From the time I was very young, one of the first things people noticed about me was that I smiled a lot. At parent-teacher conferences, my teachers would tell my parents that I always seemed happy. At the end of every year in middle and high school, we had a tradition where everyone who wrote for the school publication would have a big potluck and we would all write nice things in each other’s copies of the book. Year after year, anyone who wasn’t one of my very closest friends would write some variation of “you always smile a lot” or “you’re so happy, I love it!” Of course, none of those people were wrong. I did smile a lot. I was happy. My parents got divorced when I was three, but I kept laughing and playing throughout their separation. One of my closest friends left my state, and I found new ones. I was tough.
Fast forward to senior year. I had a tight-knit group of friends, I had gotten into my dream college, I had a car. As we started spring semester, I had to start thinking about my final school reading. These things were an ordeal, you see. You chose the person you read with, you put together a reception, and you invite virtually everyone you know. It’s your goodbye to the school, to everyone you’ve met there—it’s bittersweet. I had the last reading, in mid-April. The week after prom, less than a month before graduation. Leading up to my reading, I was more stressed than I had ever been. I didn’t really want to read with the person I was stuck with, and I felt that I needed to micro-manage every little detail in order to get it done. I turned to my friends for help—and got nothing. They were stressed, too, I knew that. But they had all finished their readings, they were practically done for the year. I was still pushing to get this done, I was still trying to finish this enormous project with practically no help. At times, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At one of these times, I tried to ask for help during our study period. But they didn’t help, they simply yelled at me for bothering them—they were too busy. For the first time, I disappeared into the bathroom and cried. I cried my eyes out. I cried for the rest of the study period. I felt broken.
The next day, I still had the same feeling. I had a knot in my stomach that I just couldn’t shake. In the middle of the day, I checked myself out of school and went home. For an hour, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. Every difficult day I’d ever had flooded back into my mind, and I was so hurt by the fact that my friends had turned their backs on me, when all I had done for them was help them. Once I was able to make my legs move again, I went directly to the medicine cabinet. I pulled out every variety of pill I could find, I grabbed a bottle of liquor from the freezer. I sat on the couch, everything sitting in front of me. I thought about being done with everything, about not feeling that same punch in the gut that I had felt when my friends pushed me away. Then, my mom texted me. I told her about what happened the day before and how I had been so stressed. She asked if I wanted anything special for dinner. I had always been close with mother—she used to take me out for fast food and ice cream when I was sick, we shared all of our dumb jokes, and we spent all of our vacations together. She reminded me that she cared, and that even when my friends were giving me crap, she would be there.
I put everything back.
That episode passed soon—my reading was over, I graduated, I cut off the people I didn’t want to talk to anymore, and I went back to the summer job I’d been working for years. Soon enough, it was August and I was headed to Middlebury. I took a road trip with my mom, with several stops along the way. We had all of the fun that we usually had on road trips. I met great friends during orientation, I got comfortable with my roommate, and I got used to navigating campus. I thought every day about how glad I was to be at Middlebury, even though it moved me halfway across the country, away from everyone I knew. And I was happy. Or, well, I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t sad when I skipped a week of classes because I was laying in bed. I wasn’t sad when I only ate when my friends dragged me out. I wasn’t sad when I began to pull blades out of my shaving razors. I wasn’t sad. I was empty. I had never felt like that—I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t the girl who was always happy.
After several weeks of the same feeling, a friend from home finally convinced me to seek help at Parton. From there, I was referred to CSAC, where I was diagnosed with major depression put on medication. My Commons Dean got me an extension for a final paper, and I was able to pull myself together for the holidays. Throughout the year, I was put on more medication and little by little, I felt better. I decided that for sophomore fall, I would take three classes instead of four, I would join clubs, I would make more friends, I would live in a block with my closest friends, I would have a campus job, and I would get more comfortable. I committed to coming back in the fall, but I also knew that I had to decide where my depression was coming from, whether it was me or Middlebury (as much as I hated the idea it could have been the latter), so I planned to have the best summer of my life. I lined up a great job, I made plans to hang out with friends regularly, and my mother had booked a vacation in Cancun for us. I was ready for the perfect summer. And until July 10th, 2015, that’s what I had.
