I knew there was something out of place with me since my mom had been diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer the summer going into my freshman year of high school.
It mainly expressed itself in extreme loneliness and despair, profoundly low self-esteem, isolation, racing thoughts, irrational fears and worries, suicidal ideations, and weight gain due to emotional overeating. I didn’t know how to express what I was going through, or even what I was going through.
Looking back, I can clearly point out the signs of my mental illness, but then, I just thought it was a normal part of life. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg for me.
On Easter Sunday of my sophomore year of high school, one of my best friends since preschool, Grace McComas, committed suicide. Grace had a crush on the boy next door. This harmless crush turned into him giving her drugs and alcohol, raping her, and then cyberbullying her and having his friends bully her in school until she finally left school on “home and hospital”.
I got to spend a weekend retreat with Grace a month before her death, and saw her at a birthday party two weeks before she died. She seemed like the same old girl I had knew for 13 years. I didn’t know the extent to which she was suffering, and how hard it was for her to even walk out of her home because of the fear she felt of the one who hurt her.
I didn’t find out Grace had died until the Monday after Easter. I was home alone when my best friend, and Grace’s best friend, texted me that her and her mom needed to come over to tell me something. I tried to remain positive, even though in the bottom of my heart, I knew she was dead.
When they got there, and told me Grace had died, I held it together. I needed to stay strong for my best friend. But when I went to my room to call my mom and sister who were at the store, I burst into tears.
I called my mom, and when she asked what was wrong, I whispered that Grace was dead so quietly that no one could hear but myself. When my mom asked again what was wrong, I choked “Grace is dead” one last time. This phone call haunts me to this day, although April 8th will be four years since she passed away.
I went to school the next day, numb, and walked through the halls in a blur with all of my fellow classmates staring at me. Those close to Grace were called out of class first period before the announcements and brought into the counseling center.
While the rest of the school heard over the intercom about Grace’s death, I listened to my favorite counselor say once again that Grace had died, still not completely believing it. Then, I walked down the hall, fell against the locker and cried, staying there for almost the rest of the period.
Everyone I came in contact with would ask me questions about Grace and why she died, what happened, etc. I took on the role of suppressing my emotions in order to stay strong for my best friend as she grieved, and to protect her from all of the questions and rude remarks I endured as much as I could.
Kids are cruel. They don’t understand mental illness or grief, and they don’t understand how their remarks affected me so. They don’t understand that the times that they made fun of her, made crude remarks about suicide and how she died, or even said that she was a slut who deserved to die, broke me.
I tried to keep my mind off of it all by involving myself in all of the fundraisers, memorials, and other events in her honor. Although this worked, I still don’t remember a lot of the events, facts, or details of Grace’s death or the time after because I have repressed them so greatly, which haunts me every day of my life, some days more than others.
One of the things I took on after Grace died was starting a club called Active Minds at my high school after the guidance counselor asked me to be president. I put my everything into this club, even though in high school, mental health isn’t such a great concern for others, even after we lost someone to suicide.
I tried to do all that I could with Active Minds, and did all I could to work in Grace’s honor. We made a lot of policy changes, spoke at many events, and even helped to get an anti-bullying law called Grace’s Law passed in Maryland.
When it came time for college, I had a really hard time adjusting to leaving the place with all of my memories with Grace. I couldn’t drive past her house on my way home from school anymore, see everyone wear blue on her birthday and “Angelversary”, or have the support that I did at home.
College was great. Although there were some rough times, I found a really great group of friends who understand me, help educate me, and support me in every way possible. I also joined Loyola University MD’s chapter of Active Minds, and continued with my love of mental health advocacy at my new home.
I met some really inspiring people in this club, and found that I wanted to pursue psychology as a major. This love of mental health awareness and psychology lead to my job as an RA, as well as to me stepping up as president of Active Minds LUM for my junior and senior years of college.
Even with these great things in my life, my anxiety worsened greatly in college, to the point where I pursued a diagnosis and medication the summer going into my sophomore year of college. I was diagnosed with “anxiety with depressive symptoms” and given a daily medicine as well as an anxiety medication for my intense anxiety and occasional panic attacks.
This helped me greatly as I underwent summer RA training, met a whole new group of amazing staff members, and transitioned into my RA role and sophomore year. I love my job and my Vice President position for Active Minds. However, I didn’t realize what the implications of both would be like.
I had people coming to me left and right asking to talk about their mental illnesses, coping mechanisms, etc. It also led to me talking to more than four people about their suicidal ideations, and helping them get the resources that they needed.
I also had to report a former friend for sexual harassment, which also triggered me immensely, and didn’t help things. By the end of my first semester, I was burnt out, and my anxiety and depression had become worse than ever.
I experienced more panic attacks this year that I have in my entire life. Some days, I became so depressed that I couldn’t leave my bed for hours on end. I isolated myself from my friends, my grades dropped, and I didn’t have the energy to do anything anymore.
After a while of bad coping skills and not reaching out for help, I reached out, and my friends reached back. It took me a while to recover from the hole that I felt that I was living in. Some days were so bad that I considered suicide, and although I would never act on these thoughts, they still took a toll on me.
I decided that it was time to tell my parents, and to relieve some of the stress I was under. While I still am nowhere near a completely healthy state of mental health, I am coping with the help of a loving family and some really great friends.
With Grace’s “Angelversary” coming up the week of writing this, I can feel myself slipping back into the dark hole that I was living in for a long time. I know that I have too many people around me that care to help me go back to that dark place, but I still feel like the pain hiding right under my consciousness is going to drown me, and it may.
Yes, I developed even greater anxiety and depression, but that lead to me getting myself the treatment I needed. While there are many other anxieties that come from losing Grace, what I gained from knowing her outweighs any and every negative outcome of her death. I have finally become a person who I feel like I want to be.
Although I believe in the Jesuit value of the constant challenge to improve, I am so proud of all of the things I have accomplished in my life. Grace helped me to find my passion: psychology, mental health advocacy, and helping others. I wouldn’t be close to the person I am today without her.
Because of this, I try to exemplify the kindness she gave to every person she came in contact with. Losing Grace was the hardest thing I have ever been through in my life. I was robbed of the innocence and experiences of my high school years, which I can never get back. But with this loss of innocence comes the determination to show the compassion that Grace taught me in everything I do.
I want to make sure that Grace didn’t die in vain, because she was too amazing of a person to not be known to others. That is why I share my story along with Grace’s. While every instance of me sharing Grace’s story is still painful four years later, I know that through her story, she lives on, and she changes lives. That is why I approach every situation in my life with a ray of hope, and a touch of Grace.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideations, please reach out. You may think that no one cares, but that is a lie. I care. 1 (800) 273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For those of you reading this who have fought your suicidal thoughts, we are sure as hell glad you are still here. To learn more about Grace’s story, check out the link below: http://magazine.loyola.edu/issue/alumni/4954/in-graces-honor With love, Dana Sauro