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Choosing all in: senior Lisa Hao’s journey of recovery

Hao at Lake Alpine

Written by Lisa Hao

As a journalist, I know the importance of storytelling. Personal stories can join communities by offering new perspectives and helping others feel less alone. Although I’m much more accustomed to reporting other people’s stories, I believe it is also important to finally share my own story of overcoming depression and maintaining recovery.

All in or all out. I repeated that phrase to myself throughout every therapy session. I understood that life consisted of neither black nor white, but I didn’t care. For me, I had to be either all in or all out.

I never thought the concept was difficult, yet I had to clarify my mentality to every therapist I met. “All in means that I’m content with life; I wholeheartedly want to be here and the thought of leaving does not even cross my mind,” I would patiently explain. “And all out means, well, all out. I finally stop speculating and just do it.” I believed that if it wanted to, depression could go away on its own. I didn’t treat depression for the illness it was, but instead waited for myself to miraculously get better.

I always hoped that the decision would be “all in” but I couldn’t imagine a time that I would not wonder about the “what ifs” of suicide. Since sixth grade, I had felt the same way. I started to romanticize death and felt most comfortable with sadness. I wanted to be “all in” but it frankly seemed too ideal. It seemed impossible.

Last year, my struggle intensified as my desire to make a decision escalated. Everything seemed so much easier, yet also so much harder. I realized how easy it would be to go all out, but I also knew first-hand how painful it would be for the community. I did not want the attention nor the hurt that I knew would come with my death. I just wanted to be able to relieve myself from my own pain, not give it to those around me.

However, like the saying goes: it has to get a lot worse before it gets better. I finally decided to be “all out.” All my attempts at recovery appeared futile and I was so tired of trying. I felt like for every step forward, I took two steps back. I was ready to go through with my decision; however I wanted to make sure that the pain that I was experiencing was greater than the pain I would inflict. My friends and family started to notice a change in my mood and became concerned. Although I said I was just stressed, my worried mom spent nights in my room and my chances were lost.

At my lowest point, I was hospitalized and stayed there for three days. Normally, my suicidal ideations were interrupted by other distractions in life. Being at the hospital, however, reminded me constantly of why I was there—I couldn’t ever distract myself from my desire to die. I felt the worst I ever had before. I never felt more alone, useless and hopeless than I did those three days. However, I finally realized how serious my depression really was. Even among other suicidal kids in there, I was still considered on the more extreme side. I knew I didn’t ever want to return to the hospital, and I resolved to truly work harder at improving my mental health. On the day of my release, I promised myself that I would fully commit to recovery.

Recovery wasn’t easy. I met countless health specialists and had to attend weekly therapy sessions. My parents considered multiple intensive outpatient programs and excused me when I didn’t feel up for school. I stopped viewing my sadness as a permanent state and started treating depression for the illness it is.

First, I had to identify the root causes. After many therapists, I finally found one that fit. I didn’t just want an outlet; I wanted answers. Through many sessions and reflection, I realized that many of my self-deprecating thoughts stemmed from a guilt that I wasn’t doing enough. I felt like my life didn’t have enough meaning and it didn’t make enough impact. I felt guilty and worthless.

So, I spent more time doing activities that made me feel happier and more purposeful. I filled my schedule with service, friends, exercising, hiking, The Oracle and other low-stress activities. Not only was I less mired by my depression, but I also finished each day feeling productive and satisfied.

Although I became more busy, I made sure to always check in with myself. Before, I was extremely suspicious of happiness and accustomed to sadness. Now, instead of wallowing in my sadness, I’ve drawn upon my coping skills. I combat negative thoughts by recognizing their errors in logic—just because I made a mistake doesn’t mean I should automatically label my life as worthless. I take naps when I need to and I don’t let myself dwell too much on suicidal ideations.

I truly never thought it was possible for a day to go by without a thought about leaving, but now, weeks go by without suicidal thoughts. For the first time in six years, I can honestly say that I’m doing well.

It took so long to get here, but for the first time in six years, I feel alive. For the first time in six years, I feel present and here. For the first time in six years, I’m all in.

