Sarah Gass C’21, is a poet and a writer, majored in Political Science and minored in English (Creative Writing), has a photographic memory, is a triplet, and has struggled with mental illness most of her life, particularly Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She believes that talking about her struggles is important, because, “I for one, want to do my part to show people that you can be many things at once: a successful student, a good friend, and have mental health problems. Because I believe sending that message can help to dispel the narrative that mental health issues render someone incompetent or unworthy. ” In my interview with Sarah she discusses how mental illness affected her years at Drew, the coping mechanisms she developed, the role of therapy and writing in her life, gives advice to other students battling mental health issues, and shares three of her poems. We are so grateful for Sarah’s candor and generosity.
Can you discuss your mental health issues?
I have battled mental health issues for most of my life. I was in middle school when I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but I’d been engaging in OCD behaviors since I was about 3. My parents didn’t recognize them as OCD behaviors then because I functioned so well. And that’s an important point to linger on for a moment – many people don’t receive proper diagnoses until years and years after the onset of their issues which can be really damaging. I was bullied throughout my grade and middle school years. This brought on a great deal of shame and trauma for me and amplified my struggles with OCD. For years, I didn’t do enough to take care of myself. I resisted going to therapy, I hid my pain and functioned well – succeeding in school and sports and my social life. Underneath everything, I was ashamed and interpreted my pain as weakness. And it’s easy to hide behind the facade of success when you’re hurting because it feels safe. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was forced to truly face the depths of my struggles. I was alone really for the first time in my life and it amplified a lot of the problems I had been ignoring. Just this past year, I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was jarring to hear but in a way, liberating to finally have that diagnosis and understand that there are people, professionals, who are equipped to help me. And I want to emphasize how fortunate I am to have those resources. So many people, both young and old are unable to access the proper care they need and I think that’s why I feel responsible not only to step up and take care of myself, but to share my story and shed light on the realities of those who battle mental health issues.
How has O.C.D. and your other mental health issues affected your college experience?
My college experience was full of the typical challenges of adapting to a new environment, but my mental health issues made some of those challenges more intense. I grew up in a really close knit family – being a triplet and having an older sister. My siblings are my best friends and college was the first time in my life that I was away from them – forced to adapt to a social environment that felt strange and overwhelming. My freshman year, I lost my grandmother which took the world out from under my feet. She was my rock and closest confidant. I think that grief exacerbated my already existent mental health problems. But it wasn’t really until my junior year that I saw how far I had fallen because of my negligence towards my mental health. I was hurting more than I ever had as I struggled to process a lot of the upsetting things that had happened to me. The choices I was making during that time were self-destructive and out of character. I didn’t really feel safe anywhere and I became really closed off and had a hard time communicating. I was getting good grades and socializing when I needed to, but I was feeling incredibly drained by the end of the day. My pain was starting to really affect the people I loved because I was becoming someone who was incredibly selfish and difficult to be around, but I didn’t have the language at the time to communicate this pain I was feeling. I didn’t sleep really at all and when I did, I was having night terrors. I developed vertigo as a stress response during that time and I remember it coming over me while I was driving with a friend and knowing that I needed to get more help, a more intense level of care to address my mental well-being or lack thereof because I had lost the Sarah that I love and admire – I had become someone I deeply disliked. I knew in that moment, that I needed to really be honest about my pain and to leave my pride at the door to get my life back. Because of this journey, I have forged really strong friendships. There’s something about going through a tough time that helps you see who’s really in your corner. Naturally through college, there were people who came and went. But those that have stayed are people I truly trust. With that said, my mental health issues have brought me closer to the people in my life and I now am better able to communicate how I feel, to be more transparent and honest. And it’s led me to finding very kind people.
What coping mechanisms have you implemented to help you deal with your mental health issues?
I start most mornings by working out or walking and then listening to a meditation. This primes me to be alert and clearheaded as I begin my day. Also, doing things that make me happy like listening to music, right in the moment that I am struggling is so helpful. No matter where I am, I can pop my earbuds in and play my music and it instantly relaxes me. It allows me to be totally present in my body and connect with exactly how I am feeling. And this eases me. I also keep a poem in my wallet. I’ve been doing this for years now, but I like to change it every few weeks or so. When I am having a hard go of it, I can pull it out, read it and just have that moment to enjoy the beauty of someone else’s words for a few minutes. But my number one coping mechanism is a grounding technique that I have been doing since I was in high school. I keep a lucky penny in my pocket everywhere I go. When I am sad, or flustered, or having a hard day, I squeeze the penny in my palm and it grounds me in the moment. My mom started the tradition of giving me a lucky penny everyday before school when I was younger because I was quite shy and it was her way of being with me throughout the day. Even as an adult, grabbing hold of that penny reminds me of my mom and that comfort eases me instantly.
