By Isabella Cruz-Nascimento, V Form
To Go Through Hell and Resurface
Crazy, insane, bipolar, OCD–all terms that have worked their way into colloquial language. Most people use them to describe themselves; “Oh my God, I am so OCD, I can’t handle messy rooms” is a sentence that could be heard regularly among teenagers. However, swap in a teen that genuinely displays compulsive behavior and the declarations turn into murmurs of, “What’s wrong with her?” “She needs to calm down,” “They need to medicate her already”. Mental illness is inconsequential and intriguing, until one sees its effects in person. In a community like St. Mark’s, being diagnosed with a mental illness can be onerous, not only because of the rigorous environment, but also because of the burden of the connotations that come with having a diagnosis. In an environment that demands perfection, I sometimes feel branded as incapable of success because of my diagnosis. For the majority of the past two years I have kept my dishonorable secret closely guarded. I refuse to do that now.
Mental illness is a taboo topic; if you are struggling, do so quietly because people only care on account of the scandal. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder in the winter of my first sophomore year. My PTSD symptoms took an almost immediate toll after I disclosed the nature of my trauma. I had been capable of functioning because I had repressed my past. Admitting what had happened to me unleashed the years of torment, and forced me to experience the emotions I had locked away. I would leave class, my eyes unfocused, only to go to health services and cry as each intrusive, traumatic memory battered me. The probing questions, which aimed to fuel the gossip mill, only added to my anxiety. I barely slept on account of the nightmares that ravaged my sleep. It was one small part of my mental torture, but claiming insomnia as the culprit for my frequent visits to the health center was a much more acceptable anomaly. I fed this story to the proper outlets and saw the curiosity over my tribulations die in the absence of anything scurrilous. I could not stand those pitiable stares; it is easier to disguise myself in the majority than to admit shortcomings.
Mental illness should not be endured alone, however it is very difficult for people to separate a person from his or her illness. When I was at my worst, I disclosed the true severity of my struggles to very few people. It was a point in my life where I needed the most support, but because of the stigmas that surround mental illness, I could not get it. Adults treated me as fragile and weak; concerns were directed around me, for everyone feared that one wrong word would send me spiraling deeper into the hole of depression. What many still fail to understand is that lack of communication breeds mistrust. Secrets were being kept from me, therefore I felt justified in doing so myself. If I discussed what was going on in my head with anyone, the assumption would be that I was not capable of functioning in a school environment. A potential medical leave only intensified my feelings of self-loathing and depression, putting me in a position where I was prepared to take desperate action. Stereotype threat is what almost took my life, not my mental illness. My environment was telling me I was not normal, and that I would never be capable of achievement because of events that I had no control over.
At St. Mark’s, students are pushed to excel in as many aspects as possible. Achievement in one sport or subject is admirable, but to be a true St. Marker, a student should have varsity letters in multiple sports, honors at the least, and be an active leader in the community. All this must be done while upholding the façade of a happy teenager. In my case this means sitting still in class, forcing myself to interact and engage, and never allowing my triggers to be noticed. In the boarding school world, if you can uphold a perfect outside image, the internal struggles are irrelevant. This was easy for the first few months of my sophomore year. As long as I was upholding my grades, my absences were forgiven, weight loss went unnoticed, and irritability was discounted. My suffering was internal, therefore it could be ignored. However, sorrow tends to creep its way where it is not welcome and so acting normal in the dorm no longer became possible. I was failing socially; instead of frequenting Forbes in the evening, I would head back to my room and crawl into bed. This was not the bright-eyed St. Marker I was expected to be. Faking my own happiness for other’s sakes became my most exhausting activity, and the repercussions were irreversible. As my first therapist and ever so enlightening fortune cookies will tell you, optimism must be summoned in the worst of times.
In the past few months, I have decided to stop hiding my clinical craziness. This change in attitude came from the realization that the amount of “normal” people in the world is far outnumbered by the crazies. No one has it all together, especially not in a demanding environment like St. Mark’s. By admitting I have drowned in the trauma of my own life and managed to resurface, I invite others to admit their struggles. Perfection is not attainable, and reaching for it is irresponsible. What is wise is to realize humans are imperfect by default, and wisdom is born from hardship. Mental illness does not make one weak; it is the opportunity to go through hell and be aware that you were never there alone.
Isabella Cruz-Nascimento is a V Form boarding student from Gloucester, MA. She is a passionate artist, an avid reader, as well as a coxswain on the boys’ crew team.