Learning to Live

I never thought I’d make it to my 16th birthday.

Without particular reason, that is where I thought my story would end. It wasn’t like I’d planned to take my life, or that I was desperate to die - I’d made peace with the fact that I’d live a short life. So naturally, when September 6th of my junior year came and went, I was thrown into a tailspin. I’d made half-hazard plans for my future ‘but I’m never going to make it there, so why bother’? Suddenly, I was faced with the prospect of living a long life, and I didn’t like how it felt.

I was grossly unprepared to make it to graduation and into the real world, or at least that’s what I thought. The straight A, three-sport student-athlete that everyone knew was about to disappear. She was replaced with an unkempt, continually absent shell of a human who was graced with continually puffy, red eyes and no sense of direction. 

 

"I was daring death to come and get me..."

 

My morning routine was like clockwork: wake up, decide whether or not I needed to shower (the answer was almost always no), get into my car, and sob on the phone to my mom about how I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t start the ignition, take the car out of park, and drive to school. On the days that I could get myself to start driving, I sobbed the entire way, frequently running red lights or forgetting to turn on my headlights in the dark morning hours. I was daring death to come and get me. I wanted to live, but this wasn’t living anymore. 

This wasn’t my first bout with depression and anxiety (lord knows it wouldn’t be my last). My first therapy appointment came at the ripe age of eight, and was diagnosed with severe clinical depression by 12. The winning combination of genetics and trauma made me a ‘lifer’ in terms of therapy and medication (a routine I now gladly take part in). Junior year was no different. Even though I hadn’t been to therapy in a while, I was still doing all of the things that I thought would make my feelings of hopelessness subside: exercising, getting enough sleep, and doing things that I used to love.

But back to my quarter-life crisis, as I like to call it. As I shuffled through daily life, my parents and support team (I’m so thankful for them) found the best ways to help me cope and keep moving forward. I cannot put enough emphasis on the fact that I am so, so, SO fortunate to have such a great amount of support in my life. My counselor relayed me to a psychiatrist that was able to help me towards a medicine combination that would allow me to ‘feel’ without such sharp declines. My mom helped me enroll in online classes, so that I didn’t always have to make it to school physically to work towards graduation. And if I started to spiral, my sister was always there for a game of cards - my coping mechanism of choice.

 

"I was skipping classes while simultaneously freaking out about how I was ever going to manage to pass."

 

Somehow, I maneuvered through the rest of high school - graduating at the top of my class and finding a loving, supporting boyfriend along the way. I was ready to enroll at UW-Madison and start on a track towards neurology, but shortly after my arrival on campus in the fall, I was back to my spiral. I hated school, started drinking and partying, and essentially made a permanent impression on my futon in my dorm room. I was skipping classes while simultaneously freaking out about how I was ever going to manage to pass.

Everything kind of came to a head on election night. Barack Obama had just been elected to his second term and while most of the campus was in the streets celebrating, my extremely conservative dorm floor was rioting. I was paranoid, thinking they were coming for me - the only person of color in the wing. I called my mom sobbing, saying I needed a way out, and that I was leaving school at the semester. From there, I continued my short stints at various colleges; UW-Whitewater (one week) and Milwaukee Area Technical College (three semesters) before finally settling in at Northland College with my high school sweetheart.

Did being at the same college resolve all my problems? No, but it certainly helped. I had someone to force me out of bed in the morning, make sure I made it to class, and see to it that I was eating enough and not sleeping too much. We had created a routine, adopted two sweet kitties as emotional support animals, and made it into my senior year of college - somehow ready to graduate in four years.

And then Facebook told us that a childhood friend had taken her life.

 

"The survivor's guilt was unbearable. Had I just checked in, was all I could think."

 

I remember it like it was yesterday. I turned around to see my boyfriend’s face turned pale. I took a jab at him, “What’s up with you? You look like someone’s died.” Wrong word choice. He told me to sit down, knowing full well that he was about to send me in a spiral. He wasn’t wrong. I was inconsolable; just a few short months ago I was visiting her after she was released from a 10-day inpatient stay, vowing that we’d stay in better touch and reach out when we needed help. The survivor’s guilt was unbearable. Had I just checked in, was all I could think. It was my fault that she didn’t pull through. What kind of friend was I?

Guilt turned into denial, and I refused to go home for her funeral. She wasn’t dead to me if I didn’t go. I even thought I saw her places, alive and well; the grocery store, the beach, you name it, she was there. Once I finally accepted that she was gone, there was a pure self-loathing period. I couldn’t remember her birthday - what kind of friend can’t remember a birthday? I didn’t know her favorite color, food or anything else for that matter. It’s like she was being erased from my memory bit by bit - and I was angry at myself for it. 

The only comfort I found was doing things that she would no longer get to do. I graduated college, went onto graduate school, ran my first triathlon, and got a job I was proud of. She was willing me into a better, healthier version of myself. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her and miss her; miss her laugh, her smile, her quick wit. I’m not just doing things for myself anymore, I’m doing them for her too.

We’re almost to my friend’s fifth angel-versary. I’ve been on this earth nine years longer than I thought I would. My story isn’t over yet, and for a change, I like it that way.

 

- Alexandra R.

This story was submitted for publishing to the AB Korkor Foundation for Mental Health by Alexandra R. If you would like to share your story, email it to alexandra@adelbkorkorfoundation.org.