Authentic Eagles: Hallie Sullivan on Asking for Help

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality  can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working towards being more authentic individuals.

Hallie Sullivan, A&S '15

My first vivid childhood memory is singing unsolicited opera at a dinner party my parents were hosting. I belted fictitious Italian phrases while several adults stared at me, bewildered that a tiny child could produce such brash noises. In preschool, I would arrange my own play dates with my classmates’ parents on the phone and establish what time they would take place. There were several occasions when my parents had to tell confused babysitters that they were unaware I called them to come over. To say that I’ve always been outgoing and independent is an understatement. I love being surrounded by others, but liked taking initiative at a young age.However, with my independence comes a great fear of asking others for aid, even when I need it most. I spent more than six years of my life hiding the fact that I had a problem.

It started so slowly and inconspicuously that I didn’t even notice I was struggling, initially. Around 7th grade, I would find myself unable to sleep for nights at a time. I was paralyzed by overwhelming guilt for benign, frivolous things. My nightly ritual became making mental notes of how I had made mistakes earlier in the day. Things as flippant as not smiling at someone would send me into a panic. If a friend and I had a conversation where we respectfully disagreed on a topic, I would become convinced that they hated me. These little quirks escalated into nagging paranoia that completely consumed me. I felt worthless and assumed everyone thought the same thing about me. The irrational montages would keep me up for days at a time, which intensified the obsessive-compulsive contemplations.

What started off as losing sleep from anxiety began to percolate into all hours of my life. I was an emotional volcano: dormant and lifeless during the day, but exploding once I was alone to think at night. I walked around school avoiding contact and hoped people would leave me alone. I was intentionally absent 21 days of school my sophomore year because of the anticipated interactions, knowing the cycle would begin anew at night. Time with my friends caused extreme irritation because I couldn’t genuinely laugh the way they did together. My parents began to worry when I slowly stopped seeing my friends all together. I told them it wasn’t a big deal, and that I was fine. I was used to solving my own problems and was too ashamed to tell them their daughter was a freak.

I hid the fact that I was living a double life from my family for years until I snapped. I had a mental breakdown junior year of high school. The most vulnerable moment of my life was when I sat on my kitchen floor, in the middle of a full-fledged panic attack and confessed to my parents that I needed help. I couldn’t fight this on my own anymore.

Through countless hours of therapy, it became clear that I was suffering from an anxiety disorder and depression. Initially, I was mortified. I felt isolated, ostracized and crazy for taking pills to regulate my emotions. There is a stigma that taking medication is for the feeble and weak-minded. And, frankly, it’s an easy argument align with. Mental illness is an arduous concept to grasp because you can’t tangibly see it. Normally in medicine, we see physical results. When you break a bone, you wear a cast. After the cast is off, an x-ray will determine if it healed properly. When you have a mental disorder, you take a pill to correct the way your brain thinks. Medication retrains the mind to cogently reason. However, the results aren’t visible on an x-ray. After six years of being on antidepressants, I can confidently say that they have changed my life, whether or not you can noticeably see the effects on my body. A pill the size of a pebble has allowed me to do things that didn’t seem possible in previous years - specifically, attend college.

I struggled with the idea that I had to depend on medication to feel like myself and couldn’t believe I had to break part of my independent nature. I helped others; I wasn’t the one who needed to be taken care of. However, once I began to confide in my friends about my condition, I received support I still am beyond thankful for. Instead of losing a sense of independence, I recovered my identity. Accepting help was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it changed my life in every way.

At Boston College, it’s easy to assume that everyone is perfect. People balance schoolwork, their social lives and millions of extracurricular activities with grace. You rarely see people saying that they’re in over their heads because, as attendees of an elite university, we want to appear capable. It can be difficult to ask for help, especially when people who appear unflawed surround you.

I initially struggled writing this article because I felt like my story is not significant. In the larger scheme of things, my struggle with depression and anxiety are not the worst things in the world. But, that’s part of the problem with the general attitude about mental health. Downplaying an issue won’t make it go away. We aren’t capable of conquering everything alone. Accepting a problem, asking a friend for assistance, taking medication or admitting you need help isn’t a sign of weakness. It won’t take away from your independent spirit or change how people look at you; it’ll change your life. It kept me living.