Depression Has No Straight Lines, Only Lies

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Sitting alone in my college dorm room on a crisp winter night, I cried on the phone to one of my high school friends about the things that were hurting me. It was nothing and it was everything all at once: I hated the classes, felt intimidated by my peers, didn’t believe going through the motions of every day was worth it.

“You sound miserable,” she said to me. She was right—I was miserable. But I couldn’t dissect it more than that. I’d known others, and lived with people, who self-harmed and had attempted suicide. What I felt paled in comparison.

To combat my feelings, I took to doing things. I became heavily involved in outside activities. Things that would force me out of my room and into places and spaces where having feelings and time alone to ruminate upon them would be impossible. I wrote—for the paper, for the literary journal, for classes. Writing became the outlet for me to work through what I was feeling without ever needing to address it head on.

Until I decided I would.

The capstone project for my major in psychology senior year was writing a lengthy thesis on whatever we wanted to tackle from a research standpoint, pulling from angles of study we’d immersed ourselves in through those four years of education.

I turned to writing about depression.

More specifically, I devoted hours of research and writing to exploring why it is that young girls entering college or new environments in those “transitional” years of adolescence tend to experience bouts of depression and anxiety.

It was one of the best pieces of academic writing I’d produced and one of the most insightful, life-changing experiences I had when it came to the importance I placed upon thinking and caring about girls, girls’ stories, and the mental health system that so frequently undermines and discredits them.

This should have been a sign for me that my own mental wellbeing mattered. That the feelings I had and experienced—from before college and throughout those four years—were valid and worth seeking help for.

It was not.

Not until I was 30 did I seek out the kind of help for my depression that I needed. Not because it went away in my 20s when I was out of the college environment and living on my own. Not because I went through periods without health insurance and feared what sort of financial burden that might cause.

I avoided it because I never felt like my depression was legitimate. I’d never entertained a suicidal thought. I’d never self-harmed. I’d never felt like I’d reached a true breaking point, one from which I couldn’t pull myself back and reassess.

Despite knowing better—and I really, really did—I disconnected my own experience from those I’d been around and those I’d read about.

My depression, to me, wasn’t “bad enough.”

***

There’s a crystal-clear moment from my teen years I can’t stop thinking about now that I’ve been diagnosed with depression and take medication for it. I was lying on my mom’s bed taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon. My mom walked in and I woke up, and at some point in that just-waking-up daze, she asked me if I was depressed.

“No,” I said, “just tired.”

She pushed a little more, noting she’d heard about how people who are depressed might sleep a lot. But I pushed her away because really, I was just tired.

The breaking point I reached—when I finally sought the help I needed—came after one of those just-waking-up dazes. I’d spent an entire afternoon sleeping, knowing that I’d be awake at night with racing, miserable thoughts that wouldn’t stop. But sleeping that afternoon away felt necessary because I was just. so. tired.

Of course I was tired. Of course I wanted to sleep away my days, even though it meant nights could be thorny and painful.

Depression is exhausting.

As a teenager, through college, through my 20s, my depression wasn’t “bad enough” in my head. It wasn’t real. It felt like an excuse for my behaviors, rather than the reason I needed to engage in those coping behaviors.

The reasons I thought that and denied myself the chance to heal were twofold: 1. depression feeds you some pretty heavy lies, and 2. despite knowing, writing about, and reading about women who struggle with depression like I did, who never ideated on suicide or engaged in self-harm, I never saw it represented in pop culture so I didn’t believe it was a thing that existed outside of case studies.

In other words, having never seen myself in the world around me, especially in the media I consumed and engaged with, my depression told me that my illness wasn’t reality.

***

There are many YA books about suicide and there are many books about mental illness. These are good things, even great things. Being able to reach a hurting teenager (or adult) with a book that grapples with the very things  they are grappling with is to hand them a mirror and a window and say, you’re not alone.

It’s to say, your story and experiences matter.

It’s to say, someone cares.

It’s to say, you’re worth the help you need.

But what about those readers, like me, who never see their own illnesses depicted? Who don’t see stories about depressed characters who are pained, who are aching, who are weighed down by the black dog?

