I am currently spending my year abroad in Brockport, USA. Although I’ve largely had a wonderful time and had some great experiences, my disability, like all other aspects of my life, has hung over me and blemished my time here in the US.
I suffer from a cruel disability that has hung over me for the last 8 years: Major Depressive Disorder. It is something that we still don’t think of when we think of disability, but it is truly debilitating, and it’s the reality of many people.
My depression stops me from getting out of bed. My depression makes me eat too much, or stops me from eating at all. My depression whispers in my ear and tells me that everybody hates me. It took away my passion for everything and replaced it with anger and fear. My depression makes me tired after 20 minutes of socializing. It makes me fear crowds, fear emailing and making phone calls, and fear anything unfamiliar. It overwhelms me with the knowledge of how awful I am, and it tells me I should just do everyone a favour and press the “off” button.
I fight every day to get out of bed and do things that seem to be easy; at the same time, I am fighting people who say “why do you sleep so much,” or “how are you still so tired,” or “why do you keep skipping class” or “why don’t you just cheer up?”
People don’t seem to understand that “I can’t” is a valid answer.
I’m a high-functioning mentally ill person. I look and seem ‘normal’ the vast majority of the time (if socially awkward and standoffish), which can lead to a lot of ignorance. It can also lead to people unintentionally overwhelming me with questions, requests, responsibilities, unfair judgments – pressure. Even something as simple as being asked to try a new food can cause me to want to curl up and die. Most people can’t see how much that affects me, because I have become exceptional at hiding the intense anxiety, the fear, and the earth-shattering sadness. Intense irritability, unwarranted defensiveness, exaggerated anger, laziness and subtle procrastination are common side effects of my depression, and yet they go largely ignored, because they are not understood in the context of my illness.
Being high-functioning can lead to professors giving me strange looks when I tell them I am having a bad time with my mental health and didn’t quite manage to do some extra reading. It can be read as making excuses. It can lead to people not believing me.
I’ve experienced a lot of this on my year abroad. Although I have experienced stigma in the UK, the US (or at least where I am) seems a little worse for this. Professors generally have given me no allowance for my mental health, and friends have mostly said to me “you don’t seem depressed.” I find myself more isolated than ever away from my support network at home.
I take medication to help manage my depression and I can honestly say that it has helped me change my life. It’s like a crutch. It doesn’t fix the broken leg, but it helps me walk. Before I went on the medication, every day was a fight to stay alive. Depression ruled my life. It coloured everything I did. I still fight, but far smaller battles. I know I can’t live without it. That’s not an option for me at this point in my life.
Before I got accepted onto my year abroad, I was putting a lot of pressure onto studying abroad as a “cure.” I thought it offered an opportunity to reinvent myself as someone not depressed and struggling, and the chance to have fun and be happy. Of course it was naïve, but it gave me something to cling onto during my worst days. The reality, hit, however, when I got accepted. After the initial elation, one of my first thoughts was “can I do this? Will my depression let me?”
I knew I needed two basic tools if I was going to be able to tackle my issues abroad: medication and counseling. So I researched.
Big, scary terms like “health insurance” and “co-pay” and “$100 for a month’s supply” and “mental health not covered” overwhelmed me. Crap, I thought. I’m screwed.
My mother consoled me and encouraged me to reach out to Brockport to ask what kind of support they offer. I found out that there is a free counseling service available through the campus medical center, and plenty of pharmacies close by to collect my medication.
Initially, I was very concerned about the price of medication. In the UK, any prescription is 8.70, I believe. Prices of medication in the US can vary widely depending on your health insurance. SUNY Brockport’s health insurance is $565 a semester (which is cheap, and refunded by SFE), and gives you excellent coverage.
After nearly having a heart attack at hearing “$100 for branded medication,” I found a generic version of my medication for $5.34 per prescription, which generally gives you a month’s supply. Pharmacies are just as fast and easy to use as they are in the UK, and so for technically less than in the UK, I have been able to easily stay medicated.
Although the student medical center offers counseling, I have found that the staff are mostly volunteers and not qualified counselors. Of course, these individuals are wonderful and kind people, but were not able to provide the rigorous CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) needed to aid my recovery or even maintain the progress I have made. They are more ‘listeners’ than helpers.
The benefit to the counselling provided at Brockport as that you can get an appointment almost immediately. Unfortunately, due to limited resources, it has historically taken a while to receive counselling at home. However, when I have received counselling, it has always been exceptional and helped me immensely.
Private therapy has not been an option due to money constraints here in the US. This has led to some serious down-turns in my mental health; for the first time in over a year, there have been whole weeks during which I have struggled to leave my room. My issues have been exacerbated by homesickness and the absence of my established support network.
Change can be difficult with depression, and there’s no bigger change than moving to another country. I can’t access any of my favourite foods here, for example, and that can lead to a completely unwarranted bout of depression. Cultural isolation has led to an increase in irritation and loneliness. I have found myself becoming more defensive and less open in recent months as my year draws to a close.
There’s also an immense amount of pressure to have fun and make the most of my year, which in my own way, I am. I have to accept that I will never be on a beach in California in a bikini with a bunch of near-strangers and a bottle of wine. I can’t do that. That’s fine. I can muster up the energy to go to the Game of Thrones concert and travel around New Jersey with my partner. That’s huge for me.
The Game of Thrones concert experience
But I won’t say that having depression has ruined my year abroad: it just simply hasn’t. I have become more resilient because of the extra challenges I have faced, and have become more aware of my own needs. I understand my depression more, and I understand my own limits.
I have also had a lot of wonderful and fun experiences, and I consider it an achievement that I even managed to step on the plane, let alone spend 10 months abroad. I’m proud of the fact that I managed to slap depression in the face and tell it “screw you, you won’t rule me” and live my life regardless. Instead of seeing my year abroad as a cure, I see it as something that has given me the tools to be able to live with depression instead of living off of it.
The Empire State Building (left) at Christmas.
Some days, depression wins. Most days, it clings to my back, looking for attention, that I simply will not give it.
A year abroad has not cured me of my problems; indeed, it has often exacerbated them. But it has also provided me with more tools necessary to adapt and deal with my problems in a completely different context without collapsing, and that is very valuable to someone like me.
It’s never easy having an invisible illness – physical or mental – and for people like us, learning to live our lives regardless is incredibly important. I believe my year abroad will benefit my mental health in the long-run, even though it hasn’t been easy. I know my limits, and am prepared for life in the future.
Me in Central Park.
Written by Carys Morley – The College at Brockport, State University of New York, USA