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Finding help and hope: Alumna Lindsay Maggioncalda learns the importance of focusing on herself

Written by Lindsay Maggioncalda

When my mom said I couldn’t leave the house after midnight on a school night, I’d go anyway. Several of my best friends were suicidal, and I would always come when they said they needed me—no matter what. Being there for them took priority over everything else in my life, not only because I loved them dearly and was fearful of losing them, but also because I found a formerly elusive sense of purpose in being a source of support. I idealized myself as some sort of guardian angel, and I distracted myself from my own inexplicable emptiness by attempting to help others with theirs.

In the winter of junior year, when it seemed impossible for the situation to get any more dire, a friend I wasn’t even worried about took his life. Like a detonated bomb, the announcement of his death sent shockwaves through the community, devastating friends and strangers alike. It was taxing to support my friends before his suicide, but the impossibly demanding aftershock of it felt like a fight for survival. Desperate to keep them safe, I sacrificed sleep and invested all of my energy into frequent late-night visits and long conversations, cards, texts, calls, and hugs. I was tormented by my friend’s death and completely drained of all vitality, but I was adamant that I was fine, even though I’d been struggling long before his death. My motto was “grind through,” and every remaining moment of junior year was focused on doing just that—surviving until the next day and dragging my friends along with me. We just had to make it to the weekend, to the next break, to summer; then, we could recover.

My motto was “grind through,” and every remaining moment of junior year was focused on doing just that

Junior year finally ended, but things didn’t get better. I was crushed by the grief and exhaustion that ensued when I completely neglected self-care, and the sadness and doubt I’d always forcefully pushed away choked me into surrender. When senior year rolled around, I could barely get out of bed. I was “sick” often, and the silence that followed my recurring absences convinced me that I only mattered to others when I was laughing and happy. I was certain that everyone could see I was suffering but chose to avoid getting involved in my drama, and I doubted the sincerity of good-intentioned but vague offers to “talk about it.” After unimpressive initial experiences, I dismissed talk-therapy as a waste of money and time, and antidepressants as ineffective drugs that served only to nauseate me during math class. Though I was aware of the history of mental illness in my family, I attributed my constant sadness to an inability to cope with the shallowness and meaninglessness of life like “happy” people could. I felt abandoned by the people I loved and yet still obligated to stay alive for them, to keep living in pain because it was cruelly unfair to hurt them the way my friend hurt me. Each lonely day tested my self-control and eroded whatever hope I had that I would ever feel anything other than horribly depressed and utterly worthless. Eventually, willpower alone wasn’t strong enough to guarantee my safety while I grappled with my suicidal thoughts. I realized how close I was to losing the battle one night and, lacking the courage to call someone I knew, called 911 to get help.

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Lindsay Maggioncalda and her friends.

I couldn’t help but feel guilty during my five-day stay in the psychiatric ward. I had so many friends who needed help more than I did, yet there I was, getting treatment for something I believed I had brought upon myself. To my surprise, the doctors treated me as they would any other sick patient, continually reminding me that depression was a medical illness and that this style of self-deprecating, invalidating thought was just a typical symptom. Their clinical approach helped me reconsider my sadness as stemming from circumstance and a chemical imbalance in my brain rather than my own inherent flaws and lack of optimism. Upon my discharge from the unit, the doctors recommended I do a partial-hospitalization program called La Selva, which held therapy groups for five hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. I resisted—I did not want to fall behind in school and college apps. But my family was insistent that I needed longer-term care after I left the hospital. In order for things to get better, I had to put my health first and figure everything else out later.

On the first day of second semester, I went to group therapy at La Selva instead of school. La Selva didn’t magically cure me, but watching my peers’ moods slowly improve each week allowed me to see firsthand that recovery was possible. Because all of the patients were there for similar illnesses, I felt safe being my authentic self, whereas before I often felt the need to mask my sadness to avoid burdening others. Finally, I could relax and shift my attention fully onto my own issues instead of worrying about how I was affecting others. The other patients were deeply empathetic, and whenever I spoke they made me feel seen, understood, and cared for, even though we hardly knew each other. If at any point I didn’t feel comfortable to talk, I could listen, and hearing their stories and advice gave me words to express feelings I had experienced but had never been able to explain.

I felt safe being my authentic self, whereas before I often felt the need to mask my sadness to avoid burdening others.

