Opening up about my experiences with clinical depression has always been a challenge for me, especially because I didn't think anyone would believe me. "Your life is so perfect" is a phrase I heard often in middle school and high school, and it was a phrase I began to hate. For a long time, I didn't know I had clinical depression and would brush off any feelings or symptoms as me being dramatic or overemotional, despite the fact that I've always been a levelheaded person. But whenever I did mention a symptom or unhealthy behavior I was experiencing to a friend, it was often ignored or would completely fly over their heads. It felt like they were oblivious to the fact that what I was trying to tell them was a warning sign.
My first experience with depression was when I was 12. I remember being in a constant state of gloom throughout seventh grade. It felt like I had unknowingly been cast into the role of the infamous Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore — like I always had a cloud above my head. I became withdrawn, would get irritated at friends, and closed myself off to loved ones. At the time, I didn't know what was happening, and eventually, the sadness and pain subsided and I convinced myself I was being dramatic.
Then, in high school, the symptoms started again. I always felt alone and isolated, despite being surrounded by friends and being involved with a plethora of extracurriculars. The pain was always with me, and it was suffocating. So to distract myself from it, I created my own pain — I started to self-harm and threw myself into unhealthy lifestyle habits. I became so obsessed with working out, I'd push myself to breaking points, where even if I was in pain, I wouldn't stop. But eventually, things got better, and I wasn't sad anymore. I told myself I had imagined it all and was just being sensitive.
My worst experience with depression was in the midst of my sophomore year of college. I was going through some personal changes at the time, and something inside me snapped. I couldn't focus on anything, and I didn't want to — I had lost all interest in my schoolwork and my future. I would wake up in the mornings and immediately become so overwhelmed, I'd start crying. I didn't want to be awake, so I would have to fight myself for an hour every morning trying to convince myself to get out of bed. I'd go to my classes in a daze, just waiting until I could get back to my room so I could fall to pieces on my tile floor. One day, I had a panic attack in my bathroom and ran into one of the stalls so my roommates wouldn't see me. I was sitting there, rocking back and forth, whispering to myself, "I can't do this. If something goes wrong today, I won't be able to handle it." As someone who considers themselves to have a relatively high pain tolerance, I can honestly say I'd never been in more pain in my entire life than that year. It was truly indescribable, and looking back now, I can see that I was on a road toward suicide. At the time, I remember wondering why no one was asking me if I was OK. I was going through my own personal hell, and I wasn't sure how much more of it I could take.
Living with undiagnosed clinical depression for so long helped me realize that mental health struggles look different for everyone.
When I was going through all this in college, I was an RA. Part of our job as RAs included a week-long training session where we learned basic job responsibilities and procedures and were trained to deal with situations we might encounter on the job — like suicide prevention. During the suicide-prevention part of our RA training, employees from our university's counseling center came and talked to us about the warning signs of depression and suicide. We participated in training exercises where we'd pretend to be talking to someone who was depressed and thinking about harming themselves. In an effort to calm our nerves, our bosses told us the same thing over and over again that day: "These situations are very rare; it's not something you need to worry about. It'll most likely never happen to you." They told us they just wanted us to be able to recognize the signs of depression and self-harm so we could be there for our residents in case they were ever suffering. I had been suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression for eight years, and no one ever saw my signs.
My RA staff and I had weekly team meetings, would get dinner together at the dining hall, and would go to events together around campus. I had meetings with my boss to give updates on my job and my life. My friends and I would see each other throughout the week. We'd go to workout classes and study together at coffee shops. I was involved in a number of clubs on campus and was working at my first internship. I was going to all my classes, turning in assignments on time, and balancing all my extracurriculars. No one saw my signs because everything seemed fine on the outside.
Luckily, I was finally able to recognize that I was not OK and needed serious help. I found the courage to speak to someone I trusted about it, and they encouraged me to go to counseling, where I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety. It was a relief to know I hadn't made up the pain I had lived with for the last eight years of my life. After I was diagnosed, I started opening up to my friends in an effort to explain what I had been going through. What I was met with was surprising. My friends still had a lot of confusion and doubt — many of them questioned my diagnosis, in disbelief that I had been suffering for so long unbeknown to them.
Living with undiagnosed clinical depression for so long helped me realize that mental health struggles look different for everyone. I was healthy, successful, and social. I was among a group of well-trained and empathetic people and friends I had known for years, but no one could tell that I was in an incredibly dark place and going down a potentially fatal path. The stereotypical picture we paint of people with depression is not only incredibly inaccurate but dangerous as well. There is no rulebook for how someone has to act when they are depressed, or what they should look like, or even what has to be happening in their lives. While I have spent the last couple of years healing and learning how to manage my clinical depression through therapy and healthy habits, I know it is something I will always have to work on to conquer — no matter what I have accomplished or what I still plan to achieve.
If you or a loved one are in need of any help, the National Suicide Prevention organization has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.