This week and next, The Tide will publish a series of 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.
Mental illness at Wheaton. Coming in as a freshman, I don’t think I could have ever foreseen how meaningful that phrase would be. I had no idea that it would define my time at Wheaton. Although now I can look back and see that mental illness has been part of my story for most of my life, the really hard part started the summer after my freshman year. Call it stress, age of onset, or whatever else, but that’s when everything began to fall apart. I began to feel down for no reason at all, and I couldn’t shake it. I started having anxiety attacks. And toward the end of that summer, I began to have suicidal ideations for the first time. Growing up in a family that viewed people with mental illness as crazy, we naturally never discussed how to handle things like this. I was experiencing these symptoms with absolutely no idea what they were, where they were coming from, or what to do with them. Which of course made them worse.
I came back to Wheaton determined to be okay. As the fall semester went on, I got progressively worse. I started meeting with a woman in my church, who turned out to be a clinical psychologist. She did her best to help me see what was going on as depression and anxiety, but I simply would not accept that I could possibly have those two things. I was fine, obviously. Just hit a rough patch. Depression and anxiety were okay for other people to have, but not me. I could pull myself together. But as the spring semester unfolded, I found myself struggling more than ever. Desperate for some sort of escape, I began self harming. My suicidal ideations became stronger and more frequent. My friends started to get more worried, and approached ResLife, who forced me to tell them what was going on. I was forced to tell ResLife what was going on. I hated the fact that Wheaton was prying into my life. I hated everyone involved. They didn’t care about me, they cared about making sure their legal duties were fulfilled.
I told my parents that I needed some help. They didn’t want me to go to counseling, but after hearing of my increasingly strong suicidal ideations, they agreed. I started therapy, and soon after started on my first antidepressant. This pattern of behavior continued, until one day I got as close as I have ever been to suicide. I should have been hospitalized, but I was able to sneak out of it by being very careful with what I said to ResLife. I had learned that if you said what they wanted to hear, (not the truth), you could usually get out of the situation with relatively few consequences. That summer, I thought I was getting better. But when I came back to Wheaton for my junior year, I fell apart again. My third year at Wheaton was filled with more suicidal ideation, more self harm, and many broken relationships. It was also filled with medication change after medication change, as nothing we tried was working. It’s not the best feeling to know that you’re taking antidepressant and antipsychotic medications just to be okay. I thought I was getting better over the summer, but once again, I came back to Wheaton and started to sink right back into old habits. Finally, my therapist suggested that I switch to a new therapist. She was thoughtful and humble enough to realize that we weren’t getting anywhere together. So I switched. That was one of the best decisions of my life. I started going to see a woman who finally forced me to be honest. Really, truly honest. And she showed me unconditional compassion and love when I was. We finally started to get to the root of some of the issues I was having, and began making progress. She also suggested getting a second opinion from another doctor since my medication list was growing, but my symptoms were still present. I did, which was another great decision. We finally found the right medication, and although it has some uncomfortable side effects, it’s totally worth it. I began to stabilize. I wasn’t dipping into low lows anymore. I stopped wanting to hurt myself. And I had the energy to put into doing the things my therapist wanted me to practice. I was finally getting better.
I don’t think anyone tells you what it’s really like to get better. We talk about being sick, and we talk about being well, as if there’s no in-between. At least that’s what my experience felt like. I thought I was either going to magically become happy again, or feel shitty forever. Honestly I forgot what being happy felt like for awhile. A good day was not being suicidal or not wanting to self-harm. But after the new medication and the therapy tools started to work, I found myself in a strange place. I was starting to get better. Not just a short spurt of stableness, but really better. I was learning how to use skills and healthy coping mechanisms and I was rebuilding relationships. Long term better. But what I didn’t expect was how hard getting better would be. Getting better means putting really hard work into recovery. Getting better is exhausting. You’re not supposed to hurt anymore, because you’re not supposed to be sick anymore. But that’s not right. Recovery is simply learning how to handle hurt in a healthy way. And the feeling of finding hope and happiness again is worth all the effort.
Looking back on my journey with mental illness at Wheaton, I see tremendous amounts of pain, but also tremendous amounts of healing. Fighting your own brain for your continued existence is exhausting. Being suicidal all the time not super fun. Trying to do school in the midst of that is even less fun. But having friends who love you unconditionally through all of that–that’s pretty amazing. Here at Wheaton, there is a push to be vulnerable. But I think there is a very real box of what you are allowed to be vulnerable about, and mental illness isn’t in that box. It’s too messy. So we don’t talk about. Those of us who suffer, suffer in silence. We walk around with wounds that you can’t see. Or if they become wounds you can see, through self-harm, we are told to cover them up. Self-harm is too messy of a topic for most people at Wheaton, including ResLife and Student Care. Apparently, it paints you as an unpredictable threat that needs to be controlled. It strips you of your personhood and reduces you to your mental illness. It’s too shocking, too vulnerable,and what are you supposed to say to someone who does that? They did it to themselves, right? It’s their fault. No. Someone has to be in whole lot of pain to put a blade to their skin and pull. For me, the pain inside was too much, so I transformed it into pain on the outside. It also becomes addicting.
Wheaton, I know we put on a front that we have everything together. And I know we talk about this front a lot. And I don’t think it’s possible to see how hard we’re trying to keep it together until everything falls apart. But let’s at least choose to see others’ messes with compassion. And although it’s kept pretty well hidden, mental illness is alive and well at Wheaton. When you come across it, please don’t run away from pain that you don’t understand. You might not know all the right things to do, but even the fact that you show up and don’t leave means the world to someone who is struggling. Although I have come to terms with the fact that ResLife and Student Care were trying their best, I also know that there is much room for improvement. More education on how to handle mental health crisis is greatly needed. Just like more education is needed on how to handle unexpected pregnancy, doubts, sexual assault, etc. Let’s stop pretending that hard things don’t happen at Wheaton. To the professors and friends that have listened well and been there for me: thank you. You are the reason that I am still here. To those of you who are struggling, please find help. Talk to me, a friend, loved one, a professor, a therapist, or doctor. Your story is so important.