[This was originally a Facebook note that I posted right before New Year's Eve. It got a lot of positive attention so I figured I'd repost it.]
Normally at this time of year, I like to write a long note about what I’ve accomplished during the past year, what it all means, what my New Year’s resolutions are, how my love life is progressing, all that type of stuff. New Year’s Eve is an important night for me for many reasons, most of all because it just gives me a great opportunity to reflect on how my life is going.
Ordinarily I make a list. A big long list. Everything will be on there–breakups, revelations, other transitions of various sorts. A lot of stuff has happened to me this year. A lot of it was important to me.
But I’m not going to make a list this year, because this year, there’s really only one thing that I want to write about. It’s the biggest, most important thing. This year, I recovered from depression.
Surprised? Most people are. “What could you possibly have to be depressed about?” many people have asked me. Well, that’s just the thing. I have a blessed life. I know that and always have. But reminding myself of that did nothing to stave off the despair that I felt almost every day. Depression isn’t aboutanything. It just is.
What Basically Happened
I was depressed for about seven years, up until this past summer. It started when I was in seventh grade. Depression creeps up on you slowly, but one day you pause to think about your life and realize that it just isn’t what it once was.
I guess I had a lot of the traits of depression even before then. I’d been pessimistic, irritable, insecure, and terrified of novelty for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories generally involve some combination of these traits. It was pretty much inevitable that I’d contract the actual illness at some point in my life, and I did.
Anyway, I got depressed when I was in seventh grade. I was young then, but I remember that things were pretty bad. Bursting into tears in school, hating myself, all that. Eighth grade was okay. Freshman year, I actually recovered for a while. But sophomore year it came back, and from then on, it only got worse.
I can’t count how many people I pushed away during those years. Guys would date me for a while and then freak out and leave. My friends didn’t know what to make of me. I’m pretty sure nobody thought I actually had a disorder. I didn’t either. I thought I just had a shitty personality. Nobody really tried to convince me otherwise, and I don’t blame them.
I thought things would get better when I started college, but they didn’t. Instead, they got much worse. I was studying journalism and it was awful. I had no friends, and I spent all my time studying, eating, sleeping, and working. In high school, the hope that things would get better sustained me, but once I got to college and realized that I was still miserable, I lost that hope. By spring, I was wondering whether falling from the top of the journalism building would kill you. I determined that falling from the balcony of my brother’s apartment would definitely kill you.
I got sick and started having strange spells of dizziness and headaches. When I came home for the summer, the stress of school was gone but the unhappiness wasn’t. Eventually I realized that I really didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t want to die, either, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in this world. I wanted to fall asleep forever and just be left alone.
At that point I realized that my life was starting to go down a path I really didn’t want to follow. I’d made no plans, much less any actual attempts, but dying was seeming like a better and better idea with each day. I scared myself. I also scared the one person I confided all this to. And that’s when I decided to go see a psychiatrist, who gave me a prescription for antidepressants. I started taking them. As much as I didn’t want to believe that my life had become so subject to biochemistry, it was really that simple, because suddenly, everything changed.
I came to college for my second year and it was like I was born again. I became gregarious and chatty and met more new people the first week than I’d met all of last year. Being a CA helped. People said hi to me as they passed by, and I’d get invited to stuff. I finally dropped journalism and declared a major in psychology, which has fascinated me since I was a kid. I got a great job. I got chosen to be the president of a new student group, the Israel Society. Guys noticed me, for what seemed like the first time in years. I started hearing about people saying nice things about me behind my back, not the sort of things people had said behind my back before.
Best of all, though, everyday life suddenly got much easier. I could focus again, and I didn’t spend every evening in tears anymore. Instead, I spent hours talking to people in my dorm, or working on something I enjoyed. People say that antidepressants can make you a new person. “This may not be me, either,” I wrote at one point, “but it’s more me than I’ve ever been before.”
I’m not perfect now, either. I have faults like everyone else. For instance, I’m still very insecure–I’ve always been–and I tend to be a bit judgmental. I also have trouble seeing the world in shades of gray, and tend to think in black and white. But faults like these can be overcome with a bit of work, and faults like these also don’t push away every single person who knows me. That’s what depression does.
For a while, I was really secretive about the whole thing–both the diagnosis and the treatment. Mental illness, even one as common as depression, is one of the few remaining stigmas in our society. Antidepressants are controversial and I really didn’t feel like fielding accusations from friends and relatives that I’m “taking the easy way out” or “medicating myself into happiness.” Which is total crap, by the way, since that’s not how antidepressants work. But anyway.
Eventually, though, I realized that as someone who’s studying to become a therapist and who cares a lot about battling unnecessary taboos, I had to walk the walk. Besides, I wanted people to understand who I am and where I come from, as unpleasant and discomforting as some of that backstory is. Most importantly, I wanted friends who accepted me.
