Editor’s Note: If you struggle with self harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following story may potentially be triggering. You can contact Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S.
My story is two fold. Up until now, I’ve only ever told the first part. A story of loss, awareness, advocacy. I have ignored the second part of my story for years.
It is time I speak it.
When I was a junior in high school, I took a film photography course. One of our assignments asked us to recall a life-changing event, and to construct a photography series based on this event’s impact on our lives. This was certainly a challenging question, and one that many of my classmates took time to contemplate. But for me, I knew instantly what that event was, and I distinctly remember it as the moment when everything changed.
That moment was losing my cousin Mikey to suicide one year earlier in November of 2010, a few days after Thanksgiving. I was sixteen at the time, and he was twenty. My sister Kayla and I are the youngest of our cousins, and he was one of the closest to us in age. Ever since I was little, I looked up to him with shy admiration. There was something about his lively personality, kindheartedness, and gentle sense of playful goofiness that captivated me. I saw him as being filled with joy.
But then abruptly, without explanation, he was gone. I remember the gut-wrenching feeling when my dad came into my room to tell me, I remember the tears that seemed to vigorously rush from my eyes as I buried my face in his arms. I remember the numbness, the shock. The feeling that the whole world had fallen out from under me and would never quite be restored to how it was before.
Looking back now, I can make sense of why I remained silent about this loss for so long. The grief was painful, and I don’t think anyone in my family quite knew how to reconcile it. I think my parents didn’t dwell on it because Kayla and I were still pretty young and it was an incredibly difficult topic to discuss, much less comprehend. I didn’t understand why this had happened, and my mind was flooded with questions that could never be met with answers. I didn’t feel like I could talk to any of my friends because no one close to me had ever experienced anything like this, and even if they were supportive, they couldn’t truly understand, so it was safer to keep it to myself. In this way, I kept my feelings of sadness and grief bottled up inside me.
Sometimes, when I needed to release my emotions in some way, I would open up to a clean page in my journal and write letters to Mikey. I would write to him about how loved he was, and how I wished he’d known. It was a very upsetting time for me, but I looked for ways to keep moving forward.
Then, in the following April, only five months after I had lost Mikey, my San Francisco community was affected by a suicide loss. Eli, a boy who lived only a few blocks away from me, who I’d played basketball with, took his life. When I found out, I remember thinking that I couldn’t share the pain that I felt because I hadn’t known him well enough to feel so much. Only a few peers of mine had known him, so while his loss was acknowledged, no one really talked about it at school beyond that.
It wasn’t until Quinn that my immediate circle was hit hard by suicide. I hardly knew Quinn, and only really knew about her from the stories and anecdotes I’d heard about her from friends, but her death affected my closest friends, who had gone to elementary and middle school with her. I hadn’t even known her, yet I felt the same pit in my stomach and cried the same tears wrapped up in my sister’s arms when she told me in the middle of the hallway at school that morning in October. I came to realize that Quinn’s death affected me so deeply because to me, Quinn could have been my sister, or one of my best friends. She was described as a happy girl who had seemingly everything going for her. But what I soon came to realize even more with each of these losses, was that depression can easily hide beneath this facade of happiness and ease.
While I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to resolve the pain around these losses, I can’t help but think about how my life’s course might have been different had I only lost Mikey. Part of me fears that I would have spent my whole life silently internalizing my grief, but I know that there’s a reason I experienced the devastation of three losses to suicide within the course of one year. I was meant to find my voice, shed light, and bring awareness to this tragic loss of life, especially for those young souls who never got a chance to grow up and realize all the beautiful things life has to offer them.
As I began to find my voice, my first real moment of healing came the following summer in 2012. By some chance which I now regard as a small miracle, some peers in my San Francisco community alerted me to the fact that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention was holding their annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in SF that year. I immediately knew that this was not an opportunity I could let escape me, and with vigorous determination, I reached out for donations and support. I was humbled by the generosity and love I received, but even more surprising was the powerful, radiant group of people that came together to walk in memory of friends, siblings, mothers, fathers, and relatives that they’d lost to suicide. This event opened my eyes to a resilient community I’d never known existed, and stirred something deep inside me.
This experience offered the first few seeds of growth. However, my grief gradually transformed into a period of depression, although at the time I didn’t acknowledge or identify that this was what was happening. To be honest, I am still making sense of most of my periods of depression, so it is challenging to recount them. I will do my best.
In my senior year of high school, I experienced depression in the dread and the pounding in my chest I felt when my alarm startled me awake every morning at 6:30. I felt it in the confidence that slowly drained from my being, and the self-hatred that settled there instead. It came in the form of intrusive thoughts of self harm, accompanied by the disappointment of feeling too weak or too afraid to act on these thoughts.
