December 30, 2011
TRIGGER WARNING: This is a personal essay about depression and suicidal thoughts.
On January 12, 1982, Maya Tanaka Hanway, then a Yale undergraduate, jumped off of the Arts and Architecture building. When I walk home at night from a library or a friend’s dormitory, especially under a winter sky, I am sometimes thinking of this woman who, thirty years ago, found her pain so terrible that she decided to kill herself. Her story feels so familiar: I understand how she tried to paint but couldn’t, how she must have struggled through her classes and distanced herself from her friends, how, maybe, she wandered through this city in search of an elusive peace.
But my days now are, mostly, good, and have been for months – which is surprising, rare, and precious. My struggle with depression seems to, for now, have been won. Each moment pushes away the memories of the worst months of my life: the February I forgot my high school locker combination because I had missed so many days of classes; the March I slept under thin sheets in a hospital bed; the April I spent driving the same dark roads listening to the same sad songs until certain curves sang certain words.
It’s no great secret that many young people, and many people at Yale, struggle with depression. Last month, I watched a friend pack and leave Yale after a suicide attempt, wishing I could somehow express how I would a thousand times rather say goodbye knowing I would see him next fall than never see him again. I have left so much unsaid – so here I hope to offer a reflection on my own experiences: a voice and a story, though not an explanation or an apology. I also offer the necessary disclaimer – that my experience is my own and one of a white, straight, cisgender woman with one certain kind of mental illness.
“The search for love continues even in the face of great odds.”
When bell hooks taught at Yale in the 1980s, around the time Maya Tanaka Hanway committed suicide, she walked past this graffiti-ed proverb each day. The words are gone, painted over in stark white on some wall I will never find.
In the end, it is love – and time. Who knows, though, if there will ever be enough time, or if death or resignation will win out? The search, after all, is always long, but terrifyingly so when one is depressed. Now I call this campus and this city home, as I have learned to dwell within my own mind. It is a place where I have found a certain kind of love and things that I do not want to surrender to illness.
“To be honest would be to give myself away.” – Julia Lurie in the Yale Herald
I have considered myself a feminist since I was thirteen, when I came across the word and found it obvious that women should have, as the phrase goes, political, social, and economic equality with men. I was young and lonely and precocious; I knew that girls found me intimidating and boys found me confusing; I wanted to be pretty almost as badly as I wanted to be the smartest person in the room.
I grew into the word and idea of feminism. I’m sure that I found feminism appealing – and necessary – because it explained, on a level that the Catholicism of my childhood couldn’t, why I felt so bad about being a girl; why I was alternately obsessed with changing the world and changing the size of my thighs; why there were so few girls in my calculus class and why the boys never picked me as a partner.
“And it felt like a winter machine you go through, and then you catch your breath and winter starts again…” – Dar Williams, “After All”
When my adolescence was shattered by depression, I wasn’t expecting it. As much as I could be sensitive and introverted, I was also the girl who did it all – which made the situation all more devastating when I could do almost nothing at all. My junior and senior years of high school were spent more in darkness than in light – in more pain than I would wish on anyone. I was left to contend with sadness that ached my body and clouded my mind, always carrying a tremendous sense of guilt and failure. I came of age in this way, not through love or drugs or music, but inexplicable and incapacitating sadness.
I was placed on involuntary leave weeks before my freshman year at Yale was to begin. Between that summer and the autumn when I actually did begin my first year here, there were many months when I felt certain that I would never come to Yale. I believed that I would have no choice but to forfeit my acceptance and wander through young adulthood, unable to maintain any kind of a normal life and achieve the things I had assumed I would. I alternated wildly between a seventeen-year-old’s ridiculous overestimation of herself and a devastating insecurity that left me confident in nothing but the belief that – one day – I would take my own life. Logic, for the depressive, is a complicated thing. I was trapped between the have-it-all optimism of the girl-power generation and the bitter reality that I couldn’t get out of bed. So I spent a year at home, working and volunteering, finding people who understood when I would disappear for weeks at a time, staying up all night or sleeping for days, thinking, tracing the streets of New Haven in my mind.
”There is a terrible loss of dreams and inescapable damage to friends, family, and self… a sense of being only a shadow or husk of one’s former self; an unshakable hopelessness.” -Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide
The simplistic modern explanation of depression as a chemical imbalance failed to satisfy me. Because as much as depression is impersonal – that is, it affects people without regard to their class, age, background, or gender – it is also a terribly personal experience: isolating, incapacitating, and, frankly, terrifying. There’s little that statistics about medication efficacy or platitudes about recovery can do to soothe someone who was in my position.
As much as depression tore from me – months of my life; a year at Yale; friendships and self-confidence – the smallest things hurt the most: the twenty pounds I gained, eating alone late at night, the high-school boyfriends I never had, the awkward silences when I lied about my happiness, the poems I wanted to write but somehow couldn’t, and seeing my friends succeed at the things I was supposed to be doing, and wondering if I ever would.
Maybe I did have an inescapable genetic legacy. My family history reveals women like me – those I know and those I will never know. A great-aunt who took directionless late-night car rides to nowhere and a cousin lying in a hospital bed, her body devastated by anorexia. My mother, in her senior year of high school, tallied the days her mother spent in bed until the number was too high to count.
