The moment I found out that I was accepted to Penn was unforgettable. I had tears in my eyes as I opened the link to my acceptance letter, thinking of all that was in store for me. I felt as if a backpack filled with all of my struggles was lifted off of my shoulders. Then, two weeks before I arrived on campus, I drove to the bridge closest to my house.
I would finally be able to escape the environment that almost tore me apart and work towards brighter days. I had told my mother the good news about my acceptance, and she said, “Why are you going to Penn State, and how are you going to pay for that?” Working three jobs and sleeping in my car to avoid my unstable household would finally come to an end. It was the knowledge that I had Penn as an alternative escape that made me get back in my car and head home.
It took six days on campus for me to realize that it’s easier to change where you are physically than it is to change where you are emotionally. Once the excitement of NSO faded, it became apparent that my depression had made the 1,000 mile trip from Florida with me. That said, I managed to have a good freshman year. I made a few close friends and enjoyed school—at least on the surface.
Then, in October of my sophomore year, I found myself being taken to the hospital in an attempt to make sure I didn’t cut my life short. The next day, I walked out of HUP to face the world again. “How are you?” a close friend I ran into on Locust asked. I painted a smile on my face and didn’t mention anything about the past 15 hours I had spent in a hospital bed, watching the psychiatrist’s expressions as I answered the dreaded question—“Why do you want to kill yourself?”—a question no one wants to ask or have to answer. It’s hard to explain how flashbacks of my childhood eat me alive. It’s hard to explain how years of watching my only parent choose alcohol and pills over raising me has stripped me of all of my self–worth. It’s hard to explain the other attempts, thoughts and harmful actions that have almost ended my life, but I realized that I could not fight this battle alone.
Later that day, I gathered a group of four friends together and tried to explain what had happened and my ongoing battle with my past. The feeling of guilt on top of the relief of realizing how much support I had from them was painful, but it was still so much better than suffering in silence. Putting my feelings into productive words was a surprisingly effective alternative to the destructive actions I had been taking against myself.
One of the most important lessons that I have learned is that you can shape your future, but you cannot change your past. Although I have beaten the statistics—I earned a high school diploma, am working towards achieving a college degree and have recently become the first black female Class Board president at Penn—I have scars that will never fade. My childhood was not favorable, but I wouldn’t trade it for a more stable upbringing. I learned lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom. I have seen sights that I hope to never see again, but they are what drive me to work harder to get through each day.
Sometimes that’s all you can do. There is nothing wrong with that, for that alone is incredible. I am so proud of everyone who gets up each day and fights through everything that may seem to eat them alive. I am so proud of everyone who endures any form of emotional pain. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be hidden. Because it cannot be beaten alone. Whether it is to a friend, family member or classmate, we must speak out to those who surround us and share our stories. Coming together and building a sense of community in which people don’t have to hide their struggles is how we can stand up effectively against mental illness. This is what I’m working towards creating here at Penn as my year’s Class Board president, but the most important thing we can do is build this community as individuals.