As a teenager, depression troubled Kristen, and she struggled to even accept that she might have a mental illness because of the stigma attached to it. This is the story about how her depression led her to attempt taking her own life — and how she found hope on the other side by coming to view it as a medical problem that required healing and help.
As a kid, every TV commercial for an antidepressant seemed to feature somber instrumental music, rain streaming down the windows against grey skies, and a woman unable to get out of bed in the morning. These images were my only exposure or knowledge of depression or mental illness of any kind.
I concluded that depression only affected adults — those were the only people I ever saw on the commercials — and that it was caused by a terrible event happening in someone’s life, such as a family death or a divorce. This false perception of depression led me down a path of undiagnosed mental illness for multiple years — I took symptoms of fatigue, lack of sleep, incessant sadness, mood swings, and weight loss as just normal stuff that all teenage girls experience.
When I started to realize that my symptoms weren’t as normal as I thought, I began to master the art of wearing masks of happiness and normalcy around those I loved. I believed that people with depression were attention-seekers, faking it, or just being dramatic about stuff that everyone else deals with — and so I categorized myself in this stereotype. I’d tell myself, “Kristen, you’re being way too sensitive about this. You have no reason to be this sad. Stop hating your life and start being grateful for what you have. People have it way worse than you do.”
This never-ending monologue would play through my head as I tried to convince myself I was fine. Despite telling myself, over and over, these insensitive and false narratives, they never took away the stark pain of despair, hopelessness, and worthlessness that I felt inside. Yet I still was not convinced to reach out to ask someone for help.
This way of living — putting on mask after mask, pretending to be fine while feeling absolutely dead and numb inside — had become my new normal. But all good acts must come to an end, and this show slowly came to a close with my first full-blown panic attack.
My anxiety woke me up early one morning at around 4 a.m. when the exhaustion of feeling hopeless every day and monotonously going through the motions of life had just become too unbearable to handle. I felt as if my lungs were caving in and my room was spinning around me. I lay in a fetal position sobbing in my bed.
My parents heard me crying from their bedroom down the hall and came into my room. They asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t get a word out. So they decided to take me to the psychiatric hospital.
Hearing the words “psychiatric hospital” sent me into an even deeper spiral of panic. At this point, a few thoughts raced through my mind: I didn’t even know psychiatric hospitals existed anymore; I’m not crazy, only crazy people go there; This is so embarrassing, I cannot go there — I’m fine. Before I could compose myself to argue with my parents about going, I was in the car on my way to the emergency room of the psychiatric hospital I didn’t even know existed just 15 minutes away from my house.
After about seven hours in the waiting room, explaining my situation over and over to a nurse, doctor, social worker, and finally the psychiatrist, I was deemed safe to go home and was enrolled in an intensive outpatient therapy program. This program would meet three times a week, for three hours each meeting, during my summer break. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to be spending nine hours a week of my summer vacation talking to a group of strangers about a mental illness diagnosis that I could not even admit to myself that I had.
This summer consisted of denial, getting started on an antidepressant, being fake about how I was feeling in my therapy sessions, and ultimately, the finale of my act. My performance — wearing masks to hide my pain from myself and everyone around me — came to an end on a family vacation at the end of the summer. Feeling the full weight of my exhaustion, hopelessness, and despair, I couldn’t think of one good reason why I should continue to live life like this anymore. There was no point in living if this was all I felt every day for as long as I could remember.
I attempted suicide for the first time on August 21, 2015. Thanks be to God, my dad stopped me in the midst of my attempt. When we got back home after vacation, I went back to the hospital I had visited only a few months prior.
The same scene unfolded in the emergency room as before: my parents and I waited for multiple hours, explained the incident to multiple people, cried, stared at blank walls, and waited. During those monotonous hours of waiting, I cried for hours in my dad’s lap as I told him how embarrassed I was to be back in this hospital for crazy people.
The words that came out of my dad’s mouth as he consoled me in his lap became my motto throughout my recovery. “Kristen, if you had a broken foot, we would take you to the doctor to get it fixed,” he said. “Something isn’t right with your brain, and so we are going to get that fixed.”
My entire mindset about mental illness changed after those words. If I was sick with anything else — diabetes, a broken foot, the flu — I would not be ashamed of seeking help from a medical professional. Why should I treat my brain any differently? If anything, the brain deserves the most attention because it controls my entire body.
This new perspective didn’t heal me in an instant, but it did change the way I saw myself and my mental illness. It gave me hope, and the road to my recovery was one of the most positive and transformative seasons of my life.
After I was discharged from my two-week inpatient stay at the hospital, I began a partial therapy program that met everyday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I missed the first two months of my junior year of high school as a result of continuing treatment and taking recovery seriously. Because of my academically intense and perfectionist personality, it was extremely difficult to take two entire months off of school and focus on getting healthy. I soon realized, though, that those two months were better spent learning about cognitive behavioral therapy and practicing tools to use in the midst of panic attack rather than learning about The Great Gatsby or the Constitutional convention.
I would never have given myself the freedom to enter fully into recovery and take my illness seriously if it weren’t for the transformative words my dad spoke to me in the waiting room. Those words crushed every stereotype and false narrative that I let myself believe about mental illness. Those words permitted me to recover, heal, and finally begin to lead a life where waking up the next day is something I look forward to and rejoice in.