By Haley Henderson
I almost didn’t write this story. And I think ultimately that’s the problem.
This story and my story have become indistinguishable, and I am tired of carrying it.
Around a year and a half ago, I was committed against my will to a short-term psychiatric hospital because the doctors didn’t trust me not to kill myself. I wasn’t going to — which is not the same as I didn’t want to, so I won’t pretend that I didn’t need help. However, I still hold that I would’ve taken any other option over that hospital.
The memories have blurred during the last 18 months — I think I have done my best to blur them.
But I do remember how the nurse during intake insulted my self-harm scars, I slept without a pillow because no matter how many times I asked they never gave me one, and I remember my roommate threatening me on my first night just to see how I would react. She later swore that she never meant me any harm.
Mostly though, I remember the lying.
I don’t know anyone in the hospital that didn’t lie their way through the stay.
We all ignored the emptiness that consumed us from the inside out because if you admitted weakness you stayed in the hospital longer. So in the mornings when we filled out a mood-ranking sheet, we all said we were happy.
We all pretended we were happy.
In retrospect, it feels like a whirlwind of fear and empty promises and bad cafeteria food. Now, the only thing I really remember is the treacherous monotony — the waiting for an escape.
In six days inpatient, I talked to a psychiatrist once — for less than 15 minutes.
He asked me about my summer plans. And this is what I mean about the lying. I lied to my doctor and said I was happy. I said I was mostly just looking forward to the rest of my summer, and to be fair, he didn’t make the lying difficult. He didn’t ask me about the depression. The only relevant question he asked me was about failed medications I already tried.
There was no big revelation when they let me out. It felt like they were just clearing the bed space, but I didn’t care. I was getting out, and that’s all I wanted.
I have rehashed this story in person more times than I cared to relive it. Because after I got out of the hospital, I didn’t want to die anymore.
They put me on a new medication. They reminded me that there is so much I love in my life — no matter how bad it felt. All of which, made me a success story.
I never bothered to do a good job of hiding my struggles with mental illness from my peers. I spent too much energy trying to stop drowning in them, so there was no energy to be spent on hiding the repercussions of treading water. Which meant that after I was medicated and recovered, some people looked at me like I had answers.
But mental illness is not a test you can prepare for. There is no study guide on how to want to live. Everything is so personal. Some people need medication; some people need therapy. Some people need both or neither and something else entirely.
So instead I did what I could.
I told my story over and over and over again until I couldn’t draw the difference between it and me. And it seemed to help people. People would come to me when they needed to remember that there was a path forward. A girl wrote a poem about how I inspired her to do better.
And I was happy to be that person. There was nothing I could do to undo all of the things I had been through. I couldn’t erase all of the pain my illnesses caused me, but at least I could make some good come of it.
If nothing else, I was happy to be the person who gave other people hope. To come from such a hopeless place, that felt right.
The problem is, recovery is not straightforward. It is not simple. Relapse — to some degree — feels inevitable. And inevitably, it came for me, too. It wasn’t scary when it did. I wasn’t at any risk. But I felt the empty dread of depression spread over me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The success story doesn’t get to fail.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was letting people down. People who loved me were so proud of me for getting to the other side. If I couldn’t stay there, I felt like I was continually disappointing everyone.
In retrospect, I was clearly in a cycle.
I relapsed because of the depression. Because of the relapse, I felt like I was a huge disappointment. But I only felt that way because of the depression.
So, I talked to my psychiatrist. We increased the dosage of my medication. I got better — again.
And so in response, I tried to find a new defining story. I wanted to be the girl who was known for something other than the story of my mental health, anything other than that.
Instead, I soon learned that I was expected to continue to sell my story— to perform the narrative of the girl who got saved.
And so I did.
But I didn’t want to anymore. Every time I talked about being sick or the hospital or the road to being better, I felt myself being dragged back into one my lowest headspaces, and I learned that some people were not asking because they cared about me.
They wanted to know that they had hope. I was just the mechanism for that, so I was expected to put the reality of my happiness aside for the sake of the story of my happiness.
I still want to be more than this story.
I have told it so many times my tongue can keep talking without my mind, but I want to learn new stories.
I want to do new things and train my mouth to make new words.
I want to be so much more than a survivor of an illness.
The story is anticlimactic from here. There is no grand story arc.
I still don’t have answers. I still don’t really know how to balance my own need to grow beyond the good I can do by rehashing my past.
Most days, I decide that it’s not my responsibility. Mostly, I decide that it’s OK to choose myself. And then when someone needs me to tell my story again, to be that success story again, I still do.
And, so, I almost didn’t write this story. Because I am tired of my name being associated solely with this pain.
I wrote about it for years as a way to process — because it was important to me, but now I write about it because it’s important to talk about, which I’m learning is not the same as I still need to write about it. I’m also learning that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.
But that’s the only constant through all of my mental health journey.
It has always been a learning process, and it still is. This is me learning that I choose which stories define me, no matter how many times I tell this one.
This is still me learning how to keep my head above water.
The only difference is that this time, I’m focused less on not drowning and more on swimming to shore.
Haley, 16, attends Grady High School.
This story was published at VOXATL.org, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. For more about the nonprofit VOX, visit www.voxatl.org.