illustration by Aimee Bee Brooks
I laid in bed, sobbing as my mother tried to console me. It was 8:00 pm, and I was ready to go to sleep, in fact, I desperately needed to sleep. I could not focus on my homework and even the internet failed to entertain me. I didn’t have the energy or motivation to read a book, and every chord that I strummed on my guitar sounded the same- like shit. I couldn’t phone a friend because I no longer felt close to any of them. One of my two best friends had been putting me down for months, making fun of my interests and passions. The other best friend knew that I was depressed and didn’t know how to handle me; about a year before my current bout of depression, she yelled at me in the cafeteria and told me that I wasn’t trying hard enough to be happy. This time, I had taken to hiding in the library or nurses office during school hours, withdrawing from most social activities whenever I could. At home, I slept. I barely left my house on the weekend, certainly not to “hang out” with friends.
Through my tears, my mother said to me, “I am marking my calendar for May 29th. I am promising you that you will feel better then. And when that date comes, we will do something special.”
I pretty much ignore this promise. I couldn’t see a day into my future, so how the hell was I supposed to anticipate five months ahead of the current moment? The depression felt like a permanent characteristic of my body, like a bump on the bridge of someone’s nose or a widowspeak. I didn’t see it ever going away, so I figured that I had to learn to live with it. Even that task seemed impossible.
May 29th is approaching. Though my mind was covered in cobwebs and dust in December, I remember my mother’s promise. In fact, I have been nagging her about it, but unfortunately a tattoo is off limits. “I thought it would be something like taking you out for dinner!”
The refreshing feeling of recovery by far trumps the disappointment of having to wait a year to get my tattoo legally. I wish I could say that I am depression-free, but that would be untrue. However, I do see this fantasy state on the horizon, and this time, I am actively working to approach it. A depressed person might view his or her mental state as a binary: happy or depressed. I have discovered this mentality to be harmful. While I have not yet reached “pure happiness”, I’ve certainly travelled beyond the pure state of depression that I dwelled in for months. And I’ve regained an important emotion that I lost during those months- hope. I am going to share some advice that I’ve learned throughout the year about coping with depression. These tips are no cure for depression, but they will help you navigate through the haze of uncertainty to hopefully help you find the identity that you have lost sight of.
- Depression is biologically caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a traumatic experience like a family death or divorce. That being said, many circumstances can trigger bouts of depression or make depression worse. Try to identify something in your life that, if you change or eliminate, could help you feel less depressed. In my case, I felt that numerous parts of my life contributed to my depression. The number one, though, was my school situation. I attended an all-girl’s private school, and I was surrounded by competition and pressure that I believed I could not escape. I used to enjoy education, but I lost all motivation for learning. After weeks of deliberation with my parents, I decided to transfer to another school. I am very fortunate that I had a way out, and many people would not be afforded the opportunity that I had. That being said, you can look at your life and identify what aspects of it are controllable. If it’s school, sit down with an advisor, counselor or trusted official in the school and ask about parts of your life at school that you can change. If there is a class that is bringing you down, see if you can transfer. If a teacher is treating you unfairly, explain why. If you have the opportunity to leave your school, look into your options and speak to your parents in a calm, focused manner. I sent my parents a detailed email about my feelings, because I was worried that they would not listen to me if I spoke to them face to face. The email opened up discussion and expressed my emotions and desires very clearly. Private school is not an option for everyone, but many districts have charter schools, magnet/specialized schools, and homeschooling programs.
- Look into medication. As I mentioned in the previous tip, depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. While neurobiologists have not developed a perfect, side-effect free over the counter happy pill, antidepressants often have life changing results. Ask your pediatrician for recommendations for psychiatrists. As I said, there is no happy pill, in fact, many of the pills contain debilitating side-effects and do not even start to take effect for weeks. Antidepressants might not bring you 100 percent of the way to happiness, but they can take you pretty far. Do not expect that the first pill you take will cure you of your depression, but approach the process with an open mind. Be aware of side-effects, but do not fret over them. Make sure that you communicate with your doctor, and if you feel unbearably uncomfortable, let him or her know immediately.
- Try to think of activities you enjoy and do them. This step is probably the hardest, because, as you probably know, when you are depressed you lose enjoyment for the activities you once loved. I sat down with my psychiatrist recently and told him that I spent too much time just sitting and thinking about my depression and not actually doing anything to change it. He asked me if I could start writing more to fill up my free time, and I immediately argued with him about why I could not. But I realized that the time I spent lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about how I would always feel a bit “off” was time that I could use for active projects. I brainstormed a list of long-term activities that I was interested in, and excitement began to build up within me like arpeggio. You will probably need a push of motivation to actually start these projects, so talk to your parents or set alerts on your phone. Try to do something, whether it be writing or running or painting or reading on a regular basis. Those empty voids of melancholy will eventually dissipate.
- Don’t stop trying. The vaguest advice I will give, but if there is one thing a depressed person is good at, it’s stopping. Giving up. One bad experience with a therapist? “Therapy sucks and it is ineffective.” One bad experience with a medication? “No medications will ever work for me.” I am no stranger to this black and white thinking. But the truth is, while it is difficult to know while you are depressed, there are so many different ways that people cope with depression. Some of them work, and some do not. But don’t stop trying just because you let your hopes up and subsequently experienced disappointment when something didn’t work. For every failed coping mechanism, there are fifty alternatives that just might work. My mom bought me this special lamp called the “HappyLight” designed to mimic sunlight in an attempt to treat people with seasonal affective disorder. I was supposed to sit in front of the bright lamp for at least thirty minutes every morning, and guess what? I didn’t feel any different. The HappyLight helps a lot of people, and just because it did not help me does not mean that it is a defective product, nor does it mean that I am a defective person. There are all sorts of alternative treatments that I haven’t even tried that people hail as “life changing”: acupuncture, special video-games, methods of meditation, diets and more. Look into every type of treatment with an open mind and it just might help you. The open-mind mentality is a good approach for therapy as well. There are many approaches to depression therapy, so just because you had one bad or ineffective experience with a shrink does not mean you should write off therapy.
You might read these four tips and think, “That’s a pile of bullshit.” I am not offended; in fact, I understand. I’ve read all sorts of articles with tips about coping with depression and thought the same thing. Try them anyways. On Day One of your recovery, you will not feel any different. You feel a mixture of hope that you deem irrational and negativity that will prevent you from progressing. But push through those emotions and get to day two. On day fourteen, you might feel more depressed than you have in fourteen days, but go to sleep and wake up on day fifteen with the mentality that you will get better. Try out a new activity or call up a different doctor or make an appointment for acupuncture.