Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and narrative series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
I’m from San Juan, Puerto Rico. My life was pretty stable, and I had always lived in the same house. I’m an only child. I didn’t have a dad. I was raised by my mom and we were very close. We would sing in the car and that was my favorite thing. We sang Italian songs and listened to Pavarotti. My high school experience was very much like other people’s here. I was very involved in extracurriculars and different clubs.
MIT was my top choice for college. I got in early, so I didn’t even finish my other applications. I was like, that’s the only place I want to go. So I’m about to come here, I had committed a week before, and then my mom had a heart attack right in front of me, and she died. I had to move out of my house that same day. I couldn’t stay there on my own. I was 17.
I stayed with my great uncle or sometimes with my great aunt. They’re brother and sister, but they don’t live in the same house. I went back and forth. They were my family.
I thought I was very tough, so I went through with my plans. I told myself, “This is what I’m doing in the fall. I’m going to college. Everyone has to deal with their parents’ death, so this is something I can deal with.” I think that was a mistake.
The first semester here was okay. I’d cry and I was sad, but it wasn’t completely horrible. I didn’t join any clubs or anything. I joked around saying, “Oh, I’m too busy being sad.” Then I went home for the holidays. When I came back that second semester, that’s when I started having serious problems.
I decided to take 5.12, 8.02, 18.03, and 9.00, all in that semester. I ended up no-recording everything except for 9.00. I didn’t even try. I would go to lecture and I’d fall asleep, and then I’d go home and tell myself, “I’m not going to turn this problem set in because this is wrong.” I would go to tests and try maybe a little bit, and then I’d say to myself, “I’m just going to leave it blank, because it’s going to be wrong.” I felt so completely out of control of my life. There was no escape from where I was spiraling down to. I was so helpless. I thought nobody could help me at all.
On top of everything, I started having flashbacks. I felt so guilty because I was such a rude child. I was sure my attitude had killed my mother. I was very depressed, but at that time I had no idea. I was just like: well, my mom died. What is the point? We’re all going to die. I’m supposed to be sad. I just didn’t expect everything to go so completely wrong.
I went to a therapist that summer and she told me I had major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. They gave me some medication, and I hated it. It made me jittery all the time.
At the beginning of my sophomore year I joined an a cappella group because I thought that might help me. I’ve always loved singing, but that first year even singing in the shower made me sad. I did have friends. I would talk to my roommate and she would listen very intently. I felt really alone though. I thought, “You’re sad for me right now, but you’re about to go home to your house and Christmas with your family.” I just felt so alone in the world with no one to help me. But there were many people that were trying to help me. That also made me feel bad, because I knew they were there trying to help and I just didn’t feel it.
Officer Collier’s death was in April of my sophomore year, two weeks before the second anniversary of my mom’s death. There was this huge funeral, and I had to go and sing. All I could think about was death and all the tragedy that had gone on at the Boston Marathon. I was sad because people were dying. Then I would feel guilty and selfish. “There are people dying everywhere. Why am I not sad for them? Why am I only sad for my mom?”
At this point, my classes were going horribly. I was required to withdraw, and I went back to Puerto Rico. This is where things started changing. I ended up staying a year away. I had to choose a place to live, so I chose to live with my great aunt. I started to be treated regularly. I realized if I wanted to go back to MIT, I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to get better. I started taking my medication every day, and I’d be very consistent about it.
By the end of that year, I just felt so much better. I had learned so many other things. I’d realized the amazing family that I had, and I think that made the biggest difference. I worked in a lab for a while. I took music classes, stuff I hadn’t done before. For the first couple of months, I was sad about being there without my mom. For example, I had her car: I would drive and be like, “This is my mom’s car. Why am I driving this?” After I started getting treated, it was like, “Oh nice, I have a car.”
Coming back to MIT was hard. I was assigned an amazing new advisor, and he helped me in so many ways. Also S^3, I had a lot of help from the deans there. My first semester back, I retook 8.02. I remember it being hard again and I was sad and I stopped going to class. Then I realized: no, this is something that has happened before, but I know what I can do about it. I let my therapist know, and I contacted my professor, and he was amazing. He would meet with me every week and help me out. It was such a big shift from my first two years here. I think the biggest thing I learned from being away was that you can always ask for help and there will always be someone to help you here. That’s something I just didn’t know before.
I’m off medication now, but I still go to my therapist every month. I feel like a much better person than the person I was in high school. I feel I’ve learned so much, that I have developed so much patience. I’ve also learned how to be a lot more proactive, making sure everything is on time.
I’m proud of where I am. I am proud of what I’ve done, but the thing I’m most proud of is that I was able to get help. In that sense I don’t feel that where I am today is my accomplishment alone. I feel it’s an accomplishment of everyone around me.
When I talk to other people who are depressed, the thing that I most want them to know is that it will end. It’s something that takes effort. I put in so much effort to get better. Even if you’re 100 percent sure that there is no way for you to get better, there will be a way, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to find it.
Caterina Colón is member of the Class of 2015.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at together.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.