This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Johanna and her struggles with depression. Johanna is not alone – it’s estimated that 1 in 20 Americans struggle with depression.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a 20-year-old student in Minneapolis, Minnesota, currently taking time off from school to pursue apathy and internet browsing: occasionally I take the bus to Walgreens and buy bite-sized Snickers, because I know how to have fun. I plan to go back next semester very tentatively to pursue a degree Gender Studies and English, and hope to become a writer or a yoga teacher, though I have never actually done yoga. I just really like the outfits.
What does depression feel like for you?
Depression is consuming. After struggling with various degrees of it for over seven years, I feel like that’s the best way to describe the effects. I have spent a lot of time so caught up in depression that I’ve been unable to really enjoy life, and, without admitting and working on it, I’ve allowed it to slowly take over every facet of my personality. It feels strange, and suffocating, and lonely, and frustrating as hell.
What are the biggest misconceptions about people who have depression?
There are a few. However, the most prevalent is definitely the assumption that depression, though hurtful, is not a medical condition. This is an issue with most mental disorders, actually – the idea that depression is controlled merely by the person experiencing it. This can make those who suffer from it feel as though it’s somehow their fault and it creates a lot of guilt and embarrassment, which keeps people from ever seeking help. I know that I avoided admitting to myself and others that I was depressed because I thought it was a personal weakness rather than a medical condition.
Another misconception about depression is that there’s only one way to experience it. Depression comes in so many forms, and acknowledging that everyone feels the effects differently is really important. There’s so much stigma surrounding depression and so many images of what the media tells you it should be like that it can often feel as if you’re “doing it wrong,” but the fact is there’s no “right way” to be depressed. If the feelings you have are affecting you negatively, it’s an issue. It’s that simple.
When did you first realize that you were struggling with depression – rather than just “going through a rough patch” or “feeling down”?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s really hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment I realized I was depressed. I also struggle with an eating disorder and social anxiety, and because the three work off one another so much it’s been really hard for me to separate when one ends and the other begins.
I’ve always felt different from other people—I’ve struggled with this strange, indescribable sense of unhappiness since I was a small child, and have always been confused as to how other people seemed to be able to live with such ease, but I suppose it really started taking over in tenth grade. After the loss of a group of friends and the subsequent Mean Girl behavior, I began having uncontrollable episodes of crying and anxiety. I stopped hanging out with the friends I did have, and completely closed myself off from the outside world. My only emotion was sadness, and it was relentless. (This was also when I started trying to control my emotions with food and compulsively overeating, which eventually, during my first year of college, developed into bulimia and anorexia.)
Basically, when I started look like the above picture, every day, I knew I had a problem.
How has depression affected your life?
Depression has prevented me from experiencing so many beautiful and wonderful things. When I think about the past five years of my life, I can only remember a few times in which I felt happy and free and that makes me so angry. I wasted most of high school crying or sleeping alone in my room. I have very few close relationships and am acutely aware of the ways in which I have failed as a “normal” person, though I am beginning to realize that there is no such thing as normal. I missed out on a lot of important moments in my life because my identity was so wrapped up in this disease, and it’s created a lot of regret. My eating disorder is also directly related to my depression and that has caused its own host of problems including my leave of absence from college. I’ve also made a lot of bad decisions physically, emotionally and sexually because of it—all of which still impact my life in recovery.
Is there anything specific that triggers your depression?
My fear of social situations is definitely the largest trigger for my depression. Feeling unwanted or disliked is terrifying for me, and receiving any sort of indication that I’m “unworthy” of loving relationships – whether familial, friendship or romantic – can send me into a depressive state. It’s a vicious cycle, because my depression keeps me from making those essential connections, and then not having those connections makes me even more depressed and unlikely to create them. Food and feeling unattractive is also a very large trigger for me and has been the cause of the majority of my issues with self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
How do you treat your depression?
This is something I’m still trying to figure out. In September of last year I started attending a treatment program for my eating disorder, after taking a leave of absence from college. While I was in treatment, I was tentatively diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began therapy and medication. For a while, it was immensely helpful, though day-to-day life was still a struggle. Later, I dropped out my treatment program and stopped taking my medication or visiting a therapist. I plan to begin seeing a new psychologist sometime soon and am beginning my medication (a generic version of Prozac) again. Having this time without any professional help made me realize just how much I really need it.
But besides the obvious (and medical) ways to treat my depression, I’ve been trying to fight it myself. Though I have to reiterate that no one can overcome depression on their own, taking small steps to challenge the thoughts and feelings that come with it can be life-changing. I’ve begun branching out socially and trusting other people: being open with others about my struggle has been one of the most important components to overcoming depression. Meeting and connecting with other people who have told me their own stories of depression has kept me from feeling alone and reminded me that I have a support network that cares about me and my success. It’s also been really important for me to remind myself that this isn’t going to go away immediately. I’m still going to feel sad, without hope, lonely. But those feelings are okay. I need to keep fighting.
When you’re depressed, what can your friend or family do to help?
Be there. I know it sound easy, but that’s all. The specific needs of someone with depression will change frequently, but they will always need someone to support them unconditionally. Without the reinforcement I’ve received from my friends, family and boyfriend over the past eight months, I am fairly sure I wouldn’t be here. The power of friendship, love and encouragement goes a long, long way.
What advice would you give to others who are struggling with depression?
Tell someone. Depression feeds off secrecy and shame, so openly discussing your issues is a great first step to overcoming it. And besides all of the regular advice (like therapy, which is essential), just remember that you are so much more than your depression. Acknowledge it and seek help, but most importantly rediscover the parts of you that were lost and become the person you want to be. There are going to be times when you abandon recovery. There are going to be days when nothing feels right. There are going to moments in which you believe you will never get better. But remain hopeful. Come back, rise up, and take what you deserve.
Have you (or anyone you know) ever struggled with depression? How do you deal with it? Any questions for Johanna?
photo by Andrea Rose // cc