I woke up for what felt like the hundredth time to the nurse asking me if she could take my vitals. In a rehearsed choreography, I sat up in my bed, placed the thermometer in my mouth, held my arm out, slipped my finger into the sensor, and waited until I heard the beep. The cold floor stung through the traction grips on the socks they gave me. I had forgotten what shoes felt like on my feet. I looked around the room and saw the same walls again. They were plain white and held no life in them; the light that crept in through the window lost its luster once it entered the room. I stared out the window and imagined myself, just for a moment, feeling the wind hug my skin and hearing the leaves rustle on the ground. The outside felt so foreign, such a liberated place, that I wasn’t good enough or happy enough for yet. I tried not to think about it.
Beep. The nurse took out the thermometer, and I snapped back to reality.
During my second semester of college at the Ohio State University, I fell apart. I developed severe depression and anxiety from so many problems that I had at the time. I lost my passion, my drive, and my happiness. Every day was just another day to get through. I deconstructed all the aspects of my life that made me who I was and scrutinized myself. I isolated myself, took drastic measures to try and lose weight, and tried to alter my appearance so much that I didn’t recognize myself anymore. It felt like the end for me, and I couldn’t see past the darkness.
One day, I reached my breaking point and completely shut down. I was crying for hours on end, unable to move, eat or sleep. My friends asked if I would be willing to make an appointment with a counselor, and I called to make an appointment. After explaining my situation, I was asked to come in right away. I went, talked with a counselor for a short period of time, and then was asked if I would be willing to immediately be taken to the hospital. The first time, I went for about 2 days for temporary treatment, and was released. I soon relapsed and went back to the hospital 2 or 3 more times for temporary treatment again. During the last visit, I was fully admitted into the psych ward and was there for ten days. I felt like a prisoner, a ghost of my past life, merely existing in a timeless space while the rest of the world went on outside the walls.
Once I left the psych ward, I had to readjust to living my life. I had to pick myself up from the ground and pretty much start over again. Many of my relationships were damaged and I felt like I was a burden on everyone around me. Slowly, I took steps to put myself back together. I confided in my family and friends, was open with my experience, and started a mental health advocacy organization (which would later combine with the existing Active Minds chapter at Ohio State) to help other students who were going through the same struggles that I was.
Looking back, there were times when I was so ashamed of what I had gone through. People called me selfish and criticized me for not thinking about all of the people that I was affecting. There were so many negative things that came out of my mental illnesses, and it took me years to see past that. I now look at it with a different attitude. I am grateful for my journey. I see the same value in all of the bad times as I do with all of the good times. I truly became a resilient person through all of it.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back and recover from injury and trauma, to rise from the ashes. It is a true test of character and involves so much introspection and self-discovery. This concept also has an application in the ecological field, and refers to the capacity of an ecosystem (and all of its components) to respond to a disturbance or devastating event and recover. Many plant species are coveted and known for their resilience against harsh climates and volatile environments. I became fascinated with this idea after I left the hospital and pursued my degree in landscape architecture. I spent the past few years seeking out answers to how I could apply this concept of resilience to my life in recovery.
This is what I have found.
During those ten days in the hospital, I lost a lot of my spatial knowledge for the outdoor built environment. I didn’t even realize that I had a spatial knowledge at the time. But as humans, we mostly all develop an understanding of how to experience the outdoor built environment (which landscape architects play a huge role in creating and designing). We are taught to walk on paved and level surfaces if we want to go somewhere, go to the shade when we are hot, and use landmarks like large buildings to orient ourselves in the spaces we are in. This knowledge in turn creates a psychological relationship between humans and the outdoor built environment. Spaces that are poorly lit and don’t have visible paths can evoke feelings of anxiety and fear in people. Reversely, spaces with many natural features such as ponds and shade trees have certain sounds and smells that can evoke feelings of calmness and serenity in people. What I had lost in the hospital and not being outside for ten days was all of that sensory recognition and stimulus that we so often take for granted. Not hearing the leaves crunching underneath me, seeing the people walking around me going to class, and feeling the sun on my skin exacerbated my depression and anxiety.
So why am I saying all of this? (Or writing it, for that matter)
I have found that being resilient requires adjustments in many aspects of our lives that we might not have even thought about before, just one example being our spatial knowledge. I developed a much deeper appreciation for the outdoor built environment and now pay attention to how it affects me psychologically. For example, if I am super anxious for a big presentation or test and cannot focus on anything else, I will take an unfamiliar path to class or work. Traveling along a familiar route that I go on every day becomes so engraved in my brain that I don’t even think about the decisions I am making while turning and crossing streets, which leaves more capacity for my brain to focus on those anxiety-provoking thoughts. However, if I take an unfamiliar path, I have to be much more vigilant and thoughtful about what paths I am taking and what landmarks I am traveling in-between, which leaves less room for anxious thoughts. This one seemingly small aspect of life in comparison to all others may not be as important to some as it is important to people like me, however the same attitude and approach to it can be applied universally to all aspects of life.
We can all be more resilient through taking action and actively being aware of how certain aspects of life affect our mental health. Whether it be going to outdoor spaces that we feel calm and safe in to relieve anxious thoughts, surrounding ourselves with people who we know are going to support us unconditionally when we are having a bad day, or taking care of our bodies now so that we are healthy and have less issues in the future, we can actively make decisions every day that will impact our lives now and further down the road. We can take control of our lives and be more prepared to respond when life hits us with its hardest blows. When we break down, when we feel defeated, and when we fall is when we truly learn the most about ourselves and how to bounce back stronger than ever. Being proud of your darkest hours, your fears, even your days in the psych ward, can lead to resiliency, strength, and pure happiness.