Chapter Twelve: A Gift of Desperation

Written Spring 2011

By January of my junior year in college, I had reached my first true emotional bottom. Though surrounded by people on a daily basis in crowded Harvard Square, I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. I had fully retreated—from friendships, from physical health, from self-control, from any sort of soundness of mind—and was ready to surrender to the battle that I now saw as my life. I was tired, beaten down, and stripped of any sort of motivation to take care of myself. The physical and emotional pain that pulsed through me might once have motivated me to change my situation to cease the discomfort, but I’d now become infiltrated by a stifling numbness—an existential novocaine, of sorts– that stopped my reflexes and detached me just enough from my senses so that, despite feeling the pain straight to my core, I felt like I was incapable of doing anything about it. I was paralyzed, trapped in a body with a mind that could no longer be trusted with self-preservation.

Despite living under these invisible restraints, self-imprisoned, I had an infinitesimal part of me still in the fight. It was fierce enough to shift my eyes away from my pill bag, tantalizing in its promise of an immediate and permanent solution, and towards my phone one night while in the depths of my darkness. It lifted my arm, allowed my fingers to grasp the phone, dial the numbers, and utter the few words I could muster to my dad on the other end of the line—Dad, I can’t go on like this any more. Just saying those words, spilling the secret I’d been choosing to keep from my family—that life had stopped feeling like a given and started feeling questionable—made me feel a little bit lighter. With this shift of weight off my shoulders, however slight it may have been, and with my father’s reassuring voice on the end of the line, I somehow managed to eventually fall to sleep.

I awoke in the early morning to the sound of my phone. My dad was on the other end, telling me he was outside my apartment building. He’d driven the two and a half hours from Connecticut before the sun had come up to be with me for the day. I felt safe for the first time in a while, amazed at how foreign and strange that sensation had become to me, as I fully accepted the reality of my situation—I was no longer in a place where I was able to take care of myself, and my family was willing to help me. I could, for the time being, step out of the driver’s seat of this out-of-control car and hand the keys over. I had been given the gift of desperation and had finally recognized my utter powerlessness.

My father and I spent the day looking ahead to the last few weeks of the semester and assessing what should be done. We weighed options, thinking about whether I could handle the final papers and get myself fully through the semester or whether I needed to withdraw then and there and redo the semester at a future time. My dad and I talked about my most basic needs, which I’d ignored for so long that they felt barely familiar, like they’d been the fleeting part of a dream I might have had a long time ago. At the root of our discussion was the fact that, somewhere along the line, I’d lost my personal compass, become completely lost in my life, and was in serious need of reorientation. I’d been so immersed in the immediacy of my anguish that any perspective on this complete and utter disorientation had been eradicated long ago. It sounded so simple coming from my father’s mouth and made perfect sense to me. How had I not seen this on my own? How had I let myself fall to this point? Why had I not asked for help sooner?

I was truly baffled by my situation, by this perplexing lapse of time in which it felt like I’d lost consciousness and, resultingly, had gone from having everything together and organized in the palm of my hand to being out of control, chaotic, disorganized, confused, and entirely defeated. I shook my head in disbelief as I thought about how I’d once had so much—rich friendships, passion for life and for music and for nature and for academics, a motivation to grab life by the horns, confidence that I could and would accomplish what I set my mind to, and faith in my future—and I now had bottles of pills, my bed, and baggy sweatpants. What happened?

As these thoughts roiled me, my dad began to tell me about a transformative experience he’d had on an outdoor adventure trip he’d done when he was sixteen, and I instantaneously fantasized about the idea of leaving this mess of a life behind, heading into the wilderness for a few months, and finding myself. I told myself that this might be the only means possible to reacquire my personal compass and find my way back to the proper path of my life that I was sure I’d once been so firmly on. We decided that I’d sign up for a three month trip, the longest and most challenging one offered, and with this new and exciting solution on the horizon, I was fueled with an unfamiliar inner strength to get the final papers done, get myself packed up and out of that isolated apartment, away from Harvard, and into the wilderness.

We found a trip slated for departure less than two weeks after my semester ended. I signed up for the last spot. Although I’d found solutions in the past that I had been sure would work and that had consistently failed, I truly believed that, this time, it would be different. I determined that I would write my papers, finish up treatment at the eating disorder program, and, regardless of what my psychiatrist would say, cease taking my medications. I was going to cleanse my body, cleanse my mind, and cleanse my particularly tarnished soul. This would be a rebirth. I thought of a class I’d taken in high school in which we read the Transcendentalists, and romanticized the idea of recreating Thoreau’s experience on Walden Pond for myself. This time, this time, I had really found the answer.

About a month later, I was on a plane to El Paso, Texas. I’d managed to successfully hand in my final papers, informed Harvard that I’d be taking the next semester off, and left my pill bottles in the bathroom at home. I’d ended the relationship with my psychiatrist, officially left all treatment, and determined that my body would manage fine without medications. I ignored warnings about abruptly stopping meds, convinced that withdrawal symptoms wouldn’t strike me. The next night, I was lying under desert stars that should have been beautiful, trapped in a bout of insomnia unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my life, plagued by racing thoughts, and wondering how the hell I would make it through the next three months.