Mental health is a work in progress

McKenzie Caldwell Staff columnist

McKenzie Caldwell Staff columnist

Last week, I wrote about my experience with my roommate’s death. Several people approached me, both online and in person, to discuss my column, and I want to definitely thank everyone for their kind words and for asking questions. But for those who called me brave for writing it: I’m not.

I’ve struggled with mental illness for most of my life, but when I went away for university, things got bad. In the first three weeks of classes, I had several panic attacks. They were caused by my unrealistic expectations for my design work as well as domestic violence triggers in one of my writing classes. But I had an amazing support system. My friends listened to me and didn’t brush aside my anxiety.

When I continued to have panic attacks, my roommate took me to sign up for counseling. I’d never been to counseling before that. I was afraid to ask to go to counseling when I was in middle school and high school because I didn’t want my parents to know that I was struggling with suicidal thoughts. I suspected I had depression, but I also worried I was just blowing things out of proportion. When I started counseling in college, the main focus was on anxiety and post-traumatic stress from an abusive relationship. A majority of my friends, including my roommate, were also going to counseling on the same day of the week, so we created Mental Health Tuesdays, where we would sit in my dorm’s common area and discuss our counseling sessions. It was one of the purest support systems I’ve ever had.

And then my roommate completed suicide. And I found her.

I started isolating myself. I refused to switch rooms because our dorm room was home, but I also refused to sleep there. The counselor I’d been seeing before my roommate’s death told me he couldn’t see me anymore because he wasn’t equipped to deal with the amount of trauma I was facing, so I started seeing the head counselor. I still wasn’t used to talking to people about my mental health, let alone serious trauma, and within a few months or so, I’d apparently convinced the head counselor that I was fine because she asked during one session if I still needed counseling.

Meanwhile, I was planning my own suicide.

I felt guilty for my roommate’s death, and I’d essentially destroyed most of my friendships. I was considering breaking up with my boyfriend, so he would hate me and be less sad when I completed suicide. I had a plan, I had intent, and I had a date: my 19th birthday. I started writing letters to the people I cared for, saving my parents for last. I kept telling myself that if I actually wrote goodbye letters to my parents, then I really was going to do it.

I never wrote letters to my parents. Instead, for my birthday, my then-boyfriend took me to a cat museum. I was still sad and still experiencing suicidal thoughts, but my birthday came and went, and I didn’t kill myself. I put away the journal that detailed my plans and contained my letters for my friends, and I didn’t touch it again for three years.

I’d love to tell you that I’m cured, but that would be a lie. Mental health is always a work in progress. In the last four years, I’ve been to about five different counselors, four psych nurses (who prescribe medication) and an in-patient mental health facility. I’m still trying to find the medication that makes me feel like a real person with enough energy to get through the day without a nap. I still go to counseling because I still suffer from PTSD episodes related to my roommate’s death. I’m still fighting the suicidal thoughts because I’ve seen what happens in the wake of a suicide, and now that I have that knowledge, the depressive version of me cannot convince me that no one will care if I die, that no one will miss me, that if I complete suicide, no one will be affected.

Mental health is hard, and it can be frustrating and discouraging to know that there’s currently no cure or end in sight for my mental illness. But as long as I’m here, I may as well try to help as many people as I can through kindness and a refusal to stop talking about mental health and mental illness.

Talking about mental health doesn’t feel brave. It does not make me any braver or stronger than someone who isn’t ready — and maybe never will feel ready — to talk about mental health. But for me, it’s necessary.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts and need to talk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you think you’re in danger of harming yourself, please go to the emergency room to be evaluated.

McKenzie Caldwell is a reporter at The Times-Gazette. She can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2570.

McKenzie Caldwell Staff columnist Caldwell Staff columnist