This week, The Tide will publish a series of four stories from and about Wheaton students regarding their experience with mental health. The goal of the series is to bring light and conversation to a topic that is often associated with shame. We hope that these pieces will demonstrate the hurt and potential for healing experienced by many students on Wheaton’s campus. If you would like to add your own story to this series, click here.
An edited version of this story first appeared in The Wheaton Record on February 4, 2016. “Jeanette” (not her real name) went through a period of severe depression during which she became suicidal. The story is based on an interview with Visiting Professor of Philosophy Cliff Williams, who recorded what Jeanette said, then transcribed and edited it.
Trigger warning: Some of what Jeanette said is fairly raw and may cause a reaction in some readers. If you find yourself feeling depressed or suicidal, you can contact Wheaton College’s counseling center in Armerding Hall at 630-752-5321 or email@example.com, or call the 24-hour national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I told my mom that we had talked about suicide at school and that I was thinking about it all the time. I don’t know whether I was thinking about suicide because I wanted to do it or just because it was a new idea. My mom got mad at me and said, “Don’t think about it.”
I felt bad by that, and confused, too, because I didn’t understand my feelings. I wanted to talk about them.
I had been sad for some time. I expected the worst from things so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I also experienced compulsive tendencies, a bit like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every night I had to get up three or four times to make sure that my dad had locked the house door. If anything happened, or if I had a bad or sinful thought, I had to tell my mom or else it would eat at me for days. It was taking over my life.
My mom, however, did not believe in mental illness or depression, so she said my behavior was due to hormonal changes. I was just growing up. When I got a book from the library to read about obsessive compulsive disorder, my mom made me return it, because she didn’t want it to be putting ideas into my head.
Fortunately, the compulsions stopped when I went to high school two years later. But the sadness continued. At the time, I didn’t know what depression was, so I thought it was normal to be overwhelmed and to feel sad and hopeless about everything.
Toward the end of my senior year of high school, I became anti-social and had a hard time doing school work. I wasn’t motivated to do anything. Sometimes I had to leave class to go to the nurse’s office and cry.
I couldn’t sleep at night—I stayed up until three in the morning—and when I got up to go to school, I collapsed on the floor, sobbing, “I can’t keep going to school. Please don’t make me go.” I begged my mom to call me in sick, which sometimes she did and sometimes she didn’t.
I think now that the fact that my mom mistreated me and my sister, plus my dad, probably had a lot to do with what I was feeling. My mom told my dad more than once that she was going to kill him in his sleep that night. Then she told us. I stayed up all night until six or seven or eight in the morning in case she actually tried to kill him.
Once my dad was trying to fold the corners of the sheet on their bed like they do in hospitals. My mom was standing over him with a shampoo bottle, saying, “You have one more chance, that’s it, or I am going to beat you with this.” My sister and I were standing there, saying, “Dad, come on, you can do it. Come on, Dad!”
While I practiced my piano lessons, my mom sometimes sat on the bench with me. When I couldn’t get a certain section right or made mistakes, she sometimes got mad at me and beat me.
Now and then my mom told me that she was going to kill herself and that it would be my fault. One time she said that she hated me. She made me and my sister do the same things to my dad that she did to us. I yelled at him, told him how stupid he was, and was mean to him.
Sometimes my mom hit me, though that had stopped when I began high school, because I became too big for her to hit. I could fight back.
The way I coped with my depression during my freshman year in college was to be abusive to the boyfriend I had then. I constantly emasculated him verbally the whole year. It felt as though I hated him. Yet I needed him and didn’t want him to leave.
All that first year, I was angry, but I didn’t know why and couldn’t control it. At the beginning of my sophomore year, things got worse. I got meaner and meaner to my boyfriend.
I started seeing a counselor because of my anger. That was a big step for me, because counseling had been so demonized by my mom: “We do not talk about mental illness in this house.” At one point, I told my mom that I thought I was depressed. She got furious and said, “Who’s telling you that? Who’s putting thoughts into your head?” I dropped the idea that I was depressed pretty quickly.
The counselor listened to my symptoms and said, “You can believe it or not, but you have depression, and it’s pretty severe.”
I came to realize that I had been abusive to my boyfriend. The turmoil we had been in was my fault. I saw what a monster I had been. I felt so much guilt because of that and so ashamed and so sorry that I couldn’t handle it. I had panic attacks in which I couldn’t get off the floor. I thought my room was spinning and tumbling.
One night, in the middle of the night, I found my way to a park. I lay on the ground, called my boyfriend, and tried to tell him I was sorry. But I couldn’t get the words out, because I was having a panic attack.
