I didn’t look like someone who was depressed. I was a straight-A student at Ohio University, I’d just joined a sorority, and I was working at a summer job I loved at a swimming pool in my hometown of Cuyahoga Falls. I was outgoing, involved and well-liked.
I was also planning my own suicide.
In 2003, the summer before my sophomore year of college, I planned out exactly how I would die: I’d arrive early to work one morning and hang myself in the staff office, leaving a note on the door for my co-manager to warn her of what she’d find inside. All summer, I wrote out goodbye letters to my friends and family, sobbing my way through each word and counting down the days.
The only thing that stopped me, plain and simple, was fear. I didn’t trust myself to fashion a noose, and I was terrified I’d do it wrong, leaving myself injured, institutionalized, stigmatized and worse-off emotionally than before.
I put my suicide plans on hold, but I never stopped thinking about them, continuing to fantasize about the mental freedom of simply ceasing to exist. I always assumed that someday, when the time was right, I would take my own life.
What was the reason for my depression? In a word, nothing. But then again, depression doesn’t require a reason. “You could have the perfect life — great job, great husband, perfect kids — and sometimes it just goes off the rails,” says Dr. Christopher Sola, a Cleveland Clinic psychiatrist. “We don’t know why. That’s what differentiates major depressive disorder from just being sad.”
My life was, for all intents and purposes, a good one. But I couldn’t shake the deep, impermeable sadness that had weighed on me since starting college. I was lethargic, bad-tempered, and in a constant state of complaint, unable to summon the sunny optimism that had once been a hallmark of my personality.
In fact, I could barely get out of bed. By the middle of my sophomore year, my depression was all-consuming and affecting my relationships. My boyfriend broke up with me, saying I was “too sad.” My roommate moved out, citing the same excuse.
Without them, my social life ceased to exist. I went weeks without any social interaction, spending my time sleeping or listening to sad music (cue the Bright Eyes). I began pulling out my hair and cutting myself with safety pins, desperate attempts to create a physical manifestation of my internal pain.
Yet I never sought help. I was so immobilized by depression that I could barely get out of bed to walk to class. How could I possibly rally to find a doctor, get to an appointment and talk about my feelings?
“The blue feeling makes it all seem not worthwhile,” says Dr. Kay Q. McKenzie, a psychiatrist with UH University Suburban Health Center. “Hopelessness, helplessness … why bother? Often people who are depressed find themselves lacking in motivation, because they don’t expect any outcome.”
That rang true: It seemed impossible that I’d ever feel happy again. Despondent and alone, I reconsidered suicide, perhaps by walking in front of the train behind my mom’s house or jumping from the Y-Bridge in Akron.
But then I received news that changed — and quite literally saved — my life.
My high school boyfriend, Dave, 20, had hung himself from the rafters in his garage. He’d always been prone to bouts of depression, but I’d never recognized the depths of his suffering — as deep, it seemed, as my own.
I’ll never forget the sound of his mom’s wail when I visited her the next day: “My baby died,” she screamed. I felt nauseated imagining my own mother’s grief. We were incredibly close, a single mom raising an only child. Without me, she would be alone — and emotionally destroyed.
As fragile as I already was, the death of my first love shattered me, but it also made me resolute in my own recovery. As soon as I learned that Dave had taken his life, I knew I could never do the same to the people who loved me.
But that meant I had to get serious about trying to live.
It was a yearslong effort, and I got worse before I got better. After Dave’s death, my depression morphed into a new variety: I became social again, but I also started drinking too much, sleeping around and hurting people I loved. I was unpleasant to be around, and I burned a lot of bridges.
McKenzie says depressed people often act out like this: “Both the drinking and the promiscuity — which is a false relationship, giving you moments of the physical comfort of someone being attentive to you and involved — they’re soothers for the underlying illness of depression,” she says. “It’s all so painful, and your pain is assuaged for some duration of time.”
Still, in the midst of my recklessness, I was also driven, for the first time, to take positive steps to rebuild my life. First, I had to admit to myself and, for starters, to my mom that I wasn’t OK, and I hadn’t been for a long time.
After a few long, agonizing conversations with her to confirm that I was making the right decision, I moved home and transferred to a nearby university. I found a therapist who diagnosed me with major depression, and I began taking a daily antidepressant. I also found a close-knit group of friends who didn’t know about my past bad behavior — and I was determined not to repeat it with them.
I can’t say when or why, exactly, the depression lifted. But in time, I started to feel better. Eventually, I even started to feel good. The medication helped balance my mind, and the therapy helped me better manage my emotions.
I also discovered that the more I talked about my mental health, the less ashamed I felt. When I had a depressive relapse in 2013, I felt so emotionally fragile that I almost checked myself into the psych ward for fear of hurting myself.
But this time, I was able to tell friends I was suffering. Their support was critical to a faster recovery the second time around.
In fact, nearly 50 percent of people who have had major depressive episodes experience relapse, says Sola. “You have to be vigilant in recognizing the signs and symptoms,” he says. “Like, ‘This is just like last time. I’m realizing I don’t want to go out,’ or ‘I’m starting to drink again.’ ”
He recommends exercise, healthy habits and a strong support system — along with continued medication and therapy — to prevent relapses from occurring. He’s also adamant about limiting time spent online.
“The more time you spend on social media, the less happy you are with your life,” he says.
Incidentally, social media led me to take a “mental health day” recently, recognizing the need to step back in order to preserve my emotional well-being. After celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade committed suicide — both by hanging — I had a difficult time seeing all of the articles and online conversations that followed. I took the day off work, spent time in nature and at some my favorite places in Cleveland. Later, I wrote about it on my blog — but only to share with others that if they were struggling, they weren’t alone.
These days, I’m healthier, mentally, than ever before, and I’m vigilant about self-care that will prevent my depression from reoccurring.
I still take antidepressants, and I’m careful not to overschedule myself or take on more work than I can manage. When I’m struggling, I turn to writing, schedule a therapy appointment or confide in friends. And even on my worst days, suicide is no longer a consideration.
Should my depression return, I know I have the experience, resources and support system to manage it and to continue to live a healthy, happy life. I have so much to live for — and I intend to.