To see story after story where depression draws a straight line to suicide is, for better or for worse, expressing that depression functions in one way. While characters may function within their depression in varied ways, these stories use suicide as the pivotal point in the progression of the plot and character arcs.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that stories need direction. Depression, as anyone who suffers from it can tell you, is exceedingly boring. Not much seems different about my life even when in the midst of an otherwise debilitating bout—I get up, I go to work, I make words, I read, I work out, I can usually eat well. But inside my head is a wildly different story. And that wildly different narrative doesn’t compel me to do things worthy of storytelling. I can’t stand myself, I can’t stand other people, and I find myself repulsive and unworthy of attention and engagement. Those few souls who experience me during this time I find myself feeling exceptional insecurity toward, even though they offer me zero reason to feel that way—they’re solid and they’re there for me, but I cannot see that with depression blinders on.

Another part of this lack of narrative diversity is that depression is exceptionally hard to untangle from other experiences that mirror many of its trademarks. Grief is closely aligned with depression, and grief and depression can be married on many levels. But they’re separate functions and experiences. It’s also tough to untangle adolescent hormonal and chemical changes. How often do we overlook what could be a serious mental illness in a teenage as simply “part of growing up?”

Perhaps the more destructive part about the lack of these stories is that it further simplifies a disease that’s multifaceted, harsh, and misunderstood. Depression feels like it needs a cause or a destination. The truth is, though, that depression is chemical; it’s a brain misfiring and miswiring in ways that don’t have an easy-to-point-to reason for happening. Depression doesn’t need an event to be triggered. Having a brain is the only requirement.

A lack of representation about the ways the disease works and a lack of diverse narratives, including those with “boring” moments, mean that those who suffer from depression aren’t given the opportunity to see that their experiences are valid, are real, and are worth talking about and getting help for.

 

Despite my own advocacy for mental health, despite my experience researching and writing about mental health, despite my own lived experiences, by not ever seeing my story in some way, I denied myself my illness. And depression, the nasty jerk that it is, thrived off the lies I told myself.

***

I’ve yet to see a rendering of mental illness that feels like my story in YA. Which isn’t to say there are not great stories about depression—there are.

Pick up Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman for how a low experience feels inside the mind of someone who is struggling. Though Cade is not depressed, the internal metaphor used in this story is really damn powerful in expressing what a mental illness feels like inside.

Pick up This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers to understand what depression and denying yourself your life and your worth feel like. It’s not one thing or two things, but an entire routine of stories you tell yourself in any and all situations, whether you want to be going through those stories or not.

Pick up Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks to see how we perceive depression from the outside. There are two girls in this story who wrestle with depression, but only one of them “looks” the part. The other girl—one who in many ways reminded me of my hard-working, don’t-want-to-disappoint-others-because-of-my-struggles, mostly functional self—is deeply pained but overlooked because she doesn’t look like she’s depressed. There’s also a scene worth mentioning where one of the girls misses a period. This leads her to believe it might be an unwanted pregnancy, but we instead learn that her brain chemistry screwed with her physical functioning and health in a very obvious way. This small detail was powerful and important.

Pick up, in spring 2016, Francisco X. Stork’s The Memory of Light. It is the only YA story I know of where depression isn’t an effect from a cause. It is chemical and entirely chemical, and the way the main character comes to understand her brain is something I have not seen explored like this. Stork wrote about what he learned about depression doing the research for this book, and I encourage everyone to read it.

While all four of these should be required mental health reading, it’s worth noting that all four have suicide in them. They either work toward that end, have been a component of the depression at some point, or, in the case of Stork’s book, it’s only after a suicide attempt that the main character understands the ways her depression functions..

***

One of the biggest points upon which my senior psychology thesis hinged was this: girls struggle with anxiety and depression when they’re in new situations like college because they don’t yet have established outlets in which they feel safe, in which they feel heard, or in which they feel like they’re being seen. The research suggests that generally—though not always—girls require more one-on-one, more intimacy, and more trust than boys do.

