How Volunteering Saved My Life
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Health and Wellness

How Volunteering Saved My Life

My Battle Against Depression Using Service

How Volunteering Saved My Life
Recover Rochester

This article is in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It contains potentially triggering discussion of anxiety, depression, suicide, and self harm.

For the past few months, I have been in recovery without relapse with proper medications and regular check-ins with a therapist. I can't say with certainty that I've beaten depression, but it definitely doesn't have a hold on my life anymore. This is part of the story of my battle against it.

This past week, the parent organization of my favorite club on campus turned five years old. That's a pretty big deal, since that organization is the Food Recovery Network and has managed to save over a million pounds of food from the landfill in the past five years and feed one million pounds of food to hungry people. That's pretty damn awesome.

I first found out about Recover Rochester during a club fair in my senior year of high school. It sounded like everything I wished a club would be - full of people that cared about other people and the environment and were serious about social change and getting things done.

When I walked into the meeting during the first week of classes, I was nervous. I saw everyone talking and laughing in little groups. I started getting that feeling in my stomach that everything was wrong and that I would never be welcome here, doomed to be an outsider that kept to myself while everyone else had fun.

I forced myself to remember that this was something I had been looking forward to doing for the past six months. That fighting waste and feeding people were both things I was passionate about, more than almost anything. That when I saw it at the club fair I got more excited about it than I had been about anything for a long time.

I told myself that if I couldn't let fear rule my decisions. I wouldn't let my anxiety take control of my life. I would fight it.

I steeled myself for the possibility of feeling left out, because I knew it would be worth it to be doing something I was passionate about.

And so I stayed.

Soon after that, I was put on inventory for Tuesday nights. Our small battalion of three, outfitted in baseball caps, would march into the kitchens of campus dining halls and weigh food for the following day's delivery. I felt like a food justice warrior, making a difference with every pound of pizza and pasta we weighed.

Weeks later, it's a chilly Tuesday night in the middle of November. The computer science lab was due in a few short hours. This lab was more difficult than any others before it. There was something about it I wasn't getting. I read my lecture notes over and over again and grew more panicked as the hours ticked by. Maybe you weren't meant for this. What if you made the wrong choice? How can you pursue a career in programming if you can't even get this problem right? Stupid.

I ran away from the lab, from the voices, from my responsibilities until my legs burned and my lungs gasped for air. I was in the middle of the woods with my trusty messenger bag that held only a tea thermos, a granola bar, and a Swiss Army knife.

I twirled the knife between my fingers. A dozen thoughts raced through my mind and I couldn't keep track of them all. I couldn't separate my rational voice from the dozens of others that swirled around in my head. Do it. Just do it already. You can't do anything right, you can't even do this right. You're pathetic. This world doesn't need another pathetic person on it.

I didn't feel like I was any longer attached to the world. I felt that I wasn't supposed to be here - I didn't know if "here" meant the combination of time and space and situation and mindset or in the world. Maybe some of both. I felt separated from my body and at the same time had a queasiness in my stomach that something was horribly wrong.

The knife stopped spinning. I don't remember what happened next.

I regained my sense of self and broke through the haze, smelling the rich scents of the forest and feeling something warm and wet on my wrist. I didn't want to know what it was.

I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. Purely by instinct, I fished it out and glanced at the text message.

"Hey, are you still coming?"

Tuesday. Inventory night. Suddenly I was snapped back to a different reality - the one where I had responsibilities that didn't feel soul-crushingly onerous.

The one where my actions had a purpose.

I closed the knife and put it back in my bag. You are needed. I wiped the tears off my face and fixed my hair. You can help people. I splashed water on my wrist and pulled my sleeve down. People are thankful that you're here. I took a deep breath and put my bag back on my shoulders. You are important.

"Yeah, I'm on my way."

My shoes thudded against the wooden planks of a bridge. People need you to make this world a better place. You can do something about it. You are doing something about it. People are relying on you. They appreciate you. You are important to them. The words spurred me on; the breeze that was ruffling the leaves of the trees seemed to whisper encouragements to make sure I wouldn't falter.

My breath formed a cloud in the darkness in front of me. I could feel myself shivering. Looking back on it now, I can still feel the cool night air on my skin and think about how lucky I am to be alive - to be breathing, to be able to feel the air.

