“It Will Help You” is Not Good Enough

As I wrote about in my first blog post, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and ADHD at age six. Even though I was diagnosed when I was six, I didn’t receive psychiatric medication until I was 12. The medication they prescribed at the time stopped working for me after a while, but I got a glimpse of what medication could do for me. I thought about the years of failed therapy and asked my mother why she didn’t give me medication when I was diagnosed. She told me child psychiatry was relatively new and that she was hesitant to put chemicals into my body. All those years I had to wonder why I was lonely in the company of friends and wonder why my mom was still sending me to therapists when I was sure there was no solution. That being said, I can’t blame her for being hesitant and I don’t blame her for my suffering. She didn’t necessarily keep me in the dark, but I do wish she had helped me understand mental illness much earlier on.

Contrary to popular belief, kids are smarter than you think. If you are looking into psychiatric medication as a form of treatment, you cannot expect your child to willingly take an antidepressant if you haven’t even helped them understand their mental illness. Learning that depression was also called a “brain disorder” was not enough. To me, “brain disorder” addressed the brain in its entirety and equated to “your brain is broken.” I needed to learn that there is less serotonin in brains of people with depression and that antidepressants could fix the chemical imbalance. Last year, I found videos of a doctor’s ADHD seminar where he did an intensive teaching that included the biological causes of the disorder. I sat in my chair and watched the videos for hours. I finally felt like I understood myself and I felt comfortable with my mental illnesses.

“The pill will help you” is not good enough.

“You need therapy because I want you to talk about your feelings” is not good enough.

It’s time we answer with scientific fact as opposed to extremely vague, desired outcomes.

Ming Cooke is a freshman, studying web development in the iSchool at Syracuse University. Through her battle with ADHD & clinical depression, she became a mental health advocate and created The Best Weapon documentary. You can contact her at mrcooke@syr.edu or follow her on Instagram @mingrosec

I Hope I’m Never A Size 1 Again

In middle school I started losing a lot of weight.  It came out of nowhere.  I didn’t change my diet. I wasn’t exercising any more than I always had. To be honest, I probably spent most of my time on the couch watching TV. Still, I lost about 20 pounds in only a month. I was always a chubby kid—healthy, but I was never skinny.  Then all of a sudden I just magically started losing weight. I went from a size 5 to a size 1. I was pretty excited about it, as anyone would be. I was so pleased with it that it was pretty easy to ignore the symptoms that had begun popping up.  Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, all of these symptoms and I ignored them for so long.  Maybe ignoring it was a form of denial or maybe I was just scared, but I know that the effect it had on physical appearance had some influence on my reluctance to fix whatever it was that was wrong with me.  People would comment on my weight loss, and always positively. Because it’s a good thing to lose weight, right? It’s a good thing to be skinny. People assume you’re trying to better yourself, which is great, and that definitely deserves encouragement. I don’t blame any of them of course; they had no idea what was going on.  It’s just so bizarre to think about how I probably looked great, maybe better than ever, on the outside, but inside I was anything but great, but was actually slowly deteriorating.  And it’s even more bizarre how okay I was with ignoring the latter part.

Eventually the symptoms became so severe that I had to go to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.  Crohn’s disease is a type of IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease.  It’s also an autoimmune disease as the inflammation is caused by the immune system attacking the digestive tract.  I remember the doctor being surprised at how severe the disease was, and looking back I wonder if it was my hesitation of seeking treatment that let it become so bad.  One of the effects Crohn’s has on the body is that you don’t absorb nutrients as well as you should.  It’s through digestion that you get all of the nutrients, and Crohn’s messes all of that up.  So my weight loss was not only attributed to my loss of appetite, but I was actually malnourished, which is terrifying if you think about it.  Here I was so thrilled to be losing weight and it was because my body was actually lacking in what it needed to maintain a normal body weight.  I still have to take vitamins today to insure I get all the nutrients I need.  A major part of my recovery was gaining weight.  An easy indicator of whether I was still sick was if I was unable to gain weight.  With help from medications, I did gain weight. I gained back every pound I lost while I was sick.  I was put on a drug called Prednisone to treat the inflammation caused by the Crohn’s disease.  One of the side effects of it was called moon face, which causes your face to swell to a round, or moon, shape.  It was a really emotional time for me.  My previously sky-high body confidence had shattered to a million pieces.  It took a long time, I’d say nearly a year, before I was really healthy again.

