I’m originally from California and am now a junior at the University of Michigan (U of M) studying Psychology and Neuroscience. Outside of school, I love to go on runs, spend time with my friends, and try out new coffee shops! Currently, I am on the executive board for Wolverine Support Network and the U of M’s chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I’ve always been passionate about mental health, but I wasn’t always in a place to effectively display this passion.
Growing up, I was consistently known as the happiest kid around. I had (and still have) a huge smile and passion for life. So, when I started to lose sense of that internal happiness during the summer before my junior year of high school, I kept it inside and put on a mask. I was afraid to reach out because I thought that my entire identity relied on the fact that I was such a happy person.
Early in my junior year, I experienced the unexpected loss of someone close to me. In addition to being a close family friend, this person was a recent graduate of my high school and was well known throughout our campus. After his passing, our campus suffered a lot of pain and grief. Surprisingly, in addition to the grief I felt, I was also feeling a sense of relief. This was the first time I could openly display emotions other than joy to those around me. It was so amazing to be supported by so many loving people.
As my school community moved through their healing process, I found myself slowly putting up my facade of happiness again. Everyone seemed to be healing just fine, but I still felt that profound sense of sadness in my heart. The only difference was that now I didn’t feel comforted by sharing it with others or reaching out for support. It was during this time that I had so many emotions built up inside that I couldn’t take it anymore and broke down to my mom one night. I was so frustrated that I wasn’t the “happy Nick” anymore. Opening up to my mom was the first step in my mental health recovery process.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just smooth sailing from that point on. I went through continuous ups and downs. At home, I felt sad and worthless, unable to get out of bed on the weekends. At school, I could barely focus in class or concentrate on assignments, and my grades slipped. Thankfully, I was taking steps toward finding things that supported my mental health, from my school counselor, to my close friends, and even to finding a therapist and psychiatrist.
But again, I found myself feeling worse before I got better. Talking with my therapist brought up old painful memories from the trauma I experienced during a toxic relationship with my father. Finding the correct dose of medication with my psychiatrist was just as challenging. I thought I was taking all the right steps, but I wasn’t getting better. At this point, I had little hope and started to experience urges to harm myself or end my life for the first time ever. I was scared at first, and eventually talked about these feelings with my therapist, who helped me find where to get support, should I find myself in those headspaces.
Eventually, after more ups and downs, I received a primary diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in addition to depression and generalized anxiety. While these diagnoses initially seemed to define me, I found that they actually served as a piece of hope and comfort. I wasn’t the only one who had ever experienced what I was feeling, and I could finally understand parts that led me to feel all of these things, from sad to overly stressed to distracted to even suicidal. I learned that it was okay to not be okay, to not be the happy Nick all the time. And, at the same time, I worked harder than ever to get back to that sense of happiness I so dearly missed.
With all that said, I want to be clear. It wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, there were constant ups and downs: trying a new medication, feeling hopeful, but then getting worse; meeting my therapist, making progress, and then relapsing. Over time, I learned to accept that these natural ups and downs of life were a completely normal part of recovery. I learned new ways to celebrate the highs, while also figuring out what to do when the lows eventually came along.
My mom and a few of my best friends were there for me through all the highs and lows. It wasn’t easy for them either, and I learned that they valued our relationship enough to stick with me. I am still so grateful to have had people in my life during this time who were willing to brave the storm with me, from talking to them about my days to teaching them what to do if I became suicidal and needed immediate help. Without the support I found in them, my current reality would be much different.
At a certain point, though, I had enough of this battle, despite the support of my loved ones, and attempted to end my life. It was during my hospital stay after this attempt that I realized I needed something more. I ended up taking the rest and spending 40 days in a residential treatment program across the country in Wisconsin (well, it was across the country for me, being from California). The combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and experiential therapy, as well as being able to take a break from the normal stressors of life and school, proved to be just what I needed. I left that treatment center filled with hope, not a hope that I was “better” or “fixed,” but rather a hope that should I ever experience those profound lows again, I would be able to survive them and even learn to thrive through them.
I’ve come a long way from the high school student constantly feeling worthless, not being able to focus in class, and wanting to end my life. Today, I stand here as a student at one of the best public universities in the world, working at a research lab under a nationally-known neuroscientist, and holding leadership positions in many mental health organizations at the U of M. I share these victories, along with the hardships I’ve experienced, to exemplify that even when the darkness crashes in, there will always be a glimmer of hope. I share my story so that hopefully I can be that glimmer of hope peeking through the darkness of a student in the audience. And, I have to be honest and say that it’s not perfect. I still struggle. Some days, my success is finding a new discovery in my research lab, acing an exam, and coming up with a great new idea for my student organizations; other days, my success is getting out of bed and surviving the day. And I’ve learned that both of these successes are just that, successes. My journey isn’t over. It’s a lifelong journey of ups and downs. The only difference is that today I can stand here, feeling happy, filled with purpose, and confident that I can overcome whatever struggles are yet to come and tell you, unequivocally, that there is hope, and there will always be hope.