These stories are not unique to my family; struggles of the mind, of course, often take a different shape for women, and it is a terrible sisterhood that we share. We are more likely to be sexually assaulted, more likely to bear the burden of unwanted pregnancy or single motherhood, and more likely to attempt, though not complete, suicide. The issues of body image which have tormented so many of my friends – a body too short or tall, too sharp and angled, too soft and round – are by no means uniquely female, but they are a particular burden for women. Our attempts to define our sexuality beyond the virgin/whore dilemma are rarely simple. Postpartum depression affects an eighth of mothers, who are in turn often told that they are simply bad, cold, selfish parents who don’t love their children enough. And we are more likely to be discredited for our struggle, shamed in our weakness, labeled histrionic, overemotional, and unstable.
“But once someone is a clinical case, once someone is in a hospital bed … his story is absolutely and completely his own.” – Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
Misunderstandings of mental illness abound, but if there is one theme that I would like to argue most specifically against, it is that the sad woman is somehow mysterious and alluring. Let me be perfectly clear: there is nothing sexy about having the underwire taken out of your bra, being watched while you shave, being seventeen and on a children’s unit and eating Froot Loops and playing bingo. If anything, being depressed is the opposite of what I personally find attractive: depth, confidence, ambition. Yet this trope persists: no one would have read Prozac Nation if Elizabeth Wurtzel hadn’t been so damn hot.
It continues to frustrate me that popular understanding of women’s depression is limited to The Bell Jar and other similarly sensationalized, not to mention outdated, portraits. A woman’s vulnerability, they seem to say, is somehow evidence of her allure; depressed is just another word for coy. I assure you, real mental illness doesn’t exist to satisfy a fetish. The troubled history of women and psychiatry is only reinforced by these concepts of the mercurial, irresponsible, self-absorbed woman who so clearly needs intervention to return to the realm of acceptability. Too often, women are the patients and men the authorities.
And if we’re not sexy, we’re selfish. We fail to be the whore and we also can’t get the selfless Madonna quite right. Selfish is one of the worst things a woman can be, and what is more selfish and self-indulgent than to be unable to carry on with one’s relatively comfortable, uncomplicated existence? Feminism did not absolve me from this guilt. It became even easier to think of the massive, overwhelming problems in this world and find my own struggles shameful and insignificant.
“Some people protest carrying signs. Some people protest by making activist radical music. Sometimes people try to just make it through a day and not kill themselves, and that’s their activism for right then, because that’s all they have.” – Kathleen Hanna
I thought that to prove myself a feminist, I needed to be making immediate change, making statements, making demands of the world; many mornings, I could hardly will myself to make it through the day. Feminism is about agency; depression took that from me. Feminism is about community; depression left me isolated and alone. Feminism is about working for the good of the world; depressed, I believed that the only thing I would ever do to better the world was to kill myself.
“For… Emma Bee Bernstein… whose biggest strength and weakness was feeling everything like a stab in the heart.” – Nona Willis Aronowitz, in the introduction to her and Emma’s book Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Emma died by suicide before the book was completed.
I believe that – that feeling so deeply it cuts through your mind and even threatens your sanity is both a strength and a weakness. It is not a shameful thing to feel, and feel deeply. The only error is to believe that we are alone in our rage, grief, confusion, or passion.
In trying to make peace with my mind and to carve a space in the world where I could at least survive, I was able to believe that there was a place for me within feminism. I believe I have survived – both in the most obvious sense and in the greater, spiritual one – because I have been welcomed into communities even when I find myself distinctly unlovable. My communities have largely been feminist ones; feminism begins at the idea that each woman is worthy and that she does not deserve her oppression or struggle. I can only say that feminism is a source of courage to argue with those who tell a woman that she isn’t thin enough to have an eating disorder; wasn’t suicidal enough to “mean it;” wasn’t sober enough to have been raped. Feminism strengthens the voice which will allow no one to define our most challenging and personal of experiences. I found great solace in a movement that took my struggles as legitimate, and, yet, did not use them as an excuse to diminish my humanity. It is somehow possible, I learned, to be impatient with the world and yet patient with oneself.
“Thirty years later, I walk around campus, and see young women and men who have no idea how beautiful they are. They are beautiful in their newness, their idealism, and their open hearts.” – Camille Thomasson, in a 2010 remembrance of Maya Tanaka Hanway
If you need time off, take it; if you need to talk to a therapist, talk; if you need to confide in a friend, confide. If you are struggling, my heart is here for you. I wish that, in the great tradition of women sharing their stories, we could have a cup of tea or sit cross-legged in a park and speak. I want nothing more than for these conversations to be had, and not in the echo chamber of the depressed mind or within the glaring white walls of a hospital; I want them to happen among friends and among feminists. For as much as feminism changes the world, it must first change the self.
“The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.” – Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
The girl at her music, the girl at her protest or her elementary-school tutoring, the girl at her English class or her biology lab, the girl drinking black coffee in Blue State: the girl, the girl, this girl. This is for Maya, this is for Emma, this is for everyone I have ever wanted to tell but couldn’t. In the end, I believe most strongly in the stubborn power of the human heart, and that the heart that breaks will someday save another.
Julia Calagiovanni is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.