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.
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.”