My Personal Story of Depression
I’ve seen a few of these posts recently, and in hopes that I might be able to help others, I’m going to draft up one of my own.
The first time I can remember contemplating suicide was in the Fourth Grade. I was nine or ten, but as I have never really been an avid journaler the details of it get a little sketchy. Just something about standing on top of some playground equipment at my elementary school and wondering what would happen if I threw myself off. I didn’t, and went back to playing tag or Star Wars or some game that required my fellow nine-year-olds and myself to hurl ourselves down the slide with a reckless abandon really frowned upon by our (justified in hindsight) buzzkilling teachers.
I went more than a decade without thinking about this moment. It, like all of the other bouts of depression I experienced, was marked off as just another part of everyday life. This was just what it was to be alive. These terrible feelings that would grab at me constantly were, to me, just as much of a part of me as my love of Space Jam or the series of terrible haircuts I have had over the years.*
*Author’s Note: For much of my life, I kept my hair at a close buzz. These pictures will never surface as they have been solidly and thoroughly burned or locked away in a facility not dissimilar to the one where they keep the Arc of the Convenant.
It wasn’t until Sixth Grade that I realized that not everyone felt this way. This part I remember much more clearly. I was in the gym class, always a favorite for the twelve-year-old who drew comic book parodies of The Godfather in his downtime where all the people were replaced with crabs. My fellow classmates and I were lined up neatly in rows, waiting anxiously to find out exactly what we’d be throwing at each other today. I don’t remember the preamble to the moment in question, just as one never remembers the beginning of a dream, but I remember that sudden burst of realization as well as I remember anything.
“You mean you guys have never thought of killing yourself?” I asked my classmates after my joke about throwing myself off a building hadn’t gone over quite as planned. They wrinkled their noses and turned away from me.
“Don’t talk like that,” one of them said.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” said another.
There were four people on the receiving end of my revelation. Two of them I had known since pre-school, and they were the first people in town I had ever met. The other two were girls, a gender that was still a strange and foreign concept to me.
This moment sunk in, in a way that any previous urges or compulsions or moments simply had not. This was the first time that it became apparent to me that I was alone in these thoughts, that what I saw as the futility of my existence was not a commonality. It was a revelation. That my classmates went home happy and potentially stayed that way (though I suppose that is a lofty goal for a group of humans in middle school, still the most miserable place in all of the First World). It was a moment of realization that when other kids watched The George Lopez Show, they didn’t look at the marriage between George and Angie Lopez and see themselves as a failure for not being in a committed relationship at the age of twelve. I thought for the first time that maybe my fellow sixth graders had been proud of something they had done in their life, and weren’t sitting on twelve years of knowing, as much as my mind could know anything, that everything they had done up until that point was bullshit.
I suppose it is at this juncture, where I talk about the gaping black hole I felt inside of me before I hit thirteen, that I should bring up the nature of depression. You see, as much as those feelings of emptiness and ABC programming-based inadequacy were just as real and felt just as deeply as any others I had experienced in my whole life, they were based in unreality. Of course I was worth something. I was a person, and we’re all worth something. I mean, I was basing a significant amount of my self-worth on the happiness of the people I saw on According to Jim, and Jim Belushi’s character on that show is hardly one whose life to emulate. His is a marriage based on lies and continual deception, and he has almost daily interaction with his brother-in-law who was, on the whole, very unpleasant. Also, I was twelve. I shouldn’t have been comparing my happiness to the happiness of anyone else, particularly to that of a fictional Latin couple that appeared between tampon commercials. Sizing up your happiness next to another’s is exactly how you spiral even deeper down. You know what they say: The grass is always greener on the other side, where they’re having a party and making out and you’re not invited.
Depression, to me, has always been a feeling of a complete lack of self-worth. My best example comes from two summers ago, when I had forgotten to go to work and arrived on site too late for anything to be done about it. It hit me so hard and I was so rocked that I walked back home in the rain, holding an umbrella in my hands but not using it. Because I “wasn’t worth being protected from the storm.” I didn’t feel like I deserved to be dry, to be comfortable. All I deserved was wet.
