expected to be and how much I wasn’t that person, not even at all. The pages stayed blank, and my despondency grew.

I suppose there must be question as to why I am choosing to share this. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone’s experience but my own, and I don’t think my experience is necessarily unique or notable. For this reason and others, I have until now found it easier not to share, to hide this experience within myself in fear and shame. People talk a lot about the stigma of mental illness, but in this respect I didn’t understand it until I was fully imbedded in it.

The stigma of mental illness is as much societal as it is deeply individual. There are certainly chronic societal misrepresentations and damages — depression is often depicted as only a deep sadness and other symptoms aren’t mentioned or well known. Similarly, well-meaning but misguided friends tell those ailing to “snap out of it” or just “decide to be happy” when it is impossible to do either. People also often are told that they have no right to be depressed because their problems are small compared to others in the world, a sentiment which only empowers the self-doubt and misery that drives the condition.

It’s also the personal, more intimate things that often keep people silent. The thought that if you admit you have depression, you’ll be forever labeled with it — people might think you’re unpredictable and dangerous, maybe your friends will abandon you, certainly no one will ever hire you again. You will appear to the world as weak and selfish. So instead of speaking out and seeking help, you keep your suffering hidden from everyone. You feel like you’re doing the universe a favor by holding it all inside.

Even now it pains me to talk about my experiences. How close I came to ending it all and tossing  away my life, family, friends and future potential. I dread the look people get in their eyes when I tell them, that mixture of pity and confusion and awkwardness. I disdain that moment, and the mutual unspoken knowledge that your relationship will now never be the same.

But more often than I expected the look is of understanding.

The truth I’ve learned is that my narrative is not an uncommon one. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 15 million people in the United States suffer from depression. The Jed Foundation reports that 25 percent of college students have experienced significant depression, and one in ten students has seriously considered suicide. A 2011 report by the American College Health Association found that 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point in the last year.

Mental illnesses are a pain that is is isolating when you’re in it, and they are so difficult to talk about, but I think they can also draw people together. It can connect us through honesty and empathy. The more I see that understanding look from friends and peers and strangers, the more I feel encouraged to speak up and not to hide from the truth. I decided I would try everyday to fight stigma with honesty. I would try to counter cynicism with vulnerability. I decided if I was going to be broken I might as well be openly broken, and not forever be stuck behind some crumbling facade.

I didn’t step off the pier that night, and I didn’t go back. The next day I went to the doctor and got help. In a painful moment of honesty, I confided in him the feelings I had been having: The hopelessness. The numbness. I was presented with a sympathetic ear, with options and decisions that would lead to health.

But this is not the story of how I found a magic pill and cured my depression. Some things helped, certainly. After seeking help, I also started focusing on healthy habits: exercising, sleeping regular hours and eating as cleanly as possible. I started opening up to how I was feeling to my closest friends and family, and I found relief in their support.

Similar to how depression initially snuck up on me, getting better snuck up on me too. Bits of light started cracking through the darkness. I suddenly felt emotions overpower me randomly. I’d be in class and have to excuse myself because I could barely hold back laughter, or I’d be watching my favorite TV show and suddenly start crying. Initially I was worried this was the sign of an even deeper problem, but eventually the emotions became manageable and more consistent. The light of the sun on my face made me cheerful for the first time in a long while. I felt able to reach out to friends I’d abandoned and reconnect with them. As quickly and inexplicably as they had gotten bad, things were getting better.

I still have good days and bad days, and I’m under no impression that the darkness is gone forever. I now try to celebrate my emotions, happy and sad and everything in between, because I can feel them and because they are reminders I am human. I didn’t realize how bad of a place was in until I was out of it, and I am not again going to view this part of myself with shame.

Not too long ago I went back to the pier. I stood on the edge and stared into the water. A warm breeze tickled my skin and surrounded me. I let myself drop a toe as far down as the surf lapping up the wood sides. The water felt cold. I felt alive.

Editor’s note: Nicole Duggan is the editor-in-chief of the Exponent. She can be reached at editor@exponent.montana.edu.