“Hi, my name is Leo. I’m a student at Northwestern University. And I suffer from serious depression-like symptoms.”
This is part two of my ongoing project to write out my personal history in an effort to untangle the emotional history and stressors of my life. Read Part One: Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?
To be precise, I’ve never been clinically diagonsed with depression or anixety. No doctor has ever sat down in a white lab coat and said “You have depression” and handed me a little paper slip that says I have this medical condition.
I, therefore, can’t ethically say that I have depression, as that’s a medical condition that should be determined by medical professionals, not myself. But if I am diagnosed with depression, then I would join the approximately 6 million U.S. adults who have experienced at least one major depressive episode but never received treatment in 2016, according to statistics published by the National Institute for Mental Health.
The prevalance of undiagnosed and untreated depression among adolescents is even worse — while 37% of adults aged 18 or older who have experienced at least one major depressive episode received no treatment, that percentage rises to 60% for those aged 12-17.
I’ve heard arguments from medical professionals to not describe depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions as an “epidemic,” because mental health issues aren’t contagious from person to person. I think that’s an unnecessarily nuanced point, but I will defer to the medical experts, but I do believe that it’s far to say the prevalance of untreated depression episodes is a major public health crisis.
Suicide is now the tenth-highest leading cause of death in the United States, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s public health agency.
It took five years between when I first thought of killing myself and my first interaction with a mental health therapist.
For the first half of my life, the issue was one of access. Given that everyone — including my biological family members — were threats to my well-being, it’s not surprising to learn that issues of mental health were stigmatised as well. I didn’t know any therapists or counsellors or psychiatrists. I was also a legal minor, which meant that my parents had access and control over all my medical records — including anything I would disclose to a mental health professional. I wasn’t able to access any services to cure and heal my depression, anxiety, stress, fear and trauma without it also being a real threat to my life.
It’s because of this that I am now a little hesistant about issues like the age of majority, because a part of me feels that I was denied adequate medical care by law on the basis of an arbitrary age distinction. If I had been able to control my medical records while under the age of 18 to prevent my parents from knowing what doctors I was seeing and why, then I would have felt a lot more secure in seeking services, and I doubt my condition would have worsened to the point where it has now.
But the way that our legal system works assumes that every family is secure, functional and acting in the child’s best interest, until it’s really really not.
In 2015, though, I boarded a 16-hour flight to university on my 18th birthday. Which meant that from the moment I stepped onto Northwestern’s campus, I was legally in control of my own medical and academic records. That was no longer a reason not to go.
But I still. never talked to Counseling and Psychological Services throughout all of my first year. I thought I didn’t need it.
I thought that the change in environment, the making of new friends, and the fresh challenges of a university curriculum would eventually lift my spirits. I was already feeling really happy from all the excitment, and really supported because of the incredible efforts of my upperclass peer advisors — Geordan Tilley and Michael Stern — who spent over a week leading and guiding me and my group of fellow new students during Wildcat Welcome, the university’s orientation week.
At the time, I didn’t think I had depression or anxiety issues. I thought my situation was just a mood caused by a combination of the biological effects of adolescence, my conservative social environment, and my continued questioning of my sexual identity. When I arrived at Northwestern, having just turned 18, I thought I had messed up all the years of my life up to that point. I was just looking for a fresh start.
Throughout all three quarters of my first year, I dismissed any symptoms that I wasn’t OK as just “transition anxieties.” To a large extent, those were real worries — what would Ben, my roommate, be like? Would I make any friends? Would I be accepted, welcomed, included? Would I enjoy my classes or end up absolutely hating college life and dropping out? Was journalism the right choice after all?
What I didn’t realise, though, was that these worries were caused by my underlying anxieties. I thought all these new questions were causing my anxieties and sadness.
It turns out it was the other way round.
I had listened to my peer advisors and my resident advisors about all the agencies and departments at Northwestern who could help — CAPS, CARE, the Women’s Center. I filed that information away in case it would be useful in the future, but I thought I wouldn’t ever need it.
