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Reflections of a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl
A special thank you to H.Z. who inspired me to write this memoir
If I had to trace back the beginnings of how I got here today, you would probably find that an isolated childhood, a pressured upbringing, and parental neglect all attributed to my mental state today. However, I do not remember my childhood as a painful experience but rather a distorted, blind oblivion to almost everything. Therefore I feel it unnecessary and useless for me to attempt the retelling of my youth – which has long since become a foggy blend of faraway memories, thinning out to mist and disappearing into the gray skies.
This story does not have a happy ending, nor a sad ending. Despite what I feel, I am still very young and have many blank pages left in me. It does not have an ending but rather genuine hope for the unwritten pages.
I am writing this for my fellow adolescents who have lost hope. This is for those who believe they will never feel better, and for those who believe nobody understands them and nobody can help them.
I am not going to directly refute their statements because true happiness is a very elusive and too-often short-lived state. Even the state of being “okay” is hard for us to reach at times. And yes, nobody can fully understand any one person because no two people have gone through the same exact experiences and have had the same exact thoughts. Yet so many of us have felt the same awful feelings that brought us together in this terrible mutual depression: anger, disappointment, neglect, abandonment, heartbreak, loss, insecurity, self-loathing, stress, detachment, worthlessness. This is not one of those cliché motivational stories where the author goes through a difficult period, such as a death of a family member, but then finds some spiritual higher being and regains hope and lives happily ever after. This is a personal reflection on relationships and experiences I have had before and after intensive treatments with various doctors, nurses, therapists, and psychiatrists. And while I have so much left to learn, I have come so far.
To my peers I have met while in treatment, and to those whom I shall never meet, do not lose hope. Perhaps there isn’t a light at the end of your tunnel but instead sporadic holes in which light shines through, which you cannot see or feel the sunlight because you are only looking at the dark ground you were walking on. I am not saying that everything will get better but I promise that you are not stuck. Maybe you will be heartbroken once more. Maybe your parents will still argue. Maybe the kids in school will still call you “fat” and “ugly”. Despite all the bad, I hope that one day you will realize you do not need to suffer for the things you cannot change.
“Don't wish away your cracked past, your crooked toes, your problems are paper mache puppets you made or bought because the vendor at the market was so compelling you just had to have them… Don't lose too much weight. Stupid girls are always trying to disappear as revenge. And you are not stupid. You loved a man with more hands than a parade of beggars, and here you stand. Heart like a four-poster bed. Heart like a canvas. Heart leaking something so strong they can smell it in the street.”
- Frida Kahlo
It was my third year of high school. A sort of large, dark shadow had begun growing around me, engulfing me in a slow, deadly, suffocation. Even showering every day was becoming too difficult for me. To plainly state that I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety for more than a year now would be too simple. Yes, the physical symptoms were all there: lack of motivation, tiredness, low self-worth, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, irritability, restlessness, etc. Yet for anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, you know that the medical definition for what you are experiencing is only the surface of the deep, violent waters you face.
This state of inner pain and sadness was by no means sudden or unexpected, yet through all the “lows” I have experienced, each one has been different. To say that I was in internal paralysis would be a much more telling description of my previous mental state. Plainly put, I was stuck. I was stuck in past memories, stuck in my thoughts, stuck in both my own perfectionism and my high expectations for those around me. I could not let go of anything – I was like a sponge, absorbing everything until I became drenched in heaviness, and I could not wring the water out of myself.
I had become hypersensitive to those around me. To give you a small snapshot, one of my close friends ignored me in the hallway one morning. You’d feel a little uncomfortable, but shrug it off as she just didn’t see you, right? Unfortunately my thought process decided to take a different route. “Is she mad at me? Did I do something wrong?” would soon turn into remembering every little “wrongdoing” that she had ever done to me, from ignoring my texts a week ago to choosing to tell a secret to others before me three months ago to not inviting me to various sleepovers two years ago. Needless to say, by the end of the day I was filled with anger and hurt from this friend, even though I had no direct interactions with her that day. Even worse, I subconsciously expected my friends to know and somehow make up for these “mistakes”. And because I was so incredibly sensitive, a simple affectionate gesture such as a pat on the head would make me forgive her again, resulting in a turbulent cycle of unstable relationships in my own mind.