Today I’m a size 8, and I’m really happy about that.  I actually hope I’m never a size 1 again.  The last time I was a size 1 was the worst time of life.  Size 1 me was not healthy me.  Now as a size 8, I’m happy and healthy, and I couldn’t care less how much I weigh, or whether people think I’m fat or skinny, as long as I feel good.

Danielle Frekot is a freshman at Syracuse University.  She is studying Art History in the College of Arts & Sciences.  She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009 and hopes to support those going through similar struggles, both physically and mentally. You can contact her at dsfrekot@syr.edu.

It is Not Who You Think

The topic of suicide was never something I really thought about. I knew that it happened and I never really understood why, but my train of thought ended there. Over the past couple of months that has changed greatly in my life. I have been confronted again and again with an instance of suicide that hits painfully close to home. I still don’t really understand why it happens, but the topic has plagued my thoughts for the past couple of months as I have tried to make some kind of sense of the matter. The hardest part for me is that in every single instance the person took their life, it wasn’t who you think it would be. We have this idea of what people look and act like when they are suicidal and when they take their own life. While it is not any less heart breaking when someone who fits into our preconceived ideas about people who commit suicide take their own life, it does make it somewhat easier for people to make sense of. As I reflect on the instances that have happened around me I am confronted with the scary idea that it can be anyone, even the people that you would have never imagined to take their own life.

One of the cases that has happened near me is public knowledge—it involved a school shooting. In October, a freshman boy at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington State shot and killed four of his best friends before taking his own life. Typically when we see school shooters they are “loners” who don’t have many friends and are usually bullied. Because this stereotype has been seen repeatedly it had just become the norm. But in the case of Jaylen Fryberg, the norm didn’t fit. He was popular, voted the freshman class homecoming king, had plenty of good friends, and a good family. So what do we make of instances like this? Depression and suicide don’t fit in nice little boxes. Anyone can suffer from depression and anyone can have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. These are not experiences reserved for a small category of people. I am aware that it is scary to think about, but I think it is important that we do. We all need to be aware of our mental health and the mental health of those around us, because it is something that affects us all. Maybe in different ways, but all of us nonetheless.

Kylie Kerker is a freshman at Syracuse university and new to Active Minds. She’s studying biology and Neuroscience and hopes to study the biological basis of mental illnesses. You can contact her at kmkerker@syr.edu or follow her on instagram @krekrek5.

Just Like Me

When I was a kid, I did not see anybody on TV, in the movies, or in books that was like me. 

Asperger’s did not have that kind of exposure back then.  The term “Asperger’s” did not show up in the psychiatric handbooks until 1994 and, for the first few years afterwards, there was very little information and a lot of misinformation.  The term “autism” had been around since the 1950s but “Asperger’s” was seen as something completely different despite technically fitting under the autism umbrella.  Growing up, in my personal life, I also did not know anyone who had Asperger’s.  In my home life, there was a huge emphasis on me becoming “mainstream.” I was not allowed to tell anyone about my condition and I was frequently criticized for not exhibiting “normal” behavior.  There were so many times during my childhood where I wanted someone to talk to, preferably someone with Asperger’s, who understood what it was like to be me.  I did not feel like anyone understood me and I did not even feel like I understood myself.  Whether it was hobbies or treatments for my condition, everything was trial and error to see what stuck and what didn’t.