That intimacy and need for connection don’t make storytelling sexy or explosive or dynamic.

It’s quiet.

But by overlooking the quiet and glossing over those needs, we also fail to give those struggling with things like depression the vital mirrors they need. They need to see themselves in order to help themselves.

Because depression’s story, the one that those who suffer from it hear on repeat, is built on nothing but lies.

Depression is always “bad enough.”



About Author

Kelly Jensen

Kelly Jensen is an associate editor and community manager for Book Riot, as well as a former teen librarian, and a blogger at STACKED. Her writing has been featured in The Horn Book, School Library Journal, The Huffington Post, and VOYA Magazine. She’s the author of It Happens: Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader, a pair of essays in the forthcoming The V-Word anthology edited by Amber Keyser (Beyond Words, 2016), and the editor of the forthcoming Feminism for the Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, 2017).

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20 Comments

  1. I sort of understand this. I’ve struggled with Depression off and on since adolescence. Unlike you, I have self-harmed, but whenever I try to read books, fiction or nonfiction, on the subject of self-harm, in hopes of getting more insight into my problems, well, I just can’t relate to them. Most of the time when I self-harmed in the past, I usually just made, well, what could be called “cat scratches” given how shallow they were. Only had to go to the ER to get patched up once and all that required was a dab of glue (that cost me $200 even with insurance, but that’s another rant). Most self-harm studies/fiction feels alien to me, what with all the people talking about how they had to get rushed to the ER to stitch up gushers of wounds or that they actually cut off fingers. It makes me think, “If that’s a bang, then what are my little cat scratches? A whimper?” Because there’s a level of perfectionism with my crazy that is a little scary. I latch onto the idea that if I can’t be normal, then I should strive to be the best damn crazy person I can be. I get the idea that no matter what I do, I’ll wind up with massive medical bills so I might as well shoot for the stars, so that when I do, I can say I truly earned it.

    Yeah, I know that kind of reasoning doesn’t make any sense, but Depression rarely if ever does. And I’m totally with you in that there is a broader experience with Depression than just self-harm and suicide attempts and all that dramatic stuff writers like to make good hay out of. Many times with me, I’m struck by just how very boring Depression is. Basically your daily schedule goes like this: Wake up, feel like shit. Go through the day, feeling like shit. Go to bed, feeling like shit. All this every day for God-knows-how-long until you develop the kind of crazed mentality akin to that of an animal who will gnaw of a limb in order to escape a trap.

    • Depression is a beast because it feeds you all sorts of weird lies. And those lies become a thing you identify as you — you have to be “the best” at being “the worst.” For me, it was a story of control. If I can control x and y and z, then I’ll get through this, even if I’m really feeling horrific inside. Those “control” things ended up being even more self-destructive because depression lied and convinced me they’d make me feel better. It’s such a beast, depression, and it really doesn’t make any sense AT all.

    • I so relate to this. I also self harmed but it wasn’t always deep. Even when it was deep I always saw people with deeper and that made me feel I wasn’t ill enough. In fact when I first got ill I believed I had to take overdoses to convince myself I deserved validation. I did have suicidal moments but they would be brief and in response to crises (eg verbal abuse from a parent). I was also never sad but angry and anxious and empty instead. I thought to be depressed meant I had to be sad. I now realise that isn’t true. Aggression is a symptom of depression too. Just to complicate things I’ve been diagnosed with Borderline PD which explains a lot and even with that I often tell myself I can’t have it because I’ve never been a hospital inpatient. I’ve done intensive therapy and stayed overnight in A and E but was never committed. And recently i have admitted to myself that BPD isn’t the whole story- I have been depressed clinically too. Much of my life. Took me years to see it. I know my story is different to yours but I do relate to the perfectionism aspect. I even have made my symptoms worse to get help. I’m ashamed of this. I thought I was getting Munchausens until I told a therapist and she said it was actually typical for ppl with my actual diagnoses to do this. That helped lift the shame a bit

  2. BlameMyBrain on

    I don’t know if this is what you intended, but it comes off as though you think that there’s enough representation of “more serious” depression or depression alongside suicide (in my experiences with my own MH, unless suicide & depression are defined as synonymous, they can occur together or separately just like depression & any other compulsion) & that you blame in some way depictions of “more serious” for your feelings that what you were experiencing wasn’t “bad enough,” which as someone who has always & continued to feel exactly the same way while experiencing rather extreme depression, mania, anxiety, suicidal ideation, etc, I am extremely skeptical of.