Depression came in the form of a continual sensation of being stuck. It came in the form of loving someone who did not love me back, and hating myself for being unable to let go. It came in the form of believing in my own worthlessness.
I was only able to identify that I was experiencing suicidal ideation one evening when I was driving in the car with my sister and two of my closest friends after a basketball game. My sister was recovering from an eating disorder, and that game had been particularly triggering for her. I remember the way her voice cracked when she told us that when our coach would give her feedback, instead of her thinking, “Okay, I want to do that better,” she would think, “Oh, I want to kill myself.” She assured us that she had no desire to act on these thoughts, but my stomach fell as I realized that these were the same feelings that crept into my mind, revealing themselves behind various moments of each day.
I experienced depression in the form of drinking until I’d feel numb. I hated feeling so much. It was a relief to feel nothing. Until of course, I would reach a point where my numbness would be unable to stand itself, and the pain and self-hatred would come pouring back in.
I promised Sarah I would never physically harm myself. I wanted to stay strong for her, and to support her through the times that her anxiety and grief over losing Quinn became too much from her. I wanted to be the space she could always go, free from judgment when she showed up to basketball games hiding self-inflicted scratches on her arms that she’d disguise with cover-up or Band-Aids. I promised her that I wouldn’t hurt myself, but that didn’t mean I didn’t think about it.
The second half of my senior year I regained some feelings of resilience and positivity. Things began to look up. I thought I had hauled myself out from a dark place that was far behind me. I saw myself as someone who would adapt easily to the transition to college.
The first semester of college, my depression was joined by what I now identify as the first symptoms of my anxiety. In the aftermath of suicide, my friends and peers in the San Francisco community had consciously made an effort to eliminate language from our vocabularies that referred to suicide in any casual, thoughtless way. We knew those phrases carried immense weight. Now I was surrounded by people who had no idea what that kind of loss felt like. I’d hear phrases such as, “I have so much work, I’m gonna kill myself,” or I’d see someone imitating putting a gun to their head. Hearing these comments was triggering, and the first few times especially I would be overcome with paralyzing anxiety, unable to say anything, as my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. Even after those phrases had passed in conversation, I had difficulty concentrating on much else.
I began seeing a counselor the first semester of my freshman year. He was the first person I spent any length talking to about my losses. He worked with me to address my anxiety through mindfulness skills and techniques. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone who would just listen to me patiently, without judgment. It was sitting in his office that fall that I first realized I wanted to put my story into words. I began voicing my experience losing my cousin, Quinn, and Eli, resurfacing emotions that I had for a while stifled away. The words flowed out, often accompanied by tears, but releasing those emotions brought me a great deal of comfort. As the end of the semester came around, I stopped short of delving into any details about my own mental health struggles. I think my counselor could tell that I was holding back, but I physically could not bring myself to talk about what I had gone through my senior year.
The second semester of my freshman year, I engaged in self-harm for the first time. I don’t remember what motivated me. But I know that part of me was tired of always feeling so much, was tired of being strong through my pain, and needed a way to alleviate the anxiety and pangs of self-hatred.
My sophomore year I experienced my first panic attack. My friend held me as my body shook uncontrollably.
The fall of my junior year was when things really started to fall apart. I started to slip into a deeper state of depression. When I would go out with friends and drink, I’d enjoy myself for a while, and then I’d hit a point where my anxiety would kick in, and I could physically feel myself shift to a dark place where I felt like the worst version of myself. The more times this happened, the more I’d feel isolated from my friends and those around me. At one point I tried to explain this to some of my friends, but I was met with hostility about why I’d stayed back when everyone else had gone out. A few nights it would get so bad that it would feel like the entire world was crashing down on me, and I’d escape to my room, curl up in my bed and cry. Unable to understand or cope with my feelings, I resorted back to my self-destructive and self-harming behaviors.
It wasn’t that I was unable to acknowledge that something was seriously wrong. I knew that alcohol wasn’t the only factor contributing to this string of bad nights. I had an uneasy feeling that there was something going on mentally as well. But I also managed to assure myself that when I went abroad to Vienna, Austria the next semester, I’d be in a new environment with a new group of people, and I’d find the clarity I needed to no longer experience the darkness that had crept in the past month.
Of course, the reality of the situation could not have been more different. When I was abroad, my depression and anxiety were the worst they had ever been. Where I expected to meet a bunch of amazing new friends, I experienced disconnection. I was living in a tiny apartment with five other girls, and I experienced anxiety and social exhaustion whenever I was home. I started withdrawing from social situations, and when I did go out at night with other people in my program, it was usually a disaster for me. I would almost always get to that dark place again where I was no match for my own self-destructive thoughts. I would sneak away from friends to go to the bathroom and would attempt to cut my wrists on the rough edge of the toilet paper dispenser. Or I would impulsively toss back shots of tequila to try to numb myself. I convinced myself that I was the worst person in the world, unworthy of my own existence, and that I deserved to punish myself like this. Often when I would feel like I was drowning in my anxiety and intrusive thoughts, I’d leave whatever bar or venue I was at without a word to anyone. I was convinced no one would care.
