Scarred handshakes from the girl with the blue crayon

The piece below was originally written for the New England Journal of Medicine’s 2021 Fiction Contest and has since been edited as it is auto-biographical, discussing my hospitalization as a teenager. Navigating the academic field of psychology as someone with and surrounded by those with mental health issues, I was shocked at the hypocrisy and ultimately left the field to seek fulfillment elsewhere. In recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day, after 15 years, I hope that sharing a snippet of my story may resonate with someone out there. It is also important to share this story as mental health issues in academia are often ignored and silenced despite higher rates of mental health issues than for other working populations. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please check out international resources and hotlines. The content below may include triggering references related to depression, suicide, and self harm.

Contorting my body within the confines of a bulky wooden chair in the back corner of the glassed-in cage, I grabbed a blue crayon and began writing a letter to no one. To get a pencil would mean to admit that I was a danger to myself. Pencils were a highly monitored commodity after all. In my classes later I learned about the precautions of psychiatric holds and understood the pencils, staples, and strings. But going through it, I felt as though I wasn’t to be trusted and that unfamiliar compulsions were being projected onto me. I was a powerless lost child with no explanations for what was happening around me. I didn’t understand why the young girl with an imaginary golden retriever was a concern. Didn’t all kids have imaginary friends at some point?

During the day, I had to be in the glass cage with the other young broken girls. I wasn’t allowed to stay in my room and sleep in. I remember thinking this wasn’t a place for healing…

Sleeping with doors open and hallway lights on ensured that the young girls turned into a zombie hoard trudging through the low-lying clouds of depression in the morning. Every day would start with the phantom parade of girls shuffling into the glass cage in various states of disarray. One girl however had seemingly adapted to all this. Although her unkempt hair matched her cohort’s, her eyes weren’t muted nor dull. They were hungry with the idea of a newcomer and a new story. ‘What are you in for?’ she prodded. I couldn’t bring myself to answer. Vocalizing it made it real and this was a fever dream.

I don’t recall what I said but it certainly wasn’t the truth. I was sent here after an overdose. I was carried through the streets of London hanging off shoulders with my legs dragging like a rag doll. I ate pills instead of food. I dug my fingernails into my skin until I bled. I didn’t know that it didn’t have to be that way.

So I mumbled that I didn’t want to talk about it and went back to my blue crayon and my letter to no one.

Once I could see more than a day ahead, I, like many others, begged others for an opportunity at a future and a second chance. I would love to write my statement of purpose letters in that same blue crayon. What personal accomplishment are you most proud of and why? How would you add diversity or a unique perspective to our class? Describe any gaps longer than 3 months.

But no. All my mentors said, don’t mention it. People won’t take you seriously. Know your audience. They’ll think you’ll drop out. Working in a field that parrots “fight the stigma” on a daily basis and working on research documenting the negative effects of stigma, I couldn’t share my fight. I felt like a hypocrite all the while being continually interrogated about my dedication to the field and interest in mental health. ‘Why are you interested in x, your CV says you haven’t worked with that condition before?’ (I have x). ‘Sorry, we decided to go with another candidate who had more experience in the area.’

Yet in every interview, the esteemed doctors who shook my hands unknowingly touched the decade-old scars that still linger there. But they don’t want to know that. They want a fanciful display, not an authentic one. They will meet funding requirements for patient and public involvement but do not want a professional with the condition on the team. They want to hear about the struggles but only the palatable ones that fit old tropes and preconceived narratives. They marvel at the bruises but recoil at the wounds.

I embrace my wounds and imperfections like a piece of broken pottery mended with gold. The Japanese philosophy of kintsugi recognizes that my breakage is a part of my history and is not something to disguise. The repair illuminates me, granting me compassion, sensitivity and empathy to connect more deeply with others.

Dear Selection Committee,

I survived. I am alive. I am thriving. I have beaten the odds and I will help others do the same.

I will do my best to make sure no one is lost or forgotten in that glass cage.

Holding my scarred hand, we will walk side by side. I will offer you my blue crayon and help you write your own letter to no one.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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