Depression Can Affect Anyone, Even Queen B
Though she and rapper Jay Z have been listed as power couple of the year on many occasions, Beyoncé found it difficult to break away from an earlier relationship of six years at age 19 - yes, they were together since they were 13! She was worried that with her newly-acquired fame, she wouldn't find someone to love her for who she was; making new friends scared Beyoncé.
From Queen B and J.K. Rowling to John Green and Lady Gaga, several courageous celebrities have openly discussed their struggles with mental illness. Yet, we as a culture, still allow mental illness to be a topic that's swept under the rug. Before I begin, I just want to say that it's terrifying to write about something this personal, but it needs to be said so it can help someone reading this. This is my story of depression.
Smiling from ear to ear, I tore open the envelope that contained my acceptance letter from NYU's computer science program, the school I've dreamed of being granted admission to since I was a little girl. As the daughter of two immigrant parents who "left everything behind" so my siblings and I could have a better education, I felt like I had paid back my debt to my parents. Upon further examination, I noticed that there had been a problem with my financial aid. Despite incessant calls to the admissions office, my case was just one of many that were too late to fix. To say I was devastated is an understatement. My parents were so happy for me; how would I explain to them that they "left everything behind" for nothing?
Though my brothers offered to help cover the costs of the exorbitant tuition, I wouldn't allow it. I watched my siblings come home exhausted from work, and it wasn't fair for them to have to pay for someone else's mistake. I despairingly began to fill out the acceptance letter to CUNY, my only option. Whenever I was asked about college, I felt the need to explain, "Well, you see, I got into NYU, but my financial aid didn't go through, so I'm going to CUNY for the time being. But please remember, I got accepted!" I was ashamed to have accepted admission to a school I myself didn't have reverence for. I must mention that I was wrong for thinking this; CUNY provides an affordable, rigorous education for thousands of students from all around the world.
My transition into my first semester in college was rough to say the least. In addition to an overwhelming workload and adjusting to an exhaustive commute on buses that nauseated me for as long as I could remember, I also found it extremely difficult to make new friends. I would walk into my Jewish Mysticism class in tears every morning, feeling isolated from my classmates who already knew each other. I was the youngest and the only non-Jewish person there. Was this how it felt for my parents to travel to a foreign country where they didn't know anybody? I stepped into the hallway to compose myself but couldn't. I felt like someone had sucked the life out of me, and I couldn't understand why I all of a sudden felt numb. I had been told college would be "the best four years of my life," but no one ever warned me to expect this.
I told myself to suck it up and focus. I cut out all enjoyable activities from my daily routine, from putting on makeup to dancing around the house while pretending to be Beyoncé. I went from being the girl who jumped out of bed in the morning and skipped around her house to "Run the World" before even brushing her teeth, to being the girl who couldn't care less. Every morning, I threw on an oversized black hoodie, broken, thick-framed glasses and loose, torn jeans. I neglected my appearance entirely because I figured my time was better spent studying for calculus. I also deactivated all my social media accounts in the hopes of buying myself more study time. (I'm back on social media now, and let me just say, I have missed the 'gram. #doitforthegram)
My family noticed this vicious cycle and became worried. At the doctor's office, my concerned parents desperately pleaded, "She used to be so happy. She would dance around the house and now she completely stopped. She's suddenly lost a lot of weight. Please help us." My doctor preferred not to put me on medication and said, "You can solve this problem on your own, right? You just need your confidence back." I nodded my head in agreement, but I knew this wasn't just something I could snap out of. Expecting someone with depression to "be more positive" is like telling someone with a broken leg to "stop worrying." Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain (our control center) that requires medical treatment - it's not something you should expect to recover from on your own.
I was ashamed to ask for help. I was evidently clinically depressed, but who wants to admit they have a mental illness? Everyone around me was already treating me differently; I couldn't stand the thought of exacerbating things by telling yet another person, not even my best friend. I didn't want her to see me like this. She's the most lively person I know, and for years, we've both taken pride in practically being the same, energetic person. I was too embarrassed to let her see me in this unusual, depressed state. I avoided her company for several months.
