I originally wrote this a few months ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was really ready for people to hear my story. But today I think I am. And I know this is long, but bear with me.
I was recently inspired by a blog post I read on a blog by a young woman whose story felt so similar to mine. I’ve posted the link to her blog at the bottom.
Today I got my first (and probably only) tattoo. I’ve been raised my entire life to believe that tattoos were wrong and ugly. They were something meaningless that you regret later in life that you can never get rid of. I never particularly agreed with my parents on this issue, but I never had any real desire to get a tattoo. I just couldn’t think of something that I would want for the rest of my life. Then I saw this girl’s story and was inspired. So today I walked into a tattoo shop and got a tattoo of a semi-colon on the inside of my wrist.
This was a big step in my life. One of my best friends in the world drove four hours to come and sit next to me as I got my first tattoo. She’s been there for me since preschool, together in every class, attending the same schools all the way through college. She basically became a sister to me. But today was a particularly significant day in my life, and not just because I got a tattoo – it was the day I was starting over and making a pledge to fight – and she made sure she was once again there for me.
So let me start here: A semi-colon is a place where the author has the decision to stop with a period, but choose not to. A semi-colon is a reminder to pause, take a breath, and then continue on.
Over three years ago, as a second-semester freshman in college, I got three concussions in about a month’s time. I was a bit of a clutz back then, and having one concussion certainly didn’t help my balance and coordination, hence the two more concussions. After refusing to drop out of school, I pushed my way through the rest of the semester, barely attending class, sleeping 20 hours a day to escape the extreme headaches I had 24-7, barely eating, and spending all of my waking time in a dark room. Although I somehow made it through the semester, when May came around, I was no better than I was in February. So I took the advice of the concussion specialist I saw and I took the summer off, doing nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. No TV, no cell phones, no computers, no books, no music. Bright lights, electronic screens, loud noises, car rides – anything and everything made my headaches worse. And so I didn’t do any of it. I painted with watercolors and played Go Fish like I was in kindergarten again. But the summer crawled by and I made it through it.
When late August came around and it was time to go back to school, I pulled out at the last possible moment. I was determined to go back, but my headaches just made everything unbearable. I couldn’t even sit through an hour long mass on Sundays, let alone several classes a day with homework. So I stayed home again. And I painted and played Go Fish for the next four months.
Finally, January rolled around and I didn’t care how much it hurt, I was going to go back even if it killed me. I was beyond bored out of my mind. I had become withdrawn from both my family and friends – large crowds and laughing made my headaches worse, so I avoided them. I spent virtually all day in my room by myself. I was completely isolated for almost 8 months, and I was starting to accept that that was okay to do. So I forced myself to go back to school.
I started out with five classes, determined to just push through like I do through everything. As the first few weeks of the semester went by, five proved too much for me to handle, and so I dropped down to three, becoming a part-time student. I registered with the Center for Students with Disabilities at my school, and got accommodations like a single dorm room, note-takers, extra time on tests, and excused absences. I attended class less than 50% of the time, and I barely left my bed or room. And once again I made it through, but barely.
Then it was summer again and I was still in the same boat I had been a year ago. So I once again did nothing. But then things started to go downhill. My headaches were getting worse, and fast. It got to the point where I would be in so much pain that I would pass out for anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. My whole body would twitch, and when I came to, I was disoriented and confused. As the school year approached, they started to get more frequent, and by a few weeks into school, I was passing out multiple times a day, no matter where I was. Thankfully I had an amazing friend, who was willing to help me out in any way he could. I was beyond lucky to have such an incredible friend in my life. Throughout the semester, I saw every specialist under the sun. I did acupuncture, saw a chiropractor, a seizure specialist, a headache specialist, I even got Botox at one point. I was willing to try anything to make the headaches go away. Unfortunately nothing worked. I finished out the semester, but looked and felt like a zombie. I was pale as a ghost, with dark circles under my eyes, despite the fact that I was sleeping ¾ of the day. I had lost touch with almost all of my friends, with only a handful of my best friends sticking by me.
After Christmas, my parents and doctor decided enough was enough. After the New Year, my parents and I drove out to Michigan to go to the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I spent a week there going to appointments and getting MRIs. After a week, they decided to put me in their inpatient program at a hospital in Chelsea. I was there for about a week and a half where they ran every test known to man. I had needles in my forehead, my arms, my neck, lumbar punctures, CT scans, MRIs, and every medicine through an IV they could think of. They even ran an EMG for the “seizures” I was having when I would pass out.
It wasn’t until my last day there that the doctors had figured out what was wrong with me. I had severe depression and anxiety. When they first told me, I laughed in their faces. I wasn’t depressed. Depressed people are those emo kids who wear all black and don’t have any friends and complain to therapists about how awful their lives are. Or so I had stupidly thought. I didn’t – wouldn’t – believe it. But what about all the headaches and loss of consciousness? They told me it was all part of my depression. Because I’m the type of person to bottle things up, my emotions had had enough and eventually started to use my body as an outlet. The seizures I was having were pseudo-seizures. I was devastated. I didn’t want to be depressed. I couldn’t be. Accepting that I had depression was one of the hardest moments of my life. I felt like my mind and body had betrayed me. But deep down, I think I realized that it made sense.
