Charlie Marsh is the face of mental health earned through experience. Good family, bright, articulate, a freshman at Princeton; few would guess that he dropped out of school his freshman year of high school due to anxiety and depression. But he did. His comeback story is summarized in an inspirational speech he gave at his commencement: vimeo.com.
Charlie lived a few houses down from me in London. Unbeknownst to me while I edited the final draft of my book, Charlie reassembled his life after a cataclysmic freshman year. Mary, Charlie's Mom, found out about my book and approached me for advice. By then Charlie was well on his way to recovery, but Mary was still shaken. All I did was provide some reassurance that Charlie could get well and stay well. Imagine my delight when Mary sent me this video of Charlie, not only graduating from high school, but an outspoken advocate for mental health. He has a message for all young people: It will always get better. It's just a matter of time.
In a phone interview, I asked Charlie about his experience. Oftentimes people expect a major event to set off a depressive episode, but often an accumulation of stress pushes the person to a tipping point. Sometimes something relatively small tips the person into an extreme pace of negative behavior. That's the way it worked for Charlie.
Unhappy with his social life and academics in middle school, Charlie trudged through ASL. In his freshman year, he got the lowest grade of his academic career on a math test. That plunged him to a new level of low. He'd get discouraged, do badly and become more discouraged. Eventually the mental stress caused physical issues.
He didn't sleep. He figured if he never went to sleep, he wouldn't have to wake up again and go to school. He described moving to various places in the room to stay awake. He had no drive, no appetite. He'd forget to eat. Without sleep or food, any desire for exercise soon evaporated.
I asked Charlie if his family said or did anything to help him during this difficult time. Charlie recounted his mom comforting him, and his dad urging him to exercise with the steady mantra of healthy body, healthy mind. But the emotional stress on Charlie's family proved the biggest motivator for change. "I saw my parents cry for the first time when I was depressed. That had a strong impact on me."
Charlie began missing school intermittently in September of his freshman year. By October, he refused to go to school altogether. His mom insisted that he see a psychiatrist, which helped. The doctor prescribed medication and by January, Charlie felt ready to start school again.
Charlie returned to school claiming "mono" as the culprit for his absences. Medicated, but without tools to handle stress, he soon crumbled again. By March he entered a day program for clinically depressed adolescents. He saw other kids on 24-hour suicide watch, kids resigned to depression. He realized that if he didn't change, depression would run his life. He decided he wanted to be in charge.
Charlie returned to school in June, took his finals and completed his coursework. ASL cooperated in a way I've seen few schools respond. They brought Charlie coursework at home, and provided additional support. With the school's help, he felt inspired to start his sophomore year with clean slate. ASL's flexible programming allowed him to pursue his passion: math. Taking a heavy load of courses his sophomore through senior year, he was able to graduate on time, as his class Valedictorian.
In his speech, Charlie talks about a transition that occurred where his focus changed and he began to care more for others. Depression is such an inward disease, a biochemical explosion of self-absorption. I asked Charlie if he could pinpoint when this transition happened for him.
Charlie described finding a good fit of friends his Junior year; friends who could talk about anything. This group of friends would start to say good-bye at the end of a night only to talk two more hours. He found a girlfriend about this time, too. "My relationship with her has taught me a lot about the importance of being responsible for another person." These friendships supported Charlie, but also helped him understand his own critical role in a web of positive relationships.
When Charlie went public with his story last spring, he was overwhelmed with letters and emails thanking him for his openness. He remembers carrying his illness as a burden, a secret that caused him to be furtive and dishonest. "There was a sense of relief when I gave my speech." That Charlie expected. What he didn't expect was the way his speech empowered others to tell their stories. His honesty bred more honesty and human connection.
Charlie, now a freshman at Princeton with an anticipated major in Computer Science, plans a little differently given his experience. He selects certain classes over others so he can better handle his workload. He sets himself up for "positive social experiences." He diversifies, reaching out to new types of people. He gives himself lots of outlets. He manages his mental health without fearing the return of mental illness.
As Charlie says in his speech, he believes in recovery and redemption. This belief allows him to live freely. He knows if he falls, he can reassemble and try again. Charlie knows as he tells others "It always gets better. It's just a matter of time." It does get better. Charlie Marsh is living proof.
For more information about Julie K. Hersh or her speaking engagements, check out her website at www.struckbyliving.com