In therapy groups that examined mental illness through a more objective lens, I learned to be more mindful of what was going on in my overactive, obsessive mind in hopes that eventually I could better understand it. When I started to feel sad, I practiced acknowledging the emotion’s growing presence and then allowing myself to experience it, without scolding myself for its arrival or trying to suppress the feeling. Labeling the experience as “sad” allowed me to detach myself from the emotion, and then I waited patiently for it to leave. My emotion was not me: it was a foreign force that came and passed through me in periodic waves, and I just had to endure it diligently. Though my thoughts were me, I tried to be mindful of them, too, because they were often distorted by my depression. Therapists helped me recognize that when I recounted events, my mental filter magnified the negative aspects and discarded the positive ones. In order to change this deeply ingrained thinking pattern, I’d have to exert immense effort to constantly be aware of the way I thought, and then try to neutralize with rationality. It helped to realize that some of my most depressed thoughts were warped and illogical, but they were still there, and they still hurt. In hopes that my busy mind would calm and my mood would improve, my psychiatrist told me to keep questioning the reality of my thoughts and prescribed me a new medication to begin before I left the program and started school again.

Going back to school was discouraging. On my day of reentry, people seemed to look away from my suffering and pretend they didn’t see it. I felt invisible again. Just as before: I mattered only when I was laughing and happy. A few colorless weeks of school passed, and then I noticed a small but miraculous shift. Little had changed—school felt painful and lonely, and I ruminated frequently about the point of existence—but I was absentmindedly singing along to the radio again, something I hadn’t done in months. I could feel the new medication improving my mood and lessening my chronic fatigue. As I continued to take it daily, my thoughts, though still the same profoundly negative thoughts, became easier to recognize as irrational and did not carry quite so much emotion and despair. To be sure, antidepressants aren’t for everyone, and they don’t reduce the need for sleep and a support network; but for me, they played a pivotal role in giving me the motivation I needed to make changes in my life. The slight increase in energy allowed me to put effort into socializing again, spurring a chain of reconnection with old friends and even the pursuit of new friendships. The more time I spent with people, the more connected I felt and the more my depressive symptoms decreased. The happier I appeared, the more frequently people reached out to spend time with me. It was a cycle. My mood changed just slightly, and then, slowly, everything else followed.

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Dinner in the center with friends while in Malaga, Spain.

Now, I feel much better than I felt pre-hospitalization, or even just a few months ago. Recovery is a long and difficult process; inevitably, I sometimes still wake up feeling hopeless and empty for some reason, and on these days I try to be extra kind to myself. But most days, I feel okay, and the number of days I feel good is increasing. I finally stopped putting my well-being on hold, and I’ve been more compassionate and patient with myself ever since I started to think of depression as a sickness instead of a fabrication. Rather than blame myself for the thoughts and feelings I cannot control, I blame depression for shaping them into what they are. I remember that emotions are temporary, and I practice letting the bad ones go and appreciating the good ones that come.

Though the past year has taught me that I must take care of myself before attempting to care for others, I don’t regret all the time and effort I put into being there for my friends. Their willingness to confide in me and ask for support is not what exacerbated my depression; on the contrary, it allowed me to form the deeper, more meaningful connections I had craved for years. But now I see that trying to hold their lives in my hands and take responsibility for their safety was unhealthy; it exhausted me, and it prevented them from seeking the professional help they truly needed. From now on, I will support my friends differently, reminding myself that the best I can do for them is provide them with love, compassion, and encouragement to seek out the people who have the proper education and training to help them get well again. And unlike before, when I ignored my own experience and denied myself the same validation I gave to my friends, I will remember to be aware and trusting of my own feelings, too, as well as vulnerable and honest when I need more care.

From now on, I will support my friends differently, reminding myself that the best I can do for them is provide them with love, compassion, and encouragement

This is me being vulnerable, because I didn’t know how to be vulnerable when I was at my worst. As with any process, there will undoubtedly be more roadblocks on my path to getting well; when I meet them, I must remember that despite how hopeless I may feel and how persuasively my mind tricks me into wanting death more than help, I need to trust in professionals to find the best care for me and my family and friends to love me even when I feel unlovable. I hope publishing this piece will inspire others to be vulnerable, too, and reach out to someone, whether to offer help or request it.

If you are worried about yourself OR a friend, to be directed to professional help, contact

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, 24/7 access to trained counselors
  • School counselor/psychologist
  • Your doctor
  • suicidepreventionlifeline.org and click “Get Help” for yourself or for a friend
  • If the threat is immediate, call 911

 

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