May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It got me thinking about when I was first aware of my own mental illness.
For me, it came on gradually. As a middle school kid, I battled waves of sadness. It didn’t help that I was bullied mercilessly. As I got older, the bullying subsided, but the dark clouds didn’t disappear. Then when I went away to college, the sadness swallowed me whole.
It was the first winter I’d spent away from home and the long, dark days of January were wearing me thin. Though I’d made it home for the holidays just weeks before, the gloomy gray skies hung heavy over my head. I was depressed. Very depressed.
I remember my roommate trying to coax me out of my funk. She recruited other friends and together they burst into our room with a rallying cry, “Let’s go out! Get up! Get up!” But I wouldn’t budge. I pulled my pale peach comforter up over my head and rolled over to face the concrete wall of our tiny dorm room. I wasn’t getting out of bed. I couldn’t. They didn’t understand. And neither did I.
Eventually, I did get out of bed. I decided to go for a walk. The school I attended sat right on the bluffs of the Missouri River on the Kansas side. There were breathtaking views year-round. But that day I wasn’t interested in picturesque vistas. I simply wanted to walk.
It had been snowing for days. I left my dorm and began to trudge up the hill towards the bluffs. The wind was howling, the snow was swirling, and what was left of the sun had already begun to set. I remember seeing my navy blue snow boots, one and then the other land softly in the snow. I left a trail of footsteps behind me but I didn’t look back. I didn’t look ahead either. I just looked down. Step after step.
My mind wasn’t focused on anything really. Only darkness. There was no real reason for me to feel so sad. The logical voice inside my head, the one that could hardly be heard over the cacophony of chaos, said that I had no reason to be unhappy. My life was good. I had good grades. I had good friends. I had a good family. I had a good life. So why didn’t I feel good? Why then did I feel like hell?
I hiked all the way to the edge of the bluffs that day. Looking out into the gray expanse, I pondered what was far below, the Missouri River. I thought about what would happen if I just disappeared. Would the sadness finally be gone if I were gone? Tears streamed down my face as I stood there imagining the possibilities of falling. Falling down into the abyss and out of the world forever.
I remember how powerful that temptation was. And I remember being aware that something just wasn’t right with me. I needed help. Somehow I convinced myself to go back to my dorm and call home.
It’s been years since then. I am now aware of how my mind works and what I need to do when I feel the weight of melancholy take over me. I can’t say that I haven’t felt that sad since then because I certainly have. But I can say that now, 25 years later, I can recognize that dark cloud for what it is and I can prepare for it. Sometimes I pull up my comforter around my ears and roll over, waiting for it to pass over me, and sometimes I take a walk facing it head on. But I don’t make snow tracks toward the cliffs of despair anymore. No. Now, I know better.