I was an extremely happy child growing up. My mom likes to comment that I was “the happiest kid in our building,” despite my dad walking out on us when I was only five, leaving her to raise my brother and me alone on a part-time teacher’s salary. I guess the beachside condo and sleepy town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina proved to be more suitable for my dad than the family he left behind in D.C. But despite this truth, I somehow managed to remain oblivious to the unjust hand the universe dealt me and continued playing with my Super Jennie Gymnast doll or whatever toy a 5-year-old was obsessed with in 1995. However, somewhere along my path down adolescence, that nonchalant joviality began to waver, and something altogether foreign began to take place.
I’m not exactly certain when this change occurred. It wasn’t as if I could pinpoint a specific moment, as if it were a recognizable scene straight out of one of my many favorite films. I just remember one day I was happy and the next, I was extremely sad.
That’s the funny thing about depression. It gives you no warning to prepare. It creeps up on you, like that annoying relative who shows up one day at your doorstep; unannounced and uninvited.
It started with me missing days of school, pretending to be sick. I would sleep the majority of the day, despite getting a significant eight hours the night before. Then came the anxiety, excessive irritability and panic attacks, followed by the dissipation of my once trucker-like appetite. Even the mention of an M&M McFlurry (once an essential in my teenage diet) couldn’t prompt a smile on my face. Activities which once excited me began leaving a bland taste in my mouth, and an unexplained melancholy began to take over, suffocating me in its wake.
I felt lost and confused, unable to understand the reason for my newfound behavior. However, I became a great actress, harnessing my craft to convince everyone around me I was fine. I became incredibly skilled at hiding my disorder, continuing to play the role of the “outgoing” and “upbeat” fifteen-year-old everyone presumed I was.
To everyone close to me, I was the life of the party, but underneath my incandescent exterior lied something my family and friends were completely ignorant to. So I continued suffering in silence, until the weight of my secret became too heavy a burden for my teenage self to carry.
Each day felt like a perpetual struggle. Some days I could manage. Then there were the days which felt prolonged, as if I would never make it to the finish line. Those days were the most challenging. I began smoking weed to mask my discomfort, and when that high didn’t prove satisfactory, turned to my moms’ prescription cabinet for something stronger. That was, until she caught me sneaking into her bathroom one day and became suspicious.
“Sandra, what are you doing?” she exclaimed, glaring at me from the doorway of her bathroom. Crap. I remember thinking. How the hell am I going to explain this? So, I went with the first excuse that popped into my head.
“Um, I was looking for the ibuprofen,” I lied. “I have really bad cramps.”
Ladies, when in doubt, blame every situation on your reproductive health. Works every time.
My mom squinted. She took one look at me, then turned her attention to the bottle of Oxycodone tightly clenched in my right hand.
“Oh?” she said.
I knew she wasn’t buying it. My mom could smell bullshit a mile away.
In hindsight, I probably could’ve produced a better excuse, but when it came to lying to my mom, my track record wasn’t the best. She saw right through me. Perhaps it was for the best, because what followed was a long discussion, which ended in me breaking down on her bathroom floor, accompanied by an impromptu trip to the shrink the next day. I remember that day vividly, as though it happened yesterday.
It wasn’t my first experience with therapy. In fact, therapy and me go way back. I was seven the first time my mom took me to see a child psychologist, an idea my babysitter suggested after catching me playing with my Barbies in a “suggestive manner.” Yup, I was the kid who undressed both Barbie and Ken, forcing them to reenact the “car scene” from Titanic. A movie I was too young to view but one my brother and me snuck into regardless.
How were we supposed to know Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet would somehow find time to get naked in a Rolls Royce amidst the sinking of history’s largest cruise ship?
Nevertheless, I remember having to answer questions like “Is everything alright at home?” or my personal favorite, “Is someone touching you inappropriately?”
“Well, my brother pinches me sometimes,” I said nonchalantly as I continued playing with the dollhouse in her rainbow-hued office.
This time around there was no dollhouse for me to play with and the walls belonging to my newly-assigned therapist remained a lackluster hue of grey instead of a lively spectrum of colors. I remember sitting on the uncomfortable leather couch, desperately attempting to avoid eye contact with the middle-aged woman sitting across from me. Instead, I averted my eyes to the numerous credentials which decorated the colorless walls above her desk, while simultaneously pulling at a piece of thread on my sweater.
“So your mother tells me you’ve been having a difficult time lately,” she stated. “Care to share?”
