I recall the Dean’s bearded face and twinkling Santa Claus eyes looking at me from across the lovely mahogany desk that guarded him. After my story and my tearful confession of worries he said, “It’s not as though you’ve been struck stupid!?”
But he was wrong. That’s EXACTLY what it felt like. I was a senior in college, a second year Resident Assistant (RA) for my dorm, considered one of the smart ones, the “together” ones. I was a biochemistry major and pre-med at the time.
And yet: when I tried to study the bacterial colonies for my independent study with a professor, my head swam in confusion. I kept mixing up the protocols and I couldn’t seem to figure out why. My lab notebook was a mess, and I couldn’t seem to follow basic instructions.
Physical chemistry class was like trying to make out an ancient obscure language without a translation dictionary or the faintest idea of grammar. Even the subjects I loved like developmental psychology were a slog to read and understand, while before I had lapped them up like a cat at the milk bowl.
What was happening in my brain? Did I somehow manage to fake my smarts long enough to get through three years at Swarthmore and now my hidden “lazy girl” identity was letting herself out of the bag? Had I hit my head in my sleep without knowing it?
Fortunately, I did not let the Dean’s denial of my visceral and felt experience get to me. I persisted in trying to find a trusted advisor to get help. When a friend suggested, “Why don’t you try Psych Services at the Health Center?” I quivered. Oh dear. I’m an RA! What will my hallmates think if their trusted advisor can’t figure her sh*t out on her own?
Nevertheless, I knew I needed help. The cognitive fog in my brain was not normal, and other physical symptoms like intense sugar cravings and sleep disturbances were not helping. We often think of depression as a mood disorder, but not everyone knows that it can have other effects beyond “feeling down.”
In only two or three sessions with my kind therapist, I started feeling great relief. I discovered how negative my self-talk was, and how viciously I attacked myself for not being able to achieve what I knew I could do (normally). I had not been truly aware of litany of attacks that had become my constant internal monologue. I did not know these regular self-loathing sessions would have such a detrimental effect on my body and mind.
Through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and a return to my journaling practice, I was able to identify thoughts that were not serving me. I started to question and “loosen” some of those beliefs that were causing me so much pain. Within 1-2 months, I was able to visit my adviser to request a change in my major. The choice of psychobiology served my passion for understanding behavior and people, and I had taken all the pre-requisites. I ended up graduating on time with high marks on my “comps,” the final essays required for the interdisciplinary major.
Later I learned that nearly all therapists have their own support or supervision from another therapist. In the helping professions it is wisdom to have this support, not weakness. In my late twenties my second depression required therapy and medicine. It also led to the end of my first marriage, when I realized being a wife did not mean being a martyr.
By my thirties after completing a master’s degree and having more experience in the work world, I began taking care of myself physically and emotionally as a non-negotiable practice. I learned more about what my neurodiverse brain requires to be balanced and productive, and I had befriended people who loved me for me, not because of what I could do for them.
Today I send so much compassion to the young woman that struggled to get help. I am so proud she didn’t give up, and that she learned that kindness to herself was always the first and best move.
After a successful career as an operational leader for a multi-country clinical research department in the medical device field, I speak openly about these struggles with mental health so others know they are not alone. We ALL require support from time to time. Whether it is from a kind friend, a Psych Services therapist, an Employee Assistance Program or a personal coach, the “go it alone” method does not work.
You owe it to yourself to receive the support you need for a fulfilling and healthy life. It is a sign of strength to recognize and pursue your wellness in this way. And I’ll be applauding you rather than denying the reality of your experience.
Cristy De La Cruz is an inclusion facilitator and mentor to leaders and teams. She is the author of “Unleash, Unlearn, & Enliven: Decolonize Your Hidden Identities and Embody Your Somatic Wisdom” (forthcoming release on Oct 31, 2021). This story has been modified from her book. To receive resources to help you along the journey and to win a chance for a free copy of the book, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header “book drawing.”