On our way to different clinics, my brothers tightly held my hand. The first one was crowded and uninviting; news reports about a murder roared from the TV. I ran out and curled up into a corner of the hallway, crying to my brothers, repeatedly, that I wanted to go home.
Eventually, we found a psychiatrist with whom I felt more comfortable, but during our first session, I didn't speak a word - my brother spoke for me. Long story short, he put me on medication, and I reluctantly accepted the help that I had been refusing for months.
You might be wondering: What does it feel like to have depression?
Well, from MY personal experience (and please remember that numerous things can cause depression and that it's different for everyone), I felt worthless and didn't see any practical value in living; every activity felt pointless and I lost all enthusiasm after being the spastic, energetic one out of all my friends. I slept unhealthy amounts because I just could not get out of bed each morning. I found myself crying uncontrollably throughout the day; anyone who knows me knows that I generally can't stand crying and that I'll do anything to avoid showing my emotions.
The hardest part for me was having to drop out of school that semester. I didn't want anyone to have the right to call me a college dropout, and I was disappointed in myself for not living up to my own and my family's academic standards. I hid the news for months. I failed to recognize that I wasn't a "lazy drop out" who neglected her schoolwork, but a sick one who had neglected her health. Doctors advised that I take some time off from school.
One night, I was watching an episode of the Most Strict Parents, which featured a boy who wasted his parents' money never attending private school and instead, smoked and drank with his friends. I began to cry, thinking, He's also a college dropout. We're the same. How could I do this to my parents? I walked toward my brother, with my hands shaking and began apologizing profusely for being just like the kid from the show. My breathing stopped and I had my first panic attack - the medication had backfired and overwhelmed my system. My brother calmed me down, reminding me that I was nothing like the kid on the show: "He's an inconsiderate, derelict, rebel child and you're a physically ill student. There's a huge difference."
The term "college dropout" carries the connotation that the student didn't try hard enough or was somehow incapable. We typically don't consider that dropping out might have been necessary in order for the student to be mentally and physically healthy. Dropping out of school isn't always indicative of failure; in some cases, it's a transitory but necessary hurdle that can be overcome with time.
Fast-forward eight months. I just completed my first semester of my freshman year, met wonderful people in clubs at Queens College, landed my dream job of being a TV reporter and met a fellow computer science lover who I'm lucky to call my bae. I feel like I'm on top of the world, and I've never been this happy to be alive and healthy. I attribute my recovery to my psychiatrist's help, the support of loved ones and time. Getting better doesn't happen overnight. While I wish I could elaborate more on small milestones throughout my recovery, I honestly can't pinpoint any "aha" moments where I felt myself getting better - it was very gradual and it took months for me to notice the change.
To anyone who is struggling with depression or something similar, please ask for help because things DO get better once you accept the support of people who love you and medical professionals. Our society perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness by demoting public figures who are struggling with a disorder or anything similar; we are too eager to define people by their illness and that needs to stop. Mental illness is not a personal shortcoming; it's a health condition that requires medical attention.
Many of us don't know what to say to someone with depression. I myself didn't, until I experienced it firsthand. During an interview for a coding summer program, I briefly opened up about the depression and emphasized how now I feel ready to take on any challenge that comes my way, especially coding projects. The interviewer warned me, "Know that code doesn't work sometimes and when your code breaks, I don't want you to be sad because I know you had depression." Though appalled by her ignorance of depression, I laughed it off and said, "Don't worry, depression and coding have nothing to do with each other." I know she meant well, but she completely misunderstood what depression is - it's not just a temporary sadness. It's a damaging and consuming cycle that's out of the individual's control.
Today, I'm grateful to be getting these medications out of my system for good. I'm back to my old self again and I couldn't be happier to dance around my kitchen to Beyoncé every morning. I wouldn't have been able to get through any of this without the love and support of my family and my best friends, who continuously reached out to me from other states and were understanding when it took me several months to finally respond.
If you, yourself or someone you know is in need of help, call the 24/7 confidential crisis hotline at 212-673-3000. Be well.