Content warnings: depression, suicide, bipolar, anxiety, physical abuse
7 A.M. My first of five alarms go off. I instinctively press snooze.
7:52 A.M. My roommate is getting ready. My alarm goes off again. I go back to sleep.
8:35 A.M. I wake up with a pang of guilt. I’m late for class again. I try to forget about it and I go back to sleep.
8:58 A.M. I wake up and have a conversation with myself. One part of me begs myself to move and just do something, the other part convinces myself it’s not worth the effort—I’m late anyway. Five minutes of contemplation gets me out of bed.
9:16 A.M. I have my teeth brushed, face washed. I get dressed. I’m ready to leave for my 8:30. But I don’t leave.
I don’t go to my 8:30 because one look from my professor and the stares from my classmates are enough to send me into another downward spiral, another depressive episode. It could ruin my day, my week, or even my month. But I can’t risk it because I have a quiz in my 9:50, and I’m far too busy to feel depressed for more than a minute. Every time I walk into that classroom late, I can’t help but ridicule myself for my laziness, my lack of self-determination and willpower. How hard is it really to get out of bed? For me, it feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do—and I have to do it every morning.
I’ve always struggled with getting out of bed. This is usually a result of lack of sleep the night before, but more recently, I know that hasn’t been the case. I’m getting at least seven or eight hours of sleep every night to try to combat the problem. I pray before I go to bed that I’ll wake up in the morning—I ask God to help me, just to nudge my feet because I know I don’t have the strength or mental capacity to do this on my own. I set multiple alarms in the morning just to make sure I will hear the ring. I’m not sleep deprived, so what the hell is wrong with me? “Laziness” is the only diagnosis I can fathom. But I’m not lazy.
Laziness is defined as the “unwillingness to work or use energy.” I know I’m not lazy because I do have a desire to change my behavior. I don’t want to be the student who misses class, turns in assignments past their due dates, and scores poorly on tests. And I know I’m not lazy because I can finish and produce quality work, I score well on tests and assignments, and I actually like doing my classwork. And outside of my academic life, I have enough energy to go to yoga, go to parties, show up for work and org meetings, and keep up with daily chores.
I think I’m lazy because, where I’m from, this is how we label people who don’t seem to function at a “satisfactory level” of efficiency. “Lazy” is what we called my sister when she nearly didn’t graduate high school on three separate occasions. My hometown is hyper-conservative, and these conservative views are reflected in the beliefs and words of both my family and friends back home. Most people in my hometown don’t believe in mental illness, which sounds outrageous now that I’m looking at the situation from the other side of the country. How can someone not believe that there could be a chemical imbalance in the brain that can deeply disrupt a person’s life, or that it’s possible to be so anxious that the worry is out of a person’s control? How did I, as a kid, ever believe that mental illness was just an excuse, a fallacy? And how did I never think that it could happen to me, especially considering that my mother has both bipolar disorder and severe ADD?
My father doesn’t believe in mental illness—or at least he doesn’t believe that mental illness can be chronic, let alone incurable. To him, mental illness (like my twin sister’s gayness) is just a “phase” or a “choice.” Last week, he told me he was proud of me for wanting to “fight against” any kind of mental illness, as opposed to “giving into the spiral of darkness” like my sister. My sister was recently diagnosed with severe ADD, clinical depression, anxiety, and narcissism. She is on her second of two counselor-mandated 72-hour suicide watches this month. Yesterday, she withdrew from school for the semester. It doesn’t take a genius to know that she isn’t choosing this lifestyle, and after two years, this issue goes way beyond classification as just a “phase.” My father doesn’t believe what he doesn’t understand, or more accurately, what he refuses to understand. Regrettably, I’ve lived the majority of my life mimicking my father’s flawed mindset. This is only now beginning to change as I seek explanations for both my past and present behaviors. Like why, for example, does it take me over an hour to fold my laundry when it should only take me 15 minutes? And what caused me, in my senior year of high school, to have four or five mental breakdowns in a typical week?
It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I do have mental health issues, the most prominent of which is anxiety, because I am afraid of the reaction from my family. I saw the way that my family acted when my sister started taking Adderall and already I have to sit and listen to the jokes my dad constantly makes about mental illness and my “crazy” mother. In my family, my sister is now seen as someone with problems, she’s seen as something to be fixed, and she is treated differently because of it. For my entire life, I’ve struggled to gain my father’s respect by working hard in school, playing by the rules, and pursuing an education he would be proud of. Admitting to anyone in my family that there is a problem—especially if I were to be medicated—could undo all of the work I did for years trying to earn his respect.
The second reason I’m having a hard time is because of my mother’s history with mental illness. Since high school, my mother and I have had a strained relationship. My sophomore year of high school, my mother abused me because she was angry one night—she apologized to me the next morning and told me through tears that it happened because she ran out of her medication the day before. Then she pleaded with me to forgive her because what happened the night before was “not her.”
The only example of mental illness that I grew up with was not a positive experience. My mother did not manage her temper well, she lashed out constantly, and I was always tiptoeing around her to make sure I wouldn’t set her off. My parents split before I was born, so for my entire life, my dad has called her crazy and made fun of her lack of control over her emotions. All this being said, I know I don’t want to be medicated—I’ve seen what a reliance on medication has done to my mother, and I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to look back on a mistake I’ve made due to a lack of medication and convince myself that it was “not me.” I’m afraid medication will turn me into a person I am not, just like it did to my mother.
At the end of the day, I am afraid. I am afraid that if I admit I have a problem, people will start to see me differently. More importantly, I am afraid I’ll see myself differently. I am not my mental illness—I should know that by now. Here at Wellesley, this fact seems obvious, but back at home it isn’t. And though I absolutely don’t see other people in terms of their mental illnesses, I am afraid I’ll start to see myself as someone who is broken. I know I am not broken. I am ambitious and honest and compassionate and intelligent and whole. And I know I am not my mental illness, and that I never will be—but every night before I turn the lights off and go to bed, I can’t help but wonder if tomorrow I’ll be able to wake up to my alarm, walk to class, and decide to be more than my mental illness.
God willing, I’ll see in the morning.
From April 2018 issue