Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
I didn’t even have any shoes, but I guess that was the least of my worries. As I seemingly floated across the sterile floor and past the hauntingly white walls, I felt hollow. My throat hurt from screaming and my cheeks were hot to the touch.
I was led into a room and asked to hand over my cell phone.
“You’ll get it back,” a stern looking nurse barked at me.
Startled, I dropped my phone on the tile. I laughed because even in a time like this, I still found a way to be a clumsy mess.
One of the nurses pressed a hand on the small of my back, guiding me into a tiny room with droll, blue walls. When she removed her hand, I felt the air leave my lungs. I needed somebody to touch me. I needed to know I wasn’t as revolting as I felt.
I was told to strip down and put on one of their paper thin gowns. It was the second week of May but the air hadn’t turned yet. My legs were covered in bruises and goosebumps and I felt foreign in my own body. The shorts I had been wearing weren’t even mine.
The nurse left and it felt like hours passed by before anybody came back. It probably was, to be frank. The hospital seemed severely understaffed.
So I waited.
I focused on the buzz of the light overhead because I couldn’t bear the thought of sifting through my emotions.
I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be. I had entered HealthAlliance Hospital because at the tail end of my freshman year in college, I experienced a panic attack of epic proportions. Suddenly the tiny issues that accumulated over the course of the year, weighed on my chest like lead.
I was never known for being claustrophobic but the only way I know how to describe what I felt was to be claustrophobic in my own body.
I ran from the dorm room in the midst of my breakdown, needing air, or so I thought.
When I got outside, I looked up at the stars, and for the first time, I did not find comfort in what they told me. I didn’t only need to escape four walls, I wanted to escape. Period. Cut. Scene.
I told this to every healthcare professional that walked into the tiny room.
They all stared at me, faces devoid of any emotion.
Had I experienced these feelings before?
It was hard to say really. I answered the questions as honestly as I could. I felt tired of life consistently dumping on me. Even further, I was tired of always feeling like a burden.
Reassurance from family and friends never cut it. No matter what I did, I felt unwanted, unnecessary. As a result, every situation I went into I saw the color being drained out of life, bit by bit.
I’ve always been told by peers that I’m overly generous. It was lying there in that hospital dungeon that made me realize I had been giving so much of myself to people, strangers, in order to feel like I wasn’t a burden. My selflessness was a measured tactic to hide how much I truly hated myself.
By the time they decided I wasn’t an immediate risk to my own health, the sun had just begun to rise.
I collected my phone from the burly nurse, and began to walk down the same miserable hallway to leave.
One of the younger employees chased after me.
“You don’t have any shoes,” she pleaded with me.
I shrugged my shoulders, raising them only halfway because the shame weighed on them so heavily.
She pulled out two pairs of hospital socks and helped me get them on. I was a modern day Cinderella.
When I was decked out in the comfiest socks I had ever worn, I made my way to leave. What I saw in the psychiatric unit left me feeling broken. Every door I walked past, revealed girls who all looked about my age. With limp hair and empty eyes, I knew that I was looking at my own reflection.
I hurried out quickly after.
What happened next led me to feel human for the first time all semester: I was a long way from New Paltz, it was 6:45 in the morning and an older friend made the drive when he got the call. No questions asked.
Sleep in his eyes and a frog in his throat, he told me to hop up in the passenger seat and asked me if I liked country music.
We hummed the whole way back. I don’t think he knew it at the time, but it was exactly what I needed.
I got back to my dorm room, slammed the door behind me and fell to my knees to cry, but nothing came out. I sat like that for an hour, waiting for the hysterics to rear its ugly head.
Finally I crawled up into my lofted bed, and let sleep take me. Every limb was filled with exhaustion. It was the first time I had restful sleep in weeks.
At some point in the day, I knew I had to make a call to my family. I tried to think of how to get around it, but I knew inevitably my mom would come across the hospital bill.
I decided to call my sister because I wasn’t ready to tell my parents yet what I experienced.
I locked myself in the single use bathroom and sank to the floor. My voice was only a whisper and the blood left my fingers. How do I say this?
If I’m being honest, I don’t remember how exactly I told my sister what happened but I remember what she said in response.
“Meg, you do not want to die. If there’s anybody who doesn’t want to die, it’s you,” she practically begged.
She was right. I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t want to feel what I was feeling anymore. I didn’t want my breath to always be so short and I didn’t want to continue to watch the color leave my life.
I decided I couldn’t want to escape. Clinging to the little things like the way my youngest brother squeezes me the tightest right before he’s about to end the hug, or the way my mom gets giddy over her garden or the birds at her feeder, or the way my oldest brother insists on still calling me “Shmageg” even years after the nickname was supposed to die, or how Colin will learn any song I ask him to, strumming with his fingers, and a bobbing head, or how my dad needs to recite song lyrics before he’s supposed to, or how my sister showers the people she loves in the best way she knows how: clothes — I knew that I owed them all so much more.
Dad picked me up a few short days after that and just like that I was home for the summer. It was difficult. My mom’s eyes would follow me wherever I went, full of a sadness that I never wanted to see again.
I worked my summer away. Taking on as many shifts as I can, filling my time was the only way to make sure I wasn’t hating myself.
When I wasn’t at work, I was sleeping or at therapy. I would tell people I had a “doctor’s appointment” if a conflict in my schedule would arise. Technically, it was accurate, but deep down I knew that I was ashamed.
The mornings were the hardest. It was like reliving the same night over and over again and then realizing I had to get up and try to be better, to do better. It would have been a lot easier to just lie down and let the misery consume me. But then, I’d hear my mom’s voice outside my door, and I’d press my feet to the floor to start another day.
It was a slow healing process, one that isn’t over almost two years after the fact. One day I just realized that the droop in my shoulders was slighter, and I felt okay to smile in photos.
The world isn’t made to knock us down, but when it does, picking ourselves back up is monumental. I even did it without shoes.
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