Content warnings for detailed discussion of depression and extremely brief mentions of suicide and self-harm.
I’ve been trying, for months, to find a way to write about what it was like for me to go on medical leave for mental health reasons. I’ve been struggling to do so in a way that’s pretty and poetic, that will stick in people’s minds so they come away carrying something valuable. I began blog posts with my strongest memory from that time: the night that I told my roommate, Lydia K., that I was leaving. On the outside, I felt tears prick at the corners of my eyes. On the inside, nothing. Just emptiness.
But that’s starting from the end, which is cheating. You know the end. The end, as I said, is that I left.
The means to that end are worth talking about, starting with the depression. (Angelina G. recently wrote a beautiful blog post about being depressed and handling depression at MIT that’s worth a read.) I’ve started three other aborted blog posts trying to explain my depression away, to tell the Internet the exact, rational, enumerable, diagnosable reasons depression took me, the high school overachiever, the theater geek, that exuberant, enthusiastic girl, and turned me into a lump of a person, sitting at the kitchen table for hours at a time with headphones on, staring at the computer screen. Perpetual state of being: face angled down, shoulders hunched up, body language that said, “Don’t interfere.”
When my Dean at Student Support Services first talked to my freshman advisor (or maybe my parents, I don’t recall; I still have gaps in my memory from that time that will probably never be filled) about my situation and learned that I was a speaker and a performer at home, she was surprised. My illness had tamped me down and made me look like someone else. “I understand why this is hitting you so hard,” she said, while I wondered who I had become if I wasn’t that old me, the one I thought I knew. I wondered who, and how, and why.
A set of things, working alone or in tandem, that happened my freshman fall might have triggered the chemical switch in my brain to flip. There was the chemistry test I flunked, dropping out of a musical to take care of my chem grade when I’d never had to make compromises before, the dissolution of my first relationship because we were hundreds of miles apart, the steady college diet of frozen foods that added extra pounds of jiggle to my hips, living away from home, losing confidence in my own abilities. My depression might have taken hold because of one of these things, or all of them, or none of them. It’s a disease, and it’s not one that discriminates.
Here is what happened to me: I started out as the girl who got a reasonable amount of sleep, most nights. My depression insisted that I needed twelve to fourteen hours a day to be functional while awake. I came to MIT after a summer where I exercised regularly, sometimes jogging in the sun. My depression made it a struggle to step one foot outside of the dorm, even when I had to. I stopped going to my afternoon classes, and then I stopped making it to class at all. I also stopped socializing with people in real life; I spent most of my time online, where I could pretend everything was fine. And the worst part was this heavy, grey, impenetrable fog that hung over every day. I didn’t feel sad all of the time, as some people with depression do. Instead, it felt like someone had scooped out all of my emotions and plugged up the hole with dirty old rags.
On the outside, I could still smile, and laugh, and cry. On the inside, I felt numb. I was a spectator in my own body, watching with muted horror as my life spun totally out of my control.
And I had no idea how to communicate what was going on to the outside world. It felt personal and shameful, and the lack of proper emotional responses meant that it was hard for me to feel enough alarm to do anything about it. Sitting around all day, silent, became my modus operandi. I had never had to ask for help on this scale before, and I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what might happen if I did. So I sat, and as I sat, my illness festered.
A photo I took of the Charles River from campus in late November of my freshman fall.
I said nothing to anyone offline until mid-November. I barely said anything to my online friends. Then the eeriness of my situation caught up with me. I started writing, on one of my social media channels, about what was going on. How I had an essay due in one of my classes but I couldn’t bring myself to start it. How the scariest part was that I didn’t feel anything, not fear, not panic, in response. How strange it all was. How it didn’t seem entirely real. How I felt like there was a one-inch barrier below my epidermis that nothing could penetrate, not in any meaningful way. It was easier to write than to talk.
My best friend at the time, a college grad who’d been through it all before, butted in. He told me to write my freshman advisor right away and tell her what was going on. I hemmed and hawed. He wouldn’t let up. He had his way. I wrote her.
We set up an appointment, which, by some miracle, I kept. I made the long trek from Random to my advisor's office in 14N in the late November cold. When I sat down on the couch in her office and opened my mouth to try to tell her what was going on, tears came instead, streamed down my cheeks in a flood that wouldn’t let up. The emotion-exhibiting part of my brain knew how hard this was to admit, even if the emotion-feeling part of my brain had shut down.
My advisor just passed me a huge box of tissues, waited for the sniffles to subside, and said kindly, reassuring me, “Why do you think I keep these here? People come and cry in my office all of the time.”
I wasn’t alone. Apparently, I was the opposite of alone.
