The Light of Your Being

Juliana Philippa Kerrest
Juliana Philippa Kerrest

Another school year has started for Active Minds students, and for myself as well. I was supposed to graduate in spring 2018, but as it so often does, life had other plans.

Last academic year started off very positively for me. I had spent the previous summer at a terrific internship in the Democratic Republic of Congo and came back to Cambridge ready to finish the last year in my dual graduate degree program. I felt clearer than I ever had before on the next steps I wanted to make in my career and in my personal life, and was looking forward to what the next stage of my life would bring.

Within a few short months though, all that had disappeared, and I found myself in the midst of a deep and dark depression that seemed to be swallowing me whole. I was again in a hospital, for my own safety. I was again facing the reality that my school and career plans were going to have to shift as a result of illness. And I was again full of a heavy shame, utterly convinced that I was the embodiment of failure and did not deserve anything—not even life.

The thought that had become my obsession in the weeks leading up to my hospitalization—the thought that I could not seem to escape—was that I deserved to die. Deserved to die. Even within the depths of my episode, I knew the starkness of that statement and looking back, I am struck by it: why was I so attached to this word “deserve”? What wrong could I possibly think I had committed that warranted such dire punishment? But those who know the twisted halls of depression and the circus mirror that is mental illness know that going down that road yields no satisfying answers, no definitive results; you can’t apply logical thinking to something that has no logic.

This was not my first depressive episode; it was my 12th. I know what comes before, during, and (thankfully) after. Yet even knowing that there was a version of me without depression—that there had been in the past and could again be in the future—my depression negated these facts. I knew that others would find my thinking to be irrational and would try to convince me that it was just the illness speaking, but in that moment, and in those weeks, it was my only truth.

I am tempted to say that “I clung to it,” but that’s not the case. Rather, it clung to me. With its sharp claws, it dug itself into my skin, burrowed deep within my heart, and latched on. It crept its way into my brain and made a home for itself there. It was a monster of my own making that my mind created; it knew all of my weaknesses and insecurities. And there was nothing that I could do, or that anyone could say, to make me believe that I did not deserve death.

One of the most challenging things about mental illness is that you are being decimated by something that you cannot even fight. The problem is not that it feels like a losing battle—you a lone gladiator against an unstoppable army—but rather that you are not even able to enter the coliseum. There is no fight left within you, and any energy you have goes instead, unwillingly, to making that monster stronger and more terrifying; not only are you not on your own team, but your mind is actually working for the other side, fueling and recharging the enemy. It is part of what makes the people around us so incredibly vital: we need others to love us most during these times, because we are utterly unable and incapable of loving ourselves.

This most recent episode reminded me of the unbelievable support system that I have been gifted with and that I have built. Being in the hospital showed me how fortunate I am in this regard, and my heart broke and my anger rose when I would see people’s family and friends blame them, abandon them, make them feel worse than they already did, and sometimes in an almost purposeful manner.

I felt undeserving of the love and support that I received and even now, I feel overwhelmed by just the thought of it. Sometimes, that little seed of doubt will again dance at the edge of my mind, enticing me to follow it down that dark path, but the difference is that I am once more able to resist it; I have built back up my reserves and can shut down that train of thought, so I slam that door and I slam it hard. The truth is that we are all deserving of that love, and the fact that others do not always have it does not make me less deserving of it myself.

I share my story to help others understand what they themselves have not experienced, but I also share for those who know this struggle intimately, to let them know that they are not alone. One of my favorite poems is by Hafez, and it reads in part:

Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive.
Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.
I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

I keep a copy of this last sentence with me in my wallet, and I wish I could inscribe it on the heart of every single person who has ever suffered from mental illness or battled similar demons. Because I wish I could show them, when they are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of their own being.