As a kid, I was an avid reader and entertainment watcher.  I still am.  Personally, I think that the reason that I love these things, and why I have such an imagination, is because I hated my everyday life, where I was rejected and misunderstood and belittled at school and at home. I needed some kind of escape.  In my book reading, TV watching, and movie watching I found myself frequently gravitating towards characters that were off-kilter.  I identified with the characters who felt like outcasts and who were trying to fit in and who were trying to find where they belonged.  I admired the characters that were always true to themselves, even when they were told that they couldn’t be themselves.  I found myself identifying with the characters who were different.  None of them had Asperger’s but they were going through the same kind of identity crises as me.  And there were characters that I wanted to be because of some character trait that they had that I admired about them. During the down days of my life, it was these characters and their creators that kept me going.  Even today, against my father’s words, I still credit fictional characters and their creators for getting me through life and for inspiring me.  And I wholeheartedly feel that way.  I remember being so inspired and blown away by The Incredibles when I was eleven that I went as one of them for Halloween.  As a child, Peter Pan was my favorite fairytale and, when I got to, at seventeen, see a production of Peter Pan as they did in 1904, it was hands down one of the greatest experiences of my life.  And, in recent months, Wes Anderson movies have become like a warm hand over my heart.  These and more have reminded me of what’s important to me in terms of the person I want to be.

These days, Asperger’s has been pushed front and center in pop culture and in news media.  Personally, I feel that the character of Max Braverman, from NBC’s Parenthood, started that movement of increased awareness.  At the same time, though, there is still a lot of misinformation.  For every Max Braverman, we get an Adam Lanza. And, sadly, the bad news always sells more papers and gets higher ratings.  Why can’t we live in a world where the good news gets more attention?  I was at a Barnes & Noble the other day and the sign at the front door was advertising a new book about Asperger’s, written by someone with Asperger’s.  Ten years ago, those kinds of books weren’t published.  I’m glad that those books can get published these days.  We in the Asperger’s community are finally starting to find our voices and people are starting to listen to our voices.  Someday, I want to publish my own book about Asperger’s.  Because I love literature and entertainment so much, I want to give my own input to those worlds.  Because of what they did for me growing up in helping to forge my identity.  Because I want to send a message to any kids out there who feel like being different is wrong, to tell them that being different is fantastic and that they shouldn’t be afraid to be different.  I know what it’s like to feel different and to feel like you’re alone and to feel like your own voice isn’t worth hearing.  I want the other Aspie kids in this world to feel good about themselves and to tell the world to not act like it’s a bad thing to have Asperger’s.

Life with Depression, ADHD, and The Best Weapon

When I was six, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I would fake being sick, as kids often do, but I didn’t see it as a sign of depression until I was admitted to Four Winds day treatment in 6th grade. Yes, I would fake sickness like the other kids, but I would miss weeks (sometimes months) of school at a time. I didn’t play games or jump around. I would stay in bed. If I wasn’t asleep, I was staring at ceiling. I always thought that I was just doing a really good job of faking physical illness, unaware that I just had a mental illness. Four Winds put me on Prozac (an antidepressant) which somewhat helped me get out of the house for school until I was hospitalized three times in 8th grade. I barely survived middle school, but in 9th grade, my freshman year of high school, I was admitted to Bellevue Hospital Center’s Psychiatric Day Treatment. Bellevue turned out to be my worst, longest and more importantly, last hospitalization.

I was always several steps behind other kids, academically. Part of that can be attributed to missing months of elementary/middle school every year. At the beginning of 9th grade, my mom told me I had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A new psychiatrist put me on a new antidepressant and my first ADHD medication. The combination did not work and I was subsequently hospitalized in Bellevue for 7 months, which was the rest of the school year and summer school. It was, by far, the worst experience of my life. Even though the thought of Bellevue still makes me clench my fists, they put me on the right combination of medication. Dealing with the vindictive staff members forced me to learn self advocacy. During my hospitalization, I was invited to a mental health advocacy conference where I was shock and amazed at how openly people spoke about their experiences with mental illness.

