Her Story: Studying Abroad With A Mental Illness

The student theater group called Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project (STAMP) recently solicited anonymous true-life letters from classmates living with depression, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health problems. The group then dramatized the accounts as monologues in their theater production, Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

This monologue comes from a letter submitted anonymously by a student who spent a semester in Kenya while dealing with clinical anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you had told me freshman year that I would be in Africa now, I wouldn't have believed you. I wouldn't have thought I could deal with the sinks, few and far between, that probably make my hands dirtier and certainly don't get rid of germs. Or the last-minute change of plans. And definitely not the possibilities of theft, car accidents and rare tropical diseases — these things could actually happen to me any day, and yet I'm happy, calm and confident.

I've been through a lot of difficult situations to get here. And I couldn't have done it without meds, good doctors and group therapy sessions with friends. See, I'm diagnosed with "anxiety," and a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder thrown in for fun. When I say that, I feel kind of silly for making a big deal out of myself. I mean, who doesn't have anxiety about things like death, friendships and homework?

But when I reached high school, things got out of hand. I'd been going to therapists for forever. My parents think that, because I was a pretty smart kid, I started thinking early on about things that were too big for my childhood emotional capacity. But because I was a pretty smart kid, I knew how to please the doctors and therapists. I didn't talk about my real issues, and since I wasn't unhappy or doing badly in school, I got away with it. I just worried a lot.

An anxiety-ridden mind takes a rational fear and jumps immediately, without warning or reason, to the most frightening and extreme manifestation of that fear. For example, if my parents didn't answer the phone when I called, I would start to panic because obviously that meant they were dead. By junior year of high school, I couldn't even listen to the radio during a traffic report because I would just know that my family had been in an accident. I started thinking that every furtive-looking man on the street was a terrorist; that every plane flying overhead was going to crash into my house.

Twenty milligrams of Prozac a day changed my life. By senior year, I could listen to the radio again. And I felt better about myself; if medicine helps, I must have a legitimate problem, I thought. So I went to Stanford relatively healthy, happy and excited.

In December, my young grandmother died of a sudden aneurysm. That winter quarter, I had a panic attack in the middle of a math exam. I started washing my hands excessively. If I had just eaten or touched a dusty surface or picked up something dropped on the ground, I saw my hand teeming with germs and couldn't function until they had been washed or Purelled.

It was time to seek help again. I found a doctor near Stanford, and after seeing her several times a month, things started to get better. I started actually considering going abroad as a possibility. I thought I could do it.

And I was right. Here I am in Africa, and my mind is clear. I'm calm.

Therapists had always told me that when you take on too much, as every Stanford student inevitably does, your mind focuses on dealing with the everyday stress and doesn't have any leftover energy to take on the deeper emotional issues going on. I never really understood that, until I came to this remote area of Kenya where there's literally nothing to do. I have spare time for the first time in memory, actually, and my brain is working through all that emotional baggage. It's healing itself.

The biggest sign of my transformation came a few months ago. I was visiting a Masai tribal village where there was literally nowhere to wash my hands. On top of that, they slaughtered a goat in front of us, and then skinned and butchered it for dinner. The Masai were warm and welcoming and wanted to give us something to remember them by, so they cut a strip of the hide for everyone in my group to wear as a bracelet. How nice! Right?

They didn't clean or dry the hide before tying it on my wrist. As they slid the bloody, slimy, germ-filled skin onto my hand, all I could do was look up at my friend and say, "Do you know how many medications I am on to be able to do this?"

Everyone laughed, knowingly. But I think I laughed the hardest.

In that spurt of laughter, surrounded by supportive friends in a nowhere village of Africa, I realized life is really good. And it's only getting better.

Essay, courtesy of Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project, was edited for length.

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