I had managed my own life pretty well up to that point, I thought. What kind of help would I possibly need?
My first-ever trip to the emergency room was that summer between freshman and sophomore years.
I was staying in Evanston because I wanted to work over the summer at the NUIT Support Center, continuing my first on-campus job there that I had taken in April. I applied for the job simply because I found myself with some extra time between classes that I wanted to fill with something fun, and Ava, a new friend I was making at Chapin Hall, suggested that I give it a go.
Residential Services closes most of the campus houses as soon as spring quarter ends, leaving a few weeks’ gap between summer residents, like high schoolers on programs, could move in. I knew that it wouldn’t work for me, because it meant that everything in my dorm room had nowhere to go for two weeks as I didn’t know any off-campus friends and didn’t have any family members nearby. (My sister, physically closest, was over 800 miles away in Connecticut.)
So I started looking around for a sublet, and eventually found a then-junior in Medill who I knew through North by Northwestern and through the Knight Lab who was looking for someone to live in her apartment on Clark Street over the summer. She was someone whom I respected and admired, and I thought she was trustworthy, so we set up an arrangement.
This was great, I thought. You can see the apartment from the Support Center. I could walk to work in a minute. How convenient!
I had no experience in handling anything like a lease or sublease. To be fair, I don’t think she did, either. But, as things got closer to the end of spring, there were a bunch of red flags that I missed because I didn’t know what I was looking out for.
First, the terms of our deal changed from what we had agreed, and she told me that I wasn’t subletting from her, but from her roommate. Then, she told me to duplicate the apartment and mailbox keys without informing the property’s landlord. She also took ages to contact the landlord to let them know of their intention to lease to me – and when they finally did tell the property landlord that I wanted to move in, the landlord took so long to process my application and credit check that I still wasn’t approved as a tenant when the quarter ended and Northwestern was kicking me off campus.
I was scared. I panicked. I didn’t want to be living in a place that I had no legal right to be in. To some extent, if I lived there, I would be nothing more than a squatter — and I thought if the landlord did ever visit and found me or my stuff there, I could be evicted and I would essentially be homeless.
I moved all my personal belongings into that apartment and settled down for the night, but I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified that the landlord was going to enter in the middle of the night and kick me out. That weekend, I would stay outside during the day, wondering around the emptied campus and around Evanston simply because I couldn’t stay in the apartment a moment longer than I had to.
I can’t be sure if this actually happened or if it was just a drastic, fear-induced thought, but I was prepared to pack everything into my suitcases and ask to leave it at the NUIT Support Center for a few days if it came to it.
I’m more hazy about these details, but after a few nights’ panicking, high stress and lack of sleep, I called CAPS and spoke to their after-hours counselor and blurted out every detail about what was happening. She listened and suggested that I come in for a visit.
That was how I first visited CAPS.
I’m pretty sure I told NUIT supervisors that I had a medical appointment at Searle, which wasn’t exactly lying, but I also didn’t tell them that it was CAPS.
I met with a lovely therapist, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and we talked for about an hour about my housing troubles — how I was technically squatting, how I didn’t have a legal lease agreement and how that was causing my fears and anxieties. I felt pretty good opening up to her, so when she asked me about other stressors, I talked to her about how I was still figuring out if I was gay, how my parents didn’t accept me, how I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have many friends, and everything.
It was nice. Her sofa was comfy. It was the first time I had ever admitted those struggles to anyone.
She then told me that she wanted to consult other staff members to see what she should do. I agreed and sat on her sofa for a while. When she came back, she told me her plan: We were going to call Evanston hotels to see if anyone had a room where I could sleep for the night.
She started calling hotels. Hilton Orrington? No rooms. The Holiday Inn? No rooms.
The closest availability for that night was in Skokie, near Old Orchard Mall, miles away. I couldn’t make it.
But I was feeling a lot calmer, so when we eventually concluded that hotels didn’t work, I told her that I was feeling better and prepared to sleep in the apartment for a few more nights.
I felt a lot better leaving CAPS than I did going in. I even slept soundly that night.
