At the beginning of this semester, my body was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t read the signs. I felt constant abdominal pains and my skin would react to certain foods that I ate. I juggled with these physical issues as I went between classes, work and spending time with friends.
I also became more aware of mental issues I had been experiencing for some time. I began to realize that the feelings of frustration, sensory overload and trouble concentrating that I saw as part of my everyday life were not normal.
So I have decided to take a yearlong leave of absence from Penn.
When I told my family that I wanted to leave Penn not for physical, but mental health reasons, I was met with a certain amount of resistance and surprise.
One of my family members even asked, “If your physical health is not the reason, then would it be possible to at least finish this semester and then take your leave of absence?”
I understand the attitude that my family has towards mental health because it is the same attitude I have had all my life. Three, five and six years ago — when I was unable to focus and complete small tasks — I ignored the symptoms. Instead, I perfected a coping mechanism. During the sporadic days or weeks when I could focus, I worked relentlessly — forsaking sleep and rest — and only crashed when I realized that I was attempting to read the same sentence for the fifth time.
After speaking with a Counseling and Psychological Services counselor on the phone during my freshman year, I decided to share my long-standing attention issues with my parents. That’s when my mental health problems became a running joke in my family.
“Remember the time Sindhu thought she had problems? How could we believe such a thing when her GPA didn’t reflect that at all?” they would ask.
That was when I decided to bury my nagging concerns and continue to employ my award-winning coping mechanisms.
It has taken me many years, a few struggles, a lot of frustration and an extremely trustworthy friend who pushed me to go to CAPS to admit that there are things in my life that have to change.
Last month, when my therapist told me that she thought I had depression, I laughed. Her diagnosis came as a complete shock. “Maybe I’m depressed because of how I’m feeling,” I replied.
She suggested, gently, that I had the cause and effect reversed. Perhaps my feelings were the result of my depression which has been with me for a long time, even before Penn.
I tried to rationalize this idea away. I am, after all, one of the happiest people I have ever known. I am incredibly lucky and hopeful for the future. How could I be depressed?
But happiness and depression are not on opposite ends of the spectrum. Or at least, they don’t have to be.
Depression, to me, is like asthma — a condition that lasts a lifetime. It’s caused by a combination of pre-existing dispositions, bodily functions and brain reactions that are beyond your control. The condition gets better or worse depending on the triggers you encounter. While there’s no real way to completely cure yourself, you can control the environment you’re in and how you react to it.
I struggled to decide whether to leave Penn until it dawned on me that my condition is a medical one — so I’m entitled to medical leave. Once I shared the reason behind my leave of absence with others, I was struck by the level of support and encouragement I received during an extremely lonely time. I was also surprised by the number of people who reached out to me to share their version of a similar story. Close friends and acquaintances I barely knew told me about their struggles and frustrations. My honesty made me more relatable and made me a sounding board for other people’s stories.
Through these conversations, I found out that Penn is what depresses a lot of people. But that’s not the case for me. I don’t see my experience here as a grueling obstacle course to an Ivy League degree. Penn is a place where I have accumulated many happy memories and awe-inspiring friends.
I am incredibly excited to return next year after some serious soul-searching. But students should feel free to share their stories more openly. Penn should not be a place where students ask for help only when they realize that their options are running out.
Sindhuri Nandhakumar, a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka, is taking a yearlong leave of absence from Penn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” has appeared every other Wednesday this semester.
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