I was diagnosed with depression as a young teenager in middle school. Needless to say, my teenage years weren’t very fun.
To put it simply, I hated myself. Every day I would cycle through emotions of dread, sadness, frustration, anger, and guilt, from the time I woke up to the moment I fell asleep.
No doubt my raging teen hormones played a part in that cycle. But even today, on occasion, I find myself experiencing the same cycle of negative emotions:
I wake up, dreading the day to come for no particular reason.
Sadness takes over as I leave home to work at a job I don’t enjoy.
Frustration and anger build up knowing that I have to keep working, that I have no choice, that I’m powerless to change.
And finally, guilt sets in. Why can’t I appreciate what I have? My job pays well. I just bought a house. I have a loving wife and a great 4-year old son. I shouldn’t be sad or angry! I’m supposed to feel happy and fulfilled!
Eventually I fall asleep, hoping tomorrow I’ll be back to my normal self.
Depression is an ongoing battle for me. However, it’s a battle that I don’t fight alone. It’s a battle that I feel nobody should have to fight alone, which is why I write: to help myself, you, and your friends and family take the fight to depression.
In this article, I’d like to discuss 4 lessons I learned about depression as a depressed teenager. I’ll also show how you can use these lessons to help yourself or a loved one with depression.
1. At its peak, depression is far worse than just feeling sad.
During an episode of depression, I often go through the cycle of emotions I listed above: dread, sadness, frustration, and guilt, among others. However, the worst part of the cycle isn’t when I feel the most negative…
It’s when I feel nothing.
No emotion, positive or negative. No thoughts. Nothing. It’s as if my brain shuts down, yet I’m still awake.
During these episodes, which can last hours (I’ve heard of some people having episodes like these for days or weeks. I couldn’t begin to imagine that), I can’t function. So all I can do is curl up in a ball or lay in bed and wait for it to pass.
My wife’s seen me in this state before, and it’s not pretty. She knows that all she can do is to tell me she loves me and assure me she’ll be there. Though she can’t snap me out of it, she can be there to support me, both before the episode and after.
2. Depression isn’t just “a chemical imbalance” or just “the environment”.
I enjoy researching depression. I also enjoy reading people’s stories about depression. That being said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across this argument
“Depression is caused by the environment. Change the environment, and the depression leaves.”
“No! Depression is a chemical imbalance. Only antidepressants and therapy can fix it.”
Anytime I see this argument I can’t help but ask myself, why are people wasting time arguing over this?
Scientists have been researching depression for decades. Despite this we still aren’t 100% sure what causes depression or how to cure it. So how can anyone claim to know whether somebody’s depression is caused solely by the environment or by chemical imbalance?
I have almost 15 years of experience fighting depression, and I can tell you these two things with no doubt in my mind:
As a teenager, I was morbidly obese, had poor grades, few friends, no goals or aspirations, and a dysfunctional family. Even if I had little chemical imbalance (and at times, I didn’t), I’d have still been depressed.
On the other hand, if my depression were purely a chemical imbalance, then even if I were in good health, had good grades, many close friends, and a loving family… I’d have STILL been depressed!
Everyone’s experience with depression is different. That being said, to help somebody suffering from depression, both avenues–the brain and the environment–should be explored.
3. Antidepressants help, but taking action helps far more.
Let me tell you a bit about my experience with antidepressants as a teenager.
I had a lot of reasons to be depressed (as I outlined in lesson 2): I was morbidly obese, weighing over 260 pounds by age 14. I had very few close friends. I hated school. My mother was supportive, but she suffered from bouts of depression and alcohol addiction–as did many of my other family members.
I started taking antidepressants like Remeron and Prozac in this time period. They didn’t eliminate my depression, but they did help me feel slightly more optimistic about life. I didn’t hate myself so much for being overweight and I got along better with other people as well as my family.
But here’s the thing: Antidepressants didn’t change my weight. They didn’t make me any new friends. I tolerated school, but still had no motivation, no drive to succeed. And they most certainly didn’t help my family problems.
I told my doctor that antidepressants made me feel “content with being mediocre” (dumb phrase, I know). Instead of giving me the energy to change, antidepressants just made me more tolerant–more accepting–of my problems.
The realization that antidepressants actually discouraged me from taking action led me to stop taking them. At first, my depression got worse, but over time–as I lost weight, made friends and eventually started my own family–things got better.
