I have clinical depression.
Despite all social stigmas to the contrary or people accusing me of being "crazy," I'm not ashamed to admit that I have depression. Just like I'm not ashamed to admit that I have asthma.
The first time I experienced depression I was in seventh grade. I think it had something to do with the onset of puberty coupled with my entire life changing. After seven years as a stay-at-home-parent, my mom went back to work full-time and I was suddenly responsible for caring for my 6-year-old brother after school until my parents got home from work. I started junior high this year and didn't cope well with changes in friendship and harder classes.
The way I dealt with it, because I had no idea why I felt so sad all the time, was to stop eating. It wasn't a conscious decision on my part. The stress and anxiety of my life made me lose my appetite. I remember going through the lunch line at school and getting my tray and turning right around and throwing everything on it away. After a while, one of the lunch ladies caught on and scolded me. So I learned it was best to take my tray, sit down, mess with the food but not eat anything, and then discard it. After seventh grade I asked my mom not to buy school lunch anymore.
I don't want to make it sound like I had an eating disorder because I didn't (if you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237). Not eating was a coping mechanism I unconsciously used when the stress and anxiety was overwhelming, and it wasn't overwhelming all the time.
Sometimes when the depression got really bad in junior high, I would come straight home from school and change into my pajamas. My dad caught on and he said something to me at dinner time about being in my pajamas several days in a row way before bedtime. I learned it was better not to change into my pajamas until bed time. People who are depressed like to hide their problematic behaviors because they are so ashamed of the way they feel. I was very ashamed and yet I didn't have the words or life experience to voice what I was going through.
For most of junior high and high school I didn't know that what I had was called depression. And that's not to say I was depressed all the time. I was able to function and get good grades. I just had a few overwhelming bouts off and on and when it got bad I would stop eating and wear my pajamas every chance I could get. I also couch-potatoed with reruns of The Real World (this was back in the '90s when the show was good).
That hardest part about dealing with depression as an adolescent, for me, was that no one seemed to notice. Research has shown that depression can stem from genetics, and I watched both of my parents struggle with depression. I think both of them were too depressed to notice that I was also depressed. There were many nights I had to make dinner for the family, make sure my brother did his homework and practice the piano, and put myself to bed. I don't blame my parents... I think they did the best they could with what skills and knowledge they had at the time. I know what it's like to barely have the energy to get through the day that any additional problem seems insurmountable.
I struggled with bouts of depression until I was 20 years old. That is when my fiance (now husband) and caring roommates interceded and got me help. I learned that a lot of my depression stemmed from a hormonal imbalance because it often got worse when my hormones were at their lowest levels during my menses. Since that time I've either been on birth control or pregnant and my depression abated for a very long time.
For 15 years I was depression free. Even when I lost my mom to cancer I can't say I was depressed because I didn't experience the same symptoms. Yes, I was unbelievably sad and grieving. But grief is not depression and I sought ways to cope with my grief so that I didn't become depressed. I attended a grief support group, went to a few counseling sessions, and let myself feel every sad emotion I had when I had it. It's actually very emotionally healthy to let yourself feel sadness instead of repressing it.
What I didn't know was my depression was lying in wait ready to take over my brain chemistry at any time I was not vigilant. In September 2013 my husband, along with 30 percent of his company, was laid off. He was out of work for four months, which in retrospect doesn't seem like very long, but at the time it was the longest four months of my life. I was in a constant state of panic wondering if we were going to lose our house and end up living in a van down by the river. Not that we could have even afforded a van. We depleted our savings and racked up some credit card debt, but with the unfailing support of family members and friends we pulled through. And we were treated to some of the most humbling displays of generosity and love our family has ever seen. We survived it and now he has a great job and we're in a much better place.
It was after my husband went back to work that the depression hit. I was in full-on survival mode for four months and I didn't allow myself to process what I was going through, which I think is fairly typical. I couldn't understand why getting out of bed and taking care of my children was harder than ever when I no longer had the threat of a van and a river hanging over my head. It wasn't until a good friend interceded, who could tell what I was going through, that I finally admitted that after 15 years of keeping my depression at bay, it was back. Thanks to her I started taking a supplement that improves the serotonin levels in your brain and now I finally feel like I'm back to my regular self.
What is absolutely infuriating about depression is other people's perception of it. I hate it when people tell me when I'm depressed to just think happy, positive thoughts. Having depression is not the same as having a bad day and a picture of a fluffy kitten will NOT lift my spirits. Depression is more than being sad. Or when people tell me I need to forget about myself and serve others and that will cure my depression. I hate to break it to people, but most people with depression are able to function in life and they are serving others and the joy from serving others doesn't fix chemical imbalances in your brain.
So let me tell you what depression is like for me. It is debilitating. It makes mundane, ordinary tasks like taking a shower or making the bed seem impossible. It is soul-sucking. It breaks you down into a person who no longer feels anything but apathy. It also makes you feel completely worthless and unlovable. When I'm in the throes of depression my brain lies to me and tells me that I am worth nothing. No one cares about me. The world would be a better place if I died. And when you have all this negative self-talk running through your head all day long, no amount of fluffy kitten pictures is going to take that away. No amount of weeding your neighbor's garden is going to take all that negative self-talk away. If anything, you just tell yourself how worthless you are because you could have weeded that garden better and/or faster. Another thing that happens to me when I'm depressed is I isolate myself from others. The internet and Facebook has made it super easy for me to be social without ever having to leave the house, and well, never leaving the house when you are physically capable of it is not healthy. Every human being needs real-life human contact and SUNLIGHT!
So what do you do when you suspect a friend is depressed? I would say the best thing you can do is reach out. One of the first lies our brains tell us is that no one, absolutely no one, cares about us. You reaching out and expressing concern proves our depressed brains wrong. Once you've expressed your concern, don't offer them dumb platitudes ("the sun will come out tomorrow"), don't try to minimize what they're going through ("some people have it way worse than you"), just listen, listen, LISTEN! If they express their negative self-talk to you (I'm worthless and no one loves me) validate that what they are is experiencing is real but what they're telling themselves is not true ("If you were worthless and no one loves you, why would I be here reaching out worried about you?").
I think I'm pretty lucky that my friend reached out when she did. I was in a swirling vortex of despair and didn't even realize it. Most of the time I can recognize when my depression is coming on and combat it with exercise, going outside for a walk, talking to a friend, reaching out to my husband and letting him know what's going on, or watching a really funny movie and laughing my guts out. Once I'm in a full-on depression those things don't work anymore, so it's best to head depression off at the pass. Like when I start to feel like my asthma is acting up, I start using my rescue inhaler more and resting.
To those who are currently clinically depressed I would ask that you reach out -- to a friend, neighbor, family member, spouse... anyone you trust. Sometimes medication helps, sometimes it doesn't. I just want you to know that you're not alone. You're not worthless. And there are people who love you deeply.
This post originally appeared on Iron Daisy.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.