I have an active imagination. I have also always had a thing for bridges. So in the summer before my first year at Middlebury, I found myself often returning to a particularly self-indulgent daydream. While walking back from Flatbread, I would spot a high school student standing on the edge of the bridge and staring into the rapids. I would approach the troubled youth with unshakable confidence. Laying a hand on their shoulder I would whisper with the profound wisdom that only college-educated adults were granted, “It gets better.”
I was attracted to Middlebury by the people. Middlebury is a happy place. People smile, and people are friendly. These facts remain true for many here. So I am throwing up a white flag. This is not my assault on the kindness that constitutes this school. But even kind people can be willfully ignorant sometimes. I will never forget a good friend remarking that she found it disturbing to think of students at other schools who, “might not enjoy their college experience.” Or another, who once told me one of his favorite things about Middlebury is that, “Everyone feels like they belong here.” From the point of admission we seem to be bursting to announce our undying adoration for Middlebury as the happiest place in the world. In the Facebook posts, at orientation, and in every day speech the message is clear: everyone here is happy. But I wasn’t happy at Middlebury.
For three years, I have been unhappy at Middlebury.
I wish I could tell you why. For every instance of arrogant hatred or blind indifference I have encountered here, I have seen more overwhelming sincerity and good nature. It is not the people. For me, it has been the subtle moments. It is the moment of drunken clarity standing in Tavern when I just want to go home, when I would rather be anywhere in the world than this party, this school. It is the moment of sitting in silence in Ross because I can’t escape the overwhelming sense of disconnect between myself and everyone around me. Combined with the merciless stress to which we all subject ourselves, the inescapable realization that I do not belong here has translated to a bitter resentment of this school.
I am not the only one. But we don’t like talking about this. Short-term emergencies, like an upcoming test, are appropriate times to be in a state of distress. But short of imminent academic disaster the only answer we seem to find to the constant echo of “How are you?” is a “good,” famished of any meaning. Next time you are speaking to a friend during a hell week, listen to them when you ask how they are. They may list off their litany of due dates and presentations and extracurricular activities and sport games and they may be stressed and desperate but this is just normal venting, right? Really listen. I refuse to believe that in the tear-soaked, caffeine-driven, ever-lurking ground into which we grind ourselves there aren’t some of us begging through socially acceptable griping for some reassurance that our lives will not be terrified scurrying from one deadline to another, that our worth is not determined by the outcome of this arbitrarily graded paper or that unpredictable exam. Two people I know of in my Middlebury career decided this life was not for them and so they transferred. And they were never spoken of again.
Why? Why do we have such a problem admitting that we aren’t always brimming with positivity? Is it a matter of pride? Or are we just making feeble attempts at self-assurance when we tell ourselves that these are the best years of our lives? I don’t know. But I am just as guilty of smiling and nodding when I am screaming inside. Even in the deepest slope of my most negative trajectory, I never spoke up, never simply told someone, “Actually no, I really am not OK. I could really use some help right now.” And so it got worse. Because I wasn’t unhappy at Middlebury.
For three years, I have been depressed at Middlebury.
For three years, I dealt with not just unhappiness at Middlebury, but the hopeless certainty that I would never find happiness or meaning again. Defeatism is addicting. In a hollow attempt at salvation I attached myself to a mantra of self-loathing. As I cut myself away from everyone around me I reassured myself that I deserved to feel so shitty. The fear of discovery was always there but my threshold for shame continually moved. I felt terrified the first time I caught myself thinking that no one would miss me if I were gone. Pretty soon I was desensitized to it. Thoughts I knew to be dangerous became commonplace and before I knew what was happening I was carving emotion into my skin.
Cutting is strange. Every practitioner I have ever spoken with agrees that once you start self-administering endorphin boosts through razor and wrist, it is stupidly difficult to stop. I was stuck somewhere between needing control and attention. When you have accepted the pain in your life as inevitable, being able to dictate when and how you hurt becomes irresistible. But the cutting really started as a response to a daydream I had. When unknowing friends would mention how lucky I was, I imagined tearing open my veins, holding out my arms to them with blood streaming down and screaming, “Is this what lucky looks like? Is this pain good enough for you?” I got off easy. It was rare and mild when I indulged, but at one point it was almost an automatic response. If my homework piled up, if I got in an argument with a friend, if I did bad on a paper, something nearby and sharp was in my hand before I could stop myself. And so I spent many of the best years of my life alone in my room carefully choosing the location of incisions so that no one would see.
