By Hailey Joy Scandrette
I only remember scattered, vivid snapshots from my first semester of college. The mild depression I’d struggled with since falling victim to an unidentified illness when I was 15 reared its ugly head in a new, terrifying way. I don’t remember exactly when the numbness crept in. My classes were going well, I’d met people who I chatted with before class and got lunch with sometimes, my longterm boyfriend lived nearby, and we were successfully finding time to spend together despite my new college schedule and his work schedule. Everything looked like it should be fine; better than fine, I should have been content. I didn’t feel content. Everything felt off.
As a child, and into my early teen years, I had been energetic, peppy, and self-assured. Among my friends I was known for being expressive, creative, and confident. I have always thought and felt deeply, which brings highs and lows, but I would feel those fluctuations and move on. I was content and productive; I enjoyed performing at the community theater and threw fundraisers for my favorite causes in my spare time. My faith had been based in a deeply rooted belief in God’s love for everyone around me. I felt connected to God through my connections to people in my life, my desire to love them well, and my awareness of the love I was shown through them.
However, by October of freshman year something had shifted. Some days I had to be dragged from bed and made to go to school because I, ultra-conscientious, notoriously hard-working Hailey, didn’t care. My social interactions with new friends felt empty. I’d break down crying on dates with my boyfriend for no explicable reason; I vividly remember being at a Halloween party with many of our friends and feeling utterly disconnected from everything. The two of us went on a walk and I sobbed into his shoulder on a park bench. On my commute to school, I’d wonder what would happen if I jumped in front of the train and made all the numbness go away. The thought of my family and my boyfriend kept me from thinking more seriously about it. At home I’d have panic attacks where I’d hyperventilate and pull at my hair and punch my legs. I didn’t know how to talk about what was happening. My parents were confused and scared. I don’t think any of us fully understood what was going on. We chalked it up to my lifelong dislike of change and my frustration with the difficulty of finding meaning in my freshman general education coursework. I secretly worried I was going insane.
I was angry. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so awful when nothing was wrong. I felt guilty, thinking I must be ungrateful for the good things in my life. I wondered if I was a bad Christian because, in this time of struggle, I couldn’t find comfort in God. I prayed through the numbness, through tears; I prayed angrily, and bitterly, and sadly… but it felt like God just didn’t hear me. Like God just wasn’t there.
Spring semester brought some small degree of relief. My classes were more interesting, I had more confidence in my academic abilities after my first semester, I felt like I’d begun to pull myself out of the fog. But my emotional state was still fragile, and when my boyfriend, who’d been a steady and affirming source of support for four years, broke up with me, I was left feeling desperately lonely and lacked the energy to continue pulling myself towards health. I cried all the time. Not just about the breakup itself. Sure, that was heartbreaking and confusing, but more than anything, in my distorted reality, the breakup confirmed the lies that my depression told me.
“You’re too much work. It’s not worth it for people to be in relationship with you. (Your family only sticks around because they have to; that’s why they’re the only ones who haven’t left you.)”
“No matter what you do, you will never be enough.”
“The people who like you just don’t know you well enough. If they did, they’d leave, too.”
“You’re a deeply selfish and horrible person. This is happening to you as a punishment.”
“If you were perfect, people wouldn’t leave you, life would be better, everything would be okay.”
Most nights, I’d lay awake listening to these lies and cry until I fell asleep. I was angry… angry at God for letting me go through this, for seeming to refuse to comfort me, for punishing me and not showing me why, or indicating how I could just fix everything. I was even angrier at myself for being angry. “If I was perfect, I wouldn’t be angry, I’d just get better.” I believed that my depression was selfish. I felt guilty for paying so much attention to myself when so many people had it worse.
