“Wait, why aren’t you drinking tonight again,” my date to a fraternity formal quipped.
“Oh, I’m on antibiotics, remember?” I lied to him.
That was such bullshit. I wasn’t taking penicillin; I was taking escitalopram. I had started the Lexapro the day before, and didn’t want to occlude its performance with so much as a drop of alcohol. I was desperate for the medication to work, for my serotonin to level. Plus, as it was, I was in no state to be drinking. The real answer to his question would have been along the lines of “Oh, well, I actually have severe clinical depression right now, and my two therapists and also my psychiatrist told me not to drink on my new meds, especially because sometimes I take a half of my prescribed Klonopin too and you really shouldn’t drink on that. Oh, and also I’m making a conscious effort not to self–medicate with alcohol through this mess.” But who the fuck says something like that?
“Oh yeah that’s right. Sucks,” my date shrugged. Thank GOD, I thought. Awkward conversation evaded; secret concealed.
No one at the formal knew that I was miserable—no, not because my date was terrible. He was perfectly pleasant. I was just a proper hot mess at the time. I had, by that time (May of freshman year), faced almost five months straight of severe and wildly incapacitating mental illness. I already had help: a psychiatrist, and not one but two therapists, but I was still struggling. Something needed to change. So, I had gone to my psychiatrist’s office in Center City a few days prior to the formal and told him that I was finally ready for an antidepressant prescription, something my New Mexican granola and sometimes downright hippie self had seen as useless, and even harmful, for years.
Earlier in the semester, I ran into a friend near Spread Bagelry while I was on my way to CAPS. He was off to SHS for pinkeye. He asked me where I was going, and I stopped in my tracks. Fuck, I mused to myself. I can’t say I’m going to SHS because he’ll notice that I’m not walking in the doors with him. What I pulled out of my ass was “Uhh I’m meeting my cousin for lunch. She goes to Penn Law.” I do have a cousin, and she does go to Penn Law, but where does one eat on 36th and Market? In my twisted mind, pinkeye was okay, but chronic depression and anxiety were absolutely not. They were unspeakable. In reality, I can hardly control the fact that I have genetic predispositions for depression any less than my friend could have controlled how the petri dish that is Quad housing would affect him.
This didn’t just happen with one or two people. It happened with at least half my friends and with every other peer or acquaintance. My fellow Quad-dwelling classmates didn’t see my face before the tears were wiped dry. They never heard my voice cracking mid–sentence at sessions with my therapist. They couldn’t hear the conversations I had with my mom on Skype, about whether or not I could even finish college at Penn, and if I should just drop everything and fly all the way home to Albuquerque for another weekend.
Hardly anyone knew I was struggling and of those that did, even fewer knew the extent of my illnesses. I made sure of that. I have been hiding my mental illnesses since the eighth grade. Anyone who doesn’t know me personally wouldn’t think that I take daily antidepressants—it’s an act I’m happily resigned to doing for the rest of my life.
Going through my absolute worst bout of depression during the aforementioned freshman spring, I tried my best to act and appear “normal.” I maintained composure even when I felt at times that my own mind’s hostility was breaking me from the inside out. I made sure to perform academically and, more importantly, socially. I could hardly order a bagel and coffee at United by Blue without my eyes welling up most mornings, and yet I made it to mixers and late nights out of sheer terror that someone would notice my absence and question it. Acting as such only made me feel worse—I felt even more like a pariah with a tacitly unmentionable disease. Every single action of concealment tore me down further; deepened my depression.
I wish I could tell my freshman self that depression IS normal. It’s common—on this campus and all over the world. Depression and anxiety are my normal, at least, and that’s okay—it’s something I’ve learned to accept and take on the challenge of. I wish I could tell the Ellie of February 2017 or June 2017 that the Ellie of March 2018 wants her to stop wasting time and energy on pretending to be okay by drinking and self–medicating. That time and energy spent towards shaping a “Penn Face” could be better spent engaging with your therapist, or meditating, exercising, or FaceTiming your family—whatever makes you feel better, whether you're mentally ill, or just the run–of–the–mill stressed college student.
Especially at Penn, where people work hard and play harder, it’s important to remember that the life of the party may find vigor in only that aspect of his or her life. Self–medication becomes more and more obvious to me with every passing weekend. It’s not uncommon on this campus for people to joke about “blacking out” to forget their stress or their worries or their shitty midterm grades, but at times it seems even deeper and even darker than that.
At times this perhaps borders on addiction, and other times, they seem to be experiencing alcoholism. That’s not funny, that’s not “savage,” and that’s not something to be taken lightly or to be normalized. It is bad enough that I have at times drank despite being depressed, which is so dangerous for the obvious reason that alcohol is a depressant. Worst of all, that sort of behavior is still downright encouraged here. And when someone starts to go overboard with drinking or using, I always think to myself that maybe that person shares a brain chemistry frankly pretty similar to mine. Maybe they’re depressed, too. Far too often, I see Penn Face in the form of being Shit–Faced.
So, please, check in on your friends. And I don’t mean a quick and insincere “How are you!? Let’s get lunch”—I mean really check in on them, privately and genuinely, whether it’s the friend with whom you share a Quad hall, the friend you see at club GBMs, or the friend you only ever see blasted at Recess. Maybe we know another Ellie of Spring 2017, and maybe he or she really needs my help. Maybe he or she really needs yours.