[Content note: depression]
In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.
I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.
I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.
But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.
I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.
That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.
I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.
Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.
There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.
So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.
I mentioned the C’s on the tests.
My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”
She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.
But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.
I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.
I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.
The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.
My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.
It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.
I was twelve years old.
After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.
In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.
The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.
It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.
But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.
They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.
I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.
What was under it was terrible.
I sympathize very much. I find it totally natural that such a cruel remark could start a depression. Some children like you (and me) are hypersensitive to expectations from others. We already suffer from the pressure if it is not put into words.
I had a similar experience when I was 11. My math grades deteriorated, which did not bother me, since the topic bored me. My mother got very concerned and told me I would not make it to a good school if I continued like this. I will never forget this conversation. I took this so seriously! I felt my value as a human being depended on being good at school from that day on. Everything else, like friendships, and my happiness, and my interest in things was less important.
And I still feel like that today, when I am struggling with the decision to leave my science career…. I am 33!
For me? It was 5th grade. I had gotten a C in math, due to a number of missing assignments. I protested to both the teacher and my parents that I HAD completed them. My statements were ignored, the C stands to this day. The worst punishment (and this was crushing to me as a 10 year old) was that instead of the usual DQ Blizzard that a good report card usually brought, I was only rewarded with an ice cream cone.
Not only was my first less-than-B marked by a very clear decline in value, but when I tried to assert that really, I WAS worth B or more, my voice was completely dismissed & I was invisible.
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Self-worth being tied to grades is something I’m painfully familiar with and am still working on (the idea that worth hinges on numbers/plaques/certificates). Starting in junior high, school had a culture of parents who were generally obsessed about their children’s GPAs and what colleges they’d get accepted to, and it was a toxic environment. One of my good friends at the time told me she had repeated dreams of her dad murdering her over bad grades; he had never hurt her physically but would put her down and pressure her over bad grades.
Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.
Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?
I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.
Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:
Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if you do have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene x environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.
Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.
Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.
If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!
No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:
She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.
If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.
Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.
Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.
Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you tell her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?
These things matter.
Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.
I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent. 🙂
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I really appreciate the idea that you lost your “innocence” when you lost your mind. I think many of us actually grow up that way these days. I know I did – thank you for sharing this.
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It’s very brave of you to share your “onset” story. For a lot of people, like myself, it’s hard to pinpoint the onset of depression. You said that now that you know what it is, you have techniques to deal with it. One of them seems to be writing. What else do you think helps ?