By Erica Woloszynski
Most of my days aren’t too different from those of the average college student. I wake up and wish I could sleep in more. I go to class, listen and learn, come home and study. Watch TV, fall asleep, repeat. But some days I’m not so lucky. Take the morning last week, when I awoke from one of my daily nightmares and for once couldn’t shake it off. I felt confused, terrified by something invisible, horrendously saddened by fates indiscernible. I cried, uncontrollably, for reasons I couldn’t ascertain. I felt like the world was darker and heavier, and I was straining under the weight. That’s when I realized I had missed taking my medication last night.
I have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder since early in high school, and have now been on anti-depressants for over eight years. Unlike many people that I know, my depression didn’t abate once I left my teens, though I have managed to lower my dosage. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go off them completely. While the withdrawal effects I experienced that morning were more severe than what would happen if I slowly lowered my dosage to nothing, I am still terrified by the prospect of going back to the way I used to be, before I got my medication sorted out. Before the haze of adolescence had lifted, when my emotions were even more uncontrollable. Before I was able to live my life as close to normal as possible.
Those days were hard. Imagine the worst day you’ve ever had. Imagine that feeling of overwhelming sadness, pushing harder and harder at the edge of your consciousness, forever threatening to break in and destroy the mental peace you’ve made for yourself. Imagine feeling like you’re at the bottom of a hole, and no one can see you, and you’ll never escape. Imagine feeling like you’re in a foreign country and no one will ever understand you, and you’ll fall farther and farther into being nothing and no one that eventually you disappear entirely into the void. This is how depression feels, every day. This is a reality for millions of people, particularly those that go untreated. Life feels like a losing battle, every day, and no matter how bright things seem for you, you never see the light.
I was lucky enough to have a mother that is a psychologist, and had dealt with teens in situations far worse than mine. I was lucky to be in a middle class household, with understanding and supportive parents, and essentially every method of treatment was available to me. And though it has taken me the better part of eight years, I have gotten better. I no longer look at myself and wish I was someone else. I no longer want so badly to be out of my skin that I cut it. I no longer hate my body so much that I purged all I could from it into the toilet every day.
Many people who know me now would never have guessed. They don’t see the hours I spent crying over nothing and everything. They don’t see the days I spent wishing it would all just end. And they certainly don’t see the way I used to see myself, because I honestly and truly despised everything about me at one point. And though I have recovered, I will still be on anti-depressants for possibly my entire life. I’m trying more and more to do everything I can beyond the drugs to make things better for me-eating well, exercising regularly, being out in the sun as often as possible. But I will always wonder and worry about what would happen if I tried to go completely off my medication. I never want to go back to the way I was. And even though I have spent the last eight years fighting myself, the depressed side of myself, every so often it still creeps up on me. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
If it has taken me, with all my luck and resources, eight years to get to the point of feeling like I’m a normal person, I can only imagine how horrible it is for those that can’t get help. Those that act out before they are diagnosed and end up in the juvenile justice system. Those that hurt themselves or others before they could be helped. Those that took their lives, because they thought the pain would never end, and the quiet calm numbness of death would be easier than living like this.
People see us as weak. For some reason, mental disorders are treated as though they may be fictional. As if the person just “isn’t trying hard enough,” or “is faking it,” or, worst of all, “is just a brat.” No one would look at a cancer patient and say “they’re just weak.” People say this is because other diseases are observable, physical. This despite the fact that many of the most prominent diseases are not observable in the average interaction with a person, particularly when they are being treated. No one scoffs at a diabetic and says they’re faking it. No one says a person with an inhaler that has not had an asthma attack in front of them doesn’t really have a problem. And yet mental disease is somehow different.
Those that are truly ignorant say things like depression are not real because it is “all in your head.” Yet no one says this about brain cancer, or a concussion. The human brain is incredible and complex, and any problems with its anatomy or neurochemistry are much more difficult to isolate, identify and treat than other parts of the body. The biggest problem is that mental diseases like depression are or at least can be caused by a great host of factors, which makes a “scientific” approach to its diagnosis difficult. While one of the most common theories is a defect in the serotonin transporter, this must also interact with stressful life events to create depression. In other words, even if everyone was tested to see if they had this defect, it still would not lead to the ability to “predict” depression. A simplistic way to view mental diseases like depression and anxiety is to say that a segment of the population is more likely to have depression due to their genetic makeup, but this needs to coincide with stressful life events in a particular way for those tendencies to surface.
In my case, the coincidence with my ADD made my depression surface: I had always been able to get straight A’s without trying, but moving at the time I hit puberty, combined with more advanced work, left me a mess. I was so used to being smart, and being capable, that as soon as I wasn’t I was at a total loss. To quote Jeff Winger from Community, “The funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work. So, I’m not really sure how to do that.” And it’s true. I never developed the study habits my peers did because I hadn’t needed to. I hardly ever did my homework, to the chagrin of my parents and teachers, because I didn’t need to. I already knew the material, for me homework was just repetitive.
And then came high school, where your academic attention was split between seven classes, where tests and homework and projects overlapped, and I looked at it and to me it seemed like a monster. School used to be fun, but then it turned into a constant stream of forgotten assignments and disappointment from my parents and teachers. Especially from my father. I will never, never in my life forget the time he turned to me after a parent-teacher conference, where we learned I was failing a quarter of biology, and said “you’re wasting your life.” While to him that was supposed to be saying “you can do better than this,” to me it said “you’re a failure.” Since I had never disappointed him like this before, it truly broke me. My fidgeting got worse as my anxiety about school increased, and then one day it just seemed like the dam broke and my brain was flooded with doubts, anxieties, fear, sadness and disgust for myself all at once. And all I could do was cry, and cry, and cry, and wish it away. I cannot explain to you the utter weakness you feel when it is your own brain filling you with darkness, trying to pull you down deeper.
Because of my experience with depression, and the incredible positive impact made by both my mother and a guidance counselor at school, I decided to follow my curiosity and major in psychology. As someone that has looked into the jaws of darkness and almost been swallowed, I feel that I need to do something with my life that helps others. I feel that anyone who has been hurt has a deep connection with those that are hurting, particularly as it relates to mental illness. Every time I even think about going into a non-helping career I feel a sharp jab of guilt in my gut. I simply can’t be out just for myself, because if everyone else was, I would never have recovered. I hope that at some point in my life I’ll be able to help someone the way I was helped. I think that would make me truly happy.