As a child, I flamed with creative energy and pleasure in connecting with humans or animals. My 2nd grade teacher told me I would be a great writer one day. My elementary art teacher encouraged me to create an odd mystical creature statue, and draw a picture book which I titled Two Sister Seals. It won a small award in a contest. Other teachers also praised and encouraged me.
Nevertheless, even back then, I felt like I didn’t deserve the praise. Eight-year-old me held a lingering notion that I had not worked hard enough.
In high school, I was happy to be in a pre-vet animal science program and in my freshman year I excelled in my classes. I had a handful of good friends; I even wrote with some of them.
I immersed myself in my writing, creating characters and dialogues and worlds online. I applied anything I learned in school that fascinated me to my work, with a particular passion for wolves, Japanese culture, and art.
Despite all this growth and ambition, in my sophomore year of high school, I started to feel less than myself. I noticed my insecurities and flaws more.
Then, in junior year, a subtle and dark feeling crept up on me. It felt like a vibration beneath everything I did that both was and wasn’t separate from me. It felt as though it consumed everything I did. This darkness ate away at my passions: writing, art, learning Japanese, and even training my beloved dog. It clouded my perception. The old creativity and connection still flickered, but the flame was dim.
I sank into the darkness. I barely finished my homework. I felt aimless and empty. I took lots of naps. Overwhelming feelings of despair and pointlessness felt unrelated to anything happening in my life at that moment. I didn’t know why I was so sad and paralyzed.
Researching My State
I did research to figure out what caused my inability to work or feel content. I bought three self-help books on procrastination and time management. I realized that this was not just laziness. I wanted desperately to put in the work.
Then I read descriptions and accounts of depression and anxiety. It was some relief to have a name for what was going on, but my self-doubt and sadness mounted.
I told my well-meaning friends that I was depressed, and they tried to understand. However, I projected my disappointment in myself onto them, and so my friends became sources of stress too.
With my homework left undone or half-completed, my grades fell. I became embarrassed and guilty about this and developed debilitating anxiety and shame about how my teachers viewed me.
I hid the fact that I was a mental wreck by lying. I blamed my missing work and absences on forgetfulness, sickness, and “family emergencies.” I started skipping school.
Six months into junior year, my guidance counselor started asking about my grades. I didn’t feel like she cared or that I could trust her. “I think I have depression? I have a terrible and unpredictable time getting out of bed to come here,” I told her. She offered what seemed like fake, generic sympathy and asked mildly hurtful questions. “You have to try to be here, OK?” she said. “It won’t get better if you don’t.”
Eventually, my guidance counselor directed me to Mr. Allison. He was a certified therapist who worked in the school, and he became my therapist.
Mr. Allison pointed out all the dedication I’d already put into learning about my depression along with my willingness to seek improvement. In an emotionally intense time, it was what I needed to hear, and eventually I trusted him. I told him I thought I might have depression, and he gently affirmed it. Having it officially recognized eased my fear that I was simply blowing things out of proportion.
After that, my mom came in to meet with Mr. Allison and me. We told her about my depression together and revealed my sinking grades, which I’d been hiding from her. She responded with sympathy in the meeting, but later attacked the notion of me having “a damn mental illness” at all. She said I only needed to go to church.
I knew that’s how she would respond. Because of her viewpoint and values, it was impossible to explain depression to her. I had long since accepted that, and that is why I seek the help of other adults.
Mr. Allison assured me, “You aren’t broken, there’s nothing you need to fix.” I didn’t understand that at first, and continued scrambling to figure out what was wrong with me and how to change it. Even as that happened, I clung to my writing for solace. As a creative writer, I loved to explore my imagination on paper, but months went by, and I only documented my depression.
My loving perspective on my writing collapsed, and writing became a source of nitpicking, pain, and hate. This also hurt my friendships with the people I collaborated with online. By the spring term of junior year, I’d stopped writing completely. It all got swallowed up by my depression. As this happened I talked to Mr. Allison about it.
“Writing is especially good for coping,” he told me. I’d shared a few of my pieces with him and he praised them. “You are doing just fine,” he’d say—such soothing words.
Depression and anxiety had spoiled my passions, my academic reputation, my connections with friends and family and self. That is when I decided I needed to do something different about it. And, starting with Mr. Allison, I reached out.
Letting Others In
I started to voice my concerns to Ms. B., a lovely teacher who worked in the animal lab in my school. One day during junior year, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
I started crying and she took me into the empty reptile room (the other students were all in the mammal room). She patted my shoulder and let me cry until I was ready to explain.
“I don’t know what to do. I want to be here. But I keep missing work and skipping class and feeling anxious. I seem like a bad student when teachers confront me.”
She said, “You’re intelligent, sweet, and respectful. I know that the teachers do care and wonder. You don’t seem like a ‘bad student’ to them. And I can support you and be a voice for you.” After that, I talked to her almost daily. She grew to understand my struggle. Sometimes the only reason I went to school was to check in with Ms. B. in the lab or Mr. Allison before I went to classes.
