My journey with depression began young. My parents, a social worker and a doctor, had the know how to spot the symptoms in my young teen years. I went through a series of neuropsych evaluations, psychiatrist meetings, and therapists. Each doctor sat me down with my mother and explained that I was presenting with depression and anxiety, and was just a few notches south of an ADD diagnosis to boot. Having a host of people work towards my mental health is something I have never taken for granted. Despite the challenges I’ve faced since that first diagnosis, I also have a deep rooted understanding of – and anger towards – the fact that the vast majority of people who struggle like I do can’t reach even a preliminary assessment, never mind treatment.
What happened next, however, was a good deal of nothing on my end. I had the mental health team in place, as I said, all of whom wanted to sit down and talk to me about my day. They would ask about my emotions, my friendships, my motivation, my self image – things now I understand to be indicators of my depression. They would mark down my responses on notepads, encourage me to tell them more, and then check in with my mother. No one, however, sat down and explained to me that the way I was feeling was in large part due to this monster named depression residing in my mind.
At home, my parents did the best any parent can with a child swinging from depressive episodes to consuming panic attacks. However, despite their best efforts and their attempts to understand the nature of the illness, their role as parents sometimes overshadowed. When I would fall behind in homework, or miss school, no one told me this was a possible side effect of the depression; instead, they would get upset, telling me such poor student behavior was not an option. When I didn’t feel up to social events, while my parents wouldn’t force me to go – tending on the introvert sides themselves – they didn’t tell me my anxieties, and inability to cope in social situations, weren’t my own fault. I’d like be clear – they didn’t say it was specifically my fault. Rather, no one was telling me the voices in my head were wrong – that I wasn’t a failure, it wasn’t my fault, and that it had to do with things beyond choice. I was young, and didn’t understand these were the words in my mind I should have been telling everyone.
So, I would go to these meetings with doctors and I would answer their questions, but I never understood that the ways in which my life was hard were at all related to the symptoms they were trying to treat. I knew depression sometimes made me low. I didn’t know it was the reason getting out of bed was a burden, that maintaining friendships was such a challenge, or that I had a seemingly never ending sharp pain in my chest. Therefore, I never shared that much with my doctors; it didn’t seem relevant.
As often happens, my symptoms got worse during college. It all came to a head in my sophomore year after experiencing a loss – adding grief on top of my already challenging depression. I failed a class, skipped many, and spent the better part of the year playing catchup. However, this was also the first time I found a therapist who helped me begin to justify my feelings. When in our sessions I would apologize, or downplay my hurt, he’d respond with a sort of caring harshness – demanding that what I was saying had merit, and should be said. This was also the first time I learned to fight for my struggle. A friend and roommate had gotten fed up with my ever changing mood state, and one night demanded of me and my depression: “If you know what the problem is, why don’t you just fix it?” Ordinarily in my life, this is where I would have wilted into myself, beating myself up for the truth in his words. Here, however, for the first time, I stood up for myself, declaring that I spent most of my life fighting hard every single day, and that his suggestion made me sound weak and lazy rather than strong.
The years following this encounter were a slow process. It wasn’t until the year after I graduated college that my next major step forward occurred. I was hit with a major depressive episode, spanning most of the first half of 2015. My life looked how I thought I’d always wanted it to. I was living with my loving boyfriend and my cat, working for a major folk music organization. Yet, here was depression, sitting on my chest. Here was depression, keeping me in my bed and out of the office. Here was depression, telling me confiding in anyone was a burden, and that hiding was the only option. Here was depression, telling me I was a shame and embarrassment, and that if I was strong at all, I wouldn’t be here. Here was depression, laying the fault all on my feet.
Where I am again inexplicably lucky was that I had a strong mental health team in place. Not only did they validate my feelings as the college therapist had done, but this time they validated my illness. They were the first ones to distinguish that I had major depressive disorder, and emphasize the seriousness of the condition – helping me to quiet the voices saying it didn’t matter, or I was exaggerating. Rather than pitying my state, they would commend my strength for the days I did get up, for the sessions I didn’t skip. They would show me how what I was feeling was reasonable, and acceptable. They saw me as strong, and eventually, in turn, so did I.
When hitting rock bottom, rather than getting swallowed whole, I was able to begin to own my depression. For the first time, when friends or family would react to my symptoms with anger or disappointment, I was able to learn to rise strong and defend my condition, rather than buying into the guilt. I started to be able to forgive myself, rather than bullying myself into a hole in the ground. I could show others in earnest the reality of my situation, and begin to let them understand, rather than shove them away.
When I finally emerged, I had great tools in place – I was on the right meds for once, I understood the merits of exercise and sunshine on a firsthand basis, and I was learning how to use therapy correctly for me for the first time. However, I also felt empowered to help others get the kind of help I’ve been so fortunate to get. Statistics like the fact that half of the counties on the United States have no mental health care at all, or that in the UK, “three quarters of people with a mental health condition aren’t getting any support,” have given me an anger and a drive to do whatever I can to help fix this problem – to increase awareness, and reduce the stigma. It is for this reason that I am now using my strength to pursue a career as a social worker, with the goal to help both individuals and communities understand the reality of mental illness. I have owned my depression, and it has opened so many doors for me, and made me a better person. The goal now is to help others do the same.
If you relate to this story at all, I would love to hear from you. Also, in recent months, I have been building a list on Twitter of mental health organizations and individuals dedicated to reducing the stigma and increasing the dialogue around mental health. My goal is to one day create a website that serves as a user-friendly database for information on mental health. If anyone has any suggestions of organizations or people I’m missing, please let me know! Also feel free to subscribe to my Twitter.