Tired of being tired: Physical illness and mental health
Even though the movie came out eight years ago, I often think about how Jacob Black pretended he had mono to cover-up his transition into a werewolf in The Twilight Saga: New Moon. After the big reveal, Bella brought this up, mockingly saying, “Mono…” Her tone implied a triviality in the excuse.“Yeah, I wish,” Jacob said, with a chuckle, as if he knew how horrible mono can be.
I too have been guilty of this ignorance. I used to judge the girls in my dance class who missed weeks of choreography for mono. Because they were tired? Bullshit, we’re all tired.
But then, right before my sophomore year at Emerson, my lymph nodes blew up, my sweat glands rained torrential downpours, and my tonsils wrapped around each other like two tether balls on a pole. The pain was so insufferable that I was given steroids, codeine, and dilaudid just to bear it. Not to mention, my weakened immune system contracted nonviral hepatitis, bronchitis, and four rounds of strep throat that semester. Tired, my ass. It felt like dying.
Once these symptoms and side effects subsided, I thought it’d be a relief to be “just tired.” But a part of me felt missing. I couldn’t tell where mono ended and depression began, but I was certain of a correlation. Still, I found very little research to validate me. A 2009 study by Dr. Ben Katz at Northwestern University found that 13 percent of 301 teenagers suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome six months after initial diagnosis with mono. I found dozens of articles saying the same. But I couldn’t find anything, anywhere, to use that word—depression—when I so badly needed to hear it.
So I’m using it now. Mono made me depressed. And depression is just as debilitating as any physical symptoms and deserves to be taken as seriously.
At 19 years old, I never considered how physical health affects mental health because I lived a relatively healthy life until then. But through mono, I experienced the mental toll of being controlled by my body. I wasn’t able to exert the energy which college expects, and demands, of students. Student Accessibility Services, formerly the Disabilities Services Office, granted me flexible attendance and deadlines for mono, but those had an expiration date. After that, I was just depressed, which didn’t allow me any passes. I felt judged by friends and professors for slacking, worrying they doubted the legitimacy of my illness. I came to doubt myself too, internalizing shame in my apparent laziness.
In an attempt to overcome the productivity slump of depression, I compromised my health even more. I used caffeine pills, energy drinks, and Adderall to stay awake and keep my grades afloat. And they did the job, but I grew weaker and more depressed without them. My body and mind were exhausted from being pushed past limits they weren’t naturally capable of. Still, this felt like my only option. It’s hard to say “health comes first” when education costs $40,000 a semester. Dropping out mid-way is not a feasible option for many students. And to do so for mental health reasons, without accommodations or reimbursements, carries the stigma of failure.
I didn’t take time off between semesters either because I couldn’t bear the idea of falling behind in my graduation timeline. To stay home and rest, while my friends excelled ahead of me, felt unacceptable. Overwork, even at the cost of individual health, is something we revere, a badge of honor we proudly tout. This pressure permeates higher education, but also America at large. We’re conditioned from an early age, hence my judgement of the girls in my childhood dance class. We have been taught that success, or perceived success, should come before anything else.
I hit a breaking point in the final week of my junior year. Forget success, I wasn’t going to be alive if I didn’t get the help and rest I needed. I put my internship on hold, moved back home, and pushed myself to prioritize my health. And with a different type of hard work—self-care, therapy, and rest—I came back to life. But I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hit my breaking point in the middle of the semester. The stakes just felt too high, and my depression felt too trivialized by the pressures which exacerbated it.
This is not a critique on how Emerson handles mental health issues because ultimately it was my own decision to not prioritize my health. And yet, I don’t have an easy solution for anyone else in the same position. To prioritize health often takes sacrifice—whether it be grades, a semester, internships, or money—there will seem like a lot to lose. And yet, as someone on the other side, I now know that all those things are meaningless if they mean losing your life. Mental health is worth pausing for, and there’s always more to gain in return. It’s not easy, but here I am, alive, dancing, and giggling over Twilight references.