When The Rain Came My Way

Source: Heather Fairbairn

Source: Heather Fairbairn

“Hello, this is the Univeristy of Akron counseling center, how can we help you today?” I choked out my rehearsed response: I had visited their website and screened myself as positive for clinical depression and anxiety and I needed help.

I made that phone call as I sat in my little teal toyota with the November rain pounding out a thousand melodies on the roof of my car. After I hung up, I sobbed along with the rain as I tried to find some rational, some explanation for the capsizing of my mental health. First, I blamed my giant transition from living as a social butterfly in the dorms to the isolated adult apartment experience, despite my awesome roommate. Then I blamed the fact that my significant other. was about to leave on a military deployment. Above all, I blamed my major and the fact that I thought I was going to flunk out of my senior year of Chemical Engineering. I wanted everything to end. I wanted any escape from the intense pain of my current life.

My name is Heather Fairbairn, and I lived to tell the story.

Rewinding to the previous November, I was a happy junior in engineering school, constantly the social butterfly, and healthily stressed as I expertly balanced 19 credits and a resident assistant position. Continuing into the next semester, the balance started to kilter. I added a new romantic relationship to a full academic and work schedule. Immediately after a grueling 7 finals, over 100 hours of work, and my final move out of the dorm into a "real" apartment, I started a full time internship at a Fortune 500 company. Looking back, I see the signs of an impending struggle with depression written all over my life. I had a minimal to no self care routine, I had burned the candle at both ends for  the past two semesters, and I had given myself no time to rest or recover. Between the full time job, transitioning from community dorm living into an apartment,   I had many impending and in progress life changes that I did not take the time to process through. I had lived with the 5-pointed star of life in balance for a long time, but it was about to give way.

Frequently, I spent my afternoons at my internship staring at my computer screen, wondering if life was actually worth living, trying to hold back tears that were not caused by anything specific. I hated my life. I stressed about everything from weight to sleep to friends to social commitments, but I couldn't figure out why the slightest thought would put me on the verge of tears. I wrote it off as being tired from traveling for work and general adjustment to my new life. I powered through the summer.

Then August came, with my back pockets full of summer memories and sunshine, I was ecstatic but also apprehensive at the start of my senior year. It started with a trip to China. Then a return home, and a legitimately failed exam. Then a failed project. As my grades dropped lower and lower, academics -which was my all-time favorite past time- became a waking nightmare. I began to have a feeling that became quickly familiar and frightening. A surge of panic accompanied by the urge to cry and the complete freezing of my will to do anything. It would happen every time I had to go back to school. I spent an exorbitant amount of time sitting in my car, staring out the windshield, willing myself to get out of my car and start the day.

Three months past, and I continued to crumble. I went from peppy and extroverted to describing my life to anyone who asked as "more sinking than swimming". But in November, I went to Utah for an engineering conference with 5 of my closest friends. The stress-free mountain air and wonderful company cleared my mind during that long weekend. For the first time in months, I felt okay. I felt like myself. I felt like life would be okay, that I could have hope again!

When I arrived home, that "feeling" immediately bowled me over. I started my Tuesday sitting in my empty office, with (yet again) no students showing up for tutoring. I bawled my eyes out, sick and tired of crying, seriously lacking hope, wondering why I had felt absolutely fine in Utah just hours before. I was so frustrated, yet for the first time, I realized something must be wrong. This could not just be life transitions and stress and worry. Something was very very wrong.

With shaking hands and teary eyes, I turned to a resource that I had referred many students to during my time as an RA. I directed my browser to UA's counseling center website. I took a self screen for depression, and I “tested positive” to multiple areas: Trouble sleeping, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, paralyzing fear, hopeless, loss of appetite, nausea, and drawing away from things I once found enjoyable.

I was depressed! The diagnosis lifted a tiny bit of the darkness from my life. I felt relieved that I probably wasn't crazy and that my bright personality was not lost forever. I could now understand that the feelings, thoughts, and overall mental darkness that I had been experiencing were not who I had become, but were resultant from mental issues. I felt relieved knowing that I could get help, and that with time and treatment, I could get better.

A couple days later, trembling and crying, I called the counseling center. I got help. I went to counseling. I began to felt better! Now, I am a proud graduate of The University of Akron with my BS in Chemical Engineering. I started my PhD in Chemical Engineering here at beautiful University of Michigan. Most days, I'm functioning at 98%. Some days when I’m stressed or tired I find myself sliding back into negative and dark thought patterns. When that happens, I try my hardest to reach out and not shut down. I call my mom, paint my nails, or recall some of the positive thinking exercises I learned from my counselor. I'm still learning how to accept myself and take better care of myself. I'm learning to assume the best outcome is possible and not focus on the what-ifs of life. I'm learning, I'm healing, and I'm finding ways to share my experience with others, encouraging them to tap into the resources around them when they find themselves in a hopeless place.