I know I am not the only one. Twice I have heard a friend admit to life on the pills and twice I have seen my friends turn their back on them. And I am just as guilty. I would tell myself it was too painful to face. That I couldn’t watch them swallow happiness because I saw too much of myself in them, too much of a different friend who almost swallowed more happiness than her liver could handle, too much of another friend who swallowed happiness until he was content to pull a trigger. But I wasn’t afraid of what I saw, I was afraid of what I couldn’t do. You have not experienced frustration until you have fought another’s depression. And even through all my own struggles, listening over the phone as a friend tried to kill herself remains the hardest thing I have ever done. When you feel like you have a friend’s life in your hands and have absolutely no idea what to do next, it can destroy you. And I was terrified of facing that weakness again.
But these conversations should not be this difficult. I of all people should have known that maybe they didn’t need a trained therapist, they didn’t need someone to magically piece their life back together, maybe they just needed a friendly listener, someone to hear them out and tell them, “I hear you. You’re in hell, and that’s OK.” But in what world would that ever feel like enough? I think that is why we turn from our friends when they need us most, why we constantly deny the cracks in our bubble. We are all driven, ambitious people, but the difficulty of college and the daunting challenge of the real world can do a number on our confidence. To see a walking embodiment of our powerlessness outside the classroom, of inevitable failure despite all our efforts, especially in the ones we love, is just too much to handle. And even when we are good listeners, we can be terrible talkers.
You may have noticed I have kept this anonymous. I would not defend myself if you accused me of hypocrisy. I am not breaking out of the shadows to take a stand on this issue. I am lurking in my cowardice. I am afraid to face the hurt question strewn across the faces of my friends, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And what could I say? That I felt like the whole world was trying to bury me and I didn’t want to drag them down with me? Or that I couldn’t face the pain of their sympathy, the nagging guilt that I am a black mark on their already stress filled lives? But worse than my friends, than my peers, than my adviser or future employees, if my name was attached to this document and it somehow reached my parents, what could I possibly tell them? How am I supposed to tell them that by the end of freshman year I found myself standing at the bridge to Marble Works with no one around to tell me “It gets better”?
Because I wasn’t just depressed.
For three years, I have been suicidal at Middlebury.
After I finished cutting, I would sometimes spend the best years of my life counting the pills in my room. Sometimes I would imagine the reactions of those around me to the news. “You heard *blank* jumped off Bi-Hall? I had no idea they were so fucked up!” It wasn’t a burning desire to kill myself. Instead, it was the simple fact that I didn’t really want to keep on living. I reached a point where it felt like I was just waiting to die, and if life sucked in the mean time why keep on waiting? When I took that long walk down College Street with no intention of walking back, I didn’t hurt. I just felt… done. And I don’t know what made me walk back that night, because to be honest it sure as hell wasn’t hope.
If you are a happy person, if you have loved your time at Middlebury, I am sorry if this upset you. But with respect, I didn’t write this for you.
I don’t know how alone I am at Middlebury. Emma’s work shows me that I’m less alone than I thought. But I am worried there are more. So I am writing this for the first year who will spend their first J-Term working on the stupid common app again, only to give up on transferring when they convince themselves that they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. I’m writing this for the fellow senior who is afraid that if the best years of their life were the worst years of their life, what could possibly come next? I’m writing for any student who has ever thought of buying a gun, taking a leap, or opening their veins because they are sure their friends will be happier without them there to bring them down. And I’m writing to tell them the most important thing I have learned at Middlebury: I don’t know if it gets better. I wish I could tell you otherwise. If there was a switch or a pill or something to make you all better I swear I would tell you but I don’t think there is. I will not throw shallow platitudes at you either, but I will tell you what I wish someone had told me. You are not alone and what you are feeling is real. There is so much wrong with what you have to face, but there is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken.
If you are suicidal, depressed, or just unhappy, it’s OK to say something. And if you know someone facing any of those things, it’s OK if you can’t fix them. Just listening can mean the world to them.
I am one of the lucky ones. The change made no sense, but depression rarely does. I was walking down the street and I heard a song so beautiful that I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to die just then because I wanted to hear the end of the song and I turned down a corner so that no one would see me gasping for breath. I do not know what made me walk away from the bridge over Otter Creek that night, but I am glad it did. Because when I stood on top of a mountain witnessing the most beautiful sight of my life this summer, all I could think of is that I would never have seen it if I had jumped off that bridge. I am still trying to figure out how life after depression works, and the fear of a relapse is there every day. But I cannot remember the last time I felt this good. And so I keep on working to beat depression back. Which is one more reason I wrote this.
I have returned to this essay in my darkest moments as an outlet for my hopelessness. Originally it was intended for the Campus, but I think I like it here more. When every fiber of my being was screaming at me to let loose, grab the nearest person and scream how absolutely everything was going wrong, I would find myself here. With this essay, I was allowed to articulate the empty howling in my chest. And showing this essay to the world was an uncertain future I clung to, a faint hope at the end of four years. Because there were always two ways I could have announced my depression to the Middlebury campus. This was the better way.