Today is 26 November 2017. I'm writing from a picnic-style table in the fifth floor of Foyles bookstore on Charring Cross Road in London. We Are Alive is just taking off -- the site is under construction and we are gathering research on how to best reach out to people, how to gather their stories sensitively and with the respect they deserve, and one thing keeps rattling around in my head...
If I'm going to ask people to share their stories, I'm going to have to share mine.
So hi. I'm Rose. I'm 23 years old and I've been clinically depressed and anxious for at least the past thirteen years.
I estimate it to this shockingly young age, at only 10 years old, because of November 2, 2004. For the record, I remember the date because I'm weird like that. Not because something so shocking happened to me that I can pinpoint the cause of my mental health diagnosis. No, the day started and I couldn't shake the dread that pinned me down to my bed. I was hysterical and there was absolutely no reason why. This wasn't a childhood tantrum. This was my first memorable panic attack.
My mother, recognizing what was happening from her own experiences, let me stay home from school. I started going to therapy about two months later.
I stayed in therapy for years, filtering in and out based on my mental state. I was so comfortable with my therapist that I called her by her first name. No formalities there. I wasn't medicated -- yet.
The panic attacks would swell and subside based on my stress levels, which is perfectly normal. Most times I would just stop going to school that day, or not even show up at all. This got me into trouble more than once. Freshman year of high school I was sent a notice that if I skipped one more gym class, I would be put on academic suspension. I didn't speak up that my gym teacher gave me such high anxiety that I physically felt my limbs go numb thinking about going to the class. Let's just say I wasn't the most athletically inclined kid and people knew it. Or what about the famous example in my high school from sophomore year, when I -- the lead in the school musical -- skipped my first two classes due to my biggest panic attack to date and was placed on temporary extracurricular suspension, unable to attend tech week rehearsal and thus becoming the pariah of the theatre department for my next two years. I was so embarrassed and I knew that my mental health wouldn't be explainable. I did what any 16 year old girl would do: I lied.
Things didn't come to a head though until my senior year of high school. I was riding the stress wave of applying to colleges and simultaneously taking Psychology 101. At this point, anxiety was my bread and butter, but it started materializing in weird ways. I was afraid of being left home alone with the oven on, in case we had a gas explosion, for instance. Or I wouldn't drive in the dark because I had a black car and, hell, more people might be drunk driving once it's dark out. And then I had that fateful class on mental illnesses and I realized what I was experiencing. I knew in that moment that I was a textbook case of clinical anxiety.
So I did the logical thing, the only thing I could think of: I went to my parents. And lo and behold my mother was on anti-anxiety medication. We went to my general practitioner and explained my symptoms and I was put on a low dose of Lexapro. Within the week my anxiety decreased.
I carried on with my Lexapro for two more years.
It was around January of my sophomore year of college that the depression hit. I didn't really realize it until it was far out of my control. I would cry at random points of the day. My favorite place to be was in the fetal position on the floor of my dorm. And then I started having what I still refer to as my 'dark thoughts,' thoughts that would consume me and make me think about my own fatality. It got so bad that after my brother's Confirmation, spurred by a silly argument with my dad about his photography skills, I went for a drive and almost crashed my car intentionally. Clearly, it didn't happen, but I distinctly remember texting my best friend immediately after asking when Confession was offered at our local church because I didn't know where else to turn. I didn't go.
I confided to my roommate that I wanted to die. I ended up telling my parents when my mom came up to school for a visit. I, so gracefully, told my mom that all I could think of as we cleaned my room was how it would help my parents pack up my stuff after I was "gone." I almost got pulled out of university (for the first time). My mom cried. My dad spoke sternly. And in that moment I found that if I wasn't going to live for me anymore, I was going to live for them. I went to an actual psychiatrist this time and was put on a host of different medications, namely Cymbalta and Latuda.
Before I get into what my saving grace was, I want to address my darkest time.
Skip ahead to November of 2015, when I was put on birth control (which interacted with my antidepressants in the worst way possible) and, admittedly, in an unhealthy relationship. It would be easy to blame my depression on those factors alone, but that was far from the case. Sometimes things just happen.
My depression was fierce and consuming from November to about May. I lost myself entirely and couldn't begin to piece myself back together. My relationship ended, and that was the driving force that officially sent me into my bleakest spiral around mid-January. I asked my mom to hide the razors in the house -- I was worried at just seeing them. I knew I couldn't get behind the steering wheel of my car. I started sending alarming text messages to my friends: "I'm really sick," "I am depressed," and finally "Update: I'm suicidal." My friends at university contacted the dean of student life and next thing I knew they were calling my house to check on me. One of my roommates personally called my mother to tell her what she knew. At that point, I went back to my psychiatrist and told him that I knew what I would put in my suicide note.
