“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”
So begins the epic by Italian poet Dante Alighieri. “The Divine Comedy,” split into three parts, tells the tale of the proverbial Dante and his quest through hell, purgatory and — ultimately — to paradisiacal salvation.
I first read the text when I was a senior in high school, carelessly swiping a highlighter over the words, casting a smear of neon over them but not weighing their worth in meaning. I was transfixed by the narrative of Dante’s adventures, his battles with fantastical creatures and the hellish landscape he traversed from page to page.
A few years older, but not all that much wiser, I now understand that Dante’s journey, in part, reflects my own.
For the latter years of high school, I was depressed, but hiding behind a façade that tried to prove otherwise.
I would appear with the face of cool composure that I had perfected — balancing being the editor-in-chief of my high school paper, playing on the varsity soccer team and taking six AP courses per semester — only to return home feeling a hollowness, despite my accomplishments.
The mask I put out for myself was one of a perfectionist, an optimist and an affable individual who had her life figured out. And perhaps that’s all it was — a front I hid behind. It was comforting; it was something that I became accustomed to and didn’t feel prepared to let go of so quickly.
The notion of rising from the bottom was unthinkable when it felt like I had acquainted myself with every inch of it.
I pondered, for great lengths of time, the fleetingness of life and the sharp but quick throes of death. For a while, I toyed with the notion of leaving our world behind and wondered if my departure from this life would simply leave a small ripple in the few lives of those I had briefly touched in my time on Earth. In the end, I always decided against it.
And I’m glad I did, because I have come to embrace the people who will support me, no matter what I accomplish or do in this life.
A year ago, while packing up my room for my first year of college, I found my battered copy of “Inferno,” the first part of “The Divine Comedy” in which Dante travels through the nine circles of Hell. I revisited the literary sage hoping this time to glean something more from the depths of his journey.
What struck me the most was the use of “our” in the poem’s opening words; his saga is the journey of “our” life. Dante is the collective “us” because he is the manifestation of everyone, and his experiences speak to the obstacles, regardless of scale, that we all face.
Living my formative years in Asia, where mental illness is still too often an unspoken topic, I was frightened to speak with friends and family about my struggles. I was afraid of shame, and that apprehension forced me to cork my emotions.
More often than not we try to convince others, and perhaps ourselves, that we are okay. But sometimes, it’s acceptable — maybe even compulsory — that we let our guard down and identify what is wrong. It is through acceptance that we will continue to get better.
There needs to be a more open and educated dialogue about mental health, now more than ever. Mental health still holds a great deal of underlying stigma, a stigma that can only be banished with more well-informed conversations among the general public.
Because at the end of the day, we are all Dante. We will, at some point in our lives, have to forge across our own miry version of the River Styx or fight off a pack of demonic Malebranche.
We will all be confronted with struggles that will test our will and our willingness to fight on, to have the strength to take another step on the journey that is life.
Peace with myself, though at the beginning ephemeral, has been more generously welcome, and I embrace it more willingly day by day.
My depression and anxiety, something so complex and nuanced, can paradoxically be summarized in simple numbers: four different medications, three years of therapy and innumerable hours talking — sometimes with smiles, other times in tears — with friends and family. But numbers aren’t the definition of me as a person. Mental illness does not define me. I define myself.
In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself within a dark woods. But the straight way is not lost. It is meandering and curving, leaving the traveler frustrated and hopeless at times. But the way will lead to a clearing in the trees, just enough to let the glow of the sun penetrate through shrouded leaves.
And onwards, onwards on the path we’ll go.