While I had never (and still have not) felt stigmatized due to mental illness, I had also never been taught that my story should be shared or that it could help people. This led me to my high school senior project titled The Best Weapon, “a documentary aimed towards reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.” It features myself, my friend and a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) volunteer telling our stories regarding our struggle with mental illness. Though the tagline would suggest otherwise, reducing the stigma, while it is important, was not my primary motivation for the film. My primary goal was, and still is, to encourage people to openly share their stories and talk about mental illness.

If you want to fight the stigma, The Best Weapon you have is your story.


Ming Cooke is a freshman, studying web development in the iSchool at Syracuse University. Through her battle with ADHD & clinical depression, she became a mental health advocate and created The Best Weapon documentary. You can contact her at mrcooke@syr.edu or follow her on Instagram @mingrosec

Chronic Illness and Mental Illness

At the ripe age of twelve, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, when the immune system attacks the digestive tract resulting in inflammation. But the worst part for me wasn’t necessarily the pain, which is most easily described as if there were sunburn in your intestine. It was that Crohn’s was a chronic illness, and like diabetes, arthritis, and Parkinson’s, it would never go away. 

After my diagnosis, I retreated into myself. I closed myself off from people. I stopped doing things I loved. Well, I stopped practically everything actually. I remember thinking how I wished I had a disease that would kill me; that would be better than suffering like this. Still, I didn’t think there was a problem, and it became only obvious in hindsight—Crohn’s disease didn’t just attack my physical wellbeing, but my emotional and mental wellbeing too.

Now that I’m older and can look back on this time of my life, I’ve come to wonder: Is this a common occurrence? Is there really a correlation between chronic illnesses, like Crohn’s, and mental illness?

According to The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there is. Just as people with mental illness are at a higher risk to experience chronic physical conditions, those with chronic physical conditions or illnesses are more likely to develop mental illness than their peers. As a matter of fact, they are two times as likely. Even if the connection between mental and physical health seemed obvious to some of you, this statistic is still disturbing. 

I can’t help but notice some similarities in the symptoms of chronic illnesses and depression. Many chronic illnesses have symptoms including chronic pain. For example, in my case, I often experience abdominal pain as a result of my Crohn’s.  This is a common symptom of depression as well. They also share the symptoms of increase or decrease in appetite and physical activity. In addition, eating and exercising more or less can affect your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

There are also connections between other mental illnesses, specifically anxiety, and chronic illness. This I also know from personal experience.  In high school, I had some bouts of anxiety.  I was starting to become really sick again, nearly as bad as I was when I was first diagnosed, and I feared that it would only get worse.  he thing about Crohn’s is that you never know when the symptoms are going to act up; at times it just feels like you have absolutely no control. I also feared that I might revert back to the bad place I was in before, that I had spent so long digging myself out of.  This resulted in anxiety attacks. I’d feel lightheaded. I’d have trouble breathing. I’d be sweating. My heart would be pounding.  I’d feel like I couldn’t control anything—you know the drill. The thing about chronic illnesses is that it’s only something that can be managed or helped; it can’t be completely cured.  Those with chronic illnesses often live knowing that at any moment symptoms beyond their control can creep up out of nowhere. Sound familiar?  It should.  Those with anxiety live in a similar state of fear, where they feel they have no control.

This correlation between mental illness and chronic illness is something I want everyone to acknowledge and be aware of. However, I don’t want any of you to leave here thinking that anyone with a chronic illness is going to have a mental illness.  Not everyone responds to things the same way.  Those with mental illnesses are oftentimes predisposed to have them.  Similarly, many chronic illnesses are hereditary. And although National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) website says depression is relatively common for those with chronic illnesses, it shouldn’t be dismissed as normal. Although it is an understandable reaction, it should not be ignored and people should still seek treatment, not just for the chronic illness, but for depression as well. For those with, or even without, chronic illness, taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. 

