How one UNC student handles her depression, part 1

How one UNC student handles her depression, part 1

Morgan Howard, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes a series about her struggles with mental health.

Morgan Howard is a junior at UNC. She first began struggling with depression and anxiety as a junior in high school, and she’s spent four years learning how to take better care of her mind. 

This is the first in a series of her stories. Follow Morgan on Twitter here.

Please note: This post talks about suicide.

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

It took me four years to admit mine. It took me a year after that to make actual progress. It took me six months after that to stop denying myself happiness and make an intentional change in my life.

If the first step is admitting your problem, I think the second step is accepting it. When I think about how my depression began, I realize that what I thought of as typical low moments were really depression. I thought it was completely normal to cry yourself to sleep multiple nights a week or to feel so hopeless you considered ending your own life. Well, maybe not normal, but I wasn’t as concerned as I should have been.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Photo from @nancyh.le on Instagram.

I was probably 16 or 17 the first time I thought about killing myself. I remember my mom had just finished yelling at me for not doing the dishes. That doesn’t sound like something that would make a person contemplate suicide, but for me, it was the breaking point after years of buildup.

I remember zoning out when I was putting the knives away. I looked down at one and truly wondered how many times I would have to stab myself with it to die. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I didn’t do it, clearly, but that feeling — “I just want this to end” — never seemed to go away.

At this point in my life, I was probably crying myself to sleep at least three times a week. It felt like every day was a new fight with my parents about grades, college, responsibility — anything and everything. I was becoming overwhelmed and drained, and I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to keep living a life surrounded by so much negativity and self-loathing.

Despite the pressure my family put on me, they also always supported me and encouraged me to talk to them. They warned me that holding everything in wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t realize what a danger I was becoming to myself.

I convince myself that the worst possible outcome is inevitable. I convince myself to just give up. That’s where the depression comes in.

My depression and my anxiety are linked. First I feel anxious, and then I get depressed.

Unfortunately, anxiety comes easily after getting a 66 on a political science exam. And this was POLI 101 — that’s introductory political science, mind you. It’s amazing how the “easy” classes make you feel so dumb.

After getting a grade like that, my mind goes in one direction:

“Because I didn’t do well on that exam, I have to do better on the next one in order to pass the class. But what if I don’t? Then I will get a bad grade in the class, which will bring down my GPA, which will affect getting into my major, which means I have to take more classes when I do get in so I don’t fall behind, which will affect how many organizations I can be a part of. But I need to be part of organizations so I can have experience for my resume, and I need my resume to look good so I can get an internship, and I need an internship so I can get a job, but in order to do that, I have to graduate, and to graduate I have to make sure I ace the next exam.”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Photo from @atjohnson22 on Instagram.

Those are the worst-case scenario thoughts that race through my mind, one after another, accompanied by a little voice saying it will all happen. I understand that it’s a ridiculous amount of stress to be putting on myself, but it still happens every time. I’m anxious about the future and am constantly planning two to three years ahead. However, the pressure to always be doing the right thing and making the right choices is exhausting.

So, after this mini-mental anxiety attack, I convince myself that the worst possible outcome is inevitable. I convince myself to just give up. That’s where the depression comes in.

I felt that I didn’t fit the textbook definition of depression.

After I found out that political science exam score, I completely shut myself out from the world. I stayed in my room, avoided talking to my friends, skipped out on meetings, stopped going to the gym. I just went to class and came home. When I get depressed, those walls come back up. I avoid anyone so therefore I can avoid talking about what is going on.

Admitting you have a problem is hard, accepting that problem is harder, but validating that problem for yourself is the hardest part. For me, it was easy to ignore my depression and anxiety because it didn’t feel like I was going through anything depressing. Even after the worst fights with my family, I knew they loved me. I had a roof over my head, I went on vacation regularly, and I never had to worry about money. I felt that I didn’t fit the textbook definition of depression or didn’t have anything in my life that warranted the emotion I felt.

But there is no textbook definition of depression. Sure, there are classifications and behaviors that indicate depression, but there are no criteria that you must meet to have a reason to be depressed. Depression is a mental illness, which means it is in your mind. Depression comes from the personal perspective you have on your life and the things that contribute to it. My anxiety is purely mental, and so is my depression. I know that it is all in my head that my issues are too much for my family to handle. But that’s a crutch I use. You can’t care about protecting someone so much that you neglect protecting yourself.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Photo from @thelittleasianthatcould on Instagram.

Mental health is just as serious as physical health. Just like the human body can only take so much, the human mind has a breaking point as well. I hope you never reach it. Take care of yourself, in whatever way you can.

Next week, Morgan writes about how opening up changed how she looks at and talks about her mental health. 

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  • Sarah
    July 29, 2016, 12:41 am

    I’m proud of you for sharing your story. Talking about mental health openly and honestly is important in the fight to reduce stigma. However, I think part of your second-to-last paragraph misrepresents depression and anxiety, specifically this part: "Depression is a mental illness, which means it is in your mind. Depression comes from the personal perspective you have on your life and the things that contribute to it. My anxiety is purely mental, and so is my depression. I know that it is all in my head that my issues are too much for my family to handle. But that’s a crutch I use."

    Mental illness is not just "in your mind" and doesn’t just result from your perspective on life — many (including depression) are caused/contributed to by things like brain chemistry and genetics. Mental illnesses are considered "mental" because they affect one’s mood, thinking, and feelings (along with behavior). Saying that someone’s outlook on life is the reason they have a mental illness can make them feel like it’s their fault that they are struggling, and can make them feel invalidated or like they can just "snap out of it."

    I won’t want to invalidate your experiences with mental illness, but these are just some things to maybe keep in mind as you move forward with your blog series. Again, thank you for speaking out about the importance of mental health and the effects of mental illness!

    REPLY
    • Morgan @Sarah
      July 29, 2016, 12:58 am

      Thank you, that is a great point! I’ll try to make that clearer with my other posts. Thanks for reading and pointing it out!

      REPLY
  • […] is the third in a series of her stories. Read the first story here and the second story here. Follow Morgan on Twitter […]

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  • […] to think about mental health and participate in healthy mental practices. I’ve talked about dealing with depression and anxiety, and I’ve talked about how living with mental illness is a lifelong […]

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