I worried about looking like I needed hand-holding, but the truth was, I did need it. Receiving validation, compassion, and support from other adults, both friends and professionals, helped me get better. Mr. Allison would encourage me to be spontaneous, and be myself. He pointed out when I was being cruel to myself. He showed me how much I projected my disapproval of myself onto others. He taught me breathing exercises for calming anxiety, and I’d do them on the train to school or standing around during gym. They worked.
Mr. Allison was a great therapist for me. If we were silent a long time, he’d say, “It’s OK to feel awkward. Let’s let you feel awkward for a bit, allow the feeling to just be.” He explained thought processes to me, and shone professional light on my habits. That was especially validating, as I often thought my lethargy and angst were all my fault and not symptoms of my depression.
“You are already so self-aware,” he’d say with his eyebrows raised. “Notice the judgment. Practice doing less of that and more of being gentle with whatever you discover about yourself.” I had never had a caring male in my life, so working with him was healing in a way that I still don’t fully understand yet.
I had several therapists after him, who I did not connect with or like. Happily, two years later, I met my current therapist, Mary, who I also cherish and learn from. She offers the same open compassion and happy, steady vibe that Mr. Allison had.
Something significant that Mary taught me is that feelings live in the body and that my thoughts are just thoughts. She is a somatic mindfulness therapist, meaning our work together focuses on the body. I know that coming to her was tying together many of the things I’d learned earlier from Mr. Allison with new, helpful information.
Mary showed me how every single feeling is a wave that arrives, peaks, and passes through; thoughts can be either stopped or soothed. She taught me somatic healing and mindfulness tools to reconnect with my body.
Mary tells me, but I can also tell myself, “Sit with your two feet flat on the floor and bring your attention to the soles of your feet contacting the ground.” Now, even after some horrible episode, I can use this and other techniques to be calm and positive by connecting with myself.
Therapy moved me forward the most, but other things helped me too. A book called Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer was helpful, as were Tumblr posts about depression. I meditated and listened to music, danced, and sang to myself. I wrote about and read about and watched videos of animals and played with my dog, which brought me joy.
Gathering information on depression and anxiety also helped me cope. I learned about how the brain functions. I learned that even my most inexplicable feelings and actions were tied to the illness. I learned that I was not a bad person for being how I was. I learned that there are 1,000 different ways to recover and heal.
I continued reaching out to positive people and remembered the wonderful things they told me about myself. I was once told, by a trusted school dean, “You are a gift of the cosmos.” This kept me going for a week.
I considered medication, but after I turned 18, I realized that my depression had improved significantly from all the things I was doing. So I haven’t tried medication, though I remain open to it if needed.
Accepting All of Me
Now at 19, I still struggle with my mental health, but I am confident in my ability to access resources and support. I am in a better place because I talked to people who modeled kindness and self-care. I’ve learned to be more gentle with myself and trust myself more. I view my flaws in a more understanding way.
I graduated from high school only one semester late and rekindled only the friendships that were beneficial to my health. I was recently rejected by the college of my dreams, and I’m proud of how I’m handling that. I am honoring the disappointment and seeking other opportunities rather than sulking.
The flicker of the possible was always there, but I got better at tending that flame. Working with Mr. Allison and Mary slowly helped me come to terms with something very important: Healing mentally is not wrestling my depression or anxiety to the ground. I used to resist coping methods because I thought that coping meant I was accepting that I’d always be sick.
Accepting mental illness seems counterintuitive; we’re taught to rise above things that hold us back. And yes, depression is awful and I wish I didn’t have it. But accepting myself wherever I am allows me to keep my mental illness from running my life.
Trying to resist depression and anxiety only deepened my struggle. If an anxiety attack is coming on, it doesn’t help me to just say no. Now I know to acknowledge what’s happening and do a breath exercise or some other technique for taking care of myself while it happens. Accepting my entire experience works better for me than resisting. Only when I know where I really am can I figure out how to best navigate my life.
D.C.M. finds her own way through depression, and some teens may find aspects they connect with—and things they disagree with. Discoveries D.C.M. made about her own illness include the following:
• She recognized that the things that brought her joy suddenly didn’t any more. By reading, she discovered she might have depression and anxiety.
• After friends and adults said things that didn’t help, she found Mr. Allison, who discouraged her from beating herself up. It was what she needed. “You’re doing just fine” helped more than “You have to cure your depression!” “Receiving validation, compassion, and support from other adults, both friends and professionals, helped me get better,” she writes.
• Practicing mindfulness—watching her own thoughts and feelings—and learning specific calming techniques helped D.C.M.
• “Accepting my entire experience works better for me than resisting.” She chooses not to “fight” against the illness, which helps her not “beat herself up.”
Ask your teens:
If you have suffered depression and/or anxiety, have you had any of D.C.M.’s experiences or tried any of her coping methods? Are there other tactics that have worked better for you? Can you talk about what works for handling depression and anxiety and why you think it works for you?