I cannot speak on behalf of every depressed or troubled teenager and even if I could, I would not want to. Depression is an illness, not a personality defect or a lifestyle choice, as people who have never experienced it often seem to think. I refuse to generalize by saying “ this is what it’s like,” because it varies so greatly – in its causes, symptoms and most of all the story of each and every individual who is weighed down by its chains – or sees someone they love and care about having to walk with shackles attached to their feet.
I am well aware that there are people out there who had much worse childhoods than I did. No, I was not raped and beaten by my father, my mother was not a drug-addicted prostitute, and I did not grow up hungry because they gambled all their money away. Yes, I know that there are people out there who are dying of AIDS, who are living in the midst of a civil war. But as much sympathy as I have for these people, this is not about them. For once in my life, this is about me. This is my story, as I remember it…
I was born into a wealthy family in a wealthy neighbourhood in a wealthy country. I had two loving parents and a set of toys to rival any preschool in the country. I lived in a beautiful house right by the beach. I was born with everything I ever could have wanted and more. Happiness back then didn’t seem like a façade, it seemed like a reality. It should have been perfect. I should have floated through life, grateful for everything that I had. But somewhere along the line, somehow, something went terribly, terribly wrong. The happiness became more and more of an effort and eventually the façade began to crack.
I’m not really sure where it all started, it just gradually snuck up on me and then one day I woke up and found myself smack-bang in the middle of my own personal horror movie titled “My Life.” Or at least that’s what it seemed like.
If you don’t quite understand what I mean by that, consider for a moment if you can remember where winter began. I’m from New Zealand, so we’ll go by the Southern Hemisphere’s seasons. Maybe it started to get a little bit cooler around April, but it was only the frost in the mornings that annoyed you, and there were a few sunny days here and there so you weren’t too worried. You started wearing a hat and gloves by May, but you denied that you needed the thermals just yet. But then one morning in the middle of June you woke up and looked out your bedroom window to find that there was a blizzard, at which point it was pretty obvious.
I started dieting when I was eight. We were learning about healthy eating at school, and following this chocolate and candy were immediately cut out of my diet. Pretty soon that had extended to anything containing more than a couple of grams of fat. I began to read labels, both the ingredients and the nutritional contents. I’m the type of person with a metabolism that makes the point of eating almost moot, so in hindsight this made about as much sense as wearing a woollen hat and gloves to the beach on a hot summer’s day. But that didn’t stop me from doing it. I started having screaming arguments with my mother when I was in middle school. This was how my parents communicated so I guess I took their lead. So maybe it started when I was eight, maybe it started when I was twelve. But what is definite is by the age of fifteen I got my first diagnosis of clinical depression.
Obviously there had been something not quite right about me for quite some time. But things really came to a head that year. I wanted to make myself throw up. I could never actually bring myself to do so but I found myself staring into toilet bowls and imagining myself shoving my fingers down my throat and making everything come out. I became obsessed with the idea and even though I really didn’t want to do that to myself, the thought continued to haunt me constantly. This disappeared after a series of traumatic events. Within the space of a month, a childhood friend committed suicide, my friend’s mother died of cancer, one of my best friends was seriously injured in a car crash to the point where she almost died and could not walk for months, and to top it all off a family friend was hospitalized.
Instead of thinking about making myself throw up, I could no longer think about anything. I started to have the weirdest feeling – I just felt numb, like I wasn’t real. I was just an actor in a play and the world was nothing more than carefully constructed scenery. Everybody else was completely oblivious to this and that really frustrated me. I wanted to shake them, scream at them, ‘don’t you realize this isn’t real? Don’t you realize that we’re just actors reading from a script putting on a show for the audience?!’ After all, that was the way it felt for me.
Nobody would have guessed that I suffered from depression because I did such a good job of hiding it. I did not openly display any of the symptoms of depression outside of my home. I was top of my class, I excelled at sports, I had plenty of friends and teachers wrote glowing remarks on my report cards about what a pleasure to teach I was. I had forged this perfect life for myself where depression did not seem to fit into the picture. The worse I felt, the better I became at faking it. If anyone asked me how I was I would smile and chirp back, “ Fine, thank you”. But I wasn’t. I was tired – not just physically, as a result of my lack of sleep and type-A over-achiever schedule. No, this was a different type of tiredness. My soul was being broken down, my identity peeled away layer by layer, like an onion. I wanted to cut myself because I felt that if I opened myself up I could let all the bad stuff flow out of me and eventually all my pain would be gone.
Perhaps you are wondering why I couldn’t see the signs, why I couldn’t have gotten help before it got to this point? Problem is, it takes getting to this point to realize that this is not how most people live their lives and there probably is a serious problem after all. So along I went to the school counselor. I explained to her that I had been feeling really down lately and also really numb and anxious and I had all these thoughts rushing through my head and they just wouldn’t slow down…and…and…