My advisor put me in touch with Student Support Services (S3) and MIT Mental Health. S3 helped me immensely by touching base with my professors so I could get the extensions I needed to finish my work. Mental Health helped, too. I came away with some record of having seen a counselor there, so the powers-that-be knew something was up with me. But while the woman who counseled me those one or two times before the end of the semester was great, the counseling probably would have been more effective if I weren’t so good at lying to therapists (not something I’d recommend doing). Coming away from those meetings with the knowledge that I had at least three people to contact if I felt I was floundering was the most helpful part. I had always had resources, but now I knew that.
Building 7, late November of freshman fall.
I want to make this very clear: telling these people I was depressed didn’t automatically lead to my leaving. I don’t know if that would have changed had I been suicidal (I wasn’t) or engaging in self-harm (also wasn’t). I do know that telling people I was having mental health issues only ever made them want to help me. The professor of my HASS class that semester let me turn in that paper the very last day I could, right before he submitted his grades, because he understood. My advisor understood. My S3 Dean understood. Mental Health understood. They all wanted to give me the tools to handle it.
I handled it, sort of. I eked out passing grades for three of my four classes that semester, although I lost my opportunity for sophomore standing. I went home for winter break and thought the depression would go away. It didn’t. Came back for spring, went home for the summer and started working out and eating right again, thought that for sure it would go away this time. It didn’t. Came back for fall, even painted my tiny room three shades of yellow to keep from feeling down in the winter. That didn't work either. I was in a holding pattern: the first six weeks of a semester would seem fine, and then I'd start slipping back into the fog.
Abandoned books on Mass Ave, February of freshman spring.
I realized that something was wrong, and that whatever it was needed my full attention. I actually came to that conclusion because of this Hyperbole and a Half comic about depression, which resonated with me so deeply that I sent it to my parents as a passive cry for help. My dad realized pretty quickly that something was off, too. “Is that how you feel?” he emailed back.
“Yes,” I wrote, finally admitting it. “It is.”
From Hyperbole and a Half's "Adventures in Depression."
A close family friend of mine who lives in Boston is a social worker, and my parents got in touch with her. She took me out for Indian food to talk me through what I was experiencing. Over the course of that conversation, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be home. The realization hit me like a train: if I was going to tackle MIT, I had to straighten out what was going on in my head first. Otherwise, I'd just keep cycling through "okay" and "definitely not okay." I called my parents right there, at the table in that Indian restaurant, and told them. I remember crying then, too.
My dad flew up that Monday to talk over my options with my Dean. He asked if I could handle a light load, so I could at least get a couple of my GIRs out of the way. I didn’t think I could. My Dean told both of us that nine out of ten times when a student says she wants to leave, the best choice for her is probably to go. I remember my parents being frustrated—a general frustration born from powerlessness, I think—that no one had realized what was happening to me before I got to the point of leaving. But I felt the frustration was misdirected. I was very good at pretending that everything was fine, even when nothing was.
We negotiated my medical leave and set my official withdrawal date for November 1st, a few days after that S3 visit. I don’t remember much about that part except that it seemed surprisingly easy, and that after, with my leave secured, I did something strange: I started talking. I said that I was leaving and I said exactly why. Even in the first year and a bit I’d been at MIT, a few friends and acquaintances had vanished practically overnight to go on medical leave; I didn’t want to leave people wondering what had happened to me. My friends were sad to see me go, sure, but at least they didn’t wonder.
Instead of wondering, they held a going-away party for me. We ate cake and watched movies. The girls on my floor in Random got me a bouquet, and they all signed a card with well-wishes and notes of encouragement. They left the flowers and card on my desk for me to find.
I felt loved.
Another family friend came to Random to help me pack my things, and then I slipped away, leaving the small half on BMF’s lounge side empty.
My yellow room, sophomore fall.
Going on medical leave was the best decision that I could have made for myself. At the time, the admission that I was struggling that much felt huge and overwhelming, but I had resources, and a place to go, and these enabled me to take the time I needed to heal. (That’s a separate blog post.) I know my experience is not one size fits all; the process went smoothly for me largely because I made the decision to go on leave, but for a lot of people, medical leave is mandatory, and leaving MIT is harder. (Even so, someone at a Returning Student Luncheon once called going on compulsory medical leave “the best decision I never made.”)
What I want to highlight about my story is the level of support that I received: from official channels, from my parents, from my friends, from family friends. I know that I am very lucky to have so many people in my corner, and I am reminded of that every day, but the takeaway is that talking about my condition didn’t ostracize me. Instead, I experienced an outpouring of warmth, even in leaving.
The MIT community as a whole is now engaged in a dialogue about mental health and wellness more intense than any I can remember in the ~5 years I’ve been a part of it. The only advice that I have is to keep talking. If you’re having trouble coping, if you know someone who is—have a conversation, one that is honest, and forthright, and genuine. It sounds simple, but one of the hardest things to do is to start talking about something so personal, and so disempowering. Still, if I hadn’t said anything, and if my friend hadn’t told me to get help, I don’t know how my story would have ended.
In the event that you find yourself struggling at MIT, it's possible that medical leave may or may not be the right path for you to take. But you don’t need to be alone as you figure it out.