“Yeah but you’re okay” — on depression, stigma and learning to listen to yourself
TW and CW: self-harm, depression, suicidal ideation
I sat on the edge of my bed, one parent on either side of me. I stared down at the colorful balloons of my bedspread sheet, the same ones that dotted the canopy above our heads. I thought about how small I seemed, how small the bed looked as the three of us tried to get comfortable on it. My parents stared back at me and I couldn’t think of an answer for them. The words felt like the balloons on the bedspread, floating around me but somehow always out of my grasp.
“I just don’t feel good,” I finally say.
“I’ll take you to the library,” my dad offers. “Or to the park. Tomorrow. Whatever you want to do.”
Yes, maybe a change of scene is what I need. I don’t tell them about how I often splay myself out on the floor of my room, gazing at the underside of my bed not really thinking about anything. It’s summer and I always hate summer break because I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel lost, aimless, confused about how to pass the time without the structure of school.
No external signs that something was really wrong. Just that maybe I was a moody kid, maybe I needed to get out more.
Elementary school ends and middle school starts. My dad passes away while I’m in 7th grade.
Now there’s a more obvious answer — she’s not doing well because her dad is gone. My teachers approach me at school to talk; we stand outside the classroom and I feel so small. So separated from my classmates, who are probably whispering about what is happening outside.
“How are you? Please let me know if you need anything. I am here for you,” my teacher says.
I don’t know what to tell him. How am I? What does he think?
School feels so pointless and distant all of the sudden, and I don’t think any of my classmates will understand what I just went through. The last thing I want to do is talk to an adult about it. Words fail me again but this time I get angry, I get rebellious, I get dark.
“Maybe I need to look elsewhere,” I think, so I join chat rooms and try to strike friendships with strangers. I ask one girl “is your username based on the Rob Zombie song? ‘Living Dead Girl?’” She says yes and I think maybe she might understand, she might know what it’s like to feel alive yet dead.
Depression starts to rear its head more aggressively, starts to see what else it can take. I engage in self harm for the first and last time, cornered by both my therapist and mom about why I did it. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t like my therapist, don’t appreciate the way she seems to always be laughing behind her eyes even as she speaks to me. Don’t like the way she cuts us off when the time is up, when my mom is in the middle of crying.
I eventually find therapists who seem more understanding, who don’t talk down to me. But it takes time.
I sit in my counselor’s office and sink into her couch, and it’s warm, and the white noise of the little machines near the door soothes me. I tell her about my fears—that I won’t do well enough in school, that I can’t help my mom with paying the house, that I can’t seem to resolve the family conflicts we have, that I can’t seem to comfort the boyfriend that needs so much from me, that I can’t seem to make my writing good enough.
“That’s a lot,” she says. “You are dealing with a lot!”
Her brow is furrowed when she says it and it feels genuine and I don’t feel small.
Years later, I look back at the girl on her bed that summer and I tell her something I never did: you weren’t okay. You were starting to see the signs of depression. It was not what you thought of as depression—not the stereotypes propagated by people who didn’t know what it was like. You thought, that’s not me, I’m not hurting myself, I’m not constantly crying. But the pain sometimes makes us hollow, sometimes there are no tears. Sometimes there are no words to articulate it. You can still laugh, you can still love, but you can still hurt at the same time.
When I finally start taking medication for my depression and anxiety, the psychologist remarks “I’m surprised you haven’t been on medication before.”
I don’t blame anyone, not even myself, for not seeing the signs sooner. But there’s a toxic cycle in the way that stigmas get spread. When I tell someone close to me that I am about to start medication, they respond “Well what are you FEELING, really? Why don’t you just try yoga?”
It often feels like comparisons are made, comparisons that undermine my own experience. My story doesn’t tick off all the boxes. There are markers: it’s not like you’ve tried to kill yourself, it’s not like you can’t leave the house, it’s not like you shut everyone out. I know a friend, she can’t even function really.
Something doesn’t feel right, I tell them. Yeah, but you’re okay, their words seem to say.
There are steps before you get prescribed medication. I answer questions about how I feel, decide whether or not I want to reach into the part of my brain where it gets dark and pull out the thoughts that crowd my mind. Have you been feeling suicidal lately? one question says. I decide to share one image: the one where I am riding in an Uber on the freeway and I wonder what it would feel like to throw myself out of the moving car. I think about the steps: about if I can unlock the door sneakily enough, how wide I would have to open it, how quickly it would all happen.
“I don’t think my depression is that bad,” I tell the woman at the doctor’s office. “It’s so much better than before.”
“You were thinking of throwing yourself out of a moving car, and you think you have your depression handled?”
I stay quiet as the thoughts crowd my mind: but I didn’t do it, but there are people who have thought and done worse, but people would think I was ridiculous for even considering it because it’s not like my life is as bad as theirs.
I realize, then, that my whole life I was waiting for someone else to tell me that my thoughts were valid and that my mind was working against me. For someone else to be clear about it: yes, you are depressed. No, it’s not something to be taken lightly.
We don’t get to tell other people what they’re feeling, we don’t have permission to interpret what’s wrong. We can be there for them, we can listen. But we don’t have the right to tell them that their pain isn’t enough.
On dark days, I admit to myself that I’m going to have to fight my own mind. I put it into words: I’m not okay. I tell myself that it’s enough to make that statement and then to see what I can do: I write, I distract myself, I meditate, I talk to a friend, