Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Road to Graduation (Final)

Now, she laughs. Sitting on her green leather couch, she reminisces with friends. They speak about their time out at bars last weekend, her last visits ever as an undergrad. Eventually the conversation shifts further back: drunken escapades, classes they shared, how they met. It is a time for looking back. 

Abby came to Michigan State University as an eighteen-year-old in the fall of 2009. Fresh off a 3.9 high school GPA, she turned down the opportunity to swim for MSU and decided to focus on being a student. Living with a girl she knew from home and sharing a bathroom with another good friend, she was excited for the college life.

However, in her first weeks in East Lansing, she began to struggle with a demon from her past: depression.

“Depression and suicidal thoughts began to dominate me,” Abby said.

The depression came first, weighing heavier on her shoulders every day. As she suffered from the pain of it, she bottled up her emotions. Afraid of being viewed as weak, she kept her problems to herself. Her problems were her problems.

“My parents didn’t know. My friends didn’t know. I didn’t want people’s pity,” Abby said.

At 14, Abby’s parents informed her they were getting a divorce. The separation was complete three days before her 16th birthday. Less than a year later, her mom would leave the state and move to Georgia.

“So much of it stemmed from their divorce. I was really depressed my sophomore year of high school when the divorce was happening. I didn’t want to do anything ever,” Abby said.

Similar feelings of not wanting to do anything crept back to her in her first year at Michigan State. Hours would pass as she lay in her bed, engulfed in darkness, crying.

“I don’t even remember what it was really like. I was a different person. Sadness was the norm,” Abby said.

As weeks passed, the feelings worsened. Sadness remained constant, but was joined by thoughts of suicide.

“I thought about it daily. When I drove I would think, ‘I can just hit that wall or a pole,’” Abby said.

Throughout her first semester, the thoughts of suicide remained. On certain nights, she would take five or six painkillers or sleeping pills, hoping to fall asleep and ease her pain, but also consciously thinking, “If I don’t wake up, it’s no big deal.”

When her roommate was around she’d hide it. Always doing her best to hold back tears and put on a straight face. Anytime she was alone though, the feelings dominated her. 

She returned home for winter break still harboring the negative feelings. Home alone one evening, upset and crying, she took another step in her depression.

“I didn’t think anyone would notice. I thought I could get away with it. I was ready to be done,” Abby said.

That night she ingested upwards of 20 over-the-counter drugs: Benadryl, Tylenol PM, anything she could find. After swallowing the collection of pills, Abby passed out on her bathroom floor.
She would awake in the hospital later that night. Alive thanks to a timely visit from her sister and three stomach pumps in the emergency room. 

“When I first awoke in the hospital, it was like an out-of-body experience. I could see myself doing the terrible things and I was questioning myself, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself?’” Abby said. “I saw what I was doing and I knew that I shouldn’t be doing it, but I couldn’t make myself stop. It was like sane me had lost all control.”

Today, as she sits on the front porch of her final East Lansing residence, 24 hours before her graduation, tears well in her eyes thinking about her “rock bottom.” She lowers her glasses from her forehead, pushing her blond hair from her face.

While that winter night may have been her lowest, it was far from the end of her struggles. She returned to school in January, still dealing with overwhelming feelings of sadness. Suicide still lingered in her mind.

“The nights I was really upset, I wished it had worked. I wanted to be dead,” Abby said.
Along with her green gown, Abby will be wearing gold chords when she accepts her diploma from the MSU College of Communications to signify to those present that she is receiving her degree with honor. And if her final semester’s grades factored in prior to graduation: high-honor.

Even when contemplating suicide, she found a way to go to class. 

“I remember sitting in the classes, but I can’t remember a thing that happened in them,” she said.

Control of her life was slipping away. School, though, was the one thing she still felt a sense of control over. So even as she went through her days in a haze, she knew she had to get things done.

“I needed to do well. Because [school] was fully on me, I did it,” Abby said.

In March of her freshman year, her niece was born and happiness began to find her again.  

“I remember being really happy around the time she was born,” Abby said.

The depression would not go away though. Negative feelings still ran rampant through her freshman year and would continue into her junior year.

“It became less defining. It wasn’t my whole life anymore,” Abby said

By the time she began her second year at MSU, suicide was barely a thought. However, she still found ways to hurt herself. Knocking her head against the cement wall in her dorm room or burning patches of skin people wouldn’t see with her hair straightener on bad days.

“It was like I was addicted to the pain,” Abby said.

Toward the end of her freshman year, Abby’s walls came down a little bit. Though her parents never knew, her sister was now aware. As was her boyfriend. And they were checking up on her.

“I would talk to her as much as I could, trying everything I could to make her smile just for a second,” her boyfriend, Peter, said. “It was tough being away from her, because I never knew what might happen. The night in the winter was the scariest of my life.”

Despite the influence of her positive voice urging her to seek further help, Abby steadily resisted professional help.

“I tried to push her toward seeking professional help, but she was always against it,” Peter said. “I think it was hard for her to open up about it.”

“I met with a doctor I had seen in high school around March of my freshman year,” Abby said, “it just pissed me off and made me feel worse, anti-therapy.”

For college age students, suicide can be a serious issue. The American College Health Association estimates that roughly 7.5 of 100,000 college students commit suicide. In a 2002 study, the ACHA estimated that 1 in 12 college students has made a suicide plan at some point and approximately 1.5 of 100 have gone through with the plan. 

“I wanted to keep it to myself. I didn’t like the idea of being another statistic,” Abby said.
The Michigan State Counseling Center offers students the opportunity to speak with counselors and engage in interviews to determine necessary help. The center also offers resources for self-help and an online depression self-assessment.

“I knew they had options, but I just didn’t feel like going,” Abby said. “I was never really interested in it at school. I tried a self-health group once and hated it. No one said anything and it wasn’t mediated well at all. Plus, it was harder to keep it a secret if I was doing that.”

According to Washington University in St. Louis, two-thirds of people who suffer from depression do not seek necessary treatment.

One factor that Arizona State University counselors suggest can help with depression is close-personal relationships. Abby’s newfound support system helped show her this.

“I finally had a positive voice. They didn’t want to lose me,” she said. “In April of my freshman year, my boyfriend told me he loved me. When that happened, I knew he legitimately cared about me. I didn’t want to take that away.”

“I was just constantly reminding her how many people cared about her and loved her,” Peter said. “I always told her would beat it together.”

This help was a turning point for Abby, allowing her to continue on the journey to recovery and eventually reach a point of sustained happiness. In her final days as a college student though, she can’t point to a definite end. And perhaps, she hasn’t reached it yet.

“I still deal with lingering sadness. When I am sad, I’m really sad,” Abby said. “When things go wrong, there are times where I still feel like I’m not good enough, like I didn’t do things right, like I’m stupid.”

A new chapter approaches for her though. And as she closes the books on her time in East Lansing, though sadness may linger sometimes, the lessons learned are engraved within her.

“I’ve been thinking about some of those nights a lot lately and how far I’ve come,” Abby said. “I grew up a lot and I’m glad I allowed myself the opportunity to do so.”

“I was a depressed kid. And now, I’m graduating.”

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