Campus Life portraits of resilience

Sally Lee

7687 resilience
Courtesy of Daniel JAckson

Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and narrative series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.

I came from a troubled home. We were comfortable, and there was love, but there was a lot of uncertainty. It all looked good. The hedges were trimmed, the car was in the garage. But there just wasn’t a lot of unconditional love. There was never just buying you a new dress because you’re you. You had to give a lot of love to get any in return.

I was depressed during college, on and off. In my freshman year, I was in a relationship and it ended abruptly and I went to the therapist there. And he said: are you pregnant? And I said no, and he said well then, you’re fine. And that was the end of that. Somehow I pulled myself out of that depression. I had really good friends. I fell in love with art, and I had teachers who told me: you know, you can probably do this with your life. And that helped.

I lost the hearing in my left ear at 24 and started suffering from tinnitus, which I still have, all the time. I became very sick, and after exploratory surgery, the doctors said there was nothing they could do. I was living with friends in Watertown, going to school for graphic design. I got really sick. I moved back to my parents house, and the depression was far worse. I asked them if I could go to art school in New York, to just paint and draw. I had some money from my grandmother, and I moved down there for a year. And then the money ran out, and now I was getting more and more depressed. So I moved home, back to my parents house. Now my parents were worried about me.

I eventually started to get help and was on the road to recovery. I had many issues to deal with, so I dealt with them one at a time. I was still depressed but I didn’t understand it as an illness. I thought it was my fault and that I needed an attitude adjustment. I eventually got a job and moved out on my own.

And then my mum got sick with a tumor. She got diagnosed in January and she died that August. And my dad had already had a stroke. I was the child closest to home, so I had to look after them. As much as I loved my parents, their problems were more than I could handle. I just lost it.

I got more and more depressed. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I lost 20 pounds. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My friend Sue said I’m a little worried about you. Finally her husband called me one night, well they both did, and they said we’re worried about you. They said we think you’re going down.

I said I’m going to call the psychiatrist on call at MIT. I go see her and I say I’m really not OK, and I think I need to check into a hospital. So they got a bed for me that afternoon. I stayed four days but the medication wasn’t right. Six weeks later I went in again, and they nailed it. This little hippie therapist said: Sally, you know normal people are here — he had his hand up by his eye — and you’re here — and the other hand like down by his chest — and this is all we’re doing, and he lifted that hand up to the other hand. And I said: that’s it? And he said: that’s it. I knew I was going to be okay, and I never looked back.

I had basically suffered from depression all my life, and this was the first time I didn’t have to battle with my brain. I kept thinking I wish I had done this 20 years ago. I wouldn’t have had to suffer so long.

Now I’m just on Effexor, which is like a miracle drug for me. There is so much misinformation. All the fears that you go in there with, that you’re not going to feel anything, going numb. But really all it does is even out all that sorrow.

People who don’t have depression have no idea what the depressed person is struggling with. It’s like the person sitting there in the wheelchair and the thing they would like to do more than anything else on Planet Earth is to get up and walk up those stairs, but they can’t do it. And the person who’s walking up those stairs just says: get up! Just get up and walk up the stairs! What’s the matter with you?

I’m glad that I survived so I can maybe help someone else with it. Now I’m able to enjoy all the good things life has to offer. My life isn’t perfect but it is pretty great.

I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. Nobody should suffer that long. I didn’t feel the obvious answer was to go to a doctor. That may have been obvious to every single person around me, but not one person ever said that. I was surrounded by people saying you just need to not take things so personally. That just went on for way, way too long.

I’m glad I lived, you know, because it was pretty dicey for a little while. I am 53 now, and my troubles are behind me. Back then, I had a lot of rage and anger. I used to carry all that with me and I just don’t carry it anymore. I said to my therapist: is this how normal people feel every day? And she said yes. I said wow, I had no idea.

Sally Lee is an administrative assistant in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact

There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit

Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.