puzzle pieces

I’ve fallen, and I’ve come back stronger. Over and over. Physically and metaphorically. That’s the mountain range of life I guess, but my valleys seem to be deeper than most, holding secrets that few people know, things that I keep bottled up and rarely share. I like to maintain the image that everything in my life is OK, that I’m OK.

I crashed into a tree while skiing during 6th grade and ended up in the ICU with several skull fractures, a popped ear drum, and breaks in my collar bone. After seeing how upset and distraught my family and friends were by this accident, I think I took a subconscious vow to myself to never put those I loved in such a state of pain and fear again, even though this accident was out of my control. And soon, this grew into a self-proclaimed prophecy that I had to be someone who helped others with their struggles but never shared my own. My accident definitely helps me to appreciate the fragility of life, but I realize now that I amplify the “always smiley, helpful, considerate, contentious, and smart” part of myself as a result too.

Fast forward to my freshman year of high school. It was everything that middle school wasn’t. I cried almost every day, classes seemed hard, my friends drifted apart, and I struggled to find joy in anything that I was doing. That spring, my dad switched jobs and my mom took me to see a therapist because I was so miserable about everything. Therapy was awful. I didn’t want to be there, and I felt no connection or trust in the middle aged woman who sat across from me. Eventually, was put on medication for anxiety/depression, summer came, and everything started to look better. Of course there was the normal high school drama from time to time, but overall I was lucky to be at a wonderful school with wonderful teachers, small classes, and great opportunities. Before I knew it, it was my Senior Spring and I was saying good-bye to everything and everyone I’d known for the last 13 years…

At the same time, I was suddenly saying good-bye to my cousin, one of the kindest, sweetest people I’ve ever known, who was killed in a car accident. I watched as my aunt fell apart and my mom tried desperately to comfort her and maintain family relations as past issues that I didn’t understand suddenly boiled to the surface. I wanted to fall apart too, but I refused to let myself. I didn’t want to cause other people pain again. It made me strong on the outside, but weak and broken on the inside.

I found happiness within the struggles during my Febmester. I worked, and took time to explore the safe haven that skating gives me through its grace, athleticism and expression. That winter, I clung to the ice more and more as my mom was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and given a bad prognosis. How could the strongest person in my life suddenly become so fragile? In a week I was leaving for the next chapter of my life, and I was excited and anxious to begin. But everything was put on hold. Looking back, I don’t regret a second of that spring, but instead of waking up each morning and going to class, I woke up each morning and drove my mom an hour and half to treatment. Days were filled with doctors’ appointments, driving in silence while she slept, and too much time to think.

Slowly, as the world began to thaw from blankets of snow, I sunk into a valley- a low valley with darkness and the what-ifs of death. Not of her death, because she was getting better. The treatment and surgery worked. But my death. Why should I continue to go forward? The can-I-make-it-through-this-yellow-light-before-it-turns-red-and-another-car-enters-the-intersection kind of thoughts. Blowing off my favorite thing, skating, and not really caring. Why should I? What’s the point? Everything became a chore. Waking up, eating, brushing my teeth, getting dressed… Everything. Eventually, I talked to my mom and she told me that when simple daily routine tasks become difficult, it can be a sign of depression. I talked to my doctor and finally started to believe it. A chemical imbalance in my brain puts me in a box of being someone who is more likely to be a burden to others. I let that sink in.

Soon after, I got a text from a friend asking what happened to one of our favorite teachers. I remember feeling cold and numb as I texted her back confused. So many scenarios coursed through my mind. He was a father figure, someone who knew when I was having a bad day, I’d bawled in his arms, celebrated successes, and felt guilty for not getting a perfect score on the AP test because he worked above and beyond to prepare us no matter what he was facing. The scenarios in my head would have been significantly easier to accept than what came next. Allegedly he had been caught taking pictures/videos of female students without their permission. My friends were upset and confused, but I was traumatized. Maybe he had other intentions than being our mentor. Friends told me not to worry, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had no reason to believe that anything had gone on between us, but I was shaken. How could someone so wonderful do something so hurtful?

Middlebury was a fresh start, but again it was easiest to just pretend I was always the happy, smiley girl that would help find me friends. I was insecure in my skin, and wanted to be accepted for who I was despite not being able to show my whole self to others. It didn’t work. That fall I was physically attacked by someone who I thought was a friend. No one seemed to understand why it was so traumatic for me given that the attack wasn’t inherently sexual. I felt so lost and betrayed and sunk again into a valley of dense clouds and silence. To others, my reaction felt irrational, and the more I shared my thoughts and feelings out loud, the more I felt isolated.

I started going to therapy again, and this time it felt right. Slowly I started to piece myself back together. I still wanted to be that problem-free girl, but I was quickly realizing “problem free” meant minimized my feelings and leaving out chunks of information, and I only started to heal when I owned my story and told the truth. I thought I was getting better.

Instead, my depression worsened. I cried a lot, maybe because I dislocated my knee and couldn’t skate, my safe haven even when everything was going wrong, or maybe because little by little I was letting myself feel all the pieces of who I truly was, bottled up and hidden deep somewhere that no one else could see for the last ten years. I think I had too much strength to kill myself. It would have meant leaving so many people in pain and suffering, and I couldn’t do that. But for the second time in my life, I just wanted everything to stop. I figured I had to tell the truth. Not only to my therapist, but to myself.

Slowly things got better and I started to explore some of my other worries: boys, parties, crowds. I asked my mom for advice; if there was anything I should know. She told me something that I felt I already knew but had no reason to believe was true. I was sexually assaulted as a baby by someone I trusted. Everything started to make sense. Memory can be weird that way, you can just have a gut feeling or visceral reaction, but without concrete evidence you feel like a crazy person. I started talking about these things in therapy, which has helped some, and ultimately, I’ve connected to that piece of me and started the long climb out of this valley. I want to come back stronger, I will, I am.

So I start here. Trying to find a way to put my feelings into words. Words that help me heal. Words that are truth. Little by little, fitting the puzzle pieces of “me” together, only as much as I can handle at a time. Because knowing that I’m not alone and don’t have to struggle through all of this without help has been one of the best things. It’s also been one of the hardest, because I don’t want to have to ask for help and burden others.

Yeah, some days still really suck. Not being able to explain why I shut down physically over a Proc dinner conversation when my friends try to set me up on a date can be frustrating. But, I’m optimistic because I won’t be in that place forever, and it has given me the appreciation and understanding that when life’s horrible, it won’t stay that way forever because otherwise there couldn’t be valleys. For each valley, there is a beautiful mountain summit somewhere as long as you are able to become vulnerable, start the hard conversations and ask for help when you need it.

My unexpected twists and turns make up some of the traits that I am most proud of having, like being a friend who can just sit and listen. The journey isn’t always easy, and it’s definitely not fun at times, but it’s more complex than just the ups and the downs, and in the end, I’m more complex than that too, and that’s beautiful to finally realize.

Middlebury College, ’18