Have you been or are you in therapy?
I’ve been in and out of therapy for most of my early twenties. But I didn’t get consistently in therapy until last summer. I think the pandemic was my wake up call that I needed to make serious changes. My parents raised us to be open about our mental health, encouraging therapy. But therapy only works if you work at it. And that means showing up every week, being prepared to be 100 percent transparent. It’s hard work. Scary for someone like myself who pushes things away and doesn’t really know all the time how to go to those places. I became really good at telling my therapist what I thought she’d want to hear so that I could avoid the tough stuff. However, this past year, I doubled down on getting healthy. Truly healthy. I knew I needed a higher level of care. The pandemic brought on a whole new dimension of struggle for me. Especially for someone with severe OCD – the germ-based language being amplified in the news only normalized my irrationalities. So many changes hit me at once and I felt like I was losing my old life. Especially when school went fully remote in the fall, I lost that chance to reunite with my friends and have the senior year we had worked for. This led me into a really dark place and I was becoming barely functional in my day to day life. But I was lucky enough to have parents and sisters who told me flat out that I needed an elevated level of care. I began Exposure Response Therapy which is as the name suggests – a therapy model predicated on exposing the patient to their worst fears. It’s not fun but it is necessary for those struggling with OCD. Also, I began EMDR therapy which works to address past traumas and reprocess them to address post traumatic stress through a number of physiological exercises. This type of therapy is extremely intense and very draining but I have to say, without it, I don’t think I’d be feeling as strong as I feel now. I still have a long way to go, but without therapy, I would be nowhere near where I am today. And I would encourage anyone who is struggling to seek some form of therapy, whether it be CBT, ERT, EMDR or Group therapy because it truly can save you. And even if you don’t find the right fit the first go, don’t give up on it. As my mom says to me, therapy is like exercise – you have to go or else your emotional muscles will become atrophied. And when you buy into that, the motivation to really believe in the process becomes ingrained in you.
Has therapy been helpful and if so, in what ways?
It has – for a number of reasons. For one, therapy doesn’t allow me to fool anyone. My go to when I’m trying to avoid my feelings is to talk in circles. Some people get quiet, whereas I can’t stop talking. It’s a distraction mechanism – a way to divert attention and almost confuse myself and those around me. I didn’t know this was defense until working with my therapist who called me out on it. Since then, I’ve learned to be aware of my defense mechanisms and understand that they aren’t actually protecting me. That rather, they are driving me further away from the comfort and safety I seek. Also, therapy has given me confidence. It is a strangely empowering moment to let a neutral, third party like a therapist watch you cry or hear about an awful moment in your life. You learn 1) that everyone is going through something and 2) that you can let go of whatever you are carrying and let someone else take it, even just for an hour.
How has writing helped you in dealing with your issues?
Writing is where I can find the words I don’t often know how to say. I can be the realest me when I’m writing. When it’s just me and the page, everything just kind of blossoms there – this striking clarity comes through and I feel that I am safe to be totally open about where I’ve been, where I’m at and where I’m going. It’s also my way of connecting with my grandma. She was the person who encouraged me to pursue writing. In my junior year, I took a Creative Nonfiction workshop and ended up writing a piece about my sister, Emily. Em, who has given me full permission to tell her story, has been in recovery from an eating disorder for 7 years. The piece was about my experience watching my sister go through this awful and traumatic experience. She was an inpatient for a long time in high school and my triplet sister, Jessica and I were very involved in her journey. The piece explored the strange dovetailing of Em and I’s mental health battles as I was silently battling OCD while she was first diagnosed with Anorexia. Watching someone you love endure something like that changes you. It made me grow up a lot faster than other people. I didn’t have any semblance of a normal high school experience during that time and a lot of my writing kind of circles back to how I often feel disconnected, removed from my peers because of the weathered experience I have had. The piece is being published in The Allegheny Review in June after being nominated by Prof. Courtney Zoffness and I’m glad that I am able to share something so personal in an attempt to shed light on the gravity of life’s challenges. My writing has certainly evolved since that piece. I recently finished a collection of poems (Learning to breathe at the bottom of the ocean) that focuses on this newfound acceptance of where I’ve been – a departure from the themes of uncertainty, shame and questioning. Instead, I am leaning into a voice that is gentler, kinder, and more mature which is translated on the page. Through my writing, I’ve seen an evolution in myself and a newfound confidence in my voice. I’m learning to let go of the shame around my life story. And I’ve also begun to accept that some people will not be able to handle hearing it. And that’s okay. Because it’s a story worth telling and one that makes me the person I am.