I still have episodes of depression, of course, but nowhere near to the extent I did as a young adult.
Now I don’t mean to encourage anyone to stop taking antidepressants. If they’re helping you or a loved one out, by all means, keep taking them! I personally found the drawbacks (the side effects, cost, and feeling of complacency) to far outweigh the benefit (feeling less bad).
My suggestion, rather, is to not rely on antidepressants to “fix” your depression like I did. Instead, focus your efforts on taking action–whether that action is therapy, joining a support group, exercising, or researching new treatments.
4. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for being told no.
Antidepressants weren’t the only thing holding me back from taking action. Sometimes I held myself back–either by giving up too soon, never trying to begin with, or most commonly, letting my depression get the best of me.
In my sophomore year of high school, I did something crazy: I signed up for advanced physical education. “Advanced” just meant more jogging exercises and weightlifting than normal P.E.
After my first day of advanced P.E., I was ready to quit. I couldn’t handle the strenuous jogging exercises and I could barely lift anything. I told myself I was a fat nerdy kid surrounded by jocks and athletes. I didn’t belong there.
After school was over, I told Mom to take me out of the class. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal, that she’d take me out and sign me up for a normal class.
But wouldn’t you know it… She said no. And because of that no, I lost over 60 pounds in 3 years. I felt better than I had in over a decade, both physically and mentally.
Thanks to that no, my depression lifted for the first time in over 5 years. I may have hated her for saying no at first, but today I couldn’t be more grateful.
As it turns out, that wouldn’t be the first no to have a positive impact on my life. While I attended high school, I worked at a local pizza place. My sister was the manager.
One day, during a really bad depression episode, I told her I was quitting. The job certainly didn’t help my depression, and I dreaded every day I had to work.
You know what she said? No. You can’t just quit.
She explained how she felt about me and my depression. She also talked about the importance of work ethic and why it’s impractical to quit a job on a whim–especially later on when you have bills to pay and mouths to feed.
I chose to stay. I still didn’t like working there, but her lesson helped me keep paying my bills and taught me good work ethic that I still have today.
A couple years passed after that. High school ended and I found a new, less stressful job. My parents wanted me to attend college, but there was a problem: I didn’t want to!
You see, while my depression wasn’t as bad as the years before, I still suffered from a complete lack of motivation.I had no goals, no aspirations, no desire to go anywhere with my life. I just didn’t want anything.
When I told Mom how I felt, she said no. You’re going to college.
I told my sister about it, and she said the same thing. No. You’re going to college.
I told a good friend of mine about how I felt, and guess what? He said it too! No. You’re going to college.
So I bit the bullet and went to a community college while working part-time. A few years later I emerged with an associate’s degree, knowledge, and many life lessons as a result of attending college and living in an apartment with friends in a new town.
My family and friends were supportive of me. They knew the impact depression had on my life. However, they also knew that enabling me would set me up for failure in the long run. So instead, they empowered me to take action–to keep going even after I’d given up–and gave me the strength to take my life places I never thought I’d go.
Thanks to them, I have an education, good health, a decent job, a home, and a wife and a son.
I may not have appreciated their decisions at first, but the long-term benefits were astounding. If not for their firm–but loving–support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
To wrap up this article, I’d like to summarize the 4 lessons I learned and show you how you can apply them to your life:
- If a depressed loved one of yours is experiencing an intense episode of depression, all you can do is give him/her your undivided love and support. Don’t get frustrated at your apparent lack of progress. Accept that you can’t break him/her out of the spell; instead, stay supportive and be there with open arms for when the spell ends.
- More than likely a chemical imbalance in the brain and environmental factors are contributing to your loved one’s depression. A combination of antidepressants, therapy, and/or exercise and a review of the environment (such as his/her living situation, friends/family, job, etc) are in order.
- Treat antidepressants as you would a daily vitamin: Let them aid you in your fight, but don’t rely on them to fix everything.
- Help and encourage your loved one to take action. This might mean starting an exercise regime, getting a new job, joining a support group, visiting a doctor or therapist, and so on. Empower him/her to take back control of their life. Don’t sit idly and let depression prevent your loved one from getting the help he/she needs to live a normal, happy life.
Thanks for reading.
Joshua Keith enjoys researching depression and sharing practical tips and advice on fighting depression on his website Endepression.org.