I caused tremendous pain to the one person who stuck by me for the tumultuous time I was abroad. Bo was 4,000 miles away and felt helpless in the face of what was going on and what I was doing to myself. I would arrive home after going out and would drunkenly grab a dull kitchen knife and carve little cuts into my left wrist. I justified them to myself in many ways. I truly believed I deserved the pain I was inflicting on myself. I would self-harm to punish myself for whatever was wrong with me that was allowing myself to spiral into this depressive, anxious state. Besides, I never cut deep enough to do real damage. But every morning after, I’d wake up and feel sick to my stomach with regret.
I think part of me wanted someone to notice and say something. After all, I made feeble efforts to hide my wounds. And then another part of me wanted someone to notice and not do anything, because that would further reinforce my belief that no one cared. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Eventually it got so bad that called Bo one morning in tears, and I remember the heaviness of everything weighing on me. I was in utter darkness and I told him that I felt like he was the only good thing left in my life. He urged me to reach out to one of my program directors to schedule a meeting to talk about counseling options. I knew I had gotten to a point that if I didn’t change something, I would be pushed ever farther under. But taking that step was the most scared I’ve been. I sobbed all the way through typing out that email.
A few days later when I stepped into her office, I immediately broke down. I was exhausted, and I had never felt more disconnected with everyone and everything around me. She was understanding and warm, and we came up with some options for who I might talk to. I decided to schedule an appointment with an American counselor in Vienna, hoping that it might bring me relief and validation. I believe this was an important step in my effort to seek help, but I was not met with the validation I needed. While my counselor was perfectly friendly, she made me feel like my emotions were all in my head. She talked to me as though she thought I was just being hard on myself, and that I needed to be more gentle. And perhaps this was true, but it made me feel like there was nothing legitimately wrong with what was going on within my mind.
One of the things I struggled with while I was abroad was the idea that this was supposed to be the time of my life. Even when I knew I should feel gratitude for the experience to study in a beautiful, foreign place, I felt emptiness. My peers constantly talked about how amazing every place and piece of culture was, and all I could feel was numbness, disconnection. This further amplified my feelings of isolation.
When I came back home to the U.S., I expected that the familiarity of being back would ease the isolation I’d experienced abroad. I began to feel more comfortable, but I still didn’t feel like myself. Returning to college for my senior year, I was filled with dread. I felt detached and completely out of touch with myself and those around me. I was student teaching for my fall semester, which meant I woke up in the early hours of the morning to drive to another town half an hour away from my school, spent the entire day teaching a class of second graders, and didn’t return to campus until 5 o’clock or so. I was on a completely different schedule and wavelength from my friends, I barely had time to exercise, and my responsibilities were nothing like those of my normal college life.
My sense of disconnection began to heighten my feelings that no one would care if I were there or not. I started impulsively leaving campus some nights at 12am and driving to New York to see Bo, to escape from my life at school, a life that I had begun to hate, a life that didn’t even feel like it belonged to me anymore. But my deep-rooted pain and struggles had also started to seep into my relationship with him, which was more rocky than it had ever been.
The worst part about my depression was completely losing my sense of self. I remember telling my counselor that I couldn’t remember the last time that I’d felt like myself. At times, it felt like I wasn’t even there at all. My body became a foreign place that I dissociated from. All my walls were up and it felt like I was unable to let anyone in. When I did spend time with my group of friends, I felt like I was a stranger watching the conversation happen. Everything I did felt inauthentic because I didn’t even know who I was anymore.
In October, I took the step to start seeing a counselor at my college after deciding on my own to take an online depression screening and receiving a result of Suicidal with Major Depression and Alcohol Dependence. My sessions with my counselor marked the first time I truly felt validated. She asked if I’d considered going on medication to help with my depressive and anxious symptoms. While some people struggle to come to terms with going on medication, I felt overwhelmingly relieved. I met with a psychiatrist who identified that I was experiencing moderate depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, and prescribed a low-dose antidepressant that I started taking that month.
However, while weekly sessions paired with medication began to help me, I still struggled for much of the fall of my senior year. It took me until the end of the semester to realize that I needed to share what I was going through with someone, that I couldn’t go on struggling in silence. I understand how hard it can be to reach out to someone — it took an immense amount of courage and patience with myself to push past my anxiety and to be vulnerable and open. However, this step was crucial to what I now consider the true beginning of my depression recovery. The day that I left to go home for winter break, I sat down with a friend and finally put to words what I had been battling for so long. Voicing what I was going through out loud allowed my experiences to become more real to me.