But about a week later, everything fell apart.
Without my knowledge, one of the upperclass students whose apartment I was living in had entered while I was at work to pick up some things that she had left behind. She had not messaged or called me beforehand, and later I discovered that she had let herself in with her own key after knocking on the door for several minutes.
When I returned to the apartment at night after work, I didn’t know she had been. She didn’t leave a note or send me a message. All I could tell was that someone had been in the apartment, and my things had been moved.
I had my first panic attack.
I remember I was sitting up in bed, perfectly still. I couldn’t move. I was staring at a radiator by the living room couch that was visible through the doorway of the room I slept in. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear my heart thumping like crazy, and all I could think was “oh my god someone was in this room what if they come back at night and what do I do and who were they and are they going to come back tonight and kill me—”
When I could finally move again, I called my CAPS therapist, who had given me her direct line, and left her a voicemail message asking if she had some time to talk. She called me later that day and said that I should come in immediately to talk, and so I did.
She smiled at me like she always did and invited me into her office, and asked me what was going on. I told her what had happened.
She left the office again to talk to her colleagues, and eventually came back and said, “Look, I think you should go to the emergency room.”
I nodded. I had considered it the night before, but ruled it out because I thought it was an overreaction from the emotions and the shock. But if she was suggesting it, then it was probably a good idea, I thought. Honestly, at the time I was so scared and exhausted that I would probably have agreed with anything.
I left her office and called an Uber to take me to Evanston Hospital.
I was there for about three hours. They really didn’t do much — I was just taken in, asked to change, and then doctors and nurses came to run check-ups. My blood was drawn. They asked me about alcohol and drugs. I was given a lot of water. (I overheard one doctor saying he wanted to get a urine sample to test for alcohol.)
I found the entire process to be exceedingly clinical — which made sense, since this was a hospital — but also reassuring. Sure, it was expensive, but I felt like I was being taken care of. I knew that nobody was going to kick me out of the emergency room and leave me to fend for myself. I felt safe.
While I was there, a social worker came in to talk to me and find out what was happening. So I told her everything that I had been spilling to my CAPS therapist only a few hours before: about my housing sublease, about being gay, being accepted, struggling with friends and adjusting. She started our conversation by taking notes in the margins of the paper on her clipboard, but about halfway through, she stopped and just looked at me as I talked.
When I was done, she reassured me that what I was feeling was valid, and then gave me information that made me feel so much better — for example, Evanston law meant that landlords couldn’t just wander in at night and find me there, and had protections for my property even if I was kicked out. She explained that, yes, it wasn’t OK for the other student to just enter without my knowledge or consent, and I had the right to demand the landlord to change the apartment locks. She suggested I reach out to Northwestern’s administrators to see if they could help.
I felt so much better. About twenty minutes after talking to her, a nurse told me to change back to my clothes, and I was discharged from the ER. (I never provided the urine sample, but I did visit the bathroom on the way out.)
Eventually, I ended up taking another sublet mid-summer from another student, and lived in Park Evanston for most of the summer. I insisted that the property management be told and I signed on as a sublessee. For about two months, I was essentially paying two rents. Fortunately enough, my parents wired me some money out of our family savings to pay for it, but the arrangement — along with the $600 bill for my emergency room visit that arrived several weeks later — still wiped out all of my NUIT summer earnings.
Somewhere amidst all of this, Jonathan Sammon gets involved, because I distinctly remember staying at his apartment and crashing on his couch for a few nights. What I can’t remember is exactly when that happens, I’m grateful for it, but I’ll mention Sammon again in the future as plays a further (and greater) role later in my college experience.
I moved back into my campus dorm for sophomore year — this time, living in a single room — a few weeks before everyone else, as I had to join NUIT’s move-in day rounds to check on all the new students and make sure they and their tech were getting settled in.
I didn’t see CAPS again for a whole year.
If you’re in crisis, there are options to help you cope. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can visit https://www.befrienders.org for more resources and information about suicide prevention hotlines worldwide.