“No,” I responded dryly.
“Alright, we don’t have to talk about that now,” she smiled and quickly jotted something down in the notebook resting in her lap.
She wore black wide-framed reading glasses and drank her coffee out of a Wonder Woman mug. At the time, I remember thinking to myself how she slightly resembled Miranda Precisely from The Devil Wears Prada. I recall mentioning this to her at some point throughout our many sessions together, to which she replied with a lighthearted laugh.
I didn’t say much in the beginning. Perhaps I wasn’t comfortable or maybe I just didn’t know what to say. But she never pushed. Instead we discussed the things which interest me. I told her about my affinity for Fleetwood Mac and John Hughes and she told me about her two children and golden retriever, Bailey. I now realize this was a technique used to propel me to open up. Gain my trust in hopes I would eventually disclose my secrets. But I didn’t care. The longer we spent avoiding the oversized, pink elephant in the room, the better.
“Do you have any pets?” she once asked.
“I used to have a cat,” I replied somberly. “…but she died.”
My therapist later suggested it might be a good idea for me to own a pet. Something to distract me from the persistent hum of my depression I suppose.
“Something small,” she recommended. “Maybe a goldfish or hamster.”
As if owning a fish or tiny rodent would majestically make me feel better. But nevertheless, my mom took me to Petco the following weekend. We strolled the many aisles belonging to the iconic pet store until we arrived at the hamsters.
“I want that one,” I pointed to an orange fur ball, resting in a glass box containing other hamsters alike. However, this one was different from the rest. Curled in a corner, this hamster remained distant from its’ rodent counterparts, oblivious to the others wriggling around him. Was it sad too or merely exhausted from the considerable duties which came with being a hamster? Who could say for certain. Either way, the tiny fur ball came home with us that day (who I later named Hammy), along with a cartful of numerous accessories to keep him preoccupied.
It was raining heavily the day I finally decided to open up to my therapist. I remember this because my mom and I were twenty minutes late for my appointment on account of traffic.
“What would you like to talk about today, Sandra?” Miranda Precisely asked, completely unfazed by my tardiness.
“I would like to talk about why I’m really here,” I steadily stated.
“Okay,” she crossed her legs. “Why do you think you’re here?”
I paused, taking a deep breath before continuing.
“…because I’m sad and I don’t how to fix it.”
There it was. A secret I desperately attempted to conceal, finally out in the open for all to dissect. It only took five months into therapy. Looking back on it now, I can’t fathom the reason for suppressing my disorder for so long. I often think harboring the secret was the most difficult part of the entire ordeal. The amount of energy I spent trying to pretend everything was normal was what tired me the most.
It was as if I was living two, separate lives, urgently attempting to keep both from colliding. But the amount of relief I experienced once I came clean, was unparalleled to any I ever experienced before. It was as if I had been stripped bare; unclothed and vulnerable to the elements surrounding me.
But although this was immense progress, it would take an additional two years for me to feel like myself again. A period of time which featured an array of different medications and outpatient facilities, including a program which combined therapy and school which I enrolled into shortly after my breakthrough session with my therapist. It was there I met an English teacher who not only gifted me with my first journal, but who also ignited my passion for writing .
“Use this as method to channel your thoughts and emotions” she told me, referring to the black and white composition notebook in her hand.
And so I did.
Each moment I felt lost or confused, I would it write it down. This became a coping mechanism for me which eventually transcended into a career. Once I started, I was unable to stop. Writing became my source of solace, comforting me in moments of uncertainty. Whatever happened from that moment on, I knew I would always have my writing to rely on. Finally, I had something to be excited about again.
As time gradually began to pass, the more I began to recognize my reflection in the mirror. She resembled someone I use I know, but different somehow. I can’t help but refer to a quote from Great Expectations which continues to resonate with me to this very day. It’s something Estella says to Pip when they’ve reunited after so many years of being apart.
“…now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
My journey wasn’t easy. It was dark and treacherous, complete with hilly terrain and many winding roads. But eventually, I made it to my destination in one piece. There are still days when I feel as if the world is closing in on me, but I forcefully push through them with a newfound resilience that I’ve worked immensely hard to cultivate throughout the years. My battle scars are worn with pride, like beautiful pieces of jewelry that accentuate my outfit. I surround myself with individuals who love and support me, and I take each day as it comes. When it’s all said and done, that’s the most any of us can strive for.