Story by Lauren Friederman | Photos by Andrew Church
For Emily Faulk, getting tattoos is not just a form of rebellion. Her tattoos are not just pretty drawings or significant words she chose to have permanently engraved on her body. Her tattoos are a daily reminder of her struggle against depression and her potential to overcome it.
“The reason I get tattoos is because I struggle to remind myself in my own mind of whether or not I matter or the things that matter to me,” Faulk said. “I like physical reminders. I was always the kid that put sticky notes everywhere to remind myself to do things because I’m very forgetful. I don’t just think about those things on my own.”
On her forearm, Faulk has a tattoo of a lion’s face appearing in pieces of a puzzle.
On a trip to Mexico with her best friend, Faulk saw a man holding a lion cub. She and her friend approached the man, who let her hold the baby lion.
“I’m sitting there holding this tiny little, playful fur baby and all I can think was, ‘One day this creature is going to be the most powerful being alive. It’s going to be the king of the jungle. It’s going to be this incredible, majestic being,’” Faulk said. “The more I thought about it, I respected this little being because there was power in what it was. It didn’t matter that the power wasn’t there now. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t this strong mighty incredible thing now. Right now it needed protecting, and right now it needed care and love but one day it was going to be beautiful and incredible. Sometimes we need that care and love but someday we’re going to be self-sufficient and beautiful and incredible.”
This reminder sustained her through some of her darkest days.
It wasn’t a matter of whether or not she would have depression, but instead a matter of when depression would rear its head in her life. Faulk knew her family had a history of mental illness. Her mother and grandmother both struggled with depression, but it wasn’t something her family was comfortable opening up about.
“It was in the genes. It was in the stars that either my siblings or I would have it,” Faulk said. “I actually didn’t show signs of it till college. Mine was situationally triggered. I always had a predisposition to some of the symptoms and my symptoms looked a little bit different than other people’s just because it is different for everyone.”
Faulk’s battle with depression began when she found out the man she planned to marry someday had been cheating on her for years, with several different women.
“He’s the guy I lost my virginity to, the first guy I had ever been in love with, the person I had literally given every single facet of myself to. He had, in a very unhealthy way, changed the way that I looked at life and looked at myself. My identity was kind of rooted in him, which is horrible,” Faulk said. “When he left, who I was was gone and I didn’t really have that frame of reference or this person who I did my whole life with.”
After the breakup, she was left with several difficult questions that ricocheted through her mind.
“If I’m not even enough for him, who am I ever going to be enough for?” Faulk said. “If I can’t be loved well by him, who else is going to love me? I poured my whole heart and soul into him; how am I ever going to recover from this? Who am I if I’m not loving someone?”
Faulk was constantly exhausted. She started missing classes and struggling in school. She no longer found joy in music or art. She stopped exercising and started gaining weight. Her relationships with her friends faltered.
“All of my friendships were not ending, but in a really horrible unhealthy place. I became the flaky friend, the person that I always couldn’t stand until I became that person and understood why,” Faulk said. “You make these plans when you’re feeling good or when you’re having an up day. Then it’s four o’clock on a Tuesday and you’re supposed to meet a friend for coffee and something inside of you is saying, ‘You can’t handle a conversation today. Don’t go,’ and then you flake and you’re that friend.”
Knowing that something was wrong, Faulk called her parents. She told them something was off and that she didn’t feel like herself. Her parents told her they noticed the signs when she was just 11 years old, but it wasn’t something they wanted to discuss with her; they wanted her to reach that conclusion on her own. During that conversation, her mom asked her what she wanted to do to overcome it. At that time, Faulk wasn’t ready to admit she had a mental illness. There were so many negative stigmas that she didn’t want to deal with.
“Stigma is a terrible thing,” Dr. K. D. Charalampous, a Houston-area psychiatrist, said. “It prevents people from seeking help as soon as possible.”
In fact, nearly 65 percent of people experiencing severe symptoms of depression don’t seek help, according to a report from the National Center of Health Statistics.
Three months later, at her lowest point, she found herself alone in a very dark place.
“It was very lonely and not like an ‘Oh, hey, I’ve had a bad day and none of my friends are home’ lonely,” Faulk said. “It’s like you’re deep in a pit and you can’t see any light. You have no idea if anyone is above ground or not. You’re yelling for help, but you’re not really yelling for help, because you’re not really talking to anyone about it. You’re just sitting there carrying around this hundred-pound weight, knowing that there are people around who could probably help you carry it, but feeling like you’re too much for them to bear.”
Faulk failed of one her classes and her GPA plummeted. When she woke up most mornings, she didn’t feel like herself. She was plagued by nagging questions about her self-worth. Her happy, sarcastic demeanor disappeared along with her desire to create art, leaving an empty shell behind. She had lost control of her life.
“I love doing art and music and all that stuff, and I would wake up with not just no desire, but a desire not to do what I love,” Faulk said. “I wanted to be alone. I wanted to sit in my room with the lights off and just sleep, because sometimes being awake was too much. I think that was probably the hardest part, when being awake was too much. There was a lot of feeling like I was never going to be enough for anyone, or like I was never going to be enough for myself. There was a lot of wondering if people would be better off if I was not in their lives.”
She prayed to God for healing, but she was constantly frustrated that healing hadn’t come.
“I figured, if you pray to Jesus he’s going to take care of it,” Faulk said. “Which he does, but sometimes the answer you’re looking for isn’t the answer he’s going to give you. So I kept praying that God would just make me better and take the frustration and the hurt and the pain away. God wasn’t saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’ but it felt like he was. He was saying ‘No I’m not going to do that right now. You have to go seek help and through this, you’re going to meet incredible mentors who are going to take care of you and change your life over the next few years.’”
