PHOTOS BY JUDITH GIBSON-OKUNIEFF
BY MORGAN HUGHES
One day last semester, Robert Rigo, a senior journalism major and editor-in-chief of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian just got tired of the questions.
“What’s wrong with your face?” “Why are your eyes so red?” “You don’t look so good.”
As if his perpetually bloodshot eyes and puffy lids were not enough to indicate a night of crying and severe despondency, comments like these left Rigo feeling like he was truly wearing his illness.
So he decided to talk about it.
After a long night in the Collegian office, Rigo sat down to write. In his October 2016 opinion-editorial, “Don’t ask me why my eyes are red,” Rigo explained his experience with depression and the indiscreet ways people around him have reacted to the physical embodiment of it.
“I’m so depressed right now that I’m wearing it, without even having the option of hiding it which I had been doing for a majority of my life,” Rigo said. “For the first time, when I wrote that I felt like I could really articulate and pinpoint what I was feeling because so many people had pointed it out to me.”
The piece resonated with hundreds of readers, many of whom shared it on social media. Nearly all the responses were positive. Though he was taking a big risk going "public" with his situation, Rigo said that after the article was published, the scope of his mental illness became clearer to his family, friends and acquaintances.
Many reached out to apologize for the way they acted, including those who made comments about his bloodshot eyes. Other said they related to Rigo’s articulation of his condition.
“I had people from high school and college reaching out to me saying ‘this is exactly how I feel’ or ‘I can relate with you,’” he said. “That felt really nice to address a huge elephant in the room.”
Rigo was encouraged by the response.
“People saying ‘I’m proud, this is important, I know this was good for you and it was good for other people,’ made it all worth it because I was really scared to write it,” he said.
Struggling outside the box
Rigo has battled depression since he was 11 years old. He made some progress through therapy last summer, but the fall 2016 semester brought the pressures of senior year. He doubted his ability to lead the Collegian in his new position, and began to worry about life after UMass. The stress left Rigo unable to bury his emotions.
“There’s a huge insecurity that comes with doing journalism,” he said. “And because I came from a photo background I was pretty insecure about my leadership skills.”
For someone who has spent most of his life trying to relate to his peers and fit into the boxes created for him, Rigo also struggled with his status as one of the first openly queer editors-in-chief at the Collegian.
“I haven’t seen anyone that looks like me do it, so I think I felt really scared,” he said.
No matter where or how hard he looked, Rigo could think only of the three editors-in-chief that came before him — all former sports editors, while he came from the photo section.
“Especially being queer, it puts you so far back from how you’ve seen other people doing it,” Rigo said. “The past three editors have all been sports guys and here I am, walking with my jean jacket and my skinny jeans and my white shoes, and I do art.”
"I’m not depression. I am Robert first, and everything else is the latter."
As hard as it was for Rigo to separate his mental illness from his life, it was sometimes even harder for others to separate his depression from his identity.
“I was always afraid of people viewing me as the depressed queer kid, not as someone who loves their job and loves photography and loves so many things about life,” he said. “I could only be put into this box of being upset and being traumatized. When they pointed out things about my eyes and my face, they weren’t viewing me as a person.”
Through less-than-perfect days and bad moods, Rigo says he feels better overall after getting back in control of his own life and feelings. He attributes this success to taking care of himself, finding the right therapist and accepting and the support of his friends and family.
It is important to note, Rigo said, that though the love and compassion of friends and family are crucial to a healing process, seeking professional help can be equally as important.
“I would constantly go to my friends to have them fix it and they couldn’t fix it,” he said. “How do you expect 17, 18, 19, 20-year-olds to fix issues that, medically and mentally, you need to be seeking a professional for?”
“It wasn’t fair to them and it wasn’t fair to myself,” he said. “Everyone should go to therapy, anyways.”
If you know someone struggling with mental illness, the best thing you can do, says Rigo, is simply to "be there."
“Being present I think is the most important thing, even just an ‘I love you, I’m thinking about you, I care about you,’” he said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes for someone to get through their day.”
And don't lose sight of that person as a human being with thoughts and feelings, not someone "damaged" by illness, Rigo says.
“Treat people as people first, not the circumstance,” he said. “I’m not my condition, I’m not depression. I am Robert first, and everything else is the latter.”
Email Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @HughesMorgan_.