If you looked at Madison Holleran you would think she had it all. She was beautiful, smart, and a college athlete at an Ivy League university. If you looked at her Instagram page you would have seen her electric smile, loving friends and family, and positivity. You could not detect depression by looking at her. And you would not expect her story to end in suicide.
But it did.
Like Madison, at some point, the world became too much for me. I felt myself fading, being replaced by a fog that made me unrecognizable to myself and it also made the people I love feel distant from me.
I came to the realization that I suffered from depression my sophomore year of college, the same year Madison committed suicide. Before then, I thought that I was just moody, occasionally down in the dumps. Yet when I really thought about it, that fog spread so deeply into my psyche that it covered me daily.
Learning Madison's story was a real wake up call for me. I sat in my dorm room at Northwestern University - a place where quite a few students struggle with mental health- and thought, there is absolutely nothing that separates me from her.
I thought I was the only person that felt burdened by pressure I could not handle anymore. I thought I was the only person living inside my own head, feeding the streams of negative thoughts and ideas in my mind with fear and hopelessness.
For a long time I thought, "What is wrong with me?" I did not know who to talk to because I did not know what to say. The depression I experienced was led by my anxiety toward the future, the pressure I felt to be perfect, and all the evilness I witnessed in the world. But I did not know how to articulate that.
Depression is a spirit that latches onto insecurities, thrives on uncertainty, and feeds on tragedy. If you are suffering from depression you feel as if you cannot control something- be it yourself, people you know, the world or all of the above.
The tricky part about mental illness? It looks and feels different on every person.
On my darkest days I felt helpless and lost; so lonely that I did not want to get out of the bed, so empty that I could no longer see my purpose in full-view.
I was tired of socializing, tired of being present. During this time, I had lost control of my mind and there was always an ever flowing amount of thoughts in my brain - running constantly when I did not want them to be. But somehow I always made it to class and when I wrote a list of who I am living for and what I am living for I found reason to live.
With depression, there comes a point where you have to choose to get better and we are all capable of making that choice. It is not easy... at all. In fact, it is extremely trying. But that is why I encourage all of us to be brave enough to discuss mental health more openly and honestly.
Bravery. This is the word I clung to when I embarked upon the journey of sharing what I thought was an uncomfortable truth: my battle with mental health.
Earlier this year I left Chicago for a few months to work for a television show in South Africa. Before I left, I experienced another bout of depression but I was determined to do one thing in South Africa: make a film about my struggles with depression in order to use it as a tool to facilitate meaningful conversations about mental health.
The name of this film? Brave Girl.
The majority of the film was shot in South Africa but there is a section of the film that was shot in Chicago. When I approached people to be in the film, and told them what it was about, a woman walked away from me and said, "No, I'm not depressed" even though being depressed was not a requirement for being in the film. But putting myself out there was well worth it because one of the women that chose to participate told me, "wow, I can relate to that. I'm bipolar and it took years and years of bad decisions and not admitting that I needed help for me to finally seek help."
Admitting to having mental health issues is never easy. Why? Because it is taboo. Yes, it makes you vulnerable but no, it does not make you different. Like me, you will be surprised at the number of people around you that have struggled with mental health.
Admitting to having battled with mental health makes you happier, it makes you stronger, and it makes you less likely to fall victim to living inside your own mind- which is extremely dangerous because you are not actually participating in the world around you. You are just sinking deeper and deeper into a hole your mental illness created for you, the hole it wants you to stay in.
Ironically, when I became comfortable saying, "I suffer from depression" I began to come across others who have as well. And the more I chose to bring up my struggles with depression with friends and strangers alike, the less difficult it was to say and the less connected I felt to depression.
There are things that are absolutely beautiful about this world and there are also things that make this world dangerously sad.
It is the invisible scars that are the most difficult to heal.
I think the most amazing thing mental illness has done for me is showed me where my passion lies, in my writing. The best writing comes from a place of experience and most times, experience with pain. I would take the honest agony I felt and turn it into something therapeutic, not only for myself but for those around me. I found that my pain really gave me material as a writer to inspire other people to believe in themselves, to believe in love, and to believe in change.
Accepting my battle with depression was not easy. Sharing it was even harder. Letting it go took time. But choosing to be courageous and using my experience with depression to help other people was the best decision I have ever made.
Nothing will be impossible for you if you believe in yourself. Like Madison wrote in her suicide note, I had many moments when I thought to myself, "How did this happen?"
How did I get here? To a place where I do not recognize myself, a place where I was "trying.trying.trying." and I just wanted peace.
Peace is all we really want here on Earth but there is so much happening. So much war, heart ache, pressure, loneliness, anger - it all weighs so heavy on the soul. And when you feel like no one understands, when you feel like you are at your wits end you begin searching for peace in places you may not have, had you had the resources you needed to protect your life.
When I finally began to feel better -- after a concerted effort to build myself up through my faith and through the time spent with those I hold dear -- I became inspired to help others.
I was able to create Brave Girl, facilitate conversations on mental health, and in the process, create a tool that has already encouraged people to fight hard against the battles they face mentally.
***Note: If you're having trouble explaining your depression to yourself or others. Here's a video that will help! ***
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.