My first serious girlfriend and I broke up seven years ago today, February 11th, 2007. The story of that breakup has been told several times on this blog and I won’t rehash it again but I mention it today because it started a chain of events that went far beyond a breakup via a phone call.
In hindsight it would have been great if that one phone call had been the end of it, but of course it wasn’t. We continued to talk almost every day, and even though nearly all of those calls devolved into shouting matches neither of us was quite ready to let go completely. Through all this she was very coy about how she was feeling about our relationship but I made it abundantly obvious that I was not taking it well. In March my ex had a conversation with one of her friends (a former friend of mine as well) that went something like this, and I’m paraphrasing:
Ex: “I’m worried about Frank. He’s been really upset since we split.”
Friend: “I’ll see what I can do.”
Her idea of helping, as it turned out, was to call my college and tell campus authorities that I was depressed, and then added, he might kill himself. Long after the fact I was assured that this had been in jest but if there’s one thing you don’t want to tell the people running a college it’s that one of its students might be suicidal. Later that night there was a knock on the door and when I opened it I was greeted by what looked like every uniformed campus safety officer under the college’s employment. I was questioned, forced to stand, humiliated, in the hall while my room was searched for “dangerous objects” (all while my puzzled and terrified roommate sat in the corner, looking very pale), and then placed under constant surveillance in my room until the school psychologist was roused from his bed in Chicago and caught a Metra train out to see me.
I should also add that it was a week before the final exams for the term, I had the flu, and was running a temperature of 102 degrees.
They psychologist arrived just before midnight and asked me about my ex, the breakup, and my feelings.
“I’m fine,” I protested. “I just want to finish my studying and go to bed.”
“Come sit down. Let’s talk.”
“I’m not suicidal.”
“No, based on what I’ve gathered, I don’t think you are.”
“Well, good, I’m glad we’ve established that. Goodnight.”
I started climbing the rungs up to my bunk. He turned in his place on my futon to face me.
“But I do think you’re depressed.”
“You’d be depressed too if you had the flu right before finals.”
“Please come back down and sit with me. We’re not done here.”
“I think we are.”
He stood up and pursed his lips as he considered the floor for the second before again raising his head to look at me.
“You’re not really in a position to dictate the terms of our conversation,” he said with a small smile.
My face flushed and I wearily rejoined him on the futon. We talked a little longer until he was assured that I was not a danger to myself or anyone else and I agreed to meet with him the following week. I assumed the ordeal was over after he left but then the chief campus safety officer stepped back in the room and informed me that I was banned from campus.
“For the weekend,” he said. “It’s campus procedure in the event of a possible suicide.”
“The psychologist said I wasn’t suicidal. He was just here and he thinks I’m fine.”
The officer’s position was unwavering. I threw my hands up in despair.
“Where the hell am I supposed to go?” (My sister Rachel lived nearby but I wanted to stay in my dorm and wasn’t ready to volunteer this fact right away.)
“We can take you to a hotel.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said and then paused as my mood changed from helplessness to anger. I took a step closer to the officer.
“Are you saying that I’m too dangerous to stay here tonight, surrounded by my friends, because I might kill myself, and yet it’s perfectly acceptable to send me off to stay in a hotel by myself? Is this about what’s best for me or what’s best for the college’s public relations should ‘something’ happen?”
The officer blinked but his expression did not change. “It’s campus procedure.”
In the end I gave up and a friend volunteered to drive me to my sister Rachel’s house. I was escorted out of the building, lowering my eyes so I wouldn’t have to meet the stares of my friends and other students as they poked their heads out of their rooms and whispered amongst themselves. Once outside I raised my middle finger at the officers and the college before climbing in the back of the car and heading off into the night.
After a tense weekend I returned to campus and met with the psychologist again. Our meeting was brief but he seemed preoccupied with something.
“…and I think you should keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings,” he said. “Sometimes it’s best to let things out in writing even if you’re the only one who ever reads it.”
“Okay. Are we done?”
He sighed. “Yes, I suppose we are.”
I headed for the door to his office.
“Frank,” he said. “Is there something else you want to tell me?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“Are you depressed?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Well, if you change your mind about that…you know where my office is.”
I was relieved and elated to finally be done with campus safety and the psychologist and just get back into my regular rhythm of track practices and classes. Unfortunately it became clear to me not too long after that conversation with the psychologist that something wasn’t right. What started out as sadness over my breakup slowly morphed into something much darker and harder to define. I developed insomnia, increasingly avoided social interaction and started drinking. The urge to be by myself was overwhelming, consumed by my thoughts no matter how dark they might be, so I avoided people at all costs and tried to convince myself that I could out-reason and out-think the turmoil in my head. I tried convince myself that I was fine. Except I wasn’t fine. I only felt okay when I was alone and when the room was dark. And when I didn’t feel okay, I drank. Thankfully it did not take a tragedy to make me realize I wasn’t okay.
I pushed friends and family away, some of them so far that after a while they gave up and stopped coming back. A conversation with a friend grew heated and after she stormed out of my room she sent me a text message that simply said, “Get help.” I responded by getting drunk and crawling into bed, but the next morning I knew I was no longer in a position to make a deal with myself. I left her a voicemail to say that she was right and then I went to see the school psychologist to let him know that I was done trying to convince myself that everything was fine.
“I’ve…been feeling pretty down lately,” I said haltingly as I stood in the doorway to his office. He stared at me for a second.
“All the time?”
“All the time.”
“Come on in and have a seat.”
I’m not writing this because I feel I deserve credit or sympathy. There’s no award given for simply realizing that your life is headed down the wrong path and admitting you need to ask for help in changing direction. If anything I waited too long before I finally sought help; in some cases the damage was already done. More than a few of those friends I pushed away never came back. If this chapter of my life can be used as a warning against what can happen if you find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of depression, the chapters leading up to today are proof that there is always a way to climb out.