This is the first story in a series of real-life stories for the #RecoveryIsPossible campaign in honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, September 7th-September 13th, 2015
My primary issue has always been major unipolar depression, although I also struggle with anxiety and carried an eating disorder in college. It’s hard to think of when the depressed feelings started, because as I started to recover late in high school, I remember thinking that there was never, ever a time before then when I hadn’t been depressed. I also dealt with incredible amount of guilt and shame about my depression, and even now I have a hard time talking about it, mostly because I know I was very lucky as a kid and “shouldn’t” have felt bad, even though intellectually I know that it wasn’t a choice.
I was a chubby, nerdy kid with crazy hair and I went to a middle and high school that very much valued skinny, blond cheerleader types — nice girls, many of them, but I couldn’t really be like that. I never much felt like I fit in, and I was upset that no boys ever showed any interest in me. I thought that I was ugly and that I would always be alone. My parents didn’t necessarily help — they cared, but they minimized these worries as trivial. I lived as an only child in a house with a terrible, emotionally abusive marriage and a lot of pressure to succeed academically placed on me. In hindsight, my dad has always been depressed, anxious, and angry; one of the scariest things that would happen is when my dad would be drunk and angry with my mom and would threaten over and over that he would blow his brains out. I’m not sure to what extent genetics vs. environment made a difference in my experience of depression, but I see clearly now that we are generally a family that was reasonably functional despite everyone struggling with at least a low level depression a lot of the time.
I’m not sure why (things were often rough at home but weren’t particularly any worse), but my sophomore year of high school I went from constantly feeling a little bit ugly and inadequate to really just feeling awful and hopeless. I got into some really dark music and literature that felt reflective of how I was feeling. (My mom always thought that those were causing the problem, which sort of trivialized my feelings, and she would take away things she didn’t approve of). I started cutting and burning myself, a little at first, but this ultimately became a coping mechanism. Academic standards in my rural high school were pretty low and I was good at school, so I was able to coast through without a ton of effort while totally falling apart otherwise. I stayed up late online and sometimes stole liquor from my dad’s cabinet. I felt stuck, hopeless, and like I’d be better off not existing. That thought felt more and more correct as time passed. I explored suicide plans in my head and felt like that would be the only way to not feel so miserable, or so empty, depending on the day. I felt guilty for not being more functional but I was up crying for several nights a week at first, and then after a few months didn’t even cry much anymore because I didn’t feel anything, wasn’t at all interested in feeling better, and became very apathetic.
Apparently I said something that scared a school acquaintance online one night, and she called the cops who showed up at my house and took me to the hospital. I was hospitalized for about two weeks and was in intensive therapy for quite a while afterwards. I remember initially testing as severely depressed but not caring at all, because I had no interest in improving. It was really hard for my parents to accept that my depression was an actual problem and not a choice. We never got anywhere with family therapy because my dad usually just ended up yelling at us or at the therapist. It took three or four months of medication and therapy to even feel like I WANTED to get better. I had a great therapist named Christy, and I am so grateful to her; she was nonjudgmental and taught me a lot about my own thinking patterns and how to improve them. I don’t know for sure, but she might have saved my life, and she definitely changed it for the better.
Depression is a relapsing problem, and I’ve had two or three pretty bad episodes and a larger number of milder ones in the 15 years since my initial diagnosis. I seem to have other issues that pop up with depressive episodes, like food restricting or social anxiety, but these have varied over the years and never felt like the primary issue. A major difference is that today I’m much more vigilant and self aware about the warning signs of depression, because I know that I need to get things turned around before I stop caring whether I do.
I’m in my 30s now and married to a great man who does not understand at all about depression, having never dealt with anything remotely like it. That can be hard sometimes. I basically accept now that I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life; I tried to go off of it 2 years ago and had a really rough ride without it. But people with other medical disorders like diabetes also take medication every day for life, so there is no shame in it. I’m still plagued by constant worries about my weight and self-judgments, but I’m better at answering them — at least most of the time. I see a great therapist, and I know that I’ll continue to do that on and off. Medical school has also brought up a lot of anxiety for me, but I’ve been working on that, too. I also worry about whether I would pass down the depression and addiction issues that run so strongly on both sides of my family if I were to ever have kids, but I guess that’s a bridge I can cross later.
I think there are a few things I would want to tell someone struggling. One is that it’s not your fault, and try not to let anyone convince you otherwise. Another is that even if you feel like there is no possible way you could feel better and you don’t see any path to happiness, you can still get better, but it will probably require therapy or medication, and that’s ok. Also, while it sucks to deal with mental illness of any sort or severity, it does actually help you to become a more empathetic, less judgmental person. I appreciate that perspective.