BY MORGAN HUGHES AND SUMMER KAEPPEL
PHOTOS BY JOSHUA MURRAY
Content warning: The following text and audio include depictions of suicide.
While other 14-year-olds spent their summers planning their first day of school outfits and excitedly getting ready for high school, Harry Ortof, now a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was spending his days in intensive therapy trying to process and recover from trauma.
On a seemingly average Saturday morning. Ortof sat in the kitchen and ate breakfast while he waited for his best friend, Andrew, to wake up. When Andrew entered the room about 15 minutes later, he shot himself in front of his parents and Ortof.
For Ortof, the normal teenage woes of starting high school were minute compared to the tragedy that turned his life upside down. Trying to make friends at the beginning of freshman year was not just awkward — it was a painful reminder of how he lost his best friend. His grades began to slip. Life at home became difficult. He contemplated suicide. Sophomore year of high school was the lowest point of it all, he said.
After that harrowing Saturday morning, Ortof was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, irritability, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, lethargy and thoughts of death or suicide. The Center for Disease Control also acknowledges the link between depression and other major hardships; school problems, loss of work and even earlier mortality.
PTSD and depression often go hand-in-hand after traumatic events. According to the NIMH, PTSD is characterized by flashbacks, avoidance of thoughts of feelings related to the event, feeling tense, angry outbursts, distorted feelings of guilt or blame and trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event.
Many of these symptoms were intense for Ortof, especially at the peak of his emotional distress during his sophomore year of high school.
“I was sort of like, ‘Look, I’m just going to buy a gun and end it all,” Ortof said. “I wasn’t doing well in school, I didn’t have a lot of friends, I had some family issues going on, my parents were fighting a lot.”
Ortof also recognizes the difficulty in defining the disease.
Each person’s experience with depression is unique — and so is their recovery. Along with months of talking to therapists, Ortof credits swimming as one of his keys to recovering. During his junior and senior years of high school, Ortof became more serious about his swimming career. He found solace in the water.
“You dive in and you’re alone. It’s just you and your thoughts,” Ortof said. “I began to crave those two hours of solitude.”
His own battle with depression was turbulent. Some days were just rough, others he couldn’t force himself to leave his bed.
“The agony that I suffered came in waves. At first it was this massive thing and it hit me so hard that I couldn’t even function,” Ortof said. “Then it pulled back and it died down, but I still think about it every day.”
Ortof’s biggest battle with depression was self-deprecation, a common symptom of depression. For a long time, he blamed himself for Andrew’s death. He found himself getting into his own head and letting these negative thoughts drag him down.
“I sort of let my doubts about what I could’ve done differently or anything in general kind of fester inside of me,” Ortof explained. “I think that was a mistake because the more you say it was my fault, there’s nobody telling you ‘no, it wasn’t.’”
When it comes to internalizing these pessimistic thoughts, Ortof is not alone. According to NIMH, it is common for people with depression to experience feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
“It sort of just sits with you, it’s like a weight you carry. It basically drags you on.”
It took months of therapy to come to terms with the fact that it would have been impossible for Ortof to stop Andrew from taking his life.
“A lot of the battle itself was basically saying to myself, I couldn’t have done anything, it wasn’t my fault,” he said.
While the trauma was still fresh, Ortof isolated himself from his friends and family. He felt so much emotion that he trapped inside himself, it wouldn’t come out in the ways he wanted to.
“I had so much energy built up from bottling it up that I just didn’t know how to let it out,” he said. “When I finally did … I just bawled my eyes out.”
Counselling was helpful, but support and self-determination were at the core of his recovery. Throughout the years since the incident, he found tactics that help keep him from falling back into a dark place.
When he would have moments of feeling isolated and alone — like no one would miss him if he was gone — he’d sit down and write.
“I would write out names like mom, dad, sister, brother, friends and the list starts to grow and you realize that’s actually a lot of people,” Ortof said. “I would imagine my funeral, the church and then I would try to picture all my friends there and it’s overflowing with people and I try to think: There’s a lot of people that would miss me if I’m gone.”
Ortof was also brave enough to leave his hometown of Bayside, New York and start a new journey at UMass. He credits coming to college as a huge part of his road to recovery.
“Leaving my area of distress was a huge revelation to me,” Ortof said. “You’re in a whole new environment [at college], no one knows you for that. You’re just, you’re you.”
Since coming to college, Ortof said he has more confidence and control in his life. He left behind the depression that once ruled his being and now lives life each day with perseverance and optimism.
Ortof is a part of the Division I men’s swimming and diving team at UMass. The days for Ortof are long, filled with hours of coursework and exhausting practices. When the stress of being a student athlete becomes overwhelming, Ortof uses his past trauma to put things into perspective.
“Every time I really don’t want to wake up or do something, I think, you have this chance and Andrew doesn’t. You better take it and take it well,” Ortof said.
For those who have gone through some sort of trauma and may be suffering from a mental illness, Ortof’s biggest piece of advice is to talk about it.
“Some days the waves are bigger than others and it’s harder to stand up."
The more he talked about what happened and how he felt, the more he was able to accept the truth of what happened and move on in his day-to-day line. Years after the incident, he credits talking out loud about his inner struggles as his biggest savior.
“I think that just saying it out loud to someone and then being able to get advice from them is the greatest thing you can do,” he said. “You can’t do anything better for yourself.”
The incident left Ortof with a newfound appreciation for how important it is to just simply to show compassion for others.
“Do not ever think there’s someone there who isn’t going to miss you,” Ortof said. “I don’t give a shit how awful your day was, if you texted your mom or dad saying ‘I don’t think I want to live anymore,’ there is not a doubt in my mind that they would say ‘I don’t know how I could go on without you.’”
To those who may have friends going through something in their lives, Ortof underlined the importance of recognizing calls for help. He explained some warning signs of depression are sudden irritability, mood switches and thoughts of suicide. If a friend’s mood switches suddenly and they become more irritable and hint towards suicide, or if they appear to be severely unwell, like they may self-harm or hurt someone else, Ortof says it is important to step in.
“Talk to them. Call someone. If you have to shove them into the therapist’s door to talk to them because they don’t want to talk to you, do that,” he said. “Make sure they get the resources they need.”
While the emotional trauma of losing a loved one may not ever dissipate, Ortof said it is important to remember that things will get better.
“I think that going through it and feeling one day absolutely terrible, one day fine and another day great, it’s kind of like the ocean,” Ortof said. “It’s cliche, but some days it’s rough some days it’s calm and some days it’s just average. That’s how I see the grieving process.”
For those who experience depression, it is a constant and ongoing battle. For Ortof, some days are especially difficult, but he perseveres nonetheless.
“Some days the waves are bigger than others and it’s harder to stand up,” Ortof said. “But I’m still here. I’m still going.”
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