On that day, my mom and my girlfriend showed up at my work, and my boss pulled me out of the classroom of toddlers I was helping teach. Immediately, I knew something was wrong. They made me sit down in my boss’ office, and gave me very despairing looks. After a moment of confusion, they told me what happened—earlier in the day, my father had shot and killed himself. I don’t really remember what happened after that, but after a solid twenty minutes of crying and hyperventilating in the office, they carried me outside. We left my car in the parking lot and went home. I laid down in the back seat of the car and closed my eyes. I tried to be empty again.
This was a shock, of course, but it wasn’t quite a surprise. My father had been low—lower than I’d ever seen him. Throughout my life, I’d seen him fight against a depression that always fought back, hard. He won so many battles, but he couldn’t win the war. The horrifying thing for me was not just that I had lost my father, but that I had lost someone I identified with. Someone who understood what I meant when I talked about the hard times I was going through. I thought that if he could do it, so could I. And he did do it, for so long. Until he couldn’t anymore. I was terrified.
For the next few days, I did nothing but lay in bed and eat crackers and drink smoothie drinks—I couldn’t stomach anything else. I babysat my eight-year-old sister while my step-mother handled his cremation, moved things out of their house, and dealt with planning his funeral service. I burst into tears at times, when I wasn’t even doing anything. I didn’t go anywhere else until, a week later, we held his service. A family friend lead the service. At the end, we let off paper lanterns into the night sky. It was all I could have asked for. It was beautiful.
The next week, I went back to work—I even got another job. I distracted myself for as long as I could, which turned out to be a while. As time passed, I came across old holiday cards, pictures, and other memorabilia. I came across suicide a note in which he said how much he loved me, how proud he was of everything I’d done in my life, how sorry he was that he was doing this to me. Reading that note was heartbreaking, but comforting. It was difficult, but it explained everything. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted, but it was what I needed.
Since then, I’ve returned to campus, which was difficult because the last time I was there was when my dad picked me up at the end of the year. I’ve Skyped my step-mom and little sister every Sunday, which was difficult because he used to be part of those Skype sessions. I went to a football game on campus, which was difficult because he taught me everything I know about football. I saw the movie Woodlawn, which was difficult because it was the last movie set he worked on. I celebrated Thanksgiving, which was difficult because, well, holidays are different now. I went to my classes (well… for the most part), which was difficult because I felt everything and nothing all at once, and several times I had to leave class to calm anxiety attacks that would come out of nowhere. I’ve cried almost every single day, but I’ve laughed, too. Since then, I’ve tackled every day even though it felt like my heart was completely broken for every minute of it. I’ve seen the new Star Wars movie, which he promised to take me to. Since then, I’ve found things (and people) that make me smile again.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done was battle my depression, get back on my feet, and get knocked back down again. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was know that my father was in worse pain than I’ve ever been, even in my darkest moments. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was push myself through months of heartbreak, pull myself up by my bootstraps. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was lose my father to an illness so few people respect or understand.
I’m writing this less than a week before Christmas. I’m not sure how Christmas day will feel, but I’m sure it’ll be painful. I’m sure it’ll be beautiful, I’m sure I’ll be happy. But I’m also sure it’ll be incredibly difficult—every day has. But I’ve made it this far. If I’ve made it through every day before today, I can make it through tomorrow. I can make it through the 6-month mark, which is going to be two days before my birthday. I can make it through his birthday, through the rest of the holidays, I can make it to the 1-year mark. I can do it. It won’t be easy, it won’t be painless. But I can win the fights, I can win the war. I can do it.
Middlebury College, ’18