I never wanted to admit I had a problem. That I needed help. That I couldn’t handle things on my own. It felt like defeat, like I wasn’t good enough. Things would spiral and I couldn’t cope. I had felt this way for years, all throughout high school and college. I remember spending days on my couch, unable to contemplate doing anything else. I remember nights where my mind would race so much that I never fell asleep. I would pick apart every piece of my day, every interaction I had and question how I could be so stupid to do or say or think what I had. But when morning came, I would face the day with a smile even though I often felt empty inside.
Depression and anxiety were not words that I felt described me. I was the person other people came to with their problems, the friend who would always listen and give advice. I was the professional who would sit across from students and listen to them describe very similar situations to my own and encourage them to talk to their friends and loved ones, to think about reaching out to a counselor for coping strategies. I had countless conversations with students about the very things I was feeling and thinking, and yet I couldn’t take my own advice.
About halfway through my first year of graduate school, I was in a check-in meeting with my boss. As was typical at the start of our meetings, she asked how I was doing and how I was managing the stress of coursework, part time work, and an internship. I started to cry and told her how overwhelmed I was feeling. That I didn’t know how I was going to make it through my program. That I wasn’t sure why I had thought moving 3000 miles away from where I had grown up was a good idea. That I was feeling empty.
And in that moment, my boss was present. She let me get out what I needed to get out. She normalized what I was feeling. She said that it was time for me to call the Counseling Center on my campus and set up an appointment. I flat-out refused, saying that I didn’t need or want the help, that I wasn’t crazy, that I could handle what I was feeling on my own. But the truth was I knew that I couldn’t. I knew I needed help and didn’t know how to ask for it. So she sat there while I made that call, my fingers shaking as I dialed the number I knew by heart from giving it out to my students. No one answered, which I took as a sign. I hung up and looked at her with a defiant grin, further trying to convince myself and her that I was fine. She said, “Colleen, call them again and leave a message if they don’t answer.” And on that second try, someone picked up and helped me set up an appointment.
That hour-long conversation with my boss nine years ago changed the course of my life in so many ways. It set me on a path of self-discovery and self-advocacy and helped me to understand that my diagnosis of depression and anxiety and the medicine I needed to regulate my body is very similar to medicine someone who has asthma or high blood pressure might need to regulate their bodies. I have learned that it is not admitting defeat to ask for help. While my mind still races at night and I am often in situations that make me anxious, I have learned coping strategies. I know that my diagnosis is a part of who I am, but it is not all of who I am. I have people in my life who have to remind me of this when I am in those moments. I have owned my story with others, and in doing so, I have been able to own it with myself.
A couple of years after that first counseling appointment, I was listening to a speaker share his story around his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He talked about how hard it was for him to seek out help and how alone he often felt. And he asked the crowd, “If you fell on your way out of this event and broke your arm, what would you do?” Someone quickly answered that they would go to the hospital. The speaker then asked if that was the case, why we would treat our brain any different. If you or someone in your life needs help, don’t be afraid to talk to them. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are doing. That simple question could make all the difference in the world. It did in mine.