But that’s the entire nature of depression. It immobilizes you, in both rational thought and physical motion. And it just takes one thing to set you off. You see that someone else is happy when you’re having a bad day. You compare yourself to the smiling people on the television and wonder why that isn’t you. You make one small mistake and… off you go. Depression’s hands grab hold of you and only seek to pull you deeper and deeper. It drags you down and down, and each new thought you create is worse than the last. It builds upon what has come before and only stacks everything it has against you. Higher and higher. The walls become so high and so vast that there is nothing around you but yourself. And you are yourself. And you don’t like yourself. In fact, you probably hate yourself.
And the worst thing is you don’t have the tools to do anything about it. Where would you get them? Odds are no one else around you has depression, or they don’t know they have depression, or they do and they keep it locked up because for some reason this is still something we are ashamed to admit. We’re afraid to be told to “Suck it up” for the one millionth time in recent memory. We’re tired of being asked why we’re “so mopey.” Depression is still something we’re afraid of as a culture, something we still treat with disregard, sweeping it under the rug like some dirty secret.
“How will other people perceive us—our family—if they knew you had depression?”
That sentence sounds harsh, and preposterous, but it’s just as real as everything else I’ve talked about so far. And the most important thing that can be taken away from this essay is the advice to seek help. Depression can’t be kept in a bottle. You can’t hide it somewhere and forget about it, because it will come out again. It always does.
I found my own amateur ways of handling it. I’m a pretty funny guy, and so much of my self-worth is validated by whether or not people laugh at what I do. Every time a joke lands is a validation that I am a person of worth, that I can continue existing with everyone else without a problem. Every time one doesn’t… well, why am I even here? I won’t get into this next point too deeply, but I also based far too much of how I saw myself on how women saw me. Dating someone, or someone being interested in me romantically, was another way to show that I was, indeed, a person who could be allowed to continue living on just like everyone else. When no one was interested in me, I was a worthless lump, hardly even a human and certainly not one to be admired or even addressed. But, save for a few choice moments in time, no one could ever tell. I was always making some kind of joke. And they would laugh. And I would keep on going.
The worst thing I ever did in the handling of my depression was keeping it silent. I didn’t tell a soul about my self-diagnosis until college, and even then it was just a handful of friends who wouldn’t or couldn’t know what to do with it. They just put on safety gloves and handled me like delicate cargo because, really, what else were they supposed to do? My pals aren’t trained professionals. They’re nineteen-year-olds, contending with their own issues and trying to adjust to college life just as much as I was.
I never told anyone in my family. Still haven’t. I was never really close to my brothers. Certainly I wasn’t close enough to tell them anything like this. My dad has never once listened to anything I’ve had to say. And my mom… Well, I always figured my mother had too much on her plate to contend with something like this. She was trapped in a loveless marriage with an alcoholic, trying desperately to keep a family of five running, operational, and fed, on top of being the full-time chauffeur for the entire family and being a business-owner herself, and always working at least one other job on the side. I thought she had enough on her plate without having to contend with the idea that her oldest son was contemplating suicide.
See, there are four kinds of people that emerge from alcohol households. I’m what’s called “The Golden Child.” This kind of person is usually the oldest and does everything and anything in their power to succeed and to keep on succeeding. I have trophies and medals from all over the place. I’m still the only person in the history of my high school to earn a state medal at Speech and Debate. I was heavily involved in my high school drama productions. And the Future Business Leaders of America. The Audio-Visual Club. On top of working 30+ hours a week at the local McDoanld’s so that I could afford to pay for a car, a cellphone, and the house Wifi. I earned my first of two A-minuses in my high school career during my sophomore year for Honors Biology, a development that was devastating at the time but was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me as it probably saved me a heart attack at eighteen from fretting over trying to make valedictorian. I say these things not to brag, but to illustrate a point.
I hardly had time to sleep, much less contemplate these ever-present feelings that I was worthless. This is a workload and a habit that I still maintain to this day, probably because an excess of time to sit around and think too often leads to the mind wandering to those terrible dark places you’re still afraid to talk about. I was “The Golden Child.” How was I supposed to tell my own mother that the son she relied on to be self-reliant and low-maintenance and bring some much-needed money into the house was suffering from depression the whole time? I feared it would break her.
