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…
And she said it sounded like clinical depression. She thought that I should be referred to a Youth Mental Health Service for medication and more comprehensive counseling. I was relieved and thought it sounded like a brilliant idea. I just had a medical condition, that was all. If I took some pills and talked about how I felt, then surely it would all be OK. It’s a pity my parents didn’t see it that way. My mother did not understand that depression was due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a lack of material possessions. My father told me that his father had suffered from severe depression and I was nothing like him, so I did not have it. The counselor mentioned Prozac and Paxil and he said he did not like “those things” because they were addictive and would make me gain weight. Consequently I continued to hone my acting skills by suffering in silence.
Before I go any further, I should explain. My parents have been together for almost 30 years but I cannot understand why because they do not get along. I remember them having big screaming arguments when I was growing up and me or my younger brother yelling back at them to stop. My mother has serious mental health problems but has refused to get help for them. I believe that she suffers from bipolar disorder. She would go through periods where she was up at 5am doing the housework and seemed to have a lot of energy, but it wasn’t positive energy. She was anxious and irritable, almost like she was on a cliff edge and the slightest gust of wind could push her over. At other times she would break down crying for no reason and say that life wasn’t worth living, she wished she was dead. When I was a pre-teen I would get really angry at her for saying those things. But somewhere along the line I got sick of being angry and instead turned on myself.
When I was seventeen these issues began to manifest themselves in a different way – this time through anorexia. Once again, the onset was so gradual I didn’t even realize what was happening until I was right in the thick of it. I play competitive sports and at the time I was determined to do well in the national championships. So I began to train harder and eat less – a lot less. I managed to lose around ten kilograms (22 pounds) in three months. At my lowest, I had a BMI of fifteen.
The only advantage to having anorexia compared with depression is that everyone can see your pain. A bad mood does not strike fear into people like self-imposed starvation does. There is always hope that someone with depression can wake up the next day feeling better; however, someone with anorexia is not going to wake up having regained the weight that they lost overnight. It got so bad that my immune system began to shut down. I was threatened with hospitalization, and even worse for me, not being allowed to continue to play sports. I could either live or die.
Despite the severity of my condition I never received therapy during the course of my anorexia. No one suggested I go and I was too ashamed to tell anyone that I thought I needed to. My sport became my incentive to get well again. I’ve heard that most anorexics would rather die than be fat but I saw it the other way around. What use is it being so thin that you’re not alive to enjoy it?
But once I recovered from anorexia, the depression just came back again. It got stronger with each episode and consequently I reached a similar sink-or-swim scenario with it eight months ago. Up until them I had been able to soldier on through my depression. I am in law school and no matter how unmotivated I felt I would still be able to force myself to write an A-grade essay. If I had insomnia I could just take a sleeping pill. But gradually I found myself spacing out in class, unable to catch what the professor was saying. It would take me forever to write two sentences. I began to self-harm on a daily basis because it was too much effort to continue to try to fight the urge. Part of me just wanted to curl up and let the darkness engulf me.
But another part of me fought back. As with anorexia, this part of me decided that I was too good for this illness. Depression had outstayed its welcome – it was time for it to be evicted. I went on Prozac, as I should have when I was fifteen – one of the doctors at university faithfully wrote out prescriptions for me, gradually upping my dose as I complained about my mother’s mood swings and how tempted I was to cut myself. She listened and she cared, as did the counselor I was seeing. For once I felt like I wasn’t just a hypochondriac, that my problems were real and deserved to be taken seriously. I also decided that my home environment was doing me no good and so I transferred universities and moved to a new city. I have now been there for four months and am seeing a psychologist to help me sort though my family issues and keep me well. I know feel a lot better than I have in a very long time. Now when people ask how I am I smile and chirp, “ Fine, thank you.” Except this time I really am. I am fine. In fact, I am better than fine, I am happy.
Sometimes it seems so hard to believe that I finally have something that is second nature to so many people. Happiness is not always easy, as it requires living in reality. Depression became a security blanket for me because it was so damn familiar. I had built a whole identity around this screwed-up persona, which I was so used to that I began to think it was just the way that I was . When I first went on medication I was scared when I started to feel better because the layers of darkness had been there for so long that I no longer recognized the good that lay beneath them. But once I got to know that good a little better, I grew to love it. My advice to others facing mental illness is never to give up hope. When you get to the end of your rope tie a knot and hold on as tight as you can.
If you don’t think you can keep on holding consider this: My grandfather was a severe depressive to the point where he could not get out of bed for prolonged periods. My aunt has had bouts of depression. My mother has bipolar disorder. I am the third generation and I have decided that enough is enough. I am now 21 years old and have my whole life ahead of me. I do not want to pass all this onto my children, for them in turn to pass onto theirs. This is something nobody should inherit. The cycle stops here with me. This is my story, as I will remember it…