Trigger Warnings: disordered eating, suicide
I don’t mean to sound like Kanye West, but I’ve come to think of my depression and anxiety as some kind of superpower. There are no delusions of grandeur here - only a voice in my head that has become a familiar friend. I do not want to understate the fear that I have felt: the darkness that my depression led me to as an eight year-old when the suicidal thoughts began or as a sophomore at Yale when I considered withdrawing from the University. I do not want to whitewash or minimize the experiences of other recent Yale graduates or even current Yale students. I am privileged to have access to therapy as I remain on my parent’s health insurance. I am privileged to be supported emotionally and often financially by my family while I live in New York and apply to medical school. I write this as a woman who has attended about a decade of therapy where I have been able to constructively familiarize myself with every horrible thought and fear that hides in the recesses of my mind. A pleasant experience, as you can imagine.
While I appreciate the merits of college life, sometimes I wonder who in their right mind thought we should create college “bubbles” into which we throw 18-22 year-olds, expecting them to absorb all sorts of knowledge, to carve out some career path, and to find some semblance of meaning in an alcohol or weed-filled haze. Maybe that was just me. Although there is a sense of camaraderie in this Yale bubble, it quickly can become toxic and addicting. I don’t want to recapitulate the tired but accurate trope of how Yalies strive for perfection, always seeking to justify their studies, their extracurriculars, and their love lives to one another. However, I frequently used this shared experience to justify and augment my own anxiety. In some ways, it felt performative, not necessarily in ways that people could discern, but in my own private habits. A night without dinner before shots at Toads. Or the almost ritualistic bashing of ego that began as soon as I closed my school books, leaving me scared to go to bed every night.
Upon graduating, I began a post-baccalaureate program at Bryn Mawr. All my pre-med requirements jammed into one year seemed almost as daunting as moving to a Philadelphia suburb — somewhere I feared more than the Toads dance floor on a Saturday night. No offense… I’m just a lifelong New Yorker. I anticipated that my anxiety would flare with these new pressures, replete with panic attacks, insomnia, and disordered eating habits. For the most part, it did not come. There were dark days: some sleepless nights fearing failure, many skipped meals and hours on the treadmill clawing for some outlet or semblance of control over something… anything.
This was nothing in comparison to the pressures that I forcibly placed on myself as a student-athlete at Yale. I spent many years waking up with the knowledge that my depression would gnaw at me the minute I regained consciousness. For the past year and a half, however, I have not dreaded the feeling that used to materialize with the sunrise. Maybe I dreaded the physics tests or the stacks of medical school secondaries I had to get through, but I no longer found myself dreading me. I craved control, but it was not in the same, all-consuming way. I knew that everything would get done. I had sixteen years of schooling and swimming to back me up.
Although my post-bacc had many of the “bubble-like” qualities of Yale, I found that being surrounded by classmates in such different phases of life helped me tremendously. Some were recently married or debating having children, while others were struggling to find a consistent hookup (guilty). Our time at Bryn Mawr felt like a choice, and that in itself helped alleviate my anxiety’s constant cry for control.
Although I often attribute the majority of my recovery to post-college life, I believe that my time at Yale catalyzed this growth once I left campus. Maybe all that change finally caught up to me. My experience at Yale Health, for example, was extremely valuable as I found a therapist who was receptive to feedback and willing to blend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — which can sometimes feel to regimented — with a more conversational style. Additionally, the support that I received from both my swim coach and teammates was unparalleled. In recent years, the swim team has created a space where one can be honest and frank about mental health, and I like to think that my willingness to discuss my mental health with other students encouraged this culture. I sought to normalize conversations surrounding anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Sometimes I feel as though I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to fall into another depressive episode. I am not the embodiment of mental stability quite yet. I worry that my anxiety will rear its obnoxious head again when I enter medical school in the fall. I do, though, feel more equipped than ever to begin my career: not because I remember even a second of the Yale Biology modules, but because I have gained clarity in these last two years out of undergrad.
I was recently asked at an interview how my mental health battles would define my career as a doctor. At first, I was shocked. Most medical school interviewers brush over the blurb in my activities section that describes the speech I gave for Mind Matters in the winter of my junior year. We discussed how I will be more cognizant of the intersection of body and mind and how that might impact my patients’ health. I will address the mental health concerns of my patients through the lens of shared experience, helping them realize their strength and ability to overcome these challenges.
I may just need a reminder to internalize these words for my own health.
By Isla Hutchinson Maddox.