But, ultimately, as noble as this idea might have been, it was the wrong choice. All it did was leave me feeling as unceasingly alone as I always had. It only got worse and perpetuated further as I only found new and interesting ways to make me feel bad about myself. Because, again, I didn’t have the tools. Where would I have gotten them?
I was almost twenty-one years old before I had my first counseling session. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s twelve years after the first time I felt depressed. Twelve years. Twelve years of feeling helpless and alone and like I was worth nothing. For approximately the length of time Sirius Black spent wrongfully locked up in Azkaban, I was depressed.
I will be forever grateful to my boss at the time, Chris, for giving me the push I needed to seek help, and walking me over to the Counseling department on campus. I called him crying, and he knew exactly what I needed. Something I had never had: Help.
For those of you who don’t suffer from depression and even those of you who do, I want to impress upon you just how difficult it is to take this step. There are all sorts of perverse parts of you that will stop at nothing to keep you out of that office. It takes a while to admit that there is a part of you that needs fixing. This depression has been with you for what feels like an eternity and you can’t truly remember a life without it. It feels as engendered to you as those aforementioned really terrible haircuts. You’re afraid of what you’ll be without that huge part of you. You wonder if there is even a person left underneath that veil at all. When you’re smothered for so long, it becomes impossible to picture a life where breathing is clear and easy. It also feels like you’re acknowledging that a piece of you is wrong, something you are quick to do to yourself but much more reticent to have others do at you professionally. But it is also the most important thing you can ever do.
Sessions like the ones I had are where you gain the tools to combat this. You gain an understanding of the beast so that you might better fight it. Harry Potter had to learn about the history of Tom Riddle in order to defeat Voldemort, and so, too, must you know your enemy as well as you know yourself. You learn what causes it to rears its head, and you learn the weak points at which it can strike—and the points at which you can strike back. It’s empowering. It is a long process, and a difficult one, but it is also one that is so very worthwhile.
I continued my sessions for weeks and weeks and weeks. Eventually, I ran out of things to say. Then one day I slept through my appointment. The counselor said that was all the indication he needed to say that we no longer needed to meet on a weekly basis. He sent me off into the world with his personal number and the knowledge that I could come back to him any time I needed to.
And I haven’t needed to.
Now, I am no beacon of confidence. To continue on an already tired Voldemort comparison, depression has many Horcruxes, and it can come back sometimes without warning. Sometimes if I suffer a particularly devastating loss or disappointment, or if somebody says something to me that hits in just the right spot, the waves and feelings can come back, perhaps as strong as they ever have. But now I have the skills and the tools to fight it off, and send it back to where it came.
There is confidence in me now. I know that I have talent. I can accept compliments, which is not something I was ever able to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever be content with my physical appearance, but it is something I work for every single day. And that’s what living with depression is. It is daily maintenance. But you get good at it. And the more you grow in your skills at tamping it down and keeping it at bay, the further apart those waves of depression become, until sometimes you forget that they’re there at all.
I write this essay after a week of being in a rut of depression. I haven’t been myself. I’ve been silent when normally I would speak. I have forgotten how people work, and with every text I sent, no matter how trivial, I wondered if I was ruining some relationship for good, when the other person probably didn’t even perceive that something was wrong. I have wanted to yell out to those I love, asking just for a hug or someone to listen to me, but those feelings like I’m not worth helping made themselves known and I quickly shut up all attempts to reach out. I was inspired to write this because I couldn’t think of anything else to get these thoughts out of my head. I wanted to write this for people like me, people who have long suffered, often in complete silence. I hope that this can help people, or at least inspire them to open up.
Depression is not something to be ashamed of. Without training, it is an imperceptible devil wrapped around your head, dragging you down. You are not at fault. Depression does not make you weak. You are not weak. People who say to “Suck it up” don’t understand how helpless you feel. And how could they? It’s impossible to make sense of depression until you have lived it.
To those of you living it right now, seek help. To those of you who know someone living it right now, be help. They probably just need to know someone loves them right now. I know I do.
–Kevin “Kevin” Lanigan