On The Strength of Seeking Help

By Gretchen Sterba

I’m sitting on a chair, covered in brown scratchy wool. I’m wearing a flannel in the 85°F summer weather because one of the directors of the program thinks everyone in the program should “cover up.” The walls are an eggplant white, an offbeat color for a treatment center. I was at least expecting a melancholy shade of either yellow or blue. A girl who has short hair that’s blue, the kind of color you would see coming out of a paintball gun, is sitting across from me in the circle of chairs knitting, her foot tapping rapidly in a state of anxiety. I look closer and stare at the multiple scars of self-inflicted cuts on her chest.

I look at the white board behind her and read in my head the list in purple Expo marker.

9:30 a.m.: “Name, Rate (1-100), Emotions, Current struggles, Skills Used/Achievements.”

Two years ago when I was here—a treatment center for people facing problems in depression, anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, etc.—I was a senior in high school. I had just had my heart broken for the first time, got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, started gaining back all the weight I lost after months on Weight Watchers, starting my senior year of high school. I was lost in the world at eighteen. After finishing attending group therapy sessions and learning type of skills to manage our mental illnesses during my time there, I thought I was golden. I was in there for less than a month, missing school all day at this outpatient program (partial-hospitalization, to be exact) and I was about to return to high school, my beloved dance team and company, ready to finish this year off because college was on the horizon.

When high school ended, I enrolled in a Big Ten school that I ended up hating, and applied to my current college about a week into my freshman year. Over the course of two years, a lot has changed. While you’re in high school, you’re told change is upon you with adulting and such, but you never really think about it ever— the idea that your actions will always have consequences, how you treat people actually affects the shit out of them, and your mom isn’t always going to be there to make your doctor appointments or do your laundry.

I guess when I was discharged out of the treatment center senior year, I left everything I learned there. I physically felt better, more upbeat and happy that people shared the same feelings I felt, but I can’t remember myself utilizing the positive ways I was taught to cope in depressing, dark situations. Thus, it led me back to their young adult program in the summer of upcoming junior year of high school.

Then I became an advocate for myself. I was the one who decided to get myself help. This year, especially, has been one of the most difficult years of my life. I worked a job that I loved, but I was also stressed out  because of the intense hours and high pressure atmosphere, which led me to shedding weight. This was all in addition to school, and having a crazy roommate who made me feel incompetent in my own apartment.

I started to cope in negative ways, false attempts to try and nurture me temporarily. I wanted to become numb to my problems because I didn’t believe in my own ability to face them. I had no faith in myself, because I was unable to love myself. I started to live like it was Groundhog Day; going to class, work, class, then work again, finally isolating myself in my room until I fell asleep.

I began realizing that all the adults and teachers who said that change was upon us when I was eighteen were actually right. I started reading more, formulating opinions on culture, feminism, politics,  and I grew up a little. I also started losing friends one by one, like leaves dropping off autumn trees. I grasped the fact that everything and everyone is temporary. The people who I put so much love and trust in ended up leaving me, and I wallowed in my pity and found no positive, healthy ways to get out. I was stuck in that cycle for months, it felt like a lifetime of pure sadness, there was no hope of being happy.

Finally, at the end of my sophomore year of college—after blowing large sums of money on these short-term coping mechanisms and mindless activities, deciding to stop taking my anti-anxiety medication because I thought it wasn’t helping, having to excuse myself from class to go puke in the bathroom because I was so anxious, only being able to eat one small meal a day because I never had an appetite—I vouched for help. This was not me. Where the fuck was Gretchen?

I came to my mom, shaking and in tears, telling her I needed help. I was sick of being aggressive and irritable, unproductive, secluded and wallowing in my depression. I told her I needed to go to a place, not just once-a-week therapy, but a place where I would be able to get real, consistent, stable help.

On my first day of PHP, when I sat on the uncomfortable chairs and observed the girl with the blue hair, I felt instantly relieved to be among people who were here, struggling with their various issues, not wanting to get out of the bed in the morning, like me.

One guy told our group that he was anxious and had panic attacks before family functions. Check. Another girl said she was struggling with problems of self-hatred and self-hate. Check. She shocked me, because she came in with her grande Starbucks, sporting a Dutch braid on her gorgeous blonde head and a slim, naturally tanned body. I felt a bit guilty that she had shocked me, because we are all taught that all people have problems and battles we’re not aware of at face value. She was a prime example.

When it was my turn, I expressed my concerns openly and honestly, because I was in a safe space. Now that I’m about to have the third week of being a patient/client there under my belt, I really have learned so much. By learning skills, which I thought were totally elementary and lame at first, I already feel in control of myself. When I feel anxious, I do a skill called “grounding” where you use one or all five senses to keep you distracted from your toxic thoughts and focus on the present. I talk to both sexes in group and at breaks and almost always seem to find a type of relief because I know they really know what it is like to feel depressed and anxious every day. Just knowing someone is there and that you’re not the only person in the world who feels lonely, friendless, and fucked up, is empowering and reassuring in itself.

Being vulnerable is not always easy.

One of the hardest parts is admitting you have a problem and getting professional help. So whoever is reading this (probably my family members on Facebook), I hope you decide to act on your strength if you feel like you’re losing yourself or going through trauma, because the strength is there. It always has been.