It is often said that a picture can tell a thousand words. But what people fail to mention is that doesn’t necessarily mean the words are telling the truth about that picture. Actually, a picture can do the exact opposite. A picture can tell you a complete lie.
If someone was to look through my past Facebook or Instagram pictures, it would be impossible for them to tell which days I was struggling, which days I felt alone, which days I contemplated suicide. The pictures I would post told a thousand different lies, all of which were masked by filters and clever captions.
I came to College of Charleston as a freshman in 2013, and to an outsider, I probably looked like I had the perfect life. I was given a bid to a sorority that some girls cried about not getting. I was elected to be the student body secretary as a freshman, receiving more votes than any other elected position. I was a member of over 20 organizations on campus. I had countless friends, and many knew my name. I had it all — or so it seemed.
No one knew I was the target of severe cyberbullying on Facebook for over two years in high school, stemming from a small group of girls creating an anonymous account, used to both torment and destroy my reputation. No one knew that I had lost my only true friend to brain cancer amid the bullying. No one knew I lacked any confidence or self-esteem, or that I hated the sight of my own reflection. No one knew I attempted to take my own life from feeling so alone and worthless. No one knew that only a month before coming to Charleston from Philadelphia, I had been sitting in a little shoe box–sized psychiatric hospital room, stripped of my shoelaces, electronics and dignity. No one knew.
My life was filtered. And that was exactly the way I wanted it to be. I made it my goal to wear a metaphorical mask — hiding my struggles, mental illnesses, insecurities and imperfections — and I wore it well. I was terrified that if people knew the real me — the one who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and social anxiety — they would think I was crazy or weird, because that is what the mental health stigma made me believe.
So, during my freshman year, I would go to on-campus therapy secretly each week, telling my roommate that I was going to class. My therapist was one of the only ones to know what lay beneath my mask, one of the only ones to know the real Emily Torchiana.
It was not until my sophomore year that this mask completely came off. My therapist asked if I would be interested in sharing my experiences with cyberbullying to College of Charleston’s campus. After much contemplation, I decided to do it, in hopes of helping just one person’s silent suffering. The room was filled with students, faculty and community members, all wanting to talk about this seemingly taboo topic: mental health. It was the first time that my life was unfiltered.
From that point on, my life has continued to stay that way. I no longer hide my mental illnesses, my struggles, my insecurities. The talk I gave that day gained traction, and I began getting opportunities to share my story across the country at different schools, colleges and conferences. I began noticing that after each talk I gave, a long line of individuals would form to speak with me. Kids as young as 10 years old to adults as old as 70 would privately share with me their battles with mental illness.
That is when I got the idea: Why not give people a public platform to share about their experiences with mental health to reduce the stigma and help those still silently suffering? The idea was put into action by founding my nonprofit organization, The Invisible Illnesses, last October. Each week, I feature an individual’s brave story of struggle, ranging from eating disorders and bipolar disorder to drug addiction and sexual assault. Within just four short months, the stories had over 100,000 views on the website and over 200,000 views on Facebook.
On social media, we all tend to show the world our “filtered” life — the parts that are perfect, flawless and exciting. We rarely share the parts of us that we find to be bad or ugly. But that is exactly what The Invisible Illnesses urges people to do: share the raw, imperfect parts of us to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health.
The Invisible Illnesses’ slogan is “Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.” Just from looking at me, you will not see my post-traumatic stress disorder, much less social anxiety and depression. But these are illnesses I deal with every day of my life. And my hope is that, through reading my story and the many other stories, those who are currently having similar experiences will no longer feel so different or alone as I did back in high school. My other hope is that those who do not suffer personally will learn about mental illnesses and see how common they truly are.
Mental illnesses are lifelong battles. They do not just go away like a cold or an infection, as much as I used to try to convince myself that they would. They may never go away, but you can learn to cope with them and deal with them in positive ways.
If you woke up today feeling like you do not deserve or want to be alive, please remember that this world would be a worse place without you and you would be so missed. You may not see it through the depression, but you are truly loved. You are here for a reason, and although it may not seem like it will get better right now, please know that it will. I promise you.
Emily is a senior at the College of Charleston. She speaks at schools and conferences around the country about her experiences with cyber bullying, mental health, and suicide prevention. To learn more about her program, visitwww.theinvisibleillnesses.org.