So I started telling people. Not arbitrarily, but when it came up in conversation. Often it was when people asked me why I chose a psychology major, or when they commented on how cheerful I always seemed. So I told people the truth, and when I did, something amazing happened–they opened up to me, too.
Depression is an awfully common disorder–it has a 25% lifetime prevalence in American adults–so what I discovered shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did. And what I found was that many of the people I know have struggled with it too. Some had a very mild form and pulled themselves out of it without any help. Others made multiple suicide attempts. Some swore by antidepressants; others hated them. Some had a lot of support, while others hid it for a long time, like I did. What all of them had in common was the sympathy and understanding they showed me when I told my story and their willingness to tell theirs.
Despite this, Northwestern has no student organization specifically dedicated to promoting mental health. We have clubs and support groups for all kinds of races and ethnicities, for LGBT individuals, for sexual health and for healthy eating and for exercise. But not mental health. We do have an advisory committee for CAPS, our counseling center. I’m on that committee. But the committee is selective and plans events rather than serving as a support group.
Curiously, Northwestern used to have a Mental Health Alliance, a group where students could share their experiences and get support from others. But it died down due to lack of interest. This is at a school where there’s a several-week waiting list to see a counselor at CAPS. This is at a school where a student committed suicide last spring, and another one took his own life just a few days ago. Lack of interest, my ass. People just didn’t feel comfortable with sharing things like this. In an age where tell-all sexual exposes are regularly published both online and in print and people share the sordid details of childbirth, cancer, and plastic surgery, nobody seems able to talk about feeling hopeless and alone.
A Different Kind of Sadness
I could write an entire book chronicling the myths that people have about depression and proving them false. In fact, someday I’ll probably do just that. For now, though, I’ll describe it briefly for those who don’t know, based on both my own experiences and what I’ve studied.
Depression isn’t just sadness. It’s a pervasive loss of hope, pleasure, confidence, energy, meaning, self-worth, and a whole lot of other things that make life worth living. It has physical symptoms, too–lack of appetite or too much of it, insomnia or oversleeping, and, worst of all, a constant, ruthless fatigue that sinks in your bones.
Depression isn’t the patient’s fault any more than cancer or arthritis or the common cold would be. It does remit spontaneously, and occasionally someone might be able to think their way out of it. But that’s not usually the case. Depression is a physical illness even though its symptoms are primarily mental ones. It causes damage to the structure of the brain, for instance.
The way depression feels is indescribable. I’ve never found a book or essay that could really describe it. All I can say is that it’s really, really shitty. It’s not how you feel when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you or when you get rejected from your dream school or when you lose a job. Those things are stressors that can lead to depression in some people, but the sadness you feel when you’re actually depressed is just a different kind of sadness. You feel worthless, despicable, good for nothing, ugly, and contemptible. You know for a fact that nothing will ever get better. Everybody hates you, even your friends. Your family would hate you too, if they weren’t related to you. You are a failure at everything you do. You don’t belong in this world and there’s no other world in which you belong. Everything good that happens to you is a stroke of luck, but everything bad that happens, happens because you’re worthless and you deserve it.
It almost sounds kind of funny when I tell it this way (in fact, when my psychopathology professor described some of these cognitive fallacies that depressives typically make, the entire class laughed). But you have to understand that to a depressed person, this is all completely real. They’re disconnected from reality and can’t see anything but this.
It’s a terrible way to think. But it’s how I thought for seven years. And, to some extent, I still think that way a bit, which is why this year I’m going to finally go see a therapist. If I don’t fix it, I’ll never be able to stop taking my antidepressants.
No More Lonely Nights
I never want to lose another friend because of my negativity. I never want to try to hurt myself again. I never want to drive across town to see my boyfriend and think, I could crash my car. I could do it now. I never want to stay up crying till 4 AM again. I don’t want to waste another minute of my life. I definitely don’t want to waste another seven years.
That’s why I’ve written all this now. I hope that enough people will read it and care and hold me to my promise, that enough people will gently remind me, when I start slipping again, that maybe it’s time to get help.
More importantly, though, I hope that someone who’s reading this right now and who sees themselves in what I’ve written will have the courage to fight it. I hope that they’ll write their own story and let the world read it. Maybe someday we’ll be able to admit what we struggle with just like we can admit to having high blood pressure, or to needing to lose a few pounds. Maybe someday, people won’t have to lose their friends like I did, because everyone will understand.
For now, though, all I can say is that I’m so incredibly excited for 2011 to start. I don’t want to jinx anything and I know I still have a long way to go, but I think this will be a much better year than this past one was.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about anything I’ve written here, please ask me. I’m no expert on depression but I have the advantage of having both experienced it and studied it. Also, seven years is a long time to get very familiar with something.
So ask away, and happy New Year.