01/23/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Depression Taught Me To Stop Trying To Fix Myself

I have a confession: I suffer from chronic depression. This is hardly newsworthy. In fact, I'd say if I were a totally happy, well-adjusted, cosmopolitan writer --THAT would be newsworthy. So it was with shock that I found myself laughing this morning when I busted the seams of my jeans. I don't mean a little tear -- I mean a full-on denim fissure. And it was the greatest moment I've had in a while. Let me explain.

It all started around the time I was 10. I very concretely remember being a 10-year-old girl, sitting up at night crying to myself with my night light on, afraid someone would hear me/afraid no one would. It was a nighttime ritual that went on for quite a while; I'd tip-toe to the bathroom down the hall and stand with my father's shaving blade in my hand and take it to my wrist. I didn't do anything. I just stood there with the razor and felt its sharpness against my skin. Maybe I was too afraid of blood; maybe I wasn't messed up enough to hurt myself in that way. This is a painful memory to have and to write about years later. It's painful because I cry for that little girl who had no idea of how to process all that pain inside of her.

I tried to tell my parents I was depressed, but I didn't have the words. And I felt guilty about being depressed, like there was something wrong with me for feeling that way. Here I was, a privileged kid in a prestigious private school. I wasn't neglected or abused. I wasn't starving like the children in Ethiopia whose gaunt faces and bloated bellies haunted me while some starlet's voice asked for us to please spare what would amount to a dollar a day to save a child's life. I asked my parents if we could donate. I asked them if we could save a child in Ethiopia. They told me not to take the weight of the world on my shoulders.

A couple years later, my depression manifested in an eating disorder, or as a friend once put it, "the privileged girl's rite of passage." This disorder lasted on and off for about ten years with varying degrees of severity. In my teens and 20's, I went through a host of privileged girl problems: vacillating between promiscuity and anti-social tendencies, co-dependent relationships, substance "experimentation," perfection-striving and shoplifting for no reason. Not blind to my issues, my parents sent me to a variety of therapists and doctors. But I was certainly not invested in getting better. One of my favorite "games" to play was to manipulate these professionals, which sadly worked a lot of the time. Then there would be periods when I'd be happy and outgoing, successful and accomplished.

In my early 20's, I made a ton of money at an Internet start-up -- my first job out of college -- and when the web bubble burst and I was left unemployed, I ran through about twenty thousand dollars in a couple months, all in a self-destructive attempt to run away from myself. Being an observer by nature, one of my choice subjects was myself. I'd do this literally -- standing in front of the bathroom mirror squeezing every pore in my face -- or I'd do this figuratively, writing really atrocious self-referential stories. There were many times I was lucky not to have been hurt as I indulged in some serious stupidity, waking up in puke-stained clothing god-knows-where and telling myself, Jill, remember how this feels. Remember just how low and dirty and rotten this feeling is so you don't do whatever stupid thing again... that is, until I did it again.

During this time, there were two things that saved me. The first was writing. This was my way of cataloging experiences, as if to give them meaning beyond myself, and in return, giving myself hope that in all this abject self-destruction there was the possibility of creation. The second was teaching writing to preteen and teenage girls. When I was with my students, I was forced to be someone worthy and respectable; someone whose words were valued. When I didn't care enough to be accountable to myself, I had these girls to be accountable to because they looked up to me. I remember one time, after a fight with an ex-boyfriend that left me with a black eye, I was horrified. Not at the mess that was my face, but that I couldn't let my students see me like this.

There were more therapists. Pills, even. Pills to modulate my moods. Pills to make me less anxious. Pills to make me sleep. Sometimes, I'd be OK. Other times, I'd scream at my shrink, "Why aren't you fixing me? What am I paying you for?" Then I'd stop taking my pills when I didn't feel like it -- a dangerous thing that doctors warned me against. "But the pills aren't working," I'd complain. So I switched pills. Switched doctors. Things would be OK for a while again. I'd start being productive. I stopped partying. I became more invested in my writing, more invested in my students. More invested in being happy. But I don't think I understood what being happy was. I mean, our culture sells you this version of happiness that's unattainable and kind of stupid. Not to sound like Holden Caulfield, but, the American notion of happiness is completely superficial. A take-away from one of my shrinks is that the closest I can get to joy is when I stop trying to swim against the tide. I guess it's the old 12-step program adage of acceptance. We're humans, and part of being human is not being happy all the time. But back to the busted jeans.

In any event, just as things in my life were beginning to settle down, I suffered a traumatic loss. This sent me into a depression that lasted about two years. During this time, all of my previous unhealthy habits manifested, but tenfold. I lost about fifteen pounds. I went into massive credit card debt. I slept around. I locked myself in my apartment for weeks on end. I listened to a whole lot of Morrissey, Portishead and R.E.M. But, being an adult, I had to be accountable for myself. I had to work. I had to maintain friendships. I had to continue therapy. I had to write. I had to help my students. Slowly, and I mean slowly, things started shifting. Friends started noticing that I seemed lighter, happier. I started enjoying myself more. I allowed myself momentary feelings of pride. I realized, whatever the cause of my depression, it's not something that's going to be cured; I'm not going to be fixed. Like a chronic disease, my depression is something I can, at very best, manage. I must accept the fact that sometimes I'll have a bad day for no particular reason at all. But there's always tomorrow. And one thing that's really helped me is taking ownership of that. I won't let experiences happen to me any more. No. I decided I was going to be in charge, because, guess what? That 10-year-old girl, she's not running the show anymore. This 30-something woman is. So this morning, when I struggled into my smallest jeans and the seams holding these designer duds ripped apart, I laughed. I mean, pants ripping -- that's slapstick friggin' funny. Oh, and the fact that I'm no longer that size is pretty friggin' rad.

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