Danielle Frekot is a freshman at Syracuse University.  She is studying Art History in the College of Arts & Sciences.  She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009 and hopes to support those going through similar struggles, both physically and mentally. You can contact her at dsfrekot@syr.edu.

THE General Body And Why You Should Care

This Monday, something truly unique occurred. Our president, Mali Golomb-Leavitt, stood on the steps of Hendricks Chapel and gave voice to mental health issues on campus as part of the Diversity and Transparency (DAT) Rally, organized by THE General Body, a coalition made up of hundreds of members of the student body and student organizations – including Active Minds – to demand diversity and transparency on campus. The Rally made its way to Crouse-Hinds and members of the THE General Body are currently sitting-in at the administration building until there is a solid plan of action to meet the demands. What we fight for at Active Minds is engrained so deeply with disability and diversity issues, and we are so proud to be part of this fight. We will not let stigma stop us from fighting for the mental health care we deserve.

If you weren’t able to attend the Rally, below is the transcript:

There are so many disparities in mental health care and conversation on this campus but I have five minutes to call for action on this matter, so I’m primarily going to read you excerpts of students and faculty experiences with mental illness and mental health on SU’s campus. Here is what I will say before reading those: I am the president of the mental health activism group on this campus, and when I was asked to speak today I hesitated because “I didn’t know enough”. I don’t know enough. I still don’t understand what mental health care I actually have access to at this university. I frequently don’t know whether to go to the counseling center – located, as we know, at the literal outskirts of our campus – or to health services, or to psychiatric services, or to psychological services, or to the office of student assistance. Some people have seen a therapist on campus for 2 years; some people aren’t allowed to see one for over four visits; some, like myself, were rejected after my only visit and told to find treatment elsewhere, with no transportation, financial funds, or guidance to facilitate that process. Misinformation is rampant, and students are falling through the cracks: Everyone has a different experience with the counseling center, no one, including counselors, is consistent with counseling center protocol, and everyone is confused. Stigma of mental illness is how we are shamed; but confusion is how we are silenced: because “WE DON’T KNOW ENOUGH”. I am speaking out today because I refuse to let misinformation silence me. Confusion is not a reason to stay quiet about my need and my right to have access to health care – which is what counseling and psychological support is. Here are what your peers and students have to say:

