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 am an immigrant from Mexico. My mom raised me and my two siblings all by herself. My dad stayed in Mexico. My mom struggled a lot; she never learned English. Halfway through third grade, I was placed in an English-only class, and by fourth grade, I was outperforming most of my peers.
I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I would watch shows on TV with my brother’s friends. They would make fun of gay people all the time, so I got into that same homophobic trend. I didn’t want to be attracted to men.
I was very overweight. When I started high school, I was weighing myself every single day. I lost about 70 pounds that year. I was hoping people would notice and treat me differently. Girls started paying more attention to me and I made friends. People were still making fun of me that I was gay, but at least I was happier with myself.
When I got into MIT, my mom said, “No, you can just go to the community college here.” But when I told my dad, he realized it was the MIT, and he said, “Wow. You have to go.” When my mom heard him, she of course supported me.
At the end of my sophomore year, I slept through an exam and failed two classes. I was experiencing my first signs of anxiety. The muscles in my upper body would tense up and I would want to crawl up into a fetal position and not do anything.
My junior year, I ended up having conversations with a lot of close friends who were also experiencing stress in their lives. It taught me an entire new perspective on life, and it was a great year for me. I was taking a lot of classes and extracurriculars. I had a couple of different positions in my fraternity. I was sometimes leading parts of rehearsals with the gospel choir, I was a tenor section leader of the concert choir, and a member of the chamber chorus.
In my senior year, my anxiety came back. I went to office hours one day. The professor was asking me questions, but I didn’t understand, so I just froze. He said, “I think your IQ went down when I asked you that question.” A lot of thoughts were flowing through my head, like, “Why did I come to office hours? I’m so stupid. I don’t belong in this class. I don’t even belong at MIT.” I’m walking away and I’m sweaty, and tears are starting to form but I’m trying to hold them back, and it feels like I’m swallowing all these tears. As soon as I exit his office, I just start crying and crying.
Another time, I was working on a project with an instructor from the Scheller teaching program. She kind of just shut me down and said, “Wow, you’ve spent so many days and you don’t even have a concrete question? What have you been doing?” I’m now a licensed high school teacher, and I’ve taught students who are immigrants, who are working two jobs to pay the bills and who come to school and they’re falling asleep. I would not dare ask them the way she asked me, “Why is it that you haven’t been doing your homework?” especially because she didn’t understand that I was depressed.
It was a very, very difficult year, but I graduated. I joined Teach For America and started Summer Institute, but it was as though MIT never ended. If I turned in a lesson plan at 1 a.m. instead of midnight, they’d sit me down and tell me it was a breach of professionalism. I didn’t understand that I was going through mental health problems. All I knew was that I needed sleep, and I hadn’t even caught up on the sleep deficit from my time at MIT.
By the end of the summer, I had been hired to teach at a charter school called KIPP in Lynn, Massachusetts. My coaches were saying they were going to tell my principal that I’m underperforming. I started teaching at KIPP anyway, and I enjoyed it. It was rigorous, and I felt very challenged. But a couple months in, my principal tells me, “Hey, the Algebra 2 teacher left, so we need someone to substitute.”
Nothing could have prepared me for stepping into that classroom. The kids were so frustrated that they had had different teachers coming in and out, and their teacher had just disappeared without notice. The first day the kids tell me, “Mr. Morales, you’re not going to be able to get our attention.” It would take a good fifteen minutes at the start of every class for me to get them to be quiet.
The students who wanted to learn were frustrated because they were already so behind. They thought I was a joke. It was out of control, and that was very, very stressful. My principal ended up sitting me down, telling me, “It sounds like a very difficult experience, but you can, Victor, you can do this.”
That made me feel terrible. For all I try, I just can’t do this. She would tell me, “Victor, these are all the things that need improvement. Such-and-such kids walked in late. Such-and-such kids were talking when you were talking.” Every time, I came out of her office feeling like I wanted to vomit. I would shut myself into the bathroom for a couple minutes just to breathe, just to cry a little bit.
I was taking days off work because my anxiety was so bad. My principal said, “You need to come to work every day no matter how you feel. All of us here,” and I remember her looking at the assistant principal and them nodding heads to each other, “All of us here have experienced some level of what you’re experiencing.” I had told her that I was going through mental health problems. What she said belittled my experience and made me feel like I was being whiny, that it was a small thing, so it just made it so much worse.
I fell in love with the kids, and I built great relationships with the staff. But by the end of the year, I was having an anxiety attack every single week, and I just couldn’t take it. I knew I couldn’t keep teaching at that school, and the principal ended up not inviting me back.
