When I was in high school, I knew something was wrong with me. There were many days where I felt like I had lost all purpose in living. I remember crying a lot in my high school years. My chest would feel tight, the air would get thick, and my mind would race with negative thoughts, and then, I would breakdown in despair – sobbing and hyperventilating until I stopped. I was left with a numb feeling.
I had this preconceived idea that it was my fault for feeling sad, and if I wanted to be happy, I could just “be happy.” When someone in high school noticed tears silently sliding down my cheeks in class, I would reassure them that I was just stressed out. It was better than telling people the truth, “I don’t feel like being alive today.”
Only a handful of teachers and friends knew I took on many responsibilities from home, since my mom was a single parent with two jobs: one at Kmart and the other as a janitor. It was that cliché thing where my brother and I definitely matured years beyond our age. When I got home from school, I was a pseudo caretaker for my grandma with severe rheumatoid arthritis, I tackled more chores and errands than my peers, and then, I had five to six hours of homework from my Advanced Placement (AP) classes.
“Catching” Economic-Based Stress
When my mom was stressed from work, she brought that stress back home with her. She would begin to criticize me when chores weren’t completed up to her standards and claimed my brother and I weren’t helping enough even when we did all the chores that she had asked us to do. We never did enough for her. And every time, I wanted to share my point of view or express why I thought she was wrong to criticize, I was shut down.
Sometimes, when I talked about how busy or hosed I felt from my academic responsibilities, she used to tell me to drop a class or to ditch the extracurriculars. Being the first in my family who had the possibility of attending college, I knew I had to keep all those AP classes on my record when applying for colleges.
Every time I explained why I wanted to keep my favorite, but time-consuming extracurriculars, she couldn’t understand what I meant. Other times, when I talked about stress, she would remind me she was the single parent with two jobs, and I had no reason whatsoever to be stressed.
Class Stigma Against Therapy
I remember occasionally asking my mom if I could see a psychiatrist or psychologist, because I knew something was wrong with me. Sometimes, she’d reply, “But, you’re not crazy.”
And when I persisted I would get, “I can’t afford to leave work to take you to appointments. You know I’m very busy.” Or she would say, “If you still want to be pre-med, you should know doctors can’t have psychiatrists. Medical schools don’t want to take in crazy people.”
Finally Being Validated
Needless to say, I didn’t get help for my depression until my first year of college, because my full ride for financially disadvantaged students at MIT completely covered my healthcare costs. In my first two years of college, I alternated between appointments with a psychiatrist and psychologist in the MIT Mental Health department. Today, I still have breakdowns, but the severity and length of these breakdowns decreased after finding the right antidepressant for me and hours of therapy with my psychologist.
Frankly, my improvement could have occurred for many reasons. Was it the fact MIT tries to destigmatize mental illness on our campus? Was it because my buried feelings from back home were “finally becoming validated” as my psychiatrist put it? Was it because I had the support of a new best friend who also had depression and listened to me without degrading my feelings?
Was it because my new set of friends grew up learning mental illnesses were not synonymous with “crazy”? Was it the fact I was out of the environment that had catalyzed my feelings of worthlessness at home? I don’t know, but I’d like to think it’s a pure mix of all of the good that came from choosing to attend MIT.
Class, Money and Mental Health
Occasionally, I wonder if things could have been different if money wasn’t a problem. Maybe my mom would have been less stressed out with one stable job rather than two low-paying jobs and thus, less critical. Mental health could have been a priority if she could’ve afforded to leave work to take me to psychologist appointments. We could have had more time to bond and strengthen our mother-daughter relationship.
In a parallel universe, could Mom and I have been doing our mother-daughter high-five, because we were actually financially stable and close?
Even though my mom and I aren’t talking now, I’m in a really good place. I’m taking three demanding classes in MIT to finish off my major requirements, exercising every night, going out with friends on weekends, and dating a really supportive guy who lets me use his shirt as a tear soaker during my breakdowns. I’m also sleeping way more than I did back at home. I realize I’m supposed to support my family, but I also acknowledge it’s difficult to help in any physical way when I’m about 2,200 miles away from home.
I’m using this point in my life to repair and take care of myself. Maybe one day, my mom and I will have an honest conversation about everything that went wrong, and we’ll both understand the reason behind our behaviors and choices. But we’re not there yet, and that’s okay. Right now, depression doesn’t have a strong grasp on me. Right now, I like living most days, and that’s enough to keep me going.