Several weeks later, with the stress of finals looming, the club planned the combination Holiday party / club birthday party. Always slow to make friends, I was still unsure where I stood with the other members of the club.

Parties with lots of people I didn't know too well and nobody to lean on as a social crutch have always been one of my greatest fears. Again, I felt like backing out. Again, I quelled my fears for the sake of forging better relationships with the people that shared my passions. I ended up having a great time and feeling like I had found people I belonged with.

The spring semester, along with more social events and recoveries, brought another opportunity: a move-out program that collected items to resell at the beginning of the next term.

Added to the stress of finals, I was also getting over a relationship. The only thing I could do to stop the anxiety from overwhelming me and to prevent myself from drowning in a pit of despair was to keep busy and feel like I was making a difference and contributing to something. My way of punishing myself was to work myself to the bone and force myself to feel better. Force yourself to, or I'll make you feel even worse.

For a week during and after finals, I carted literal tons of donated goods through narrow dorm halls and sweltering heat.

I spent hours sorting knick-knacks and gathering groups of hangers, but it didn't feel tedious. Sometimes it hurt. Sometimes it was frustrating. And it was always chaotic. At the end of every 12+ hour day, my back was stiff and I could barely crawl into bed. But my heart was full, and my life had meaning. Do what it takes to survive, even if it means doing what feels impossible and punishing yourself until it hurts.

After my freshman year, I was sure the bad part of getting used to college and finding friends was over. But I hadn't yet experienced the joys of working 20 hours a week as a full-time student.

There was one day that I worked for 6 hours on less than 4 hours of sleep while I was sick. I came back to the news that I had failed a physics exam and that my bank account was literally at $2.18. If I had even tried to buy a latte I would have gotten hit with an overdraft fee. My car's gas tank was empty and my next loan payment was due before payday. I couldn't do anything except cry that day.

Until it was time for inventory. People are counting on you. It doesn't matter how bad you feel, this needs to get done. You can do this. I dragged myself out of bed and took a steadying breath, then went out to face reality.

My heart lightened with each container of food I weighed and recorded. Steady, methodical. Nobody is judging you. A friendly kitchen worker, one that always greets us when we come in, asked how I was doing. "I've had better," I said with a weak chuckle. "Hey, we've all been there. Keep your head up and have yourself a nice evening." Keep your head up. People care about you and want you to be happy.

During that year, volunteering was more than just a hobby or a way of life. It was a means of survival. It was literal life or death. With volunteering, for a few hours a week with Recover Rochester and Flower City Pickers, I was able to feel like I was needed. I honestly believe that getting to feel that a few times a week was what saved me and kept me here. It was a more effective form of therapy than anyone with a psychology degree could provide. Deep down, we are all living organisms with a base desire to survive. You may think you don't want to survive, but your core instinct, the very essence of your being, is telling you otherwise. Listen to it.

I was able to make people smile with the work that I was doing. I was able to be in a place where I was appreciated just for being there, where there were no expectations or grades or angry people. There were just grateful people that let me know that I was important and that my time on Earth was important because I am making these people happy. If you weren't here, there would be one less person to make a difference and one less person to make people in need smile.

I learned that the connections you make in the process of helping are some of the most important connections you'll have and they're the ones that remind you that we are all alive and important and beautiful and that we all have a story to tell. Cap who runs the kitchen of one of the meal centers and always has a joke. Phillip, the homeless man who sells the only thing he can - a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Joann, the disabled woman that carries a cat in her bag and says that every person that pets the cat gives her more power from the cat gods to make herself better. You may be the only person that bothers to care about this person today. Don't waste that opportunity. They need helpers, healers, and listeners.

Volunteering has allowed me to curate a social circle of people that inspire me every day with their ambition, dedication, and selflessness. Being surrounded by people that care do deeply about important causes remind me that I am never alone and there is always light and goodness.

After 9/11, even though I was in kindergarten and didn't understand what was going on, I was distraught at the fact that the people on the news said that people were trying to kill other people. When I got home, I asked my dad why there were so many bad people in the world.

He said, "There are people that want to hurt other people for reasons we don't understand. But we can't let that make us too sad. We have to remember that there are always helpers and people that want to make the world better. If you look for helpers, then things don't seem too bad anymore."

"Then I want to be a helper. Then I can make things not bad anymore and also make people happy."

So that's what I became.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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