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I’ve been thinking a lot about the suicides that have occurred during my time at Harvard. They challenge everything I think I know.
Before Wendy Chang died two years ago, I thought she was happy. Instead, she must have been so unhappy that giving up seemed like the best option. And the fact that Wendy’s life must have been so radically different from the life I assumed she had is deeply frightening.
These deaths make me wonder what I don’t know about my friends. They make me realize that people who seem okay might actually be struggling. And they make me aware of how little of our lives we share with one another.
Harvard doesn’t always make it easy to talk about ourselves. It’s a place that demands perfection, and as a result, we feel compelled to present perfect versions of ourselves. We don’t talk about what’s really going on. And we get away with that by feigning trivial imperfections, by pretending we didn’t spend enough time on some paper, or telling a friend about the embarrassing thing we said to some boy.
But those aren’t real problems. Or at least, they’re not the problems that really matter. And it’s the real problems that we don’t talk about: the things that scare us, the things that make us doubt that we’re good enough to be at Harvard, the things we hide from everyone else and even ourselves.
We’ve got to stop doing that. We can’t keep buying into the idea that we need to be perfect in order to fit in. Because no one here is perfect. We’ve all struggled. Yet, if we keep those struggles to ourselves, we deny ourselves the chance to give and receive support. We create a culture in which giving up is easier than speaking up.
At various points in my life, I’ve struggled with depression and severe anxiety. These issues started at a young age. I remember having to check out of school when I started crying uncontrollably after misspelling the word “address” on a spelling test. I remember being so upset that I threw up when a teacher asked me to stop talking. At age eight, I saw my first therapist.
At the time though, things didn’t seem bad. My issues started so young that getting physically sick over a grade was completely normal to me. I actually kind of liked my anxiety. It comforted me because I could rely on it. It never let me misbehave. And it always ensured that I did my work and made an A.
And for much of my life, I was able to confuse being academically successful with being happy. I knew I had “anxiety” and that, from time to time, I was “depressed,” but I was functional. I was coping. And that seemed like enough. It never occurred to me that things could be different.
But when I got to Harvard, I stopped functioning. Without the constant presence of parents checking in on me, my anxiety spun out of control. This time it was not only academic but also social. I grew terrified of being alone. I was certain my friends would just disappear.
By the beginning of sophomore year, I was having four or five anxiety attacks a week. Almost nothing in my life felt like it was functioning correctly. I felt incredibly fragile and was certain that the slightest bad thing—a B on a paper, a fight with a friend—would send me over the edge. And, more than anything, I knew, without a doubt, that these feelings would never end.
It took my mom getting on a 4 a.m. flight to calm me down from a particularly bad anxiety attack to make me realize that things had to change, whether or not I believed they could. So I started talking to my mom. I started going to therapy. And the more I talked—the more I was forced to deal with my anxiety, to acknowledge that it was not making me successful, but rather miserable—the happier I started to feel.
Of course, talking isn’t the only reason things eventually got better. It took me two years, three breakups, a year of anti-anxiety medication, and a lot of tears to get here. But talking is what got me on started on the right path. It opened me up to getting help from others.
And I can finally say that I’m in a really good place. I don’t have anxiety attacks anymore. I’m in control of my thoughts and feelings. I’m not just functional: I’m happy.
I want you to be happy too. And I believe you can be. So I’m sharing this part of my life with you so that you might consider sharing parts of your own lives. I know it’s scary to make yourself vulnerable. I’m personally terrified of writing this article, of the consequences of putting my life out there for anyone with Google to find. But I think it’s worthwhile. And it’s the only way to get and give the support that we all need.
I can’t pretend to know why people commit suicide. And I don’t want to make any claims about what will or won’t make you feel better. But I know that if we start talking, we could create a place in which sharing our struggles is an option—a place in which we don’t all have to be so perfect.
So let’s start talking. Let’s tell people that we want to listen. And let’s make sure that no one else feels like their only option is giving up.
Lanier Walker ’14 is an English concentrator in Currier House.
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