On the day I arrived as a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 2001, I dropped my belongings in my dorm room, said goodbye to my family, and realized, once alone, that I had no idea where I was. I spent that first night on campus wandering around Harvard Yard in a zombie-like daze, like I’d just woken up from years of sleep. Of course, I knew where I was literally, but psychologically and emotionally I was completely lost. I’d applied to Harvard without any consideration of what my feelings were about it. I had believed it was what I was supposed to do, what I’d trained and studied and disciplined myself over the years for; whether or not I felt in my heart that it was the place for me was irrelevant. I knew how lucky and privileged I was to be at such a highly esteemed institution, but immediately sensed that something wasn’t right. I was filled with dis-ease, with a fundamental sense that I wasn’t meant to be there. I felt more disoriented than I’d ever been in my life.
I spent that fall semester spiraling further and further downward into a vortex of self-destruction and darkness. By this point, I had no question in my mind that I was seriously unwell, for I was constantly harming myself physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I was sure that the major depression I was experiencing was biological in nature, and I’d come to the belief that this mental illness was the sole cause of all of my struggles. To me, alcohol and drugs were my only stabilizing forces, and escapism became my central focus. My class attendance was poor, I was constantly sidelined from my varsity sport by injuries, and I was going out until the wee hours of the morning most nights of the week. I was floundering and knew it, but did nothing to pull myself together. By mid-fall, I’d surrendered myself to my mental illness, convinced that I’d never be normal and that it was impossible for me to ever have happiness or inner peace. They just weren’t in the cards for me, as my disease was physical, like diabetes or cancer, and out of my control. Each and every fiber of my being had become completely resigned to a life of chronic mental instability. It became the only thing I held to be true in my world of uncertainty and confusion.
After a winter vacation laden with substance-induced trouble and complete mental turmoil, I reached a tipping point. Something needed to change if I was to avoid complete and utter self-destruction. One night, I had what felt like a true awakening. It dawned on me that there was one valid answer, which had waited silently and patiently for me throughout the downward spiral of my teenage years. I needed to get myself into psychiatric treatment, and fast. How had I been so stubborn for so many years? How had I not come to this realization sooner? There was so much that could have been avoided, so many rock bottoms that I never needed to have hit.
I returned to school in January with a referral to a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in nearby Belmont and a new lease on life. A few days later, I got off the 73 bus, asked directions to the hospital, and found myself five minutes later standing before a tremendous wooded hill behind a brick guardhouse and aged iron gates. I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism as I trekked up the steep incline, pulling myself out of the trenches of my 18-year old life and into what I was sure would be a shiny, new world. The winding road emerged a quarter of a mile or so later onto what hit me as an idyllic scene. Rolling snow-covered fields guided my eyes upwards towards the crest of the hill, where several buildings, each in its own architectural style, looked down on me. I knew that, for almost 200 years, this institution had been at the forefront of mental health treatment, that most of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the field had taken place on this campus, and that thousands upon thousands of patients had come before me to be saved. The place had its own heartbeat; it seemed a pulsating, living being of mythic strength in my mind. I felt awed and humbled by the scene before me, excited, even, for the first time in as long as I could remember, and filled with a feeling I’d thought I’d forgotten– hope.
I left my first session with my new psychiatrist and called my father immediately, tears of joy streaming down my face. “I have good news,” I said. “Dad, he’s figured out the problem. Everything’s going to be OK. I’m going to get well.” Floodgates of relief were released; I could hear it in my dad’s voice just as I could feel it in myself. This doctor had told me things about myself I’d never put together before and informed me of the symptoms that had been there for years upon years that I’d pushed to the wayside and never let myself become aware of. He told me who I was in a way that felt more concrete than I’d ever conceptualized before. It was as though he could read my mind, as though I didn’t need to explain anything to him because he knew already what I was going to say. I had bipolar disorder. I’d had it all along, from the get-go. That psychiatrist from ninth grade had been right all along; I just hadn’t been ready to hear it yet. There was an answer. Twice weekly therapy and medications would right my ship. I was not a lost cause.
I couldn’t stop crying, as though years and years of tears had been gathering just underneath my surface, waiting for me to wake up, open my eyes, and see the truth that had always been there. I felt reborn. I felt alive. I let myself go as I walked back down that same hill towards the bus stop, a spring in my step and a grin from ear to ear, both of which were foreign strangers to me just an hour earlier.
Clarity washed over me like a soothing tide as this psychiatrist’s game-plan for me sunk in. Medications were my only answer. Those pills that I fought against years ago, that I once saw as enemies and captors of my free will, were actually my saviors. They were what could fix me; they were my only option. They were the white knights of science, the rational and logical resolutions to my completely irrational and illogical life. I was convinced that now I’d really found the missing piece to my puzzle. I was sure this time that I’d discovered myself.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.