Hi, my name is Rachel, and my brain is broken.
Really, it is. It doesn’t produce enough serotonin, or the serotonin it does produce is essentially useless, and as a result, I am depressed.
Depression has been a part of my life since I was a junior in high school, but I didn’t tell anyone about it or seek treatment until about a month and a half ago, which, by the way, I don’t recommend. (The waiting years part, not the getting help part.) I fought it alone well enough the first time it hit me though, and I managed okay for the next couple years with only minor relapses.
But this year has been extremely hard on me. I came to terms with the reality that my dream was incompatible with me as a person. I moved to a new college in a new city where I have nothing in the way of a developed support system. I had friends turn me out with no comprehensible explanation. The friends that didn’t are now somewhere between a six hour drive and an eight-hour plane ride away. None of these things in and of themselves caused my depression; I just don’t have the energy to cope with all of these things and work on not being depressed.
This blog isn’t meant to be a pity party, though. I wanted to write about this because I know I’m not the only person who’s depressed and I know I’m not the only one who resisted treatment. My goal is simply to provide a frame of reference for people who are depressed or have loved ones who are and maybe point you in the right direction of how to respond. And as a disclaimer, this post isn’t anything like a comprehensive description of depression for me or anyone else. All it is is a starting point.
It’s not an easy fix. I like to think that society is getting a little better about this, but in case you missed it, mental illnesses are every bit as serious as physical ones. I’m not depressed because I need an attitude adjustment, I’m depressed because a part of my body isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to. And I hate it. I still struggle the stigma against getting treatment, and I’ve had years to get used to the idea. It’s important for everyone to remember that depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. are legitimate issues that have legitimate fixes, and those fixes need to be provided by a doctor. Don’t tell someone it’s all in their head. We know that, stupid. It’s in our heads the way a brain tumor is in someone’s head, and you wouldn’t judge them harshly for going to the doctor. Don’t tell someone to “cheer up” or “change their perspective.” If we could, we would. Instead, try telling your loved ones that they are loved and cherished and have your support every step of the way– and then come through on that. It’s as simple as texting, “You holding up okay?” or “Don’t forget I love you.”
It’s not personal. Sometimes, the things people say or do when they have a mental illness can hurt those around them. Whether it’s lashing out, making threats, or closing off, it can come across as hostile. I know I’m guilty of this– my depression is angry, it’s volatile, and it’s sullen. But I don’t mean it. I know it’s probably the hardest thing we could ask you to do, but please try not to take it personally. It’s not meant that way. Believe me, I know the instinct is to get defensive, and that’s totally natural. All I’m saying is to try to be patient as well, and know that it comes from a place of pain, not of sincerity.
Be there. I can’t stress this enough. Sometimes the only reason I can drag myself through the motions is because I know if I don’t, I’ll be letting someone I love down. Consequently, every time my best friend says he’s glad we’re friends or my dad checks in to see how my day is makes a world of difference to me. It doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to be consistent. Depression sometimes works really hard to make sufferers feel like they’re alone and unloved, and that’s a battle we need help fighting.
Don’t reduce us to our mental illness. Yes, depression has become a major part of my life, especially since I’m still in the process of finding treatment, but it’s not the only part. I still smile at dogs and dance to Chumbawumba and analyze literature. Just because someone has a mental illness doesn’t mean they can’t still be happy sometimes. The brain is a complicated organ, so when it gets sick, it’s naturally a complex thing. Don’t assume that, because someone’s in a good mood, they’re cured, and don’t go the opposite way and penalize them for being happy when they’re “supposed” to be depressed.
We want to get better. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has a mental illness and doesn’t want to get rid of it. It may seem like we’re not trying, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. What you may not realize is that getting treatment is a pain in the ass. If you need a prescription, it can take months of trial and error to find the right medication and dosage that works for you. Finding a counselor or a therapist can take ages– I’ve filled out countless forms and spoken with at least five people in the course of finding treatment, and I’m not done yet. They knew me by name in the Student Counseling Services office by the second week of class. When getting out of bed is a chore, finding treatment is like scaling Mount Everest. Don’t shy away from the chance to be a sherpa.
It can be hard to tell. Mental illness can be hard to spot, especially in teens. This isn’t to say that you should assume everyone around you is depressed until proven otherwise, but be aware of the possibility. If you have suspicions, familiarize yourself with the symptoms and make yourself available. Be supportive. Hell, be available and supportive regardless. You don’t have to be depressed to benefit from hearing “I love you.” So say it anyway.