January 22, 2016 I was admitted to the hospital for threat of suicidal action.
I stayed there for three days and then left of my own volition. I didn't feel like it was helping me and I was afraid of the stigma around it. But -- and this brings me to We Are Alive's mission -- why is seeking medical help for mental illness any different from seeking medical help for physical illness? If you broke your leg, you wouldn't walk it off. And I was broken.
I was advised not to return to school but it was my last semester and damnit I was going to graduate on time. My mom moved back to school with me, living in a hotel not far from campus. She drove me to my new psychologist bi-weekly and shaved my armpits and legs for me, as I was still afraid to touch a razor. I was put on new medication and they were a roller coaster as we tried to figure out exactly what would "cure" me. I started joining extracurriculars again but found my enthusiasm had lessened. I lost a lot of friends. A lot. I started turning to alcohol to numb the pain, one night throwing up in my rain boot because I couldn't make it to the bathroom in time.
In the end, I think graduating and leaving the physical place of so much pain behind me was good. I went home and got a "fresh start" of sorts.
Which brings me to that saving grace I promised:
All of these details are dark and bleak and not so fun to discuss but they are real. And, as all-consuming as it seems, there was a lot of good during those years too. I had highly functional depression. I graduated from both high school and university with top marks. I watched my brother grow up into an amazing person -- my favorite person. I grew closer with my childhood best friend and realized I would give up a lung for her if she asked for it (she has asthma so this is a real possibility, just saying). I hit my maturation milestones, like driving, and drinking, and experiencing romantic love for the first time. It just happened that these things were not enough to make me want to be me anymore.
That is, until I travelled. Traveling saved me entirely. I studied abroad the semester following my first depressive episode. I moved to London and that afforded me a chance to recreate myself entirely. I wasn't bound to that "me" I used to be. I threw myself into my studies and my internship and I thrived. I came out on the other side adjusted to my medication and completely normalized. Unless I told you I was depressed, you wouldn't have known it.
My depression in my last year of university made me feel trapped. So when I saw an advertisement on Instagram for a gap year program in Ireland, I seized it. I moved in September 2016 and lived there for eight months. Once again, I was free.
While living in Dublin, I traveled to Spain, Morocco, Belgium, Scotland and England. I worked to travel. For the first time, I was financially independent, working to pay my bills too. I wasn't bound to anything. I created a whole new world for myself, and when I returned to Annapolis, Maryland (my hometown), I was nearly unrecognizable from the mess of a person I had been a year before and yet I was totally myself again, the healthy me I had once been.
These months abroad weren't perfect. They were lonely at times, and I'd be lying if I said I met my soulmates in friendships and love. But I met myself again and grew, and for that I couldn't be more grateful. I was encountering my own Eat, Pray, Love time, emphasis on the eat and pray.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this very long, comprehensive post, I'm in London now. I moved in September 2017 to pursue my master's degree in Publishing from London College of Communication. I'm meeting those friends that I always dreamed about having, the ones that don't always run at the first sign of trouble. I'm grateful for them with every laugh we share. I'm finally delving into the academia I love. I'm dreaming about my future.
My future. That thing that once seemed so impossible is now full of hope and promise.
I can lay claim to my life now with pride. And, if I'm being honest, I'm proud of my struggles with mental health too. I don't want to hide them because they are what makes me who I am. I wouldn't have gone to London, Dublin, or back to London if it wasn't for the fact that I was feeling stuck in my life previous to them. I wouldn't be pursuing my master's degree if I didn't have the (albeit immature) urge to prove all those people who abandoned me at my darkest that I have become the best version of myself. (I applied during a tipsy Wednesday night in my apartment my senior year of college when I felt that I was going nowhere and everyone around me was becoming something...but that's another story.) I wouldn't have the empathy for human suffering that I think I have, that I like to think I have. I wouldn't be founding this website and campaign.
So what's next? Glad you asked, and then I'll wrap this up. First and foremost, I'm making We Are Alive because I want there to be a what's next for everyone who experiences any form of mental illness. Life is hard and there is no reason to belittle someone else's experience with stigma that they are somehow misformed, just simply "sad," or wrong. This isn't the kind of thing you can just will away, and people need to be free to acknowledge that sometimes they need help. More importantly, people need to know that it gets better.
I'm still on my medication. I would not be here without it. It is the crux that sets my journey forward. I probably will be on something for the rest of my life.
I'm living my life in the best way I can. I'm putting my full self forward. I still have off days, but I know now that they won't last. And the next time I sink low, I know how to pull myself up.
I'm Rose Friel, 23 year-old master's student with the best family and friends, living in London -- three thousand miles away from everything I've ever known -- and I'm surviving my depression and anxiety every single day.
I Am Alive.