After six months of feeling empty, Faulk did just that. Without talking to anyone, she went to the Baylor University Student Life Center for help, where she met with a counselor to discuss her situation.
“It really is just a conversation,” Faulk said. “You get asked questions and at the end of it you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that about myself. Oh, I run from my problems. Oh, I do this. Oh I do that.’ You get to know a little more about yourself while learning about someone else. In the end you learn enough about yourself to start to think differently. It doesn’t alter who you are, it doesn’t change the way you live your life, but it just opens your eyes a little bit to who you want to be.”
Ultimately, Faulk was diagnosed with depression.
According to Charalampous, depression is very prevalent in society. Seven percent of people are depressed at any given time and as people age, the percentage increases to 20 percent, Charalampous said.
“Depression is debilitating,” Charalampous said. “It affects sleep, affects energy, affects willingness to do things. These people feel quite down. They feel like they have a chronic flu or worse.”
During one of her counseling sessions, Faulk’s counselor ended the session early and sent her to a piano in the music building. Faulk protested, but her counselor insisted. The last thing Faulk wanted to do at that moment was play the piano, but as she began to play, she began to feel better.
“That was a breakthrough moment for me,” Faulk said. “If I just suck it up and start doing something I like, I’m OK.”
Faulk was also sent to a doctor, who assessed her, decided medication would be a beneficial supplement to her counseling and prescribed her antidepressants.
Faulk was reluctant to take the antidepressants. She debated it for two weeks, and she was finally convinced by a phone conversation with her father. A metaphor he shared ultimately persuaded her.
He said that with his eating habits, he would likely have a heart attack in the future. In order to see Faulk get married and be there for her grandkids someday, he would have to take heart medication.
She protested, but he insisted that in order to be who she was called to be, she might have to take medication.
Hearing her father compare depression to a physical illness resonated with her. She realized that, like pneumonia or a heart attack, her depression wouldn’t go away on its own.
“For me that was the slap in the face that to be the joyful, artistic person that I was one year ago, I have to start taking these meds,” Faulk said.
It took a couple of months for her to feel the effects of the medication, but when she did, she was able to return to her life.
“My attendance got back up,” Faulk said. “I was able to speak with all of my professors, most of whom were extremely kind and understanding and made sure that I got through the rest of the semester. They were incredible.”
The diagnosis she initially feared eventually empowered her to heal.
“The most beautiful part of this is that when I finally had an answer about what was wrong with me I was finally able to get better,” Faulk said. “It was actually really nice to know that there was something actually medically wrong with me and that I wasn’t just going crazy inside my own mind. It was nice to know that there was a fix to the thing that I was struggling with because otherwise it would’ve been me, alone, just trying to handle the sadness.”
Faulk was ultimately able to overcome the symptoms of her mental illness and graduate from Baylor University in May of 2016, more than two years after receiving her diagnosis.
After graduation, Faulk found herself in an unhealthy situation at her new job. She was not allowed to take sick days, much less mental health days. The job made her into someone she didn’t want to be. After a year, she quit, moved back to Waco and started working at Baylor as an Admissions Communications Design and Social Media Specialist.
“The difference is astounding. I can’t even explain to you how much better it has been. Everyone is just so kind and gentle, very understanding and respectful of everything you’re dealing with in your own life, whether it’s depression, anxiety, grief, just any personal issue that you’re dealing with,” Faulk said.
Three years after her initial diagnosis, Faulk stopped taking medication and began to focus on how she could change her lifestyle to cope with her depression.
“It’s a lot of changing your mindset and saying ‘I have to get up,’ whether it’s putting an alarm in another room and making yourself literally get out of bed,” Faulk said. “Once you get up and moving you’ll feel a little bit more like yourself. That’s not guaranteed but there’s always that hope there. I’ve always been a very hopeful person.”
This hope inspires her to share her struggles with others in order to let them know they’re not alone, and that they too can find hope in their darkness.
“I think that depression is imperative to talk about because it is rampant throughout today’s culture,” Faulk said. “It’s still not something that we feel like we’re allowed to talk about. We’ve come so far as a society when it comes to not having taboo subjects, but this is still one that makes people wildly uncomfortable because either they don’t understand it or they don’t believe in it. They think it’s some medical crock or it’s just a way to pop pills. It’s not. It’s a real thing. Millions of people struggle with it and millions of people believe that they’re alone in their struggle. I think it’s so important to break the ice on this topic because the second you get through to one person you can get through to all the millions.”
For those who find themselves in a dark place or are struggling in silence, Faulk urges them to seek help.
“If you think something is wrong, something is probably wrong,” Faulk said. “Don’t ignore that feeling. If you are having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, if you are exhausted all the time, if you are having harmful thoughts, if you feel like you are the only person out of all the people surrounding you, you may have depression.”
Charalampous also stresses the importance of seeking help for depression immediately, citing the benefits of counseling.
“It’s good to actually deal with your depression not just put it under the carpet because it has a way of influencing your subsequent life,” he said. “If you have a crisis like that and you work through it well, then you become stronger. If you listen to your grandmother who says, ‘Oh don’t talk to a counselor because they might think you’re mentally ill and they’re going to ruin your reputation,’ then you ignore the situation and you don’t get counseling and you miss an opportunity. Counseling in that situation would be an advantage and you might get some new guidance about you and your personality and find out what your strong points and weak points are.”
Although Faulk is in a better place now, she realizes that her depression story isn’t over and that it’s something she will deal with for the rest of her life.
“With biological depression, it’s never over. It doesn’t go away. It’s a lifelong fight. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is something I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life but if you come to terms with what you have, it’s so much easier to heal. You can’t heal if you don’t know that you’re broken,” Faulk said. “There’s no simple answer. There is no quick fix. You have to be patient, but it’ll all be OK.”