I found another job at a school called Boston International Newcomers Academy. They had an old building, and the hallways weren’t the cleanest, but the culture was so warm. The teachers made me feel so valuable even on day one. All the students were immigrants, going through challenges like the ones I had experienced. They were so polite, so respectful, always so happy to see me. I felt so proud, so privileged to be their teacher.
It was the end of October last year when the depression came back, and it came back many times worse. It was like I woke up one day and felt numb. I couldn’t feel as much as I had felt the previous day. For an entire week, I sat there at my desk and could not do anything.
I had an ever-growing stack of papers to grade, and my kids kept asking me about them. I would say, “I have a lot of things going on. I’ll try to do it by this day, but no guarantee.” They were like, “Okay, Mr. Morales. We understand.” I would smile because they were so nice to me.
I was sleeping twelve hours per night. I couldn’t eat anything because I couldn’t get hungry. I couldn’t even feel sad or sorry for myself. There were days when I had to call a friend and ask them the silly question, “Can you come and pull me out of bed?” They would do that.
It wasn’t easy to explain. People think that there has to be a reason for depression. They would ask, “Why are you depressed? What happened?” I didn’t know what to say. Nothing really happened. Depression just kind of came back, and it came back at a point in my life where I was so happy. I loved my students. I had a very good job.
Depression stole my life. It stole my desire to live. It came down to me asking, “Why should I be alive if I can’t feel anything? Why should I be alive when I’m just this zombie?” Things got worse. I applied for medical leave and was denied. Then I was terminated because I had missed too many days. I struggled financially, and my medical insurance ran out. I started seeing a therapist and taking Prozac, but it just made me feel more numb.
There were a couple occasions when I asked my friends whether I was alive or not. I thought maybe I had died. Hurting myself was the only way to try to release my soul from this dream. If I could at least feel extreme anything, it was such a relief to know that I could feel something. But when I would hurt myself too much and see the scars on my body, I would think that I was lost in my depression, that I didn’t know who I was anymore.
By December, I had built a set of strategies to overcome depression. I had known that if I was experiencing anxiety, what works is to clear my mind — by watching a BuzzFeed video, meditating, or having a conversation with a friend. Depression was a totally different beast. To overcome it, I had to develop meta-cognitive strategies. The first step was to convince myself that life is worth living and then choose to live. I had already had this sort of plan to take my own life, but I couldn’t stand the idea of taking my own life and setting up my friends to experience a tragedy of this kind.
My friends were taking me out to lunch and dinner, spending three, four hours with me, talking about me and me and me all the time. They had become a reason for me to live. How could I take my own life when so many people had invested so much in me? So many people saw — I don’t know what — in me, and I guess they cared or loved me. In that way they communicated to me that they thought it should be worth it for me to survive.
One day I discovered that at the source of my depression was this idea that my greatest value came from the way others saw me. I cared if other people saw me as ugly or attractive, as intelligent, as smart, or dumb, or stupid. I cared if I was a successful teacher or not. One of the solutions, if the problem was that I thought I was unattractive, could be to convince myself that beauty is only a relative term. If someone now makes me feel stupid, I say to myself, “I interpreted their tone to be demeaning, but they probably don’t intend to make me feel bad.” That makes me feel so much better.
I identify as bisexual now. When I went home for the holidays, I told my mom that I’m attracted to the same sex. She started asking me all of these questions about the Bible and about what I’d done. She wasn’t asking me in a loving way. With my dad, I’m taking it more slowly. I feel like if I tell him what I’m doing he’s going to misinterpret it and get upset at me, so I want him to first understand what I believe. He’s a very understanding person.
Because I wasn’t able to get my job back at BINCA, I’m working as a tutor at The Academy at Harvard Square. I’m also working at the Edgerton Center at MIT, and I’m applying for a number of different jobs for next year. I’m off medication, and I’m no longer seeing my therapist. I haven’t had anxiety in weeks, months even. My biggest stressor now is my finances. I’m thousands of dollars in debt because of medical bills. The stress I get now is very mild. Maybe it’s the kind of stress other people feel who are not going through mental health issues.
I still identify myself as depressed because I understand that depression can come back at any point. I have to be ready. I’ve thought about giving gifts to my friends who helped me survive. But there’s no need. My life from now on is a tribute to those people who showed me love. I hope my story can help others in a similar way.
Victor Morales is a member of the Class of 2014.
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 mindhandheart.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.