Jack Sobel’s Story

As I settled into my new room, afraid, tired, and ashamed, my phone rang. I had just entered treatment for anxiety and depression. “How are you doing?” a friend from school asked. “Good,” I replied. “How are you doing?” He repeated. As he pressed for detail, my guard lowered and I reluctantly explained my situation with the hope that the details would scare him and cut the conversation short.

I had left school, entered treatment, and had decided it was time to face my issues, I told him. I was greeted by tears. “I was so worried for such a long time. I love you.” He was overwhelmed with excitement and relief as I finally admitted I was getting the help I needed. As an eighteen-year-old, this expression of love and friendship was foreign to me. Who said I love you to their friends? Is he in love with me or something? This moment, started by the simple act of reaching out, was one of the most meaningful of my entire life and gave me strength to push through extremely uncomfortable and invasive mental health treatment.

Let’s back up slightly to explore how I got here. College is a time of transition, opportunity, and frankly danger. For me, it was no different. I showed up with a fair amount of baggage. As I lugged my bags up the stairs I frankly couldn’t believe I had made it here. I thought about when I experienced my first bout of suicidal ideation at sixteen over the spring break of my junior year of high school.

I was in Hong Kong visiting my brother who was abroad. Over a week, things unfolded rapidly and changed the course of my life forever. What started as nonstop self-hatred in my head (“You’re a fraud, loser, undeserving…”) soon overtook my world. A pair of dark tinted glasses descended over my eyes. Everyone was in pain, it seemed. A stranger on the street. My father. Mother. Myself. Afraid, I kept all this in. I stopped eating, stopped speaking, and was prone to bouts of hysterical tears. My parents did not know what to do. Before we realized the severity of the situation, they tried to get me out of the hotel and took me to an art fair. Overwhelmed by hundreds of people shuffling around a large exposition hall, I vomited and broke into tears publicly. Things were becoming untenable.

Eventually, my parents got me on the phone with a psychiatrist in New York and talking to him through tears I admitted I had been contemplating suicide. Half-measures ensued. I talked to therapists with partial honesty and received partial relief. I stayed away from mind-altering substances, until I didn’t. I took treatment of my mental illness seriously, until I lost interest.

I was okay, until I wasn’t. However, I made it to college, managed good grades, and seemed fine to outsiders.

On one side of my small freshman dorm room was a pile of bags marked anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. The other side had a trunk marked expectations–those of following in my siblings’ footsteps, performing at a prestigious business school, and a desperate desire for a normal college experience. After years trapped in a cycle of mental health issues, I was finally alone. I was at a crossroads I imagine a lot of college students experience, mental health issues or not. Faced with independence, I recoiled. My baggage was still there, even if my parents weren’t. And soon I began to drink too much, use drugs too much, and descended into a depression. I had a therapist, but I frankly wasn’t ready to use her. I would tell her things were good, chat about minor issues, and go about my life. Soon, friends noticed. I was becoming a ghost, I talked less, and spent most of my time alone in my room. Questions were raised. “Is Jack okay?” “Where is he?” “What does he do all day?” Naturally, I resisted. I would recite a chorus of, “I’m tired,” “feel sick,” “you don’t get it” to family and friends.

Things, unfortunately, got worse before I took any action. Substances stopped working. Counterintuitively, the solution to me seemed to be to use more, sequester myself, and be seen less. Finally, things reached a tipping point. I had a breakdown one night while out with my friends and stormed off into the night. The burden seemed too great: I knew I was coming apart at the seams, pressures from school and substance use were mounting, and I was starting to burn bridges with those who cared most about me.

For three days, no one saw me. I turned off my phone, ignored my family and friends and was determined to wallow in my depression. Finally, my friends spotted me wandering around campus, confused, disheveled, and lost. They offered to take me back to my room. I protested with my last bit of will. I began to do the song and dance of “everything’s all right” as we walked to my dorm room but they wouldn’t have it. They refused to let me turn them away. I wanted to flee, but couldn’t. We sat and talked. I became agitated and before I knew it, I was jumping up and down throwing a tantrum. “They are going to send me to fucking rehab. You are ruining my life,” I wailed, but they were unfazed. Eventually, I broke down and burst into tears. Everything was in shambles.

The bags I had brought to Penn were never unpacked, they sat in the corner of the room invisible to my friends, but taunting me. I began to imagine a new suitcase marked “Burned out of college freshmen year” and was filled with shame. Soon, I gathered myself and began asking them to leave. Thankfully (and annoyingly at the time), they wouldn’t. That night, they slept over on the floor and in the morning my brother was called and by extension, my parents were brought into the mess I had created.

My dad arrived first. I attempted a brave face, but it was no use. We locked eyes and wept together. It was clear. I needed help. It was time to face the anxiety and depression I had ignored for years. We hugged and that was it. There was no anger, no, “How could you let this happen again?” That was a narrative I had constructed in my head  and expected him to say. My mom arrived next and I got a similarly loving and understanding response. Doctors were contacted, a visit to a psych ward was considered, and eventually medical leave was taken.

I entered treatment and began my journey of building a life worth living.

I am extraordinarily lucky. There is no way around it. My friends were understanding and persistent even in the face of my obstinance and delusions. My family is caring and kind. As the dreaded tinted glasses returned over my time at Penn, I had built up a narrative of the exact opposite; I had no true friends and no one cared for me. When the depression began to recede, the truth became clear. The people around me were instrumental in facing my issues. They were willing to offer help. All I had to do was be willing to receive it. Something as small as, “How are you feeling today?” or “Is everything okay? I am here to talk if you need it,” can make a surprising impact.

When I was in treatment, people made the effort to reach out. Day after day, my core group of loved ones called saying: ” I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “How are you feeling?” Even with the amazing treatment I was receiving, without these messages, I wouldn’t have been able to press on and continue my path towards managing life with depression. While it sounds relatively simple, it is far from that. It can be immensely awkward to ask how someone is doing or to check in. My friends had never had a friend deal with mental issues and I was blessed and fortunate they were willing to experience discomfort to help me. I have benefited from this personally, yet even at times, I am afraid to do the very same thing I have had done for me.

Offering and receiving help are among the hardest things to do. However, a little bit of awkwardness can pay large dividends. As a result of my friends’ and family’s willingness to get out of their comfort zones, as well as the amazing treatment I received, my life is very different than it was eight months ago. Before this, I had a narrative of wanting to be “the guy”–friends everywhere, a social butterfly, frankly a bit of a clown (a sad clown at that). However, one of the most important gifts this experience has given me is the ability to develop meaningful relationships. Instead of dozens of friends whom I care about  slightly (some not at all), I have a core group of five or six people who I care for and who care for me. It may be cliche but quality over quantity is an aphorism for a reason. It’s true. When I ask my friends “How are you doing?” I mean it. People gave away the gift of compassion and care to me freely and I carry that experience and pass it on as much as I can because simple as it seems, it can make a world of difference.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.