Editor's note: This article contains a graphic description of self-harm and attempted suicide. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
During my first year at Duke, I had friends and professors who zealously supported me through vulnerable times, but I always felt loneliness’s empty presence. To escape, I walked into it in the form of the train tracks behind Trinity dorm. The trees on both sides of the tracks created a visible boundary that gave those inside virtual isolation. I remember faintly hearing a horn while reading over my diary entry that afternoon,
"Children fear stumbling off of their bicycle seats and onto the pavement. Woodshop instructors value their opposable thumbs. I, however, feel a morbid joy at the sight of crimson spilling down my legs and onto the white tissue paper perpendicular to my hamstrings, or my left elbow or my eyelids."
I hated Duke, one of the nation’s prominent caricatures of inequality—individuals and families asking for the seven-dollar sandwiches from Whole Foods sit along the perimeter of our billion-dollar campus. “People who…by calling the shots,” as student Christian Sheerer puts it, “will be responsible for countless instances of unnecessary suffering.” Students, blinded by the pretty emerald that emblems our wicked history of economic imperialism, walk through Craven and perpetuate the green gleam that similarly blinded our slave owning and tobacco tycooning forefathers. In essence, Duke is a microcosm of white America’s elitist speckle.
In Duke and Downtown Durham, the outer-ring suburbs of Cleveland and everywhere the eight hours in-between, too many of my encounters are clichés. Walking behind other students at night prompts quickened paces and constant over-the-shoulder glances, purse-holders’ grips become tighter the closer I get, last year’s toxicology report sneaks off into oblivion—the farther it creeps, the harder it becomes to revisit. And its roots remain entrenched, grow firmer and hibernate until its recurrence.
My sanctuary in the train tracks, hidden on both sides with thick trees, was my choice, for lack of a better term, to devolve into an eventually-relished reclusion. Since society has Veiled and blinded us from our self-evident entitlement to equity while “refus[ing] to see” us, I became my fury, and the train tracks my heart. I played the roles of prisoner and watchman in my mind’s panopticon. My contained rage was allowed to roam free between the trees. With no one else around, it turned unto its owner. This became relentless self-interrogation: How much have you done for your race? How could you sell-out and attend an institution such as this? Who are you to look down it regardless the reason, in the first place? You can spend hours listing your shortcomings.
I replayed a speech delivered by my friend James, a discussion of his battle with depression and a call to not define him by his affliction. What fueled my alienation was animosity toward the “30.7% of respondents [who] agreed that a weak personality caused depression.” and pain for the “23-67% of depressed employees [who continue] to work without taking leave.” This blatant, widespread misunderstanding over the various (and occasionally surprising) causes of depression indicate victim-blaming and, consequently, apathy. The expectation among the afflicted to brave it out is a sad circle between discrimination, pain, apathy and more pain.
The horn became louder and didn’t stop. I turned to my left and saw a train coming toward me. I waited. Then I changed my mind and scrambled onto the rocks beside the tracks. I found my notebook about 30 yards ahead and in decent shape. I checked my watch and went to class.
The summer was more peaceful. I felt less panic as the pressures of deadlines and papers no longer contributed. Desperate for solace, I turned back toward the sanctuary of literature like I did in my childhood. I especially gravitated toward the paralleling tracks of philosophy and religion. I found greater humility in God and the Gita, the pursuit of Tao and Camus’s writings. I cried less, enjoyed hanging with my friends more, and truly meant it when I told my parents, I’m fine.
I took a course on writing public policy in the summer’s latter half. My Zoom conversations with my professor, Diane Weddington (as well as my first-year professors Professors Robert Thompson, Andrew Waggoner and Adam Hollowell) made me feel at least translucent. I wrote the following diary entry in response to the course’s introductory prompt, “Who are you?”
"I haven’t cut myself in a minute. By a minute, I mean the entire summer (at least thus far). I vividly recall and, oddly, reminisce with a ping of longing, sitting on the bland black chair provided by the University. Having my shirt off while I dragged the Van Der Hagan blade across my outer thigh, wrist or temple made the process less humiliating. Maybe I have no other tools for retaining the masculinity I feel evades me.
I’ve explained the Black human’s plight too many times (a question I don’t have the intellect, experience, and omniscient knowledge, no one does, to grasp).
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That salsa dancing with emotional pain that segued toward instinctual self-harm (at nine, it was hair pulling) sat in my bedroom—an air-mattress and glass closet—with me. Our relationship transitioned from fear of the other to friendly indifference. At this point, cutting is a chore; a chore I can willingly go without (like I have this summer) but decrease my efficiency and contentedness with the various joys that construct myself. I am to cutting that the aged history professor is to light roast."
Continuing to write diary entries, opinions on ideas I’ve encountered at the library and my coursework made me realize a passion for moving my unconscious’s jumbled, convoluted ideas into my sketchbook through writing. Although emptiness still fills me at times, having a new outlet in The Chronicle is more than satisfactory.
The honeymoon phase has ended, even though the joy of engaging with passion has not gone stale. Still, my experiences with depression and anxiety have flushed and filled me like the fan and cigarette smoke in my grandmother’s bedroom do, respectively. The following diary entry is one I wrote in WU after the first week of classes.
"That shitty feeling I got a break from over summer has been occurring more frequently recently. The dichotomy’s—on the other hand, I feel fine and even a lil energetic—scale is tipping toward the sad side: I feel constant pain in the form of itching anxieties that give me headaches and a weakness in my arms and legs. The volume from my torso and head seep away; my soul can’t wither any faster. At least I’m eating; my outer shell’s not as sloppy as last semester."
To put a chink in the armor of stigma, grow a branch on the tree of human experience and consequently help normalize the mentally ills’ experiences, I am glad to have shared my complex relationships with Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder, a relationship, in my experience, characterized by reclusion, despair, emotional liberation and everywhere between those points.
Kennon Walton is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.