The Eye

On Friendship, Mental Illness, and the Internet

When I was 17, three things happened to me: I got into Barnard, I attempted suicide, and I met Hannah in person for the first time.

I don’t remember exactly how it started. She must’ve messaged me, and I must’ve messaged back. In the course of the five years I spent on Tumblr, I participated in hundreds of exchanges like this one. I’d message somebody to tell her I liked her blog, and she—it was usually a she—would respond in kind, if at all. My relationships with most other bloggers ended there. Hannah was different. Hannah’s still here.

Six years since we crossed paths online as 15-year-olds, I lay on her bed and wondered aloud about that first message.

“No, that’s not it,” she said. “It was definitely something about Barnard. That’s how I found your blog, remember? I thought you already went here.”

***

At 15, I wanted to become a certain kind of young woman. I thought hard about her during boring field hockey practices. I could almost see her: brainy, cool, beautiful the way a weapon is beautiful. I believed that Barnard would allow me to realize this vision, and that once there, I’d be surrounded and befriended by women just like the one I wanted to become. Until then, I had Tumblr.

Look at my blog today, and a clear picture of me at 15 emerges. Much like actual photos of me taken at that time, it’s not all that flattering. This is because I recorded my every last thought about school, my friends, my fledgling feminism. I believed disposable camera photos were high art. I thought the Arctic Monkeys were the greatest band in the world. I was sure my parents didn’t understand me and never would.

Like I said, I was 15.

It would be easy to dismiss most of my posts as the musings of a silly, self-serious teenager, and it’s true that that’s what I was. But I was also suffering from clinical anxiety, a condition I wouldn’t be able to name for years.

Because these feelings had been a part of my life for so long, I failed to realize it wasn’t ordinary anxiety I was feeling, but the kind that doctors recommend treating with medication, talk therapy, and a balanced lifestyle. I’ll put it this way: The rigors of school and social life did not make me feel stressed. They made me feel doomed. I hardly slept. I was convinced that my friends only kept me around out of habit or duty or a perverse desire to see me humiliated. I second-guessed everything that came out of my mouth, and I hated, hated, hated myself.

Tumblr was the only place—if you could call it that—where I felt comfortable. Perhaps because I knew I would never meet my followers, I could be honest with them in a way that I couldn’t with the friends I’d known since kindergarten. Hannah was no exception. I quickly discovered that we didn’t just have the same taste in music and memes. We shared a sarcastic sense of humor and a belief that Barnard would transform us from ordinary suburban teens into witty urban sophisticates. Our daily chats soon comprised an important part of my routine, and the knowledge that she was just a state away was a comfort to me in the rare few hours I spent away from Tumblr. She was like me, but different. She understood me intuitively, and when she didn’t, she listened with an open heart that I envied.

She kept listening for two years.

I don’t know what changed for me when I was 17. That December, I received my early decision acceptance to Barnard. I’d expected to feel elated, and for a little while, I did. I’d expected, too, that my anxiety would disappear. Instead, in the weeks and months that followed my acceptance, it grew worse. The reason for this still remains unclear to me.

It’s difficult to remember how I spent my days during this period. I know this: I flitted from thought to thought, or else I felt numb. For years, I’d been plagued by occasional thoughts of suicide. But during this period, they took on a frequency and allure that terrify me to this day. I took it for granted that I deserved to die.

I told Hannah everything. As always, she listened without judgment.

By March, I was having a panic attack at least once per day, and Hannah and I had arranged to meet in person for the first time. To my great relief, she was as easy to talk to in person as she was online. We went to a concert together. We were having a great time; I had a panic attack in the bathroom. One week later, I began treatment for anxiety and depression, and Hannah was accepted to Barnard. Another three weeks later, I attempted suicide.

By the time we began our first year here, I was better, getting better all the time. The friendship that Hannah and I had forged over the internet transitioned easily to real life. I grew close to my other first-year roommate, Ellie, and Hannah did, too. We studied together, took naps in each other’s beds, grabbed each other apples from the dining hall. By the spring, the three of us had agreed to live together the following year.

I was lucky. So many people struggle with mental health for the first time during the first year of college, and indeed, I watched it happen to hallmates and high school friends. While I still had to work to keep my anxiety under control, I was confident that I could successfully do so forever.