What do you think is the key to your success in overcoming your issues?
I draw on memories from my really young years to help me overcome my struggles. I actually have something known as a Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory which means I can access a great deal of memories from even my earliest moments. Because of this, I can recall being a 3 and 4 and 5-year-old. What it felt like to have that childlike innocence and optimism. I was a pretty energized and joyful kid and I so admire that younger version of myself who was just herself and didn’t care what anyone thought. So when the chips are down and I’m struggling, I often picture little Sarah and what she would do, what would she say, think, feel. And it might sound corny, but asking myself those questions has helped me make decisions that leave me feeling like I made younger me proud. Also, I would be remiss to not mention how much I lean on my family. They are my safety net and I am so lucky to have a team behind me. My sisters and I talk very openly about our emotions and this has helped dismantle the stigma around mental health. Especially watching my sister Em, and talking to her has changed my life. She is so strong and I could not be prouder to be her sister. She runs an Instagram @eatwithcare that has amassed over 25 thousand followers. There, she runs groups and shares her candid take on her struggles with eating disorders as well as other mental health issues. Everyday, I read her posts and it brings me a sense of comfort because she is really wise beyond her years. In a lot of ways, she is my role model and having her to light the way has helped me tremendously. And at my core, I am a really optimistic person. I truly believe that life is meant to be enjoyed and no matter what hand I’ve been dealt; I know I have the ability to create a really beautiful life for myself.
What advice would you give students struggling with similar issues?
You are whole and kind and loved and you deserve to feel that way and believe it. If you looked at my mental health on paper, you’d think there would be no way I could lead a happy, successful life. But that’s not true. I have lived an immensely beautiful and full and joyful life even with mental health problems. Your struggles do not define you. How you respond does. And that’s why getting real and talking about your struggles instead of acting cavalier about them is your best option. Our world today makes it so hard to have real connections because we rely on a social media landscape that often emphasizes superficiality. And I think that can lead to people being totally disconnected from themselves. But I truly believe that if you begin to take care of your mental health, by going to therapy, talking to a trusted friend or family member, or reaching out to a counseling hotline, you are taking those steps to gaining the tools necessary to have real meaningful connections. Not just with others, but with yourself and that’s what’s important and admirable.
How can we, as a society, remove the stigma attached to mental illness?
We have to look at mental illness as another component of our overall health. When someone breaks their arm, we don’t shame them for wearing a cast. So why then do we shame people for taking a medication or going to therapy? This country emphasizes constant work, material wealth, and outward appearances as benchmarks of success. But the mental health crisis in America is out of control because we fail to realize the important things in life and understand that someone’s mental health is just as critical to their overall well being as their physical health. This constant conversation around career and school puts a lot of pressure on young people. Instead, we need to first care about how someone’s doing instead of what they are doing. We also need to talk about mental health in conjunction to physical health and begin really empathizing the connection between the body and mind. I am a living example of how unattended mental health issues manifest physically. And I think more people need to share their stories. I for one, want to do my part to show people that you can be many things at once: a successful student, a good friend, and have mental health problems. Because I believe sending that message can help to dispel the narrative that mental health issues render someone incompetent or unworthy.
Any parting thoughts?
Life is way too short to not give yourself a chance at feeling the absolute best you can. I’m glad I learned that lesson at 22 because I know now that I am prepared to make the most of even the hardest days. In college, and more generally, in your late teens and twenties, everything can feel so important, so final. But you need to give yourself grace to make mistakes, to become someone new, to evolve. It’s okay to move through a number of seasons in your life. And it’s okay to have a lot of scars. There’s an immense beauty and power in letting them show. Because that’s the realest you, and the world and yourself deserves that version.
Yasmin Acosta, Launch Catalyst (Career Counselor)
Center for Internships & Career Development | Launch Center for Immersive Learning & Career Design