“No– what do YOU think?”
— Me, to my therapist.
And then her universe imploded.
“No– what do YOU think?”
— Me, to my therapist.
And then her universe imploded.
Teaching kid a new math skill…
Kid: “Can you show me one more time? I’m not ready to try.”
Me: “I showed you several times– at this point you will learn best by doing it yourself. Just give it a try!”
Kid: “But sometimes I get afraid to try.”
Me: “There is nothing to be afraid of. Trying is how you learn, and if it doesn’t go the way you want it to, that just gives you good information for how to try again. Learning and success is a process, kiddo!”
Kid: “So you mean if I get it wrong, just learn from it?”
Me: “Yes! You got it!”
Kid: “When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound so scary.”
Me: “Exactly. It really is THAT easy. Just try! I promise you, you have nothing to lose!”
(2 hours later)
Therapist: “So have you taken any steps to pursue a writing career?”
Me: “No. I’m too afraid to try.”
Therapist: “I’m starting to notice this about you– you tend to start things from a place of assumed failure. You approach new things, even new conversations, or small tasks, as something you’re going to screw up. And immediately starting from this assumption puts you in a space of feeling defensive, like you constantly have to prove yourself. And that’s why it’s so hard for you to get started with things. And, quite frankly, why you’re so exhausted.”
Me: <stunned silence>
Therapist: “Big ‘Aha!’ moment for you?”
Me: “It took you 7 years to notice this about me?!”
It’s literally the one thing I was born knowing about myself
Me: “With everything going on in our country right now, I’m honestly just so horrified and saddened as a human in general– but as a Jew in particular, as I know you can relate–”
Therapist: “Oh I’m actually not Jewish.”
Me: “You’re NOT?! But your last name–”
Therapist: “I know. A common Jewish last name. People often assume I am Jewish.”
Me: “But I feel like I’ve had all these insider only-jews-would-get-this kind of exchanges with you.”
Therapist: “Hmm. I didn’t interpret them that way.”
Therapist: “What are you thinking?”
Me: “Oh, oh nothing. This obviously doesn’t change anything.”
I just have to re-think every piece of advice you’ve ever given me.
Me: “It really frustrates me when the kids I tutor just blatantly don’t do the homework and then lie about it. I mean, come on. I know you’re, like, 8, but don’t insult me. I can see your lack of progress, kid! I don’t even actually care if you did it or not– just, like, don’t LIE to me!”
Therapist: “That is frustrating. But yes, like you said– they are 8.”
Me: “I know, I know. I don’t know why it annoys me so much. But it does.”
(later in the session)
Therapist: “So last time we talked about your anxiety and the importance of meditating to help relieve it. Have you been meditating more?”
Me: “Yes, every day.”
“Let’s focus more on what makes sense for you, in your life, right now, and less on what makes sense for Kim Kardashian. In fact, as a broader goal, maybe we don’t make the Kardashians a factor in any decisions, big or small, ever.”
— Therapist, after I explained the reason for my current “Should I be freezing my eggs?!” anxiety-spiral.
Me: “So I think I figured out why I can’t stomach seafood, even though I really want to like it. I try so hard to find seafood I can eat, but I’m just so averse to it. Then this memory came back to me out of nowhere the other day, but it makes so much sense. When I was younger I went on vacation with my family. We left our goldfish at home, unattended, because…well, it was a goldfish, so whatever. When we came back, I was the first one to walk into the kitchen and see, there on the counter, right where we’d snack every day after school, the goldfish– on its side, dried up, shriveled, sad black eye staring at the ceiling. He had probably jumped out of his bowl on day 1, either with a grand plan for freedom or a suicidal death wish, and been crusting over there on the countertop for a week. He was so plastered to the marble that we needed a metal spatula to pry him off. At which point my dad turned to us and said, ‘Fish for dinner!’ Which of course, in hindsight, is hilarious, but at the time I’m pretty sure I was horrified. But anyway, don’t you think that makes so much sense as to why I can’t eat seafood?”
Therapist: “Well do you like the taste of seafood?”
Therapist: “So it’s probably just that. You don’t like how it tastes.”
“Just remember– it’s fake news.”
— My therapist, re: the constant negative thought spirals in my brain
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.
Me (ranting about a former client who didn’t understand or value the services I provide as a tutor): “It must be nice for you– you know, to be a doctor, and work in an established, revered field where your clients actually have respect for the work that you do.”
Therapist: “Half my clients have personality disorders. I get called the c-word and am told to go fuck myself at least three times a week.”
Alright well I feel better now.