But despite my best efforts, the depression returned. And because depression made me believe I deserved to feel horrible, I didn’t ask for help. Instead, I withdrew from my friends. I avoided the cozy quad I shared with Hannah and Ellie as much as I could. I stopped being honest with my therapist.

What was I supposed to do, talk about it? I couldn’t. What was I supposed to do, write about it? I couldn’t. It isn’t like that. It doesn’t bend to the light like that.

All this feels like a story I’m telling about somebody else. It would be easy to pity my younger self, but pity isn’t what I want. I remember the look on Ellie’s face the fall night she came into our bedroom to find me lying on the floor, numb, silent, bleeding at the wrist—not much, but even a little bit was too much, she said. How she called my mother. How I yelled at her for it. (“I can handle this,” I said, really believing it. “I’m handling it.”) Were we both crying? I don’t remember.

After that, things changed. I finally got the help I needed. Ellie and I remained close; I was as honest with her as I’d once been with my fellow Tumblr users, as I’d once been with Hannah. But something stopped me from telling Hannah the truth. Maybe it was that she’d known me the first time depression hit the hardest. It was easier to be angry with her than it was to accept that depression would always—will always—be a part of my life. Much as my mental health improved over the course of that spring semester, it remained difficult to believe that anyone could care about me, let alone someone who’d seen me fail again and again at remaining mentally healthy.

By the end of our sophomore year, I felt Hannah hardly knew me.

The following fall, we had dinner together once or twice. We both had plans to meet other friends afterward. Though I’d maintained many of the friendships I’d formed during my first and second years at Barnard, I felt I was starting over, but didn’t think about what that had to do with Hannah. And there were so many new people in her life whose names I didn’t know. In the spring, Hannah went abroad. We exchanged a few Facebook messages. We liked each other’s Instagrams.

With senior year looming, I began to reflect on the ways depression and anxiety have shaped my college experience. I’ve been arrogant: These are chronic illnesses, and pretending otherwise has meant not taking care of myself. I began to think about what that had to do with Hannah.

I knew Hannah was spending the summer in New York, working at Barnard and living in the quad, a few floors above the room I’d once shared with Ellie. I messaged her on Facebook, and after a few false starts and cancellations, we arranged to meet in Riverside Park.

We sat on the ledge overlooking the park and talked for hours, the way we had the day we met. There was no shortage of awkward moments. I knew almost nothing about the boy she’d been dating for nearly a year. She had no idea that my brother had moved to New York. But there was still something so comfortable about spending time with her. She was like me, but different. We went back to her room and lay on her bed, looking at memes.

At 21, I am not quite the Barnard woman I envisioned when I was 15. I own a pair or two of trendy pants. I am smart. I work hard. For the most part, I have little use for people who have no use for me. But I am also openhearted in a way I never imagined I could be. I have no interest in shame. Best of all, I am happy.

It’s easy to forget what the experience felt like: the concrete, visceral details of being depressed and getting better. That goes for the first time it happened, when I was 17, and for the second time, too. A few years out, I can rattle off the facts of the matter and feel nothing. Like all of it happened to somebody else. And in a way, it did.

For me, it comes down to this: I used to be so scared of everything. Now I’m not. I can remember the last time I self-harmed. (It’s been nearly two years.) I can’t remember the last time I logged onto Tumblr.

The truth is that there will always be days when I’m convinced there is something wrong with me, something vast and fixed and fundamental. That everybody but me knows just what it is. That if I could only zoom out and see the thing in full, run my hands along its smooth and perfect contours, to know its size and see its shape, I’d be able to rid myself of it instantly. But all that’s just an image, and I am tired of trying to figure me out. I have people to see.

***

After a few hours together in Hannah’s room that summer day, our comfortable chatter faded into silence. It was time to say goodbye. For a moment, I felt the old inarticulate terror return. Had I said anything embarrassing? Not been funny, smart, cool enough?

Maybe Hannah’s not the woman she envisioned becoming. I don’t know. I haven’t asked. I looked at her and felt the terror fade; she was smiling. We made plans to go to a museum together a few days later.

I closed the door behind me as quietly as I could. There was something final about the gesture—it wouldn’t be long before I saw her again, but I knew I’d never return to that summer room, nor to the one where we’d lived together. So there was something final about it. I made my way out.

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