  • From a student: “Last year I used to be able to walk into Health Services while having a panic attack or having problems with my medication and I would be able to see a psychiatrist immediately. I went into Health Services about a week ago having a bad panic attack, and I was told I would have to wait 3 weeks to make an appointment to speak with somebody.”
  • From another student: “One of my friends was told it would take four weeks, and she still hasn’t seen anyone. If you want to be seen with any sort of immediacy, the counseling center has to perceive you as potentially being some sort of danger to yourself or others.”
  • From staff:  “A student was on medical leave of absence for mental health issues from a previous semester. The counseling center approved her coming back, but did not tell her until she arrived on campus that they wouldn’t treat her because she was “chronic”.”
  • From a student:  “I used to see the psychiatric nurse at Health Services. I received an email from her saying she was leaving Health Services. Several weeks later, I got an email from Health Services saying that now my psychiatric care would be taken care of via their one remaining psychiatric doctor at Health Services. However, when I called to try to make an appointment with her, I was told that she is not taking patients. I said that I still needed my prescription refilled. They said I could see a regular practitioner there, but not the psychiatrist, which is not good, because I needed to see someone who specializes in psychiatric medication. So now I am not seeing anyone.”
  • From staff: “Isn’t it a given that people who seeking mental health services are more likely to have issues with suicidality? The question is, does the college want to hold and support these students within the campus and try and prevent suicide, or do they want to send them to the community where they don’t know what care they are getting and have no control over it?”
  • From a student: “Because it was summer and I wasn’t registered in classes, even though I was living right off-campus, I could no longer go to the counseling center. It was hard enough to get me into therapy—going through that process again, along with the financial burden, seemed unbearable. And then, at the beginning of the semester, my counselor didn’t follow up to reschedule. I haven’t been to counseling since.”
  • From staff: “Staff are afraid to speak up, after all those staff were let go within the first few months of a new chancellor. They are worried about themselves and not the students. The chancellor is worried about getting out of debt and preventing other problems.”
  • From a student:  “I went to Non-Emergency Medical Transport to get transportation to my weekly therapy appointments downtown, because the counseling center wouldn’t see me. But the woman at the desk told me, “We only take students to medical appointments, we don’t really do that stuff.” This was a very clear message from the university saying that my mental health is not important the way that physical health evidently is – that I do not deserve mental health care, because the university provides neither adequate mental health services nor the means to access them elsewhere.”
  • From former psychiatric staff: “The university is changing the focus of psychiatric services:  Now, they are taking students with chronic conditions, as they called them, doing “brief psychiatry”, like counseling services, and then sending these students to the community. I fought this, saying the most vulnerable students with more issues, chronic or not, should be treated by us in a coordinated fashion with other services on campus, not dumped into the community where we don’t know what is going on. Not to mention that there are few places to send people in the community that are any good. With the transportation of getting to appointments and financial cost of having to pay more for services, the likelihood of students continuing care is low to none.”  This staff was suspended without being told why for three weeks and was eventually pushed out all together.
  • From a student: “In the second week back at school, my meds suddenly began to malfunction. First, they gave me multiple panic attacks, then depressive states, then suicidal urges… I went to the Counseling Center and had an emergency appointment, under the assumption that I could ask them how to get in contact with a psychiatrist. The emergency counselor told me that the school has no emergency psychiatrists … and that if I wanted to see a psychiatrist to get my meds changed, I would have to wait two weeks to have a regular appointment with the Counseling Center and then wait longer to get an appointment with Health Services. When I argued that I needed a psychiatrist that day, he told me that I could go to St. Joseph’s Hospital and printed out a map. He did not tell me that the school provides emergency transportation and expected me to get there by foot. St Josephs is a 20-30 minute walk from SU, and he knew I had suicidal ideation.”

I will end on this last quotation: “Appropriate mental health care is possible if it is a priority.”

Syracuse University: MAKE MENTAL HEALTH CARE A PRIORITY.

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The Weather Is Not Bipolar

Until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to how often “bipolar” is used as a descriptive word on a daily basis. If you pay attention you will here any number of people say, “Man, the weather today is so bipolar” or “I am feeling so bipolar today”. Most people say these things without a second thought, knowing deep down that the weather or they themselves for that matter aren’t actually bipolar. But then why do they say it?

Most people would reply that it’s because they are simply trying to characterize something that changes from one extreme to the other frequently, and that they see no harm in it. But think about it this way: people with bipolar disorder don’t suffer from changes in mood temporarily. They have a medical condition that impacts their daily lives and will continue to impact them for the rest of their lives even if treated. When we, as a society, use bipolar as a character trait for things as arbitrary as the weather, we are invalidating the seriousness of an illness that is a neurological condition – not a personal quality.

We have made it taboo to call someone “retard” because it is offensive to those with down syndrome and is typically used to insinuate negative qualities about the person being called that name. So why is it any different for the word bipolar? When you describe your moody friend as bipolar it is certainly not a term of endearment. Instead, it is used to convey that there is something wrong with them or that the way they are acting is bad. Think about the message that conveys to those who actually have bipolar disorder. You are telling them that something is wrong with them, that they are “bad” simply because they inherited a biological trait that they had absolutely no control over. The society we live in already makes those with mental illnesses feel like they don’t belong or that they are weird or “crazy.” The everyday use of neurological diagnoses doesn’t help promote the inclusivity that all people, regardless of mental illnesses, deserve. So the next time your friend is acting especially moody or the weather is changing back and forth at an unusually frequent rate, remember to consider those who are actually affected by bipolar disorder and how your words may affect their lives.

