Editor’s Note: Our Stories is a series by Natasha Joglekar, assisted by Andy Trattner, with photography provided by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each story is a first person narrative of personal struggle and strength.
My mother, brother, and I have always lived under my grandparents’ roof. When I was in elementary school, my mom worked at Kmart and at a nursing home, so I rarely saw her. Because of my parents’ divorce, the court granted my father visitation on weekends and every other holiday or so. Those years are mostly a blur.
In 2003, when I was in the third grade, my mom developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome and was paralyzed from the neck down. My grandpa also passed away around this time. My brother and I suddenly had many more responsibilities at home: taking more care of our grandma with severe rheumatoid arthritis, helping her dress, cook, and bathe. We also had to take care of our mom, who was bedridden that year. By 2005, my mom had relearned how to walk and had taken on a job as a cafeteria lady at a local high school. My father had given up all custody rights in order to drop the thousands of dollars he owed in child support.
In middle school, there were more expectations at home, but no matter how much I tried to fulfill these expectations, I always failed. My mom was very critical, and no matter what I did around the house, it was never enough. Nothing was enough for her. My grandma was the same way. I remember getting into many arguments at home; my grandma and mom would say I was “lazy,” that I didn’t care about anyone but myself, or that I was just like my father. I used to wonder whether they were right, but I didn’t know what more I could do to win their approval.
Meanwhile, I had a difficult time balancing my pre-AP classes, the math team, band, and my responsibilities at home. I was an awkward student with no close friends, and it was around this time that I started having breakdowns. When I cried at school, my teachers always attributed it to stress and were fairly understanding. When I cried at home, I would muffle my sobbing under a pillow in my room, so my mother and grandmother wouldn’t hear and scold me for being “sad.”
My brother became my best friend. He didn’t understand what was happening to me, and I didn’t completely understand either, but he used to do my chores for me when I was crying and tell my family he was helping me out because I was busy studying. When I wasn’t crying, I felt empty — worthless, hopeless, and powerless. I used to wish I could sleep forever because I wasn’t depressed in my dreams.
In 7th grade, I told one of my teachers, “I don’t feel like being alive.” I think he told the counselors at our school, and they called my mom in. If she failed to take me to a psychologist, then Child Protective Services would get involved. She would have to leave work to pull me out of school and take me to a psychologist every two to three weeks. On the drives to the clinic, she would remind me that I was the reason she was missing out on hours of work. I felt guilty. Then, I remember my mom crying in one of these sessions and claiming I wasn’t helping her out enough around the house. The psychologist was on her side, and that’s when I started lying and claiming I felt better at every session until I was cleared. This was my first taste of therapy.
In truth, my depression started to get worse as I entered high school. I hated myself. I felt disgusted with my body and believed everyone else but me deserved to be alive. I was so scared of telling anyone because I didn’t believe anyone else would understand. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I was comfortable with the idea that someday I would be in the wrong place at the wrong time or that I would be in a freak accident. I knew I wasn’t depressed all the time — sometimes, I felt better for a few days or weeks, and those days gave me hope. I kept going because I wanted to live for the days when I didn’t have to fake a smile.
Once I got to MIT, I knew I had the opportunity to get the help I had wanted for years. I started going to MIT Mental Health early in my freshman year and was assigned an older psychiatrist and a young psychologist. After the psychiatrist prescribed me the antidepressant Zoloft, I gained 20 pounds, and I didn’t feel “depressed” anymore, but I also lost the ability to feel happiness.
I told my psychiatrist I was concerned about my weight gain. She upped the dose. I stopped trusting her, threw out the medication, refused to see a psychiatrist again, and only went to my therapy sessions with the psychologist. It was immensely helpful in many ways. I could talk about my past at home, my worries about my family, my stresses at MIT, and how I felt so stupid in all my classes. It was nice to have someone listen to me and validate the bottled up, residual anger and confusion from home. When the psychologist left, I stopped going to Mental Health altogether in the middle of my sophomore year.
I thought I was “cured,” as silly as that sounds. I went from having two to three breakdowns a week to one to two every other week, and my grades were improving. Unfortunately, I started to fall apart again. I started oversleeping and eating way too much. I stopped attending most of my classes, spent my afternoons lying in bed, and shut myself off from my friends at MIT. There finally came a point when I accepted the fact that I needed help — again.
I slumped back to Mental Health during their open hours and met an amazing clinician who suggested another antidepressant: Wellbutrin. This clinician also assigned me to a new psychiatrist and psychologist that I felt comfortable with. Ultimately, Wellbutrin did take a few weeks to kick in, but it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I was better able to control my emotions and energy, and my productivity started to improve. I can’t say it’s perfect because sometimes I have days when I can’t seem to get myself out of bed, times when I slide back into this apathetic mood, and instances when I am overly critical of myself, but for the most part, I feel I finally have a strong grip on my life.
My recovery is an ongoing process. I’m not completely sure why I developed my depression. I want to blame the chemical imbalance of uncooperative neurotransmitters in my head, but I often find myself wondering if it had anything to do with the way I was raised. I try to suppress this thought because maybe my mom was raised that way and didn’t know better, or maybe the numerous negative experiences in her life had toughened her up. Maybe there’s no one to blame. The question still eats at my mind and is a recurring theme in my therapy sessions at Mental Health. I want to forgive her for not emotionally supporting me all those years, but I don’t know how. I want to be close and connected to her like my MIT friends seem to be with their parents, but I become anxious at the mere thought.
Since entering college, she’s not critical of me anymore, and I think she wants to rekindle our relationship. Nevertheless, I haven’t provided her that chance because I’ve closed her out of my life to avoid any potential or accidental triggers from her. I’m scared of ruining the progress I’ve made thus far, but I acknowledge that sometimes the reason I slip back into a depressive mood is because I begin to think about my past experiences at home. In the future, I want to reconnect with her when I feel mentally capable and ready. I don’t know how long that’s going to take — a month, six months, another year? Right now, though, I don’t think I can do that, and I’ve learned that it’s okay. I’m still a work in progress.
Lisa Lozano is a member of the class of 2017.
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.
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Photo copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.