    The reason I feel it’s important to be clear on these things is because representations of “more severe” MIs (especially bipolar & schizophrenia) are even more lacking than depictions of depression, depression & suicide, self-injury, etc. A lot of the work destigmatizing MIs actually happens at our expense as people bend over backward to assure everyone that MI is nothing like the scary things we’ve all heard (“scary” things that happen to have fallen to the background of daily life to me by the time I entered HS).

    There isn’t enough representation of any “severity” of MI in any genre & there certainly isn’t a glut of (accurate, non-offensive) representations of depression & suicidality that’s happening at the expense of people with more socially acceptable symptoms of MI. The implication that (accurate) representations of people facing greater obstacles from an ableist society are harming those of you facing fewer continues the trend of people with more socially acceptable forms of MI advancing their own acceptance & well-being at our expense. Again, I doubt this was your intention, but your writing on these points isn’t clear enough given that it is not remotely the only example.

    This is extremely triggering for me so I’m going to focus somewhere else for a bit. I’ll try & come back later tonight or tomorrow so I can clarify if anything in my observation is similarly unclear. (I’m also @BlameMyBrain on Twitter.)

    • I’m sorry you read it that way, but I thought it was pretty clear my hope was for MORE diversity in the depression narrative all around. I didn’t tackle extreme depression because it’s not an experience I have or can talk about — I can only talk about my own experience in any fair way.

      “Perhaps the more destructive part about the lack of these stories is that it further simplifies a disease that’s multifaceted, harsh, and misunderstood. Depression feels like it needs a cause or a destination. The truth is, though, that depression is chemical; it’s a brain misfiring and miswiring in ways that don’t have an easy-to-point-to reason for happening. Depression doesn’t need an event to be triggered. Having a brain is the only requirement.

      A lack of representation about the ways the disease works and a lack of diverse narratives, including those with “boring” moments, mean that those who suffer from depression aren’t given the opportunity to see that their experiences are valid, are real, and are worth talking about and getting help for.”

      I feel like that was pretty clear. Sorry if you felt otherwise; that wasn’t my intention.

  3. Know that I read your post with chills and tears in my eyes, that I nodded again and again at things you said. Yes, yes, yes. It’s so easy for us as a … society? community? I’m not sure … to NOT talk about depression, and yet that’s such a mistake. In high school, I watched friends suffer and parents be completely at a loss as to how to begin to help. One kept telling herself that it was just a phase, just a phase, just a phase as her daughter spiraled deeper into more and more self-destructive behaviors motivated by untreated depression. Even for people who aren’t themselves diagnosed with depression, it’s so important to understand the disease, to know how to support those we love. Having a greater diversity in books may help to address that part of the problem as well. Great post. Really powerful words.

    • Thank you for reading and connecting with this. Depression is hard to talk about, but we do a disservice by taking the easy route and not talking about it, for sure.

  4. I thought I was the only one; it’s hard to categorize depression in college because you’re discovering your potential and vulnerability at the same time. The trouble is recognizing that you’re not a victim, but at the same time acknowledging that you’re going through a lot.

    • Absolutely! There IS something legitimate to an adjustment period; new places and faces and experiences require that. But a mental illness on top of that can be compounding, even if it’s not easy to tease out. You aren’t a victim. It’s your brain’s chemistry being wonky. You can’t control that unless you’re conscious of it!

  5. thanks for writing this. i have the more extreme type of depression. i’ve been writing what i hope will be a novel about a girl with depression more like yours, no suicide, no self harm, too much sleeping. i chose this because it hurts too much to write about depression as i experience it. i’ve been working on the story for a while but sometimes i wonder if it will go anywhere cos theres so many YA books about depression. i’m about to ask my first reader to critique some chapters and now i’m even more motivated to finish my ramblings. thank you

    • Honestly, there’s always more room for books about mental illness — there’s always more room for any sort of story, period, because no one can write the story you’re writing and you’ll never write the story someone else does.

