Four years ago, Ari Johnson, an incredible human being and dear friend, took his own life. On this anniversary of his death, here’s a little known story that I’ve never shared publicly, but think about all the time, particularly on this day.
It’s no secret that I struggle with my mental health. There were certainly incidents throughout my childhood that indicated an issue, but my first semester as a freshman at Penn is when things really started to spiral out of control. I was on my own for the first time, and the anxiety was skyrocketing. I cried all the time and felt completely and utterly alone. My sister Steph was a junior at Penn at the time, but she was spending that first semester abroad in Australia. I certainly had some friends on campus who I had known before college, so I wasn’t actually alone– but my god did I feel that way. Because that’s what depression does.
Ari was a very close friend of Steph’s, and a senior at the time. I had met him dozens of times when I was a high schooler visiting my sister at Penn, and he was the best. Just a super chill, friendly, funny, laid back guy. The first week of my freshman year, his fraternity, TEP, had a party, and he told me to come by and bring all my friends. I gathered the acquaintances I knew and headed over to the “TEP Deck.” It was a crowded mob scene, as first-week-of-college parties tend to be. Ari saw me and told everyone to move the hell out of the way and let his friend Emily, and all her friends, come in. It was absurd but fantastic– and at age 18, yeah, it made me feel super fucking cool.
Ari totally took me under his wing that first semester while Steph was away. He could see that I was kind of struggling, and wanted to be the surrogate older sibling in the absence of my sister. This was certainly not his job, but he made it so. Because that’s just who he was.
I started confiding in Ari more and more as the weeks went on, because he was one of the few people on campus I felt I could relate to. While he never explicitly said it, I sensed a darkness in him. An underlying, inner battle. There’s a certain kinship that exists among people with mental health issues– we can sense it in others, even when they haven’t sensed it yet in themselves. Something about the conversations Ari and I had led me to believe that deep down, he was struggling, too.
But I never asked. I didn’t feel it was my place, and I sensed he probably didn’t want to discuss it.
Words cannot express how much I regret that.
About a month into freshman year, my anxiety and depression began to take the form of bulimia. I was living each day grasping at strings, and bingeing and purging was the only method I had for feeling in-control (the ultimate irony, because nothing says “out of control” more than eating a meal for 5 and then shoving your finger down your throat). By the second month of college, I was making myself throw up 3-4 times a day.
One day I just grew weary. Shortly after a purge, staring at my bloodshot eyes in the mirror, I got so damn tired of carrying this secret. It was at that moment that Ari sent me an instant message (remember those?!) asking me what’s up. I responded, “I think I might be bulimic.”
I told him everything. He responded with immediate, genuine concern, and told me I needed to get help at the student health center. At the very least, he said, I needed to tell my family. That’s when I panicked and tried to backtrack. I didn’t want my family to know. I didn’t want to disappoint or worry anyone. I just wanted to tell Ari so that I could get it off my chest– but really, I was fine.
I was 100% not fine. But I tried to downplay what was happening. I told Ari it wasn’t that big a deal, I was just having a bad day, this was all under control. I begged him not to tell my sister. By the end of the conversation, I was sure I had convinced him that a little bulimia was not really a genuine health concern, and that I’d be fine.
But Ari was no idiot. And he had too much heart to sit back and do nothing. He did exactly what he should have done– he told my sister. And then, immediately after telling her, he told me that he had told her. And that was the first step in my realizing that this was a real problem, and that I needed help.
Knowing that I now had no choice but to take action, I immediately confided in another friend of mine, and she took me to the student health center. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been evaluated for the state of my mental health. Needless to say, I did not pass. I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. The doctor was amazed I had made it this far without doing something truly drastic, seeing as though I was waking up every day hating myself and feeling so utterly alone. I was put on medication and set up with a doctor for talk therapy. I have been in treatment ever since, and can’t even fathom where I’d be today if I hadn’t taken those beginning steps to acknowledge and understand what was happening to me.
In that sense, I truly feel I owe Ari my life. I wish I could have told him that while he was still alive. I wish I could have told him that in recognizing my pain, taking it seriously, and putting me on the path to getting the help I needed, he did more to save my life than he will ever know.
And I will never stop wishing that I had done the same for him.
If you know someone struggling, say something. Don’t be afraid to have the conversation. There are no wrong words– if you think someone is suicidal, ask them. Urge them to get help. Remind them that you care.
If you’re looking for a way to help someone today, there are two links to fabulous causes below. The first is for Active Minds, a mental health organization that is extremely dear to my heart, and whose ultimate goal is to change the conversation about mental health, creating a world where no one has to feel alone in his or her struggle.
The second is a link to the Ari Johnson Memorial Scholarship– started by my family, this scholarship will keep Ari’s memory and impact alive, and will be awarded to a student at Penn who shows dedication to overcoming adversity and disadvantage, including but not limited to the area of mental health challenges and advocacy.