A Teen with Depression Speaks
If you wrote in a diary anytime during junior high or high school, raise your hand. Yep! That’s what I thought. A lot of us did. Imagine you found your old diary in a dusty box in the basement. Would you feel as mortified as I would, reading through the pages filled with adolescent perspectives on life and love, alternating between youthful optimism and teenage angst? I’m sure one page documenting “the best day ever!” would be followed by other pages declaring “life’s not fair!” and “nobody understands me.”
While our diaries may have held our deepest secrets, the tumultuous emotions of the adolescent years are no secret. But here’s something else that’s not a secret. Depression among teens and preteens is rapidly increasing. It’s more than moodiness. It’s debilitating, and more than half the teens who are suffering from depression are not being treated.
I’ve spent the last 23 years in a classroom full of teenagers, and I know moodiness…it comes and it goes. And I know depression. It covers a teen’s face with a dark shadow and dulls her eyes. It physically weighs her down as she moves through the hall. I can see it, and unlike moodiness, it doesn’t come and go. It stays.
Because depression among teens is increasing so rapidly, I am certain some moms on the journey are struggling with this issue. And because the consequences of untreated depression are so drastic, I’ve invited a special guest–a teenager diagnosed with clinical depression–to share her experience with us. As we hear her story, some of us moms will recognize this battle because we are already in it, and others of us might realize we have a battle to fight.
Welcome our special guest, a brave young lady who will remain anonymous.
When did you first realize you were battling depression?
I think I was in 5th grade when I first started noticing the feelings. I know being self-conscious and all that is normal at that age, but my thoughts were just so dark and uncontrollable. I don’t think that was normal.
You’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. What does that mean?
There are two kinds of depression. Situational depression is caused by situations like parents divorcing or loneliness or school stress, and it can go away as the situation gets better. Clinical depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. The brain doesn’t make enough serotonin. It’s long-term and it’s a medical condition. It has the same symptoms as situational, but it isn’t provoked by an outside event like situational is. This is the more severe type.
Can you describe what depression feels like?
You just feel blank. You know you should feel happy, excited about something, but you just don’t feel it. I would make plans with my friends or plan to go shopping–and even at family things–I would want to look forward to doing things–but I lost basic things like anticipation. I just felt blank. I would know I should be excited, but I just didn’t feel it. And then I would see everyone else happy and enjoying themselves, and that made me feel even worse because I knew I should be happy, too, and there was no reason for me not to be happy. So sometimes I tried to fake it, but that took so much effort. All I really wanted to do was isolate and get away. I guess the easiest way to say it is all the bright and shiny things just stopped being bright and shiny.
How did depression affect your daily life?
I felt like I was weighed down all the time, like a wet, hot blanket was covering me and I was going to suffocate. I wanted to be in the dark and quiet and be alone. And dark thoughts were constant. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Being around people made me feel worse. Every little thing set me off, but I had to keep it all in because nothing I was mad about was worth being mad about.
Everything felt pointless, so it was hard to make an effort. I didn’t want to do school work or my laundry or even get out of bed. I had real issues to deal with, so nothing else seemed important. Even consequences weren’t important. I had too much going on in my head that I was trying to control. I couldn’t deal with so much pointless stuff. I just wanted to hide in a corner.
I pushed away all my friends, even the good ones. I didn’t put effort into making friendships, so people quit putting effort into me. If they would ask me to spend the night, I wouldn’t. And even just goofing around at lunch or in class, I just didn’t participate. I felt bad because they would think it’s them, but I knew it was me, but they didn’t understand it. So they quit trying, and I don’t blame them.
I don’t want to talk about it. It’s just somewhere I’m not willing to return to, not even to talk about it. Sorry.
How did you first ask for help?
It was my sophomore year. I reached a point where I was mature enough to realize something could be done. It took a long time, five years, because I tried to control it on my own. But I thought, “I’m tired of this. I have to change it.” I was afraid if I said I was depressed, people wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t know if my parents would see it and help or just say, “No, you’re not.” I was afraid of people thinking I was different or weird, but it got to where that didn’t matter anymore. I needed help. I was tired of it. I knew how I felt and didn’t want to feel that way anymore. When I told my mom, she was surprised in a way but not surprised either. She was relieved because she had been worried about me but didn’t know how to help me. Both of my parents are really supportive.
You are taking medicine and you go to counseling. How does that help?
When I started taking medicine, all the darkness disappeared. All the bad thoughts are now so far from my mind that if I try to access them, I can’t because they are just so far gone and I can’t even fathom ever having them.
I take medicine every night. If I miss a dose, I can make it to about the middle of the afternoon, but then the depression hits pretty hard. I’m distressed because I missed a dose and know the feelings that are coming, and I can’t cope with stress at school, or people, and I have to fight crying. I have a phrase to describe how it feels when I miss my medicine. I say I’m “all in my head” because I can’t get out of my dark thoughts and can’t snap back to real life. So I’m pretty good about not missing my medicine. I’ve only missed a few times.
I see a counselor. I can talk to my parents, but my counselor sees things different from them because she’s not my mom or my dad. This is her job. She gives me strategies on how to deal with negative thoughts. She tells me feelings aren’t facts, that just because I might feel a certain way it doesn’t mean it’s true…like if I mess up and feel like my parents don’t love me. I struggle with that–I have to remember what I feel isn’t a fact. She also tells me to write about my feelings, which I didn’t do for a long time. Now sometimes when I’m dealing with something, I have to write. It helps me work through what I’m feeling; it helps me cope to get it out. My counselor said I have to make myself go to ballgames or do things with friends even if I don’t feel like it. I usually feel better when I get out, and it helps make going out more of a normal thing instead of staying home in my room being the normal thing. I look forward to counseling appointments because I always feel better afterwards. It takes off the pressure of anything I’ve been dealing with since my last counseling appointment.
What advice do you have for parents who might have a depressed teen?
Look for warning signs. Don’t make them have to be the first one to approach it and come out and ask for help because they probably won’t. And don’t think you can fix them. Just be there…let them talk to you. If they need medicine, get them medicine. If they need a counselor, get a counselor. Just be open for them to come to you and allow them to be part of all decisions–if they need medicine or a counselor–let them be part of it. Don’t be like, “Oh, we’re going to fix you.” Don’t write off their symptoms as laziness or anger. They are not flaws; they are symptoms.
What advice do you have for teens who are suffering from depression?
Don’t be afraid to admit it. One hard night of conversation with your parents is worth a lifetime of happiness. Don’t try to control it by yourself because you can’t. It’s physically impossible. You don’t have to live that way.
What about your future?
I don’t feel like anything is going to hold me back. I can make friends and enjoy being around them. I feel up to making the effort to be successful, so there aren’t consequences to hold me back. I look at my future with a lot of positive feelings and excitement.
One of the reasons I wanted to address teen depression on The MOM Journey is because of a recent conversation I had with a mom who took her teen to counseling for the first time. With tears in her eyes she said, “I feel like such a failure.” My heart broke. She isn’t a failure. She is a champion–because she is fighting for her child. Mom, if something in our guest’s story rang true for you today, if you know or suspect your child is battling depression, be your child’s champion. Be the one who helps make the bright and shiny things bright and shiny again.
Share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below. (And please consider that our guest today may possibly read this post.) If you think a mom out there might benefit from today’s post, please share.