But more commonly, I would become stuck in various memories – both good and bad. I felt as if I was frozen in an ice cube, while everybody else moved past me, carrying on with their daily lives, oblivious to the fact that I was immobilized in between the past and the present.
Although I am critical of those around me, I am even more critical of myself. I try to refrain from calling myself a perfectionist because I have never believed that I could be perfect, but I do expect myself to put in my best effort, and perhaps I believed that my best effort should result in near-perfection. It became very difficult for me to complete schoolwork, as I constantly corrected each sentence I typed out, believing that I could write something better. My mindset became: I would rather get points off for lateness than getting points off for mistakes, which also turned into: It’s better to not try at all than to try and fail at something. My thought process completely blocked my productivity. Getting out of bed to go to school became harder and harder. I did not want to see my friends because I felt lonely and dejected. I did not want to see my teachers because I felt ashamed and inadequate. I did not want to stay at home because I knew my own thoughts were swallowing me whole. I wanted out. I wanted to disappear, to melt into a puddle onto the ground, but I could not move. I tried asking for help – I spoke to my therapist and psychiatrist, and even opened up to my school’s guidance counselor. But I suppose I was too late, because I only felt worse. At this point I had given up and experienced what Milan Kundera calls “vertigo”.
“Vertigo…A heady, insuperable longing to fall. We might also call vertigo the intoxication
of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.”
Since the start of freshmen year, I have always been surrounded by the same group of friends, albeit with a few minor changes here and there. I had always been hugely appreciative of being a part of this group, for unlikely many other 17 year old girls, I had never felt pressured to change my interests or personality, nor had I been involved in much drama or teenage-girl betrayal. Not to say that our friendships did not have flaws, but I had always felt a content sense of belonging along these peers.
Now I am not sure what happened precisely, but long story short, I felt a growing distance between me and those who I had before felt as one with. At lunch I would be surrounded by familiar faces, yet I felt utterly alone. I could no longer understand the majority of my friends, and they certainly did not understand me.
Before going further, it is important to note that I am not blaming anyone. I have never felt personally attacked by these people, for they did nothing directly to harm me and had no intentions of harming me. For a good amount of time I loved each and every one of these friends, and I felt a warm content being around them. But people change, and it became more and more obvious that I could no longer try to keep those friendships.
The more time I spent with them, the more I noticed that their actions did not align with their words. My previous sense of belonging within their group faded each day, yet I desperately wanted to fit in again. I had talked to these people for the past three years and I had grown so comfortable around them, but now I just felt confused. I watched as they scolded others for “not being nice”, yet stood by quietly when a romantic interest repeatedly called a peer “so stupid you could hit her head with a rock and she wouldn’t notice”. I watched as they spouted out their own “personal values” of being a “judgment-free zone”, and then dismissed all who had opinions that did not agree with theirs as “ignorant” and “close-minded”. I watched as they prided themselves on maturity and fairness while overlooking and making exceptions for the deep flaws of the people they claimed to love, yet barely knew. The more I watched, the sicker I felt. I felt suffocated in the middle of this group of blindly hypocritical people. Nonetheless, I held on for sentimental reasons. Before long, I was completely lost in this sea of people I could not connect to.
I did not realize until I was in the hospital that these people were not everything and I did not have to be around them. I learned that there were indeed worse things than being alone. Why should I be surrounded by people who make me want to disappear? There were people beyond this circle who were genuine and caring, and I realized that I deserved to meet them, and they would be worth waiting for.
“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction--every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.”
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
“You” is directed to a certain unnamed person who may or may not read this. If you are reading this I know you will try to defend yourself and justify your actions, but please don’t. I wrote this for myself, because you were a significant part of my life and skipping over that would be unfair to both me and others reading this.
Out of the sea of careless people around me, you were by far the worst. I say this not as a vindictive accusation but a mere fact. You let me down the most because I had unconditionally believed in you, and for that I was so stupid. You were the one solid person in my life for some time. You had kept me grounded, and I had immersed myself in you, as an escape from my own world. Suddenly you became another person I wanted to escape from.
I can see now that I centered too much faith in you. Though I knew we could no longer be as close, it still hurt as I felt you gradually stop caring about me.
Now this is not to say that we had a completely terrible friendship. A year ago, I felt completely safe and comfortable with you. You were so sincere, and your insecurity made you all the more real. For that I am grateful that I met you, but needless to say, that “you” did not last.
