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The Graduation Plot

By Danielle E. O'Neil

On a plane on my way back to Harvard for the last time as an undergraduate student, I found myself reading for pleasure for the first time in a long time. The book was The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. The storyline follows three students in their last days at Brown as they lament the loss of the marriage plot in modern English literature, their freedom, their time in college, and their youth. Although this is naturally relatable to me, what struck me was not the descriptions of the commencement proceedings, the regalia, the sentimentality of leaving college behind, but a disturbingly realistic passage describing Leonard’s first depressive episode.

My first encounter with depression was not sudden, but it was surprising. I was shocked, awed, confused, guilty and incredibly disappointed when I found myself crying for no reason my freshman spring. When my doctor back home prescribed me antidepressants, I almost took pleasure in it; antidepressants justified my self-loathing, my flirtation with the melancholy, the emptiness I had come to know.

That was my courtship with depression.

The marriage came that summer. It was July in Missouri and the heat and humidity that I felt physically seemed to also mimic the stifling, thick, impenetrable mass that had developed in my brain. I spent days in bed, sobbing, unable to move, questioning whether or not I even wanted to live anymore. My parents—amazing as they are and always will be—had to come to my room at all hours of the night to hug me, just sit beside me at 5 a.m. until I stopped crying from sheer exhaustion and finally fell asleep, only to awake a few hours later and again meekly call for them to come remind me that I was still human. I got used to spending hours at my summer internship crying in a bathroom stall, or with my nose pressed against the glass, wondering if the fall from the parking garage across the street could really kill me.

This was my marriage to the illness. As with any good marriage, our relationship is going strong.

Fast forward two or three years. A summer with a shrink who talked only of how perfect his own children were, several nights spent with friends comforting me and lovingly yet firmly taking knives from my hands, a trip to McLean Hospital in Belmont (“Where I would want my daughter to go,” the woman at UHS told me as I was escorted by police officers into the back of an ambulance), several medication changes, a psychiatrist in Boston I grew to love, brushes with the ecstatic and wonderful throes of mania, more medications, and countless nights spent trying to avoid the thoughts that frightened me, I am now graduating.

The diploma I will receive today, however wonderful it may be, is in no way indicative of what I have accomplished in my four years here, of my victories in the war against my own biology. It is not indicative of how hard I have had to work to stay alive, how hard I have had to work to get out of bed, put on a decent face to avoid suspicion and go to class.

It is not indicative of how I’ve managed with only the help of my wonderful friends and family—after the five minute conversation that led to my forced confinement in McLean and the resulting contracts I had to sign to just return to campus, the administration checked on me once to make sure I had “recovered.”

It is not indicative of how mentally ill Harvard students have an entire underground struggle to deal with on top of trying to continue extracurricular commitments to grasp for a feeling of normalcy, to attempt to break the monotony of the numbness that becomes pervasive in every waking moment.

Mostly, it is not indicative of what we are capable of or who we are. I am proud to have survived my most serious bouts of depression to date with little more than a few scars. I am proud to be someone who has beaten the odds given to me by the administration and triumphed.

Mentally ill students at Harvard may not have the traditional graduation plot, but ours is all the more spectacular for that reason.

Danielle E. O’Neil ’13, a Crimson Design Chair emeritus, is an Organismic and Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Leverett House.

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