[TW: self-harm, suicidal ideation, sexual assault, and relationship abuse]
The first time I remember experiencing depression as I know it was in middle school. I was in 7th grade at an all-girls Catholic school and struggled daily with unexplained profound sadness, crimpling low self-esteem, and a relentless group of high school bullies who made it their sole mission to remind me daily how ugly I was. I had a few friends, but my self-deprecation and sullen mood made it hard for me to participate in “normal” middle school activities such as sleepovers and trips to the mall. My free time consisted of sleeping, journaling, and listening to music alone in my room. My depression got so bad at one point that I googled different ways to kill myself. I was 12 years old. I buried any thoughts of wanting to die and started cutting myself, advice I received from another depressed young girl I became friends with on the internet. Cutting myself felt like an appropriate punishment for how worthless I felt. I think subconsciously, I wanted someone to see the self-inflicted marks and offer me help and a way out of the all-encompassing melancholy I felt daily. Asking for help was out of the question. Something about it obviously did not make me feel safe. One evening, when it was too hot outside to cover my scared arms with a long sleeve shirt, my mom saw the cuts and flipped out. “You better make sure your dad doesn’t see those!,” my mom screamed before she left me alone with my shame to meet a friend for dinner. That moment was one of the most formative experiences in learning that I should hide my pain.
The messaging around mental health within my family was non-existent, except for when my parents voiced that me and my siblings had nothing to be depressed out. The notion that my siblings and I could not experience a chemical imbalance always came from a financial standpoint. We had a big house, we had allowances, we had new clothes, we had family vacations domestically and abroad, we had more than enough food in the fridge, we went to prestigious schools – all facets of “happiness” were linked to happiness money could buy. My families privileges and financial comfortability provided us with our physical needs and extra, but our mental and emotional needs fell by the wayside. Though I am sure they did not mean it to be this way, my parent’s consistent stance on the impossibility of suffering contributed to years of my emotional repression and fear of vulnerability.
My depression reared its ugly head intermittently throughout middle school, high school, and college. Throughout these formative years, I experienced a sexual assault when I was 14 that was the losing of my virginity and a seven year-long emotionally abusive relationship starting in high school and still did not feel validated to feel my emotions. I still felt like I had “nothing” to be depressed about. Instead, I became highly skilled at putting on a happy face and acting as if I was perfectly fine. Throughout these years I’d continue to contemplate the idea of suicide and felt as if I had no one to turn to. I would never even entertain the thought of confiding in someone about how alone and depressed I felt. Asking for help just wasn’t the way things were done, in my experience.
My depression was increased when I left the 7 year emotionally abusive relationship I mentioned earlier. Guess what you cannot do when you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship? Have emotions! For years, I surrounded myself with yet another person who invalidated my emotional needs and feelings. Again, I was conditioned that my pain did not matter and was not important. During this time, my depression cloaked my entire life. Any shred of self-esteem was demolished and I felt more alone than ever, despite the support I had from my best friend and family. I was so alone and depressed that I went as far as to write a suicide note. I didn’t have a plan as to how or when; all I knew was that I could not feel that much pain anymore.
One day while talking to my mom on the phone, she mentioned that I should see a therapist to heal from all the abuse my ex put me through. That one suggestion was enough to make me tear up the suicide note I kept handy in case I finally found the courage and I made an appointment with a therapist for that week. Therapy is when I finally started talking about the depression that I had spent nearly my whole life trying to disguise as happiness. It did wonders for my mental health to hear my therapist validate all my experiences and provide a safe space for me to open up feelings and memories that had been sealed inside for so long. Since starting therapy, I have slowly worked on cultivating self-esteem, processing and working on my triggers and problematic habits, being vulnerable no matter how much it terrifies me, and overall learning how to love myself, depression and all.
I’m happy to say that my mom has come a long way in regards to understanding mental health. I no longer feel like I have to hide my feelings, although I sometimes still do out of habit. I am beyond lucky to have the most encouraging, empathetic, and kind-hearted boyfriend I could ask for who has shown me what genuine love is. I work in a mental health clinic and get to help those who are looking to start their therapeutic journey. I am writing a memoir about my experiences with depression and abuse and as someone who has spent most of her life hiding her feelings, it’s a huge challenge and blessing to finally be in a headspace where I want to open myself up to the world. I am not cured of my depression. I still struggle and things like medication and therapy help, but giving myself permission to be vulnerable and communicate my emotional needs has been one of the most beneficial coping mechanisms. I will likely be working through depression for years to come, but at least I know now that I am not alone in my experience and have people in my life that encourage and support my vulnerability.