The emotions I felt then were the strongest I have ever felt in my life. The feelings I had had all my previous years accumulated into the messy being that was me. The cathartic experience of understanding that I had been depressed, after nineteen years of not knowing that, simply realizing it had a name, and knowing that my parents were wrong to deny it, sent me over the edge.
I started spending pretty much all day, every day, in the counseling center on campus. I didn’t go to classes. I thought of killing myself all the time. It would be awesome, I thought, if I could get the courage to do it. Finally, I was taken to a mental health hospital near the end of that semester.
I spent a week there. When I came back to campus, I continued in pretty much the same way, depressed and thinking of killing myself.
I was like a hot mess. I could not function in basic ways. I could not go to classes. I did not take care of myself. I rarely got out of bed. When I did, I did not participate in normal, social experiences. Every night I prayed that I would not wake up in the morning.
I planned out ways to kill myself. If I had had access to a gun, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I never tried, though, because I was too cowardly to use any other method.
All I could feel was pain. There was no point in staying alive, I felt, because everything was so terrible. But if I killed myself, I could go be with Jesus. I could not understand why people were trying to keep me alive, and I got angry at those who tried to stop me, especially my family. If they really loved me, I asked myself, why wouldn’t they let me be happy? Why are they keeping me here, when it is so painful for me? If I could just kill myself, everything would be fine, because there is no pain in heaven.
Even though I was in great pain, I was at peace about killing myself. It felt good finally to be brave enough and certain enough that that was what I was going to do. I know that sounds weird. But it was a feeling that can’t be reproduced—to be calm, knowing that I was going to kill myself.
I ended up back in the hospital in February of my sophomore year, and I left school after that. At home, I tried to take a bottle of pills. But my sister walked in on me and knocked the bottle out of my hands. My family screamed at me, and I screamed at them. They took me to the hospital.
The thing that turned me around was the intensive outpatient program I participated in at the hospital. It was eight weeks of meeting every morning for three hours with a group of people. I learned about coping techniques. Others in the group understood what I was saying, which helped a great deal. They knew how to tell me that I was wrong—not wrong in what I was feeling, but wrong in blaming myself.
I learned, too, that the chemicals in my brain weren’t right, and that that’s why I was depressed. It wasn’t because I was not praying enough. It wasn’t because I had done something wrong. It was because of my brain chemistry, plus my messed-up past. Nature and nurture worked together to make me who I was.
I got onto solid medication, which was a huge deal for me, because it was frowned upon, not only by my family, but by the Christian community I had grown up in. Also, I moved out of my parents’ house and found a job. I returned to Wheaton last semester, after two and a half years of being away.
One thing that keeps me alive now is my dog, a certified emotional support animal. She lives with me, and I take her with me when I go places. At first I stayed alive because she would have been put down if I had killed myself. I stayed alive so that I could feed her the next day. That served as a foundation so that I could find other reasons to keep going. In the beginning, though, she was the only reason.
During the first semester of my sophomore year, I broke up with the person I had been so mean to, and nine months later started dating Derek (not his real name). When we first dated, I said things like, “Someday when I kill myself . . . ,” because I assumed that that was how I would die. Derek got angry whenever I made a reference to killing myself. Now, though, I don’t want to hurt him, so he is another reason I have for staying alive. We are engaged and are getting married after I graduate.
During the past year or so, my passion for social justice has grown. I have been learning about trafficking, racism, and sexism. I want to advocate for people who are oppressed and marginalized. I care a great deal about equal rights for those who are forgotten and discriminated against. That’s something else that is keeping me alive.
I haven’t been suicidal now for over a year.
I still feel extremely guilty, though, for how I treated my dad. Just two weeks ago I had to leave class and sit in the bathroom and cry for half the period because I was thinking about what I did to him. At the time, I didn’t know that it was wrong. I didn’t have contact with other parents, so when my mom told me to do it, I did.
This past summer I apologized to my dad, because what I had done had been weighing heavily on me. I said, “Mom was telling me to do all that, but I should have realized sooner not to do it. I’m sorry for treating you that way.” He cried, and I cried.
As far as my relationship with my parents is concerned—I don’t have one. I haven’t lived with them since right after leaving Wheaton, and I do not talk to them. I am not allowed in their house anymore, because I’m a sinner—not that I’m murdering, doing drugs, or drinking, but because I believe that women are equal to men, and because I call myself a feminist. They said, “We can’t support your lifestyle, and talking to you and continuing to treat you as our daughter would be supporting your lifestyle.”
The last time I talked to one of my parents was last July, when I told them I had gotten engaged. Derek and I went to their house, but they did not permit us to go inside. So we stood outside in the driveway and talked to my dad. My mom refused to come out. I haven’t talked to my parents since then. They are not coming to my wedding.