As time progressed I believe we both changed and grew apart. What happened in between from last year until recently seems so far away, and all I remember now is repeated disappointment. The condescending words you said stuck in the back of my head like a faint but low ringing sound. Did you not know how awful I would feel when you, out of all people, told me “cutting is one of the most stupid things someone can do”? Did you really feel it was necessary to point out things I was already self-conscious of. All I ever wanted was for you to say the words, “I’m here for you.”, but all I got was hurt.
I truly wish things had turned out differently. Although I wish you weren’t such an asshole, I mostly wish I had not relied on you as much as I did. I know you are capable of being supportive and patient and down-to-earth and I hope you find the courage to become a wonderful being again, but I no longer need you to be.
If Freud is right and our dreams do in fact reveal our naked subconscious mind, then I am afraid there is something terribly broken in me. At night, any filter or form of restraint I have on my thoughts wears away, and all that remains is overwhelming sadness. It is like a broken gumball machine shooting out all its contents, and I make a futile attempt to catch the gumballs in my hands but am only hit with the clinking sound of pinks and blues falling together.
Ever since I was prescribed antidepressants, my dreams have become intensely vivid and realistic, to an increasingly often disturbing degree. It started out with strange, illogical, but rather harmless scenarios. Soon, they evolved to scenes that showed me releasing anger I did not know I possessed towards family members and friends around me. Most of which involved me screaming at my parents and brother, and I do not wish to psychoanalyze the meanings behind those dreams. Lately my dreams have explicitly revealed my deepest anxieties, commonly laced with themes of hurt, neglect, and rejection from those closest to me.
On my third night in the psychiatric hospital, I dreamt I was back in school. I dreamt of walking down the halls and passing my friends, who only stopped me to ask, “Why are you even here? Why did you come back?” or “Wait, you were gone? I didn’t notice.” I know that I created these images, albeit unconsciously, but I cannot forget the cold stares in their eyes no matter how much I want to. That morning I woke up was the first time I cried during my stay in the hospital.
More recently I dreamt of my mother yelling at me. All I remember is her repeatedly saying “You’re so stupid!” and the occasional “You’re psycho!” in Mandarin, and myself crying, looking to my dad and brother for support, only to see them nodding silently. Now my mother has called me stupid before, and if she were to again now, I would not flinch. But somehow, this dream stuck with me the entire day, and I still feel hurt somehow. All I could think of was her voice saying “You’re stupid you’re stupid you’re stupid you’re stupid”, a dark raincloud floating above my head.
These dreams bother me not because I am unable to distinguish my dreams from reality but rather because there is an undeniable tie between the two.
So here I was, trying to drag myself through the last week of junior year. I had cried at least seven times during school in the past two weeks, and I no longer had the energy to care what other people thought of me. I was so tired. I wanted to care about electromagnetism and the differences between Fascism and Communism but I was so tired. I had already had a complete mental breakdown in front of a teacher because of a sudden flashback, and had forced myself to admit the words I had been burying inside for so long to my teacher, my outpatient therapist, and my school’s guidance counselor in the hopes of feeling better: “I’ve been cutting myself again. The urges are getting worse and I can’t get rid of them.” I had cut myself for a period of time the past year in a futile attempt to numb myself that only produced an unhealthy coping cycle, and I did not want to go through the same pain again. I was provided with short-term comfort, but the urges only grew stronger.
The guidance counselor asked me if I had been thinking about suicide, and I answered “No,” because I truly had not at that point. A week later, in the midst of a bad Monday afternoon, I found myself crying alone in the bathroom. I needed to keep it together. I convinced myself to go to library, to distract myself. The thoughts came into my head so gradually I did not notice until they fully appeared in that moment. “It wouldn’t matter if I died. No one would really care. Why am I still alive?” This awful voice grew louder and louder, and I knew that if I did nothing to stop the voice, I was not going to make it. I did not want to kill myself. I was simply tired of existing.
Only when I was asked the question, “If you made a plan to kill yourself, would it be successful?” during an initial mental evaluation did I realize exactly how much danger I was in. I had told the nurse that I had not made any plans of suicide. Of course I had thought about different ways I could kill myself, but myself being extremely picky and needing to create thorough plans, there was nothing I deemed both fool-proof and relatively decent for a my own death.