Being at home for a month began to heal me. I had been holding onto my struggles and illness for so long, and I finally began to let go. I cut way back on drinking; drinking had detrimental consequences on the effectiveness of my medication and I was finally ready to surrender and let the medication do its work. Gradually, it began to clear some space in my mind. From instances that would have previously knocked me down hard, I found a subtle resilience that hadn’t been there before. I began to eat better, to be more active, and to gently develop compassion for myself, my body, and my experiences.
In late December, my sister took me to a yoga class. In the past, it would have scared me to try something new, but this time, I felt ready to open myself to it. It seemed so coincidental at the time, but this is another moment in time I regard as a small miracle on my path to recovery.
Yoga brought me back into my body, a place I had dissociated from for so long. It empowered me. I could tangibly feel my strength coming back to me. It began to restore my sense of self, something I had feared I’d lost forever. I wasn’t the same me as I’d been before the depths of my depression, yet I was more me than ever before.
Recovery felt like realizing I had been drowning for years, and was finally coming up for air. Little things in my life began to get better. Guilt transformed into gratitude. I began to take better care of myself, not just out of necessity, but out of genuine care. I started to enjoy spending time with myself again, and it was like getting to know who I was all over again.
Facing the second semester of senior year felt much less daunting. I flew from California to New York to spend a few days with Bo before I went back to school. Our relationship felt lighter for the first time in months. One of the first things I did on the train ride from New York to school was look up yoga studios near my college. I found one that resonated to me, and realized a few days later that it had just opened that month. I started going nearly every day, by myself. It became a source of great comfort and growth. I found strength and self-exploration in this intimate setting. I don’t think words properly do justice to how much finding this studio and its wonderful teachers meant to me. Finding Meghan, whose energy and light radiates from the inside out. I didn’t tell friends or anyone about this studio for a while, because it finally felt like I had this safe, sacred space where I was so authentically myself.
I still met with my counselor every other week, and she suggested that I consider joining group therapy. I let in the uncertainty and fear around sharing my experiences with other peers, and it was one of the best decisions I made. I met five other students who were struggling and recovering in various ways. I spoke about my suicide loss, and how I was just starting to come to terms with my depression and anxiety. This vulnerability opened the floor for my peers to share more openly about their experiences. I saw glimmers of myself in every person there. We could all relate in some way, regardless of how similar or different our experiences were. I most deeply connected with Lili. It often feels like we keep finding each other along the same path. We had both battled with feelings of depression, self-hatred, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation. But we were also both resurfacing, and we were in it together. Lili has had a profound impact on my life and my recovery.
Of course there were times along the way where I felt like I was falling back into my depression. I hit a plateau after coming back from spring break, overwhelmed with feelings of isolation and anxiety that found me avoiding my friend group. I would be lying if I told you I’m not still coming to accept these feelings of exclusion. I don’t think I was ever met with the support I needed from friends I had been close with. I constantly try to justify their distance; I was screaming inside but no one could have heard me, I disguised my pain so well. It still feels unsettling to think about how discarded I felt, and I am still working on extending forgiveness to those who didn’t reach out. It is a process, and some parts of me have healed more slowly than others.
I am eternally grateful for the people who were there for me when I needed to know I wasn’t alone, that someone cared and wanted to listen. The girls in my acapella group who have always felt more like sisters, who share a piece of my soul. My counselor, my psychiatrist, the resilient, empathetic individuals in my therapy group. My sister and best friends from home who always make me feel loved and appreciated regardless of whether they knew I was struggling or not. Bo, for lifting me up in more ways than he will ever know, even when my pain affected him more than anyone.
In a way, beginning Narratives of Hope has been a celebration of how far I’ve come. I have grown more in the past year than I ever thought possible. I have worked incredibly hard to rebuild my sense of self, and the consistent dedication it took to restore my identity is something that other people can’t always see. But I am more authentically me now. I have learned how to listen to myself, and how speak to myself with love and compassion. I am also proud of my tangible milestones. It has been nearly six months since my last depressive episode. It has been a year and a half since I last self-harmed. And it has been almost a year since I reclaimed my life and began to heal.
I know how hard it is to own your story. It took me seven years to write about my own struggles. There are parts of my mental illness that I still go to battle with every day. There are parts of my experience that I am still coming to terms with. That’s okay.
Over the past couple months, I have been volunteering with a crisis line. During my first shift, I found myself talking to someone whose experience resonated with me deeply and flooded me with emotions. For the first time, I felt this profound empathy and compassion for my journey. I thought back on that sixteen year old girl that I was when I lost my cousin, how much silent pain and darkness filled my life for so long, and how grateful I am that I am here now. I am still standing and I’m alive, and it has never felt so undoubtedly clear that this is my purpose in my life.
All I know is that I’m finally coming home to myself.
Written by Nikki Symanovich
Co-Founder and President, Narratives of Hope