Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and interview 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.
My parents were high school sweethearts. They got married after college, had me and then my two sisters. My father was the primary breadwinner. He worked at a factory making adhesives, and my mom stayed home. When my youngest sister went to kindergarten, my mom wanted to go back to work, and domestic bliss ended.
My father viewed working as selfish, and my mom gave in. Things were peaceful for a few years, until she took a full time teaching job. They argued a lot, and my father eventually escalated to physical violence. So we found a place to rent and moved out one day while my father was at work.
He didn’t contact us for months. Eventually it was worked out that we would see him once a week and every other weekend. After one visit, he dropped us off and said, “I’ll pick you up on Wednesday.” He never showed up, and it’s been five years since I’ve spoken to him.
The second boy I dated was the first person I ever loved (and I still love him dearly). When we broke up during my sophomore year, everything felt like it was crashing down. Our friends chose him over me, and I felt alone and ostracized. Not only did my social group fall apart, but my family fell apart, too. For the first time, I started feeling suicidal.
I began writing down my life story and trying to understand what had gone wrong. My intent was to write this story and then commit suicide. But I hadn’t finished the story when the time I had planned came. The feeling of not having finished something is often what has kept me going.
I went from actively suicidal to passively suicidal (wanting to die but not wanting to take my life). My father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I’m predisposed to depression. I started dating a guy who was an MIT student at the time. He was our town’s star student, and I really looked up to him. He cared for me a lot and, besides my mother, is the main reason I’m here at MIT now. He got me into programming and helped me study for my SATs and APs.
My junior year of high school, I took 6.00x (an online programming course) and I got a 92 percent in it. I did really well in the science competition. That year was my most successful and my most happy. I funneled all my anger and sadness into my work, which was super good for me. I’ve found that hiding in my work is often an effective coping mechanism.
Over the summer, I went to science camp at Carnegie Mellon, and I started feeling sad again. It was a good camp but had a really high-key environment, a lot like MIT. We got our AP scores back, and I had gotten a four in computer science. This other kid was like, “How could you do that? It was so easy.” That was when I started comparing myself to others. I’m like, “Wow, I am not as good as anyone ever.” I was just sad by the end of it, and I got super burnt out.
My senior fall was okay; I spent my free time writing my essays and taking an online class. But by my senior spring, I was in a waiting game. My future wasn’t in my control, and that was when I started getting into the low point where I am now, where I’m passively sad a great deal of the time.
Then I got into MIT, and I came to campus preview weekend. People were like, “I’m so into these things, and I do this cool thing, and I do this other cool thing.” I was just, like, whatever. I don’t do any of these things. I’ve just been focusing on academics. So it became a question of: what do I do? How do I measure my value as a person? I don’t really know.
I got pretty depressed again and started self-harming. It was very effective. When I was very sad, bawling my eyes out, it would make me feel instantly calm. I don’t do it anymore, fortunately, and the marks have faded. I learned about other techniques that work almost as well. I draw on myself sometimes, because it’s a physical sensation that brings me into sharp focus.
I graduated, gave a silly speech, and was finally finished. I invited a bunch of people to my graduation party, and only three people showed up. I wasn’t sad. It was just a really apt description of my high school time.
I started my freshman year here at MIT. I took classes that were too hard: differential equations, multi-variable calculus, a graduate computability class, and physics. I started drinking a lot, and I ended up failing all of my classes that fall.
That IAP, I went and taught high school in Israel in a MISTI program. I really loved the kids, and it gave me a nice context switch. I was around people with different cultural values. When I came back, I got more involved with the Jewish community at MIT. My first exposure to Judaism was through some postdocs I worked for: I heard their stories, and how it shaped them, and I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with them. I’m actually in the process of converting now. It’s really nice.
That spring, I took classes that were an appropriate level for me. I ended up pulling an A in the physics class I’d failed in the fall. I joined a sorority. I had my social life and my academic life pretty locked down, but my mental health was a train wreck. I had started going to therapy after a freshman in my dorm committed suicide. I didn’t know him personally, but I saw the impact on the community, on people he didn’t even know. We were terribly sad and sat in our dorm lounge just crying and holding each other. I’m like, wow, this is really shitty. I don’t want to be a contributing factor to that kind of sadness.
I started taking Celexa. It made me sleep more and withdraw socially, and I had a lot of suicidal ideation. I kept telling my therapist, “Hey, this isn’t working.” He was like, “Try another week.” One week, I said, “Listen, I can’t do this. I absolutely cannot do this anymore,” and he was like, “See me on Friday.”
Over the next two days, I really wanted to commit suicide. I said this to the therapist and he was like, “I’m going to have to go talk to someone about this.” As soon as he said that and left the room, I’m like, “Fuck, I’m going to get transported.” Sure enough, when he comes back, he’s like, “I’m sorry. We’re going to have to transport you now.”
I waited in the MGH lobby for seven or eight hours before I got moved to McLean. When I got there, I was wearing my boyfriend’s hoodie, and they took it from me because of the string. I just wanted a nice soft hoodie. I was used to sleeping with him every night, and suddenly I couldn’t do that, and suddenly I was alone, and I was crying. One of the nurses said, “Just do what they ask you to, and you’ll get out sooner.” That was the least encouraging thing I had heard in a long time.
They put me in the short term unit, so I could still contact people. I had friends visiting me every single day I was there, and I appreciated that so much. Overall, it was a trippy experience. Suddenly you’re in a hospital and someone is coming to check in on you every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re not hurting yourself, even when you’re sleeping.
On my first day in McLean, I made a friend. It turns out we were in two classes at MIT together, but didn’t know because both of us were really sad and depressed and never went to class. He and I are still really close, and we talk every single day. It’s really funny. Whenever people ask us how we met, there’s always this looking at each other: “Are we going to tell them?” We usually do. Neither of us is ashamed.
It was a very stressful week because I didn’t hear a lot from MIT. I didn’t know if I was going to get kicked out. Eventually one of the MIT psychiatrists came out to see me, but I had been in there for four or five days at that point.
I got out of there, finished up my finals. Went to Atlanta, Georgia for the summer. I came back to school in the fall and did well in my classes. Overall I was pretty happy.
This spring has been kind of rough. My classes haven’t been going super well, I’ve been withdrawing from my friends, and I haven’t been able to find a regular therapist. I wish MIT Mental Health could help with that, but my referrals keep falling though.
It’s funny, the guy I met in McLean also converted during our time at MIT. He converted to Catholicism. Judaism is very focused on what you do and how you live. The focus on life is what really made an opening to me. The idea that I could be learning and studying, and acting in a way that makes me feel like a better person is really appealing. I also really love Shabbat. I don’t yet fully keep it; it’s something I’m working toward. The idea of setting aside time to reflect and be grateful is really important to me. People at MIT are inclined to think, “Well, religion says these things, like the world is six thousand years old. That’s obviously stupid.” They focus less on the aspects that enrich people’s lives. There are a lot of assumptions about what it means to practice religion, and I don’t think they’re accurate or reflect what people experience, or why people are religious.
I’m a part of four distinct communities: the East Campus community, the Jewish community, my sorority, and my square dancing club. All of these have different things that are good about them, but they are all places where I feel welcomed and at home.
As far as other life plots go, I’ve recently decided to switch majors to Women and Gender Studies. I’d like to graduate from MIT, get some form of a job, probably in software development or information security, then just be calm. Having a work-life balance, that’s the biggest goal I will have for myself. Settle down with my partner, and eventually have a family. The American dream, I guess.
Haley Cope is a member of the Class of 2018.
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 ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at resources.mit.edu/support. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.