Three days later we were back home, and I went back to school. I started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist regularly, and slowly, my pseudo-seizures and horrible headaches were a thing of the past. But my struggle wasn’t over yet. I was still sleeping an absurd amount a day, eating very little, and missing class on a regular basis. As the year went on, I reached a plateau. My headaches had stopped, but I still felt like crap. The medicines they were giving me weren’t working, and I wasn’t getting anywhere in therapy. I had hit a dead end.
During the fall, I had to beg my parents to let me go back to school, and reluctantly, they agreed. Maybe they shouldn’t have. The stress of the semester was too much for me. I attended one or two classes a week, despite the fact that I was taking five. I needed extensions on all my assignments. I couldn’t get out of bed at all, and the few times when I did, I was a zombie. At this time, my boyfriend had been in graduate school for two semesters, and things were starting to get stressful for him. He couldn’t deal with all my crap. And I, of course, was oblivious to it all. I didn’t care that I slept all the time, or that I was barely passing my classes, or that I had no friends anymore, because at the end of the day, I still had him. Sure, I had my bad moments, like the time I cut off all my hair instead of cutting myself, but I still had him so it was okay. I was becoming complacent, accepting that feeling like this was just how life is.
Finally, this past January, he told me enough was enough. He couldn’t do this anymore, and he broke it off. Devastated can’t even begin to describe my feelings. I felt as if the floor had just been ripped out from under me. I sank into an even deeper depression. All those feelings that I had before were even worse, because I had lost my best friend. It finally got to the point that one day my parents picked me up from college and took me to the psychiatric ward at the hospital. I was put in their inpatient psychiatric program for three days before they let me out. They had a whole plan for me for what I was going to do when I got out. I would drop two classes (making me have to go a whole extra other semester in order to graduate), commute from home, go to a day outpatient program three days a week, continue my usual weekly therapy, and do DBT therapy. This was unacceptable to me. So I woke up.
Going to the psych ward was the wakeup call I needed. This wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I had become distant from my best friends, and lost all my other ones. My family could barely stand to be around me, and my sister was avoiding coming home because seeing me like this stressed her out. The love of my life was gone and I had no way of getting him back. I had ruined everything. So I was determined to prove them all wrong. I could do this. And I didn’t need to give up what little freedom I had left to do it.
So I drove back to school, determined to shape up. I started opening up to my therapist more. My psychiatrist changed my medications. I started DBT. I started eating again, exercising again. I saw my best friend a few times. I even went to most of my classes. It wasn’t easy, but I wasn’t about to give up.
It’s almost three months later, and I’m still working my ass off to dig myself out of the darkness I was in. I still go to therapy every week, and I’ve made a serious effort to see my few friends again. I even got an internship that I love, and I’m determined not to lose it.
So I got this semi-colon tattooed on my wrist today. I got it as a promise to myself that I won’t ever end my sentence. I’ll pause, take a deep breath, and then keep going. This is not the end of my sentence – I’ve still got a whole new part of it left. And I won’t regret this tattoo in 20 or 30 years either. I got it as a reminder of all that I’ve been through. As horrible and difficult and painful as these past three years have been, it’s made me who I am now. I’m stronger now, and I’m only going to get even stronger. I don’t want to forget everything I’ve been through. It’s a part of me, whether I like it or not.
And finally, I got this tattoo to start the conversation about mental illness. I’m not ashamed I have depression. I had denied to myself for two years that I was depressed, simply because of the stigma surrounding it. I didn’t want to be crazy or insane like the “stereotypical depressed person.” In fact, I’m nothing like that. I was a varsity swimmer, salutatorian of my high school class, president of the National Honors Society. I’m in the Honors Program at college, I’m a double major. I love funny movies like Pink Panther and Despicable Me. I don’t wear all black with chains and sulk around like the world is ending, like I used to think all depressed people did. But depression is so much more common than I ever could have believed. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, depression affects 16 million American adults (350 million worldwide), or about 8% of the U.S. population age 18 and over, in a given year. I’m not alone. There are millions of people out there who are going through the same thing I am. And there are some who are probably doing what I did – denying they have depression because of the stigma. I wish I had been more aware about depression, that I understood that it’s common and you don’t have to wear black nail polish and have no friends to have it. I could have saved myself two years of pain if I hadn’t been adamant that I didn’t have this “stereotypical” depression.
So I’m going to wear my tattoo proudly and be the voice for all those who can’t speak up for themselves. I’m going to fight my own depression with every breath in my body, and then I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure people suffering with mental illness know that they’re not alone.
My sentence isn’t over yet. This is just a pause, and then I’m going to continue on.
For more information about the tattoo I got, please visit http://www.projectsemicolon.com.
For hpwritesblogs’ post, please visit https://hpwritesblogs.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/www-thesemicolonproject-com/