Written by Audrey.
Staff writer’s note:
Depression is one of the most common mental health challenges. One in four young adults will experience an episode of depression before age 24, and women are twice as likely to experience depression as are men. When people feel depressed, they often lose interest in everyday activities (e.g., school, work), and they might have sleep problems and feel tired all the time. Depression often co-occurs with other mental health challenges, such as anxiety and eating disorders. Depression can be treated with anti-depressant medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of psychotherapy that focuses on teaching concrete coping and problem-solving strategies), or a combination of both.
Here is the story of one courageous individual who has battled with depression and anxiety since she was in her teens. If you are feeling depressed, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Audrey’s story illustrates, while recovery might take time, it is certainly a worthwhile journey.
Growing up, depression was the 6th person in my 5-member family. My mother’s depression was so debilitating that when she would come home from work she would immediately go to bed. We were told only to wake her when there was an emergency. My sister and I spent almost every waking hour in front of the TV, living off of cereal and Chef Boyardee.
When I was fourteen, I started to feel terrible. Terrible is the only way to describe it. I was so sad, so angry, and felt completely worthless. I felt, I realize now like so many others, that everyone but me had it figured out. I didn’t know what to do with myself and all of these feelings. As an expression of some of the pain I felt, and also as a call for help, I started cutting in 9th grade. At first I would scrape patterns into my knees with a push pin. Around this point I saw a slew of doctors and started therapy. I tested positive for depression and maybe anxiety. It’s a long time ago now; I can’t even remember.
I do remember being confused and having no outlet for what I was feeling. I remember truly thinking that no one could understand what I was going through or how I felt, that there was no one to listen to me, and that I wasn’t worth listening to. I felt judged by everyone, even my therapists. I lied to them, because I knew that I would never get their unwavering support. One labeled me a ‘troubled youth’ and recommended I go for weeks of boot camp. Another therapist labeled me with borderline personality disorder (something I have recently learned is almost impossible to diagnose in an adolescent). At some point I started having severe, debilitating panic attacks. I ended up in the E.R. a few times before we realized what they were. They got particularly bad during my senior year of high school. While everyone was figuring out where they were going to go to college, I was paralyzed by fear, anxiety, low self-worth, and indecision. I only applied to one college, an expensive school very far away. I was accepted, but I think I must have known that my parents wouldn’t let me go. Self-sabotage, along with cutting, was my go-to. I was bright but wouldn’t try at school. I tested every relationship. I put impossible strains on my friendships, and then when they fell apart I used it as proof that I was alone, that no one understood me, and that I wasn’t worth fighting for. At some point I was prescribed Paxil to deal with my panic attacks. I took it off and on with no regularity. My panic attacks continued.
After high school I worked full time. I self-medicated heavily with shopping, drinking, sexual relationships, and cutting. I was searching for worth and love in everything around me. I hated myself, and I hated myself for how I hated myself, but I didn’t know how to stop.
At some point in 2003 I decided enough was enough. After a particularly bad cutting session (I had moved onto my wrists and arms with razor blades), one that has left a series of giant scars on my arm that are incredibly noticeable, I thought, “If there is a God, they don’t want me to treat myself this way.” I started college, fell in love, and was married before I turned 23.
Things were back and forth from one extreme to another for a while. I succeeded at school and was desperately in love, but I was still having panic attacks. Fights with my husband were frequent and explosive – lots of slammed doors, yelling, and tears. At some point early in our relationship I had also stopped taking Paxil. I hated the idea of needing a pill to be functional. It made me feel broken. And I also felt guilty. I knew that many people with much more difficult lives than mine functioned better than I did. I felt guilty about the label of depression, about claiming it, and taking the medicine made it all more concrete, more real.
My depression and anxiety continued as I started graduate school. I felt really bad about myself. I was constantly ruminating at night about anything and everything, and, consequently, I was having a hard time falling asleep. My general doctor prescribed an antidepressant during the day and a different antidepressant for at night. The combination worked well. I also decided that I wanted to lose some weight. I started counting calories. I became obsessed with my weight and the calories of what I was eating.
Not long after starting the combination medication, I got pregnant with my first child. I stopped the nighttime antidepressant right away and weaned down from the daytime antidepressant within the first trimester. I had a rough time after my daughter was born. It started with the stress of being a new mother outside of a family support system and was worsened by my spouse being busy and out of town often the first couple months of my daughter’s life. I am sure now that I had postpartum depression. I felt crazy, but I knew I was acting crazy. I felt like a victim in my own life. I was held hostage by other people’s needs and schedules and felt like I couldn’t do anything I wanted. This went on as we moved to another new town across the country. My husband and I still fought. His work kept him very busy and very stressed. I had a job but was still feeling down on myself a lot. My weight and self-image continued to be a problem for me.
Things didn’t spiral down quickly, but with time the problems festered. My marriage was failing. I felt judged in therapy and like zero progress was being made. I started self-medicating again, this time with other people’s attention and dieting. Things got worse before they got better. After more struggling, I (along with my husband) made changes. We went to couples therapy and began seriously relearning how to be marriage partners. I sought out some concrete strategies for handling my anxiety and depression. I learned about CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and found a therapist to work with.
Now, I think I’m in the best place, mentally, that I’ve ever been. I’ve come to terms with taking medication, partly because I know there are many people like me. I continuously work toward mindfulness. I use a lot of self-talk to get through troubling times, and I also rely on my partner a lot more when things are getting hard. I still struggle. Mostly, I’m just trying to give myself a break – as a mother, as a wife, as a woman. My therapy appointments often involve praising myself for how far I’ve come and checking in about my strategies. There’s always work to be done and reminders needed. My focus moving forward is to incorporate more exercise into my life and to continue increasing mindfulness in my daily life. I don’t feel in complete control of my mental health (who does?), but I am much, much better at navigating my mental health journey.