9 Comments on Choosing all in: senior Lisa Hao’s journey of recovery

  1. Reading Lisa’s recovery journey brought out my personal pain and guilt for all the “what ifs” I could have done if I knew better then I wouldn’t suffer the loss of Harry. But I’m so glad to see and hope to see more sharing of such sort of stories. I, as a parent, was ignorant about the illness and the treatment available. I can’t go back to educate myself to prevent my loss, but I do hope any student and family in need today would know better. Depression or suicidal ideation is an illness that may have various root causes individually, but no one should feel guilty or shameful for fighting it. And, what Lisa found, the guilt about not doing enough caused feeling of worthlessness, could be applied to many of us, ill or not. So, here’s my sincere advice to all of you at Gunn, bright and blessed with talents and social advantages, pursuing excellence is not a crime, but do not dwell in the guilt of not achieving enough, and always remember to share.

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  2. Michelle de Blank // October 29, 2015 at 5:10 am // Reply

    Wow – what a great essay. I am happy for you and hope you are able to stay “all in.”

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  3. Thank you brave girl for sharing your story. Hopefully this will inspire others to work hard and use all resources available to fight the disease of depression. There’s no quick fix.

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  4. Lisa,
    From a Gunn graduate from 30 years ago, I applaud your courage for sharing your story. And I encourage you to find a way to get out of Silicon Valley and even the U.S. and experience how differently the rest of the world exists. There is far more beauty and peace and serenity–and far less pressure–than the culture of Palo Alto would have you believe.
    As an example, I applied to Stanford, Duke and Harvard and was rejected by all three. As a result of this, I was despondent. I thought the world was crashing down around me and I was full of nothing but shame. I ended up at UCLA and arrived there feeling as if I was a complete failure and my life had been a waste. I expected others there to feel similarly, and was perplexed when I heard people talk about getting into UCLA as if they’d won the lottery. I know UCLA is harder to get into now than it was 30 years ago, but the point is that Palo Alto can warp your perspective in crazy ways.
    You are a very beautiful young woman with unlimited potential for both achievement and happiness. Keep your perspective in line and good things will come. I wish you peace and happiness on your journey.

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  5. Sandy Schaupp // November 4, 2015 at 1:31 am // Reply

    Good for you Lisa. I’m glad you chose to seek health and see depression for the illness it is. I’m glad that you’re experiencing life and enjoying it!

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  6. I’m 51 years old and when I was a senior at Gunn I got depressed enough that I had to drop AP math and physics. My counselor at Gunn Mrs. Powell had to call the college I was already admitted to to make sure that wouldn’t negate my acceptance and they were ok with it and I went and did graduate and in fact 33 years later I would say things are going just fine.

    Good luck to Lisa and all the Gunn students and thanks for sharing your story!!

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  7. Jessica Armstrong // November 4, 2015 at 9:49 pm // Reply

    Hi Lisa. I’m an elementary school counselor. After reading your powerful essay I shared it with the other counselors in the large, suburban district where I work. You wrote you had felt the same way since sixth grade. Do you think there is anything anyone could have done THEN to help you? Your story is filled with pain and sadness, and hope. Beautiful hope. Looking back, what could we do to help our young students from enduring so many years of struggle?

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    • Hey Jessica,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for taking the time to read my article. I think there’s definitely a lot that elementary schools can do to help normalize mental struggles. I feel like educating younger students about mental health and starting the conversation earlier will help them become more open about how they’re actually doing. I remember I felt incredibly awkward and alone while talking about mental health in 6th grade because it seemed like no one else was going through it.
      If authority figures encouraged emotional vulnerability at a younger age and started the conversation earlier, I think I would’ve felt more comfortable finding help.

      I hope that helps. Thank you again for your comment.

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  8. Lisa- I just became aware of your article from paloaltoonline. Thank you so much for stepping forward to share your story. My son, too, is a high school senior who has lived with major depressive disorder for many years. We thought his illness was under control until he confessed to his psychiatrist that he had a suicide plan. It was following his hospitalization that we all embraced a whole lifestyle change that allowed him to replace the never-ending hours of academics with time for friends, exercise, sleep and pursuit of personal interests. He may start out at community college as a result but he is happier- and alive. Sending you love and wishing you all the best.

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