      Thanks for reading, and I am so glad you feel motivated to keep writing your manuscript.

  6. Kelly,
    I connected so deeply with your sensitive and eloquent piece. The pain of that first-year-college transition still haunts me, and it was long, long ago. I have been dysthymic for as long as I can remember, and still fight it every day. You are reminding me, as a writer, that this is a personal truth worth sharing, not just ‘overcoming’ or hiding. Thanks for your honesty and insight.

    • It feels like it’s easier to hide because it’s such a vulnerable thing — and such a misunderstood thing — to share. But I suspect there are a lot of people out there who benefit from those who don’t hide. Because they then see and better understand themselves, too.

      Thank you for reading & I’m glad this connected with you.

  7. Kelly,
    What a wonderful post. Depression as got to be the most misaligned ailment, the one that afflicts more people than any other and the most misunderstood. I’m speaking as one who misunderstands it. I appreciate your openness in discussing this. And, I appreciate the indirect way you indicated that depression isn’t just for white people. You do such good work!

    • Thanks, Edi. I can only do the work I do because of people like you, like those here at Disability in Kid Lit, and beyond, who regularly force me to challenge my thinking and to read and see beyond my own worldviews.

      There’s a really great author’s note in WHEN REASON BREAKS, if you haven’t read it, that hit home for me how underrepresented mental illness is in YA when the main character is a person of color; that’s an entirely different essay, of course, but it did open my eyes about that lack of representation and understanding. When I read the Stork novel, which features a Latina main character, I could really put that into further context because of what Rodriguez shared in her notes.

  8. My story is similar in that my depression was never “bad enough” to warrant me taking it seriously. Even after eleven years of struggling – half my life – I still find every opportunity to delegitimize my pain. As an adult I’ve read quite a few novels that tackled depression, and every time it does make me a little bitter: “where was this when I really needed it?”

    One thing in particular that I wish fiction addressed more, in addition to the depression, is the role race plays. I haven’t read any of the books that you mention in the post, but POC are largely absent from discussions of mental illness and disability. Mental illness is still seen as a “white girl’s disease,” i.e. a frivolous cry for attention that only the privileged can indulge in, within POC communities. Meanwhile, in white spaces, you have people who buy into the “strong black savage” stereotype that says we feel less pain than them, so we get it from both sides. Racism is a HUGE factor in the high rates and low diagnoses of mental illness in the black community in particular, yet I’ve never seen that shown in fiction.

    So while I was struggling as a teen, that was always in the back of my mind. I’ll never forget the time one of my friends saw my cutting scars and she laughed and said, “Come on, you’re not one of those crazy white girls.” THAT stuff kills people.

    So while it’s important to note that depression does not make you weak, being seen as vulnerable in the first place is a privilege that is not extended to all of us. Being able to see a little black, depressed girl being *cared* for would’ve been revolutionary for me.

    • You hit on what I mentioned a little in the comment response right before yours — there is CERTAINLY a lack of racial diversity in these books. There could easily be much written about that, though I’m not the person to tackle it for many reasons (part being I’m a white girl myself). You bring up the important note of SEEING a black girl being cared about with illness and yes, absolutely, positively, we need to see a lot more of that. We need better diversity in general when it comes to mental health, not just in how illnesses present and work, but in the characters who are struggling with them.

      The four books I mentioned above: the Stork title and the Rodriguez title feature Latina main characters with depression. Schusterman’s character doesn’t have a race called out (I don’t remember that being the case, at least!) but he himself is an author of color.

      “Racism is a HUGE factor in the high rates and low diagnoses of mental illness in the black community in particular, yet I’ve never seen that shown in fiction.” We NEED to see this, absolutely. I would not only be willing to bet there’s a huge readership, but I can only imagine the number of teens (and adults!) who would see themselves in this story because it is reality.

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