Sitting in the hospital room, I felt disconnected from my body. That afternoon I broke down and told my mom I needed to talk to my psychiatrist or therapist. The behavioral health clinic told us to come in for a mental evaluation. I thought I would simply be prescribed more medication and given some words of comfort, and then referred to a more intensive outpatient therapy program. I was unsure of how I felt when the nurse told me, “The doctor and I agree it is for the best that we put you in the inpatient hospital for a few days, and see how you do.” My parents were certainly unprepared as well. My mom thought it would be an unnecessary waste of time, and my dad did not know what to think, but I was willing to go anywhere to be unstuck.
“At 13 my friend Jen tried to teach me how to blow rings of smoke.
I'd watch the nicotine rising from her lips like halos,
but I could never make dying beautiful.
The sky didn't fill with colors the night I convinced myself
veins are kite strings you can only cut free.
I suppose I love this life,
in spite of my clenched fist.”
(Excerpt from) “Birthday”, Andrea Gibson
The first thing you’ll notice in the hospital is that there are no handles or locks on the doors. The second thing you’ll notice is that the mirrors are just flimsy sheets of shiny plastic. The third thing you’ll notice is that there are video cameras on the ceilings of every room. Next is the induction process. Adults will ask you the same list of questions: “Have you had thoughts about hurting yourself or others?”, “Has anybody ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?”, “Have you had any delusions or hallucinations?”, “Do you use drugs or drink alcohol?”, and about a dozen more of the like.
Each time you answer your response will get shorter and shorter as your patience grows smaller. So here you are, in a pale blue hospital gown and socks that are too large, getting your blood pressure taken by another nurse. You wonder exactly how many different nurses and doctors you’ve seen in the last 2 hours. You’re guessing 12.
The EMT workers take you on a stretcher and drive you to another hospital. They don’t let your parents drive you in case you try to run away. You still don’t know that starting from now until you leave there will always be at least one adult following you, if not several, everywhere you go. A nurse leads you down the hall until you reach a door that reads “Children’s Crisis Intervention Center”. Another person walks towards you with a clipboard. Before he asks you to sit down you already know all the questions he’s going to ask. After the mandatory “Do you know where you are?” and “What date is it?” he stares at you. “Sorry,” he shrugs. “I have to check to see if you’re making eye contact.”
Then he begins to ask new questions. “What is your best characteristic?” You rack your brain, searching frantically. You stutter, “Um…I….uh…”, and before settling on “My creativity” you see him check off something. You glance down at his clipboard and it says, “Has difficulty coming up with an answer.” You look around and see that there are two thick sheets of clear plastic covering all the windows and even the TV is placed in a plastic cover. He asks to take a picture of you. “They just need this for when the nurse gives you guys your meds.” He yawns and apologizes. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “This is my first night shift.” You glance up at the clock and discover it’s 1:27 AM.
A different nurse walks you into a different hallway and unlocks a door to a room with two twin-sized beds, two shelves, a small bathroom with only a toilet and a sink, and nothing else. Before entering the nurse pats your ears and asks if you have any earrings. There is another girl sleeping on the bed already but you can’t make out her face in the dark. You can’t help but wonder why she’s here and pray she isn’t a complete violent psychopath. The next morning you wake up to someone yelling, “Do you want to shower?” at your door. They take out the drawstrings in your pajama pants. Don’t even think about asking for a razor to shave. You come back to your room, relieved to see that your roommate seems like a mild-tempered 15-year-old girl.
You walk into the “lounge” to wait for breakfast. The lounge should perhaps be renamed the “sitting area”. It is a circle of chairs with the large covered TV in the front center. This is where you will spend most of your hours of the next few days – group therapy, free time, goal-planning, watching Full House because it’s the only “child-friendly” show on TV, and listening to an overly enthusiastic middle-aged woman talk about how to “relax your face and body” while you hear angry, violent screams of “F*** you!” from a 14-year-old boy struggling under the security guards’ restraint. As you find a place to sit, the reactions are mixed. Half the kids seem completely zoned out in their own world, while the other half look at you curiously. “Sit here!” A group of girls wave and ask you why you’re here. Each day a few people come and go, but the stories are similar: “I got in a fight with my parents and they got scared so they called the cops on me.” or more popular, “I overdosed on pills trying to kill myself.”
