I feel like I should remember the first time I came close to committing suicide, as if it’s something along the lines of a first kiss. I guess it should be one of those things that produces a rush of sensory imagery with the slightest trigger. You’re meant to remember some soft noise humming in your ear, a faint trembling of the body, a detailed image of what was around you—even though your eyes were closed. It should be one of those moments, the kind that remains vivid even as the rest of your past blurs and fades away; it’s the kind that you’re supposed to remember, right? I don’t.
I can only talk in generalities, what it was like every time I felt like this. There were always tears—lots of them—my shirt wet as they seeped down my cheeks, paused at my chin, dropped to my chest. I would be sitting on my bed, fixated on a single point in the room, my eyesight transitioning in and out of focus. At times I saw everything—my face smiling back at me from glossy pictures on the walls, the days on my hanging calendar, days I never wanted to face—at others, only my thoughts. There was always some reason to feel meaningless. Most importantly, it was always night.
I played out scenarios in my head. My knife was on the top shelf of my bookcase, my fourth-floor window could be easily opened, my roommate wouldn’t be back for another hour or so.
Eventually, I would begin to turn the knife over in my hand. It provided no guarantee. What if I didn’t do it properly? I wasn’t looking for a cry for help, I was looking for a way out. I would open my window, delicately balancing so that my torso leaned precariously near the tipping point. Then came the painful deliberation.
“All I would have to do is tilt a little farther forward.”
“The fall would feel nice.”
“But it’s only the fourth floor, what if it doesn’t work?”
“Am I really that worried about the pain?”
“What if I regret my decision just before it ends?”
It was this last question that saved me. Somehow, my lack of confidence in the future both made me desire to end my life and prevented me from doing so. Feeling all the more inadequate, I would turn on the shower, remove my damp clothes, and sit on the cold tiled floor. A thousand more water droplets washed away my own.
There were many nights like this. No matter how many times I reasoned my way out of it, the darkness always washed over me once more. I could not prevent night from falling. Tears, glossy pictures, misery—these are the things that consumed me. Without any faith in life beyond death, I saw no point in prolonging the inevitable. Why continue to exist?
For a number of reasons, returning to campus at the beginning of this year was very difficult for me. The end of freshman year had left me feeling abandoned by those I had considered to be my closest friends. I filled my schedule with clubs, activities, and classes to avoid the isolation I felt when I was idle. When you’re running from one meeting to the next, it becomes easy to forget how alone you really are.
But while I could fill my days with meetings and work, I had little control over my nights. It’s hard to escape the truth when you are left alone with it. It was a reality I continued to run from.
Terrified of being by myself, I spent all my time with my boyfriend. We ate meals together, took classes together, did the same activities. He was there for me every single night as I cried for no reason other than sadness. He gave things up, knowing that I would break down at the mere mention of most social events. He took the knife out of my hand. He picked me up off the shower floor. He was the one constant in my life.
I can only describe the feeling as physical, all-consuming. Any moment my mind began to idle, thoughts of suicide would consume me. Looking out of a window, I tried to feel the fall. Swimming laps, I would imagine fluid filling my lungs.
The worst part? I felt guilty.
You’re not supposed to attend Harvard and get depressed. You’re supposed to attend Harvard and take advantage of opportunities. Opportunities. “Isn’t is amazing being there? There are so many things you can do!” “You go to Harvard? That’s so wonderful, you must have so many options.” “There are just so many things to take advantage of there.” You’re not supposed to complain about the fact that you go to Harvard. It’s the dream. You are supposed to go to Harvard and do things, make the most of it.
“Yeah, it’s a great place. There are so many possibilities,” I would usually say.
But it wasn’t just the outsiders who made me feel ashamed. Even at school I was surrounded by thousands of other students—all of them able to manage the same difficulties that had rendered me hopeless. They wrote papers, chaired activities, networked, partied, all with an air of ease.
“Hey, how’s it going?” “OhmygodIamsoooobusyIhavethreepsetsandtwopaperstowritetonightbutitistotallyfine.”
Effortless perfection. I was the exception. I was the one who was incapable of handling all the wonderful opportunities that Harvard presented me with.
At least that’s what I thought.
One day, I decided to talk to someone. Not as in talking to a professional, I had tried that already. I mean, I had an actual conversation with another student at work. Instead of joking about lack of sleep and 20-page papers, I opened up. For the first time, I discussed what was really going wrong in my life. I told her about what had happened, the constant physical pressure that I felt on every inch of my body, the apathy with which I now looked at every aspect of my life. I told her I wanted to die.
In turn, she opened up to me.
Here was someone with whom I sat in an office every single week yet knew very little about. Who else might be feeling what I was feeling? Who else might feel like they are the only one? I started talking to more people. I started to ask questions and I stopped accepting “psetclubactivitypaperNOSLEEP” as a response. The things I learned both allowed me to share what I was going through and helped me to realize that what I was experiencing did not warrant feelings of shame. By the time finals period came, my nights didn’t seem so daunting.
J-Term provided me with the time necessary to complete the process; leaving Harvard allowed me to reevaluate what I wanted out of my four years here. I strengthened ties with friends who were positive influences on my life and cut ties with those who weren’t. I built the support system I needed to face the veneer of effortless perfection once more. The pressure was finally starting to fade.
But returning to campus wasn’t easy. There are still days when I feel trapped by emotion. There are still days when I’m not sure if I can face other people. But there aren’t still days when I pick up the knife.
Harvard isn’t always the glossy ivy-covered utopia that many conceive it to be. There are moments of that place, yes. Walking past Memorial Church in the fall with reds and oranges on the ground around you, the first warm day in the spring when students on blankets adorn the Yard. Brochure Harvard does exist. The reality of the situation, however, is that this is not the Harvard that many students must wake up to and battle every single day. It is not always a place where conversations about mental health are necessarily encouraged. On a campus where the need for assistance is too often perceived as a flaw, the student body has a tendency to rely on variations of “I’m fine.” And, at a college where so many students already have far too much on their plate, it’s understandable that most don’t press the question further.
I’ve learned the importance of doing just that. I have also learned to cut back—on friendships, on extracurriculars, on classes. By concentrating my energy on the people and activities that I care most about, I have gradually begun to get past all Harvard has taken and realized just how much it can give. The most important opportunity I’ve found here is the opportunity for happiness, though the place that lies between night and Brochure Harvard holds a happiness that can be hard to find.
—The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editors’ Note: We made the decision to run this piece anonymously due to the private and intensely personal nature of its material. However, we, and the writer, feel very strongly that open lines of communication and the simple act of talking are immensely important. We understand that the content of this article may be upsetting to many of our readers but decided to run this piece in the belief that talking openly about our emotions and feelings is a good thing. Mental health issues should not go unnoticed. We publish this article in the hope that it will make our readers more aware of the fact that these issues affect many members of our community.
We would also like to note the availability of resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK, the UHS 24-Hour Urgent Care number 1-617-495-5711, and Room 13, reachable 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Mon. through Sat. at 617-495-4969.
—Mark J. Chiusano and Elyssa A.L. Spitzer, Magazine Chairs
—Elias J. Groll, Managing Editor