That fall I tried to fix the problem by throwing myself into school. My classes were interesting. I changed my major. I worked harder than I ever had. I was animated and engaged in class discussions. But most days were still tinged with numbness. Sometimes I still thought about jumping in front of trains. I snapped hairbands on my wrists and dug my nails into my palms just to make sure I could still feel. I still cried most nights. I couldn’t sleep and eating was a chore. My prayers were still angry. I’d wonder why I bothered since it wasn’t changing anything, and then I’d berate myself for being so impatient. I’d get angry about how absent God felt, then feel guilty, thinking that if God was distant it was my fault for not having enough faith.
Fortunately for me, I am stubborn as hell. I pushed through the days where I couldn’t feel, and through the days where I felt nothing but anger, or sadness, or fear, or loneliness. The spring was harder, if anything, than the fall had been (it turns out that using school as a distraction from severe emotional problems isn’t a sustainable strategy for becoming healthier). But after a long year, summer finally arrived and something began to shift. We discovered that my sleep aids sometimes had the side effect of exacerbating feelings of depression in certain individuals. I was one of those lucky individuals. This discovery, I am sure, contributed to the shift, but something else happened, too, that I still haven’t put my finger on.
It’s been almost two years, and I’m not going to lie and say that everything has been consistently better ever since. Sometimes I have periods of a week or two where I can feel the numbness trying to creep back in. Sometimes it manages to get a foot in the door before I have a breakdown that pulls me back to the discomfort of feeling. But each time, I am able to catch it earlier in the cycle that I have learned to recognize. Most of the time I still have to work hard to combat the lies that my brain has learned to tell me, but I am teaching it to tell me truths instead, which isn’t easy, but is worthwhile.
“I am lovable and beloved.”
“The people in my life want to be in my life, and if they don’t, it’s not because I am a bad person.”
“I am enough for what God has planned for me.”
“Even if I could do everything right, sometimes things would still be sad and difficult, and that doesn’t mean I am being punished, it’s just part of being human.”
“I don’t have to be perfect to be good.”
In retrospect, I can see the ways in which God was there even when I felt most disconnected. My mom comforted me selflessly, despite her own confusion and fear about what I was going through. My dad tried to think of solutions to makes things better. My brothers did little things to make me smile and sometimes just sat with me so I wouldn’t be alone. And I was able to push myself through it even when I thought I never would. Not that I handled it well. I was in way over my head. If I had understood what was going on then like I do now, I would have gone to the doctor, I would have gone to therapy, I would have gotten medication. But I had no clue what was going on. I felt like I wasn’t sick enough to need help, like I just needed to work a little harder to be better. Depression distorts things like that.
Even now, reflecting from a state of mental health, there isn’t a simple, tidy way to talk about the relationship between depression and faith in my life. My spirituality is more complicated than it was before. I’ve learned that struggle, doubt, and even feelings of distance from God don’t have to mean that my faith is deteriorating. Instead they allow me to connect with my Creator in new, complex, and challenging ways. I am more confident that whether I am expressing gratitude or anger, fear or joy, God is there, even when I can’t feel the connection I seek. For me, this has resulted in a deeper relationship with God, and a better understanding of our struggle as humans to understand and connect with the world around us.
Although I would never wish to relive that period of my life, I feel that I also have a greater appreciation for the moments of connectedness I experience than I did before. I take note when I feel God’s presence, or when I feel deeply in sync with the people around me. Watching a sunset with friends, swimming in the ocean, sitting on the hill by my house… these moments feel full of the truth of my belovedness. I mentally collect them, and pull them out to look at when I feel the numbness or loneliness creeping in. I try not to feel guilty about not constantly feeling that connection. I’ve become aware that the struggle to tap into a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves is part of being human. And I am learning to believe that it’s okay for me to just be human.
Author Bio: Hailey Joy Scandrette is a senior at San Francisco State University studying US History, and Counseling. When not ears deep in primary source analysis and note taking, she enjoys thrift shopping, writing, climbing trees, and going on long walks with her friends and family. She is passionate about social justice, living incarnationally, loving and serving others, and almost anything else that she has any opinion on.