During breakfast they will tell you to return all the utensils at every meal. The plastic knife can barely cut your chicken during dinner so you wonder how it could ever cut through human skin. You can’t go anywhere without a staff member with you because every door needs to be opened with a key. Including the bathroom. Some people are put on “eye-watch”, so a nurse sits in a chair outside of your door and stares at you the entire night, taking notes on a clipboard.
They are impressively meticulous in making sure nothing that can even slightly be used as a potential weapon is out of your reach. They will go through your binder of schoolwork and take out every single staple. Unfortunately they cannot take away the most deadly weapon of all: your own thoughts. They may try to, but that is debatable.
The daily routine mostly consists of eating meals, sleeping, getting your blood pressure taken, and lots of group meetings in between. The psychiatrist they assign you will either increase your medication or start you on medication. You will also meet with a few different social workers, all of whom will tell you not to be so sensitive, not to take things so seriously, and not to put yourself down, as though there was a switch in your head you could just turn off to stop doing all those things.
The days go by very slowly. One week feels like a month. However, unlike many other kids will insistently say, this place is not a prison. It is not “juvi”, and it is certainly not hell. Many forget that they are not being punished, despite the oppression they feel. The counselors, the nurses, the doctors, the social workers, and the psychiatrists are all trying to change how you deal with your problems, although they may not be succeeding. It is also not a “loony-bin”, for most people are very self-aware - perhaps overly self-aware. There is nothing glamorous or “tragically beautiful” about seeing someone so desperate to hurt themselves that they will unscrew a nail in their door.
In group therapy you will shift uncomfortably in your seat when the psychologist asks everyone to name one thing they like about themselves and 4 people say “Nothing. I hate everything about myself.” even when he persists and asks them to think harder. Almost everybody has scars on their arms and a 12-year-old girl with a perfect symmetrical line of faded scars down both her arms will ask to see yours. Too young to realize that the amount of physical pain visible rarely equals anything significant, she will respect you based on the severity of them. Remember that sadness is not a competition. One day there will be 16-year-old boy who punched a hole through his wall and broke his wrist, all because his mom bought a new phone for herself instead of him. He will ask you how the two of you ended up in the same place, and his response, at least in that moment, will be valuable than any advice from any therapist or any medication. “Yo gurl why you be cuttin’ and tryna kill yoself? You mad cute and you know it. You shouldn’t be doin’ that stuff to yoself.” Many people will be very quiet their first two days and then begin opening up during group time. Some will never say more than a few words their entire stay. Others will be the first to greet new patients. Some have been here multiple times and have completely given up on treatment in general. I want to tell those kids that they can get better, as long as they make an effort to, but I know they won’t listen. Like you, they will be lost. They are lost because they have not been able to find peace within themselves for a very long time.
Some may deem my hospitalization as sudden and dramatic, but actually, a lot had been leading up to that point. I only did not see it coming but I had grown so accustomed. A handful of my closest friends had gone through similar struggles of their own, and I viewed my own world in a lens in which self-harm was a part of normal teenage angst. It was not until my good friend, J.M. came along, when I began to question my own mental state. My friends and I had been so used to what he saw as rather concerning behavior. In the hospital, I thought back to my last few weeks in school. Hiding under the table during English class was not normal. Constantly falling on the floor was not normal. Almost never being hungry enough to finish one muffin was not normal. Crying randomly in the hallways was not normal. Following the same logic, wanting to hurt myself was certainly not normal. If it were not for J.M., I am not sure I would have even acknowledged the fact that I so very desperately needed help.
Throughout my treatment, I realized that I was overly fixated on people who made me feel awful, when I did not need to be. There were people who made me feel loved and accepted and validated, and I had been so consumed in those who did not. Upon coming back to school, I reminded myself that it was better to be around one or two peers who made me feel safe, rather than a hundred people who ultimately made me feel alone.
But perhaps more importantly, I am beginning to forgive. Maybe it is not as much as forgiving as letting go. I cannot forget the words people have said or the things they failed to do, but why should I suffer for it? In trying to accept my own flaws, I have begun to look past others’ misdoings. I do not want to continue to feel hurt from those who love and try to understand me otherwise, and I would hope the same for those I have disappointed as well. Once you stop holding on to the people and memories that drag you down, you will finally be free of suffering.
"The sense of loss is such a tricky one, because we always feel like our worth is tied up into stuff that we have, not that our worth can grow with things we are willing to lose."
— Tori Amos