Kylie Kerker is a freshman at Syracuse university and new to Active Minds. She’s studying biology and Neuroscience and hopes to study the biological basis of mental illnesses. You can contact her at kmkerker@syr.edu or follow her on instagram @krekrek5.

Because It Makes Us Feel Something

If you Google a list of Asperger’s characteristics, chances are you’ll find one that reads something along the lines of “lack of empathy.” The twenty-page report that made my Asperger’s diagnosis official even included a mention of me allegedly lacking empathy based on the 1:1 observations from one six-hour testing session.  I’ve heard the whole “lack of empathy” thing innumerable times in my twenty-one years of existence.  Let me tell you this, based on my firsthand experience: that statement is absolute crap. It is NOT true.

I’m not sure what started the myth that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. Is it the Asperger’s face, seemingly eternally locked in one position? Is it the Asperger’s eyes, that find it too hard to make eye contact or that seemingly always stare off into space?  Is it the inability to read the social cues that come so naturally to neurotypicals? Some people have told me that the way I look at them is really unsettling. I feel like people assume that the way you look on the outside directly influenced by how you feel on the inside. With this logic, if you have a blank face, then you are not feeling anything on the inside. I don’t believe this logic to be true. I am an intuitive person and I can usually tell how someone feels, even if his or her face reads otherwise. Because the Asperger’s face always appears apathetic at a state of rest, neurotypicals assume that we must not be feeling anything. Make no mistake — people with Asperger’s are humans too. And, like all human beings, we have emotions and feelings. One of the sentences I’m sick of hearing is “You don’t feel anything.”  That statement is always a knife to the heart.  I have always felt emotions.  It’s just that, for years, I hid how I felt because I was terrified of looking stupid or dumb. 

From a young age, I was ashamed of my own emotions.  My emotions were highly volatile and any emotional expression was of high energy.  I didn’t hold back on anything, be it sadness or happiness or frustration. I was in trouble regularly as a result.  I was told that “normal” people did not act that way and that people would reject me if I kept my shenanigans up.  So, for years, I suppressed my own emotions to the point that one day I could not feel anything.  I would try to feel a certain emotion and nothing would happen.

The following story, of how I broke the spell, is one that I always tell people: In November of 2012, my mother and I were at the Carousel Mall movie theater here in Syracuse, watching Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians.  I found myself really relating to the character of Jack Frost who, after being invisible for his entire 300 years of existence, just wants to find that one person who believes in him. When that moment finally happens, in the form of a little boy named Jamie, it is heartwarming and heartstring pulling.  In that moment, I found myself sobbing hysterically. It was if someone had taken an ice pick and sent it flying through the rock-sold ice that encased my body, shattering it and freeing me.  I had never cried so hard in my life.  And I didn’t feel any guilt or shame in my emotional expression. For the first time in forever, I felt alive. I felt present in the moment.  Ever since that day, my emotions have felt more readily accessible. I express my emotions and  don’t feel like crap afterwards.  My emotions remain high energy in their expression. I’m not one for faking it or half-assing it. If I feel something, I will let it out, because I’m just grateful to be alive and for the life that I have.  I still get the occasional person who will tell me to calm the fuck down, and I’m so sick of this double standard: that neurotypicals have the right to lose their cool or to get giddy happy while Aspies do not because, well, they’re allegedly emotionally unstable.  As a human being, I have the right to express myself just like any other human being.  My brain might work a bit differently than yours but, other than that, I’m just like you.  When you have Asperger’s, your five senses are more heightened than neurotypicals so overstimulation happens on a regular basis. But, when you’re on the adventure of life, you want to enjoy to the max because life is the most beautiful thing ever.

Madison “Maddie” Flavin is currently in her last semester at Syracuse University.  She is a double major in Spanish and Selected Studies in Education.  She was diagnosed with Asperger’s in February 2013, weeks before her twentieth birthday.  You can contact her at mmflavin@syr.edu.  And, while you’re at it, check out her Tumblr page, I Ride on the Rush, (vpike.tumblr.com) where her love of the entertainment industry, particularly movies, knows no bounds.

Hey, I Went To The Counseling Center

My freshman year I co-founded and led a student organization. Sophomore year, I wrote a column for the Daily Orange. I’ve held various editing positions at a student-run magazine. My grades are ok. My social life is great.

Last semester, I started going to the counseling center.

I separate that sentence for dramatic emphasis, not because I consider it different or less than everything else I’ve accomplished at Syracuse University. In fact, it may have been the hardest thing that I’ve done.

I’m very nervous to tell you all about this for a couple of reasons.

The first reason, ironically, relates to why I needed counseling in the first place. I didn’t think that I deserved it. I was never anxious “enough.” Never depressed “enough.” Never sure what qualified as “panicky” and what qualified as a panic attack. There was this weird satisfaction that came with toughening it out, quantifying my mental state and measuring it up to others. I’m able to do this, so therefore I don’t need help. I thought this, but didn’t do this, so therefore this isn’t bad enough. In a sick way it made me feel martyr-like, like suffering in silence was a reflection of strength. Every tragedy that I was spared from was a reason I didn’t deserve help. Every tragedy I experienced was deeply internalized, saved for later.

And I wasn’t happy. First it was for a few days. Then it was for a few weeks. Then I was so good at faking it, so good at functioning, burying myself in work, putting off emotionally dealing with a breakup, putting off emotionally dealing with family issues, that it was too much.

Eventually, a friend I had opened up to physically dragged me there. He talked me through the initial phone call. Walked me through the counseling center’s front door. Waited with me until my name was called. I nervously clawed at his shoes, refused to seriously fill out any forms, until finally I was in and started talking and couldn’t stop.

Getting an hour of time every week to not work on working but to work on myself was freeing. It didn’t make my problems go away, but instead let them exist in a space that wasn’t my chest. It verified that what I was feeling was legitimate. That I was allowed to have feelings and allowed to feel pain.

I’m nervous to tell you about this because I don’t want to appear weak. I don’t want you to think that I’m being dramatic. I’m afraid you’ll follow the same line of thinking as I do: There’s always someone worse. You just want to complain. There’s always someone worse off. You’re lucky, you’re so, so lucky.

I am lucky. There are people who have it worse. But something I’ve had to learn is that being privileged and needing help aren’t mutually exclusive elements in my life. Just because I am blessed in many, many ways doesn’t mean that I have to accept an unhappy head.

I stopped going to counseling this semester, but there are moments when I wish I had kept my appointment. I’m having a hard time getting myself back there, but I know it’s an option, that it exists if I need it. Next time I go, though, I don’t want tell my roommates I’m going to the gym. I don’t want to talk about mental health as an advocate while ignoring my own. 

If you need it—even if you want to try it—you deserve this kind of help, too. In college, there’s a culture of acceptance around being sleep-deprived, stressed and unhappy. There’s a misconception that asking for help is a form of surrendering, proof that you can’t handle a fast-paced world. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s a form of taking control. For me, it was harder to be honest with friends about how I was feeling. It was harder to admit that I needed some help, but I feel a little healthier because of it. Although it is not for everyone, the counseling center is on campus for a reason.

Is the counseling center working for you? Are there things you want to change? Because if we continue to hide our struggles from each other we will never receive the mental health care we deserve. There’s no way to make progress within ourselves and on this campus if we’re all too afraid to speak up.

Sarah Schuster is Vice President of Syracuse University’s Active Minds. She’s studying magazine journalism and hopes to write about mental health issues. You can contact her at seschust@syr.edu, or follow her on twitter: @saraheliztweets.