a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Recently I undertook my latest housework endeavor, which included going through and sorting my old writing. Of course, by "old," I wasn't expecting this—a letter I wrote to myself when I was sixteen and wrestling with near-constant feelings of apathy, anger, and confusion, and all of that amidst my regular struggle with existential hopelessness and vicious mental illness.
I'm not sure how old I was when I encountered my first therapist's office, but I couldn't have been much older than twelve. After that I was on and off medication and in and out of hospitals for what ended up being the majority of my teenage years. Other kids were thinking about prom; I was thinking about whether or not it was worth the effort and energy to commit suicide.
Starting in those early days and continuing on to now, I've accepted my comorbid diagnoses of persistent and seasonal depression, general and social anxiety, and tic-related obsessive-compulsive disorder. I've also brushed up against catatonia and anorexia, and all of these things culminated into an omnipresent suicidal ideation I couldn't shake.
Having spent a good portion of my teenage years managing these issues, I started to realize that psychology was something I was interested in. When I turned sixteen, I got the DSM-5 for Christmas, and thus began a lifelong love affair. Studying psychology became one of the few things that gave me purpose when I was feeling untethered—if I lived, I told myself, I would get to be a psychologist and help others like me. And while I don't remember writing it, I imagine that this letter was one of the resources that got me to the point where I could follow that dream. Having said that, maybe you can find some wisdom in it, too.
This is a self-addressed letter in which I will illustrate the reasons I need you to stay alive.
First off, you still have so many books to read. Infinitely many. Books that will challenge and enlighten and amuse you; books on trauma, DID [dissociative identity disorder, one of my main areas of study], and victimology; on animals, race, mental health, and current events; books that are fiction and poetry and plays and endless other things that you simply cannot die before reading because they are already destined to be integral to your self. The same goes for movies, musicals, experiences, and everything else.
Furthermore, you still have a lot to learn. You will accumulate this knowledge as you age and it will help make life easier as you gather morals, lessons, and incontestable truths from life experiences.
I know that you feel as though it was meant for you to die early and that you were meant to exist in your schoolmates' lives as someone they once knew who quietly burned out. I challenge you to question this. Why does it need to be this way? Even if you cannot shake the feeling that you were meant to matter as a suicide, I propose another perspective: perhaps it's true that your existence and role in your friends' lives would have become clearer after you killed yourself, but maybe you aren't alive to "make sense" in this era of your life. Maybe you must sit with this discomfort for two more years in order for you to grow up, move on, and live an adulthood that makes total sense, in which you utilize the strangeness of high school as a tool to help you understand and relate to your clients.
I know it hurts to be this way, but have you ever considered the idea that maybe you wouldn’t have the capacity to be a helpful psychologist if you hadn't experienced this strange and tortured childhood? Living the life you have led has made you empathetic and understanding—the two qualities that will make your practice stand out from others' as you move towards treating trauma and healing wounds.
I would also like you to consider the possibility of moving forward with a renewed open mind, and to try not to keep death in your back pocket as a kind of emergency get-out-of-jail-free card. Death is not your solution. Even if it would make things line up neatly and fix all the odd gaps in the tapestry of your life, that is only one way of looking at it and there would always be an ugly side you weren't around to see: the discovery of the body, the funeral, the existential confusion of your family of five made four. Yes, there would always be the ugly side.
There is the romantic outlook—a flame burned out too early, a tortured artist found dead after being beaten down by life—but there is still the side that is parents wailing at all hours of the night, questions that would never be able to be answered, regrets that could never be fixed. Lord knows that you deserve a break from this pain but I think, since we both know it's a part of you, that that is to be gained in the pleasures of life: reading, falling asleep, music, the sun on warm days.
That brings me to another point: the inevitable suffering that comes with being alive. I don't think we will ever understand it, but I can tell you why it might exist: balance. The world cannot hold miracles without also holding misery, grief, and death, as senseless as they all may seem. (Which reminds me—your death would be, too. Senseless. It seems now like the only reasonable option and perhaps closure, melodrama, and martyrdom would have it be that way, but I promise: it holds no sense for the world to take away someone who will, if she lives, grow up to help carry and relieve the burden of others in a scientific and methodic way—that is to say, you will heal others and it will not hurt because you will be trained to carry it.)
You cannot die because you didn't get this far for nothing. You know how you're obsessed with everything needing a reason? You need to stay alive so you can meet yours. You know what it is—helping others and improving the world—so now, you just need the patience, grace, and resilience to get to a point where that is possible.
But still—what of pain? Well, remember the part about books? As you live you will read stories and memoirs and novels that will give you a sense of why humans suffer, and help you develop your own theory on why that suffering is significant (as well as what we can do about it). Again: balance. And keep in mind that it isn't as though you're walking through hell while everyone else is enjoying a rollercoaster ride. Life doesn't just include pain, life is pain, for everyone; but it is also at other times joy and camaraderie and passion and purpose and pleasure. Everyone who's ever been alive has experienced the struggle of pain vs. pleasure and that is just a rule of life; no rainbow without rain.
I wish there was more I could say about this aside from "life was designed that way and you learn to live with it." But that's the way it is. Another unchangeable rule is the fact that all are not created equal—we do not suffer evenly and no, that isn't fair, but maybe God gives his hardest battles to his toughest soldiers because he knows that those special few will go on to do great things with all that they now know.
If you turn 50 and realize that you were right from the beginning and there is just too much pain in the world for you to bear, then by all means, you can stop fighting it—I just need you to grow up and make something out of this first. Please. I know it hurts but I refuse to let it hurt without reason. I need you to go on and keep pushing so you can help others in the ways that only you can. After you've done that, your life—and death—can be fully up to you, I promise.
I know this is hard, but the scales of justice are tipped in your favor. With the will to get through this, you will make it to the other side. Just stay.
I'm so proud of you, always.
Wow. Pretty heavy, huh? And yet, I was right. Looking back on this letter, I don’t know where I pulled this wisdom from; I don’t know what made me realize that my pain could have purpose if I just managed to endure it, but I’ve understood that truth more and more as I’ve gotten older. I’m now enrolled in a psychology program and work every day to build the compassion I wanted to receive when I was younger; I’m spending my time making my corner of the world better, not despite what I’ve endured, but because of it.
For those that are in the situation I was in at sixteen, I can’t guarantee an end to your mental maladies, especially if, like me, some of them are things you can’t change, like high levels of empathy and sensitivity. I wish I could say that it goes away, but it doesn’t; you just learn to live with it, and in some cases you learn to utilize your suffering in a way that makes everything feel worth it. Until then, keep your head up, and have hope; sometimes our greatest weaknesses turn out to be our biggest strengths.
Rose McCoy is a 19-year-old psychology student from the mountainous West Virginia. She is an aspiring writer, professor, scientist, and mentally healthy person. When not reading or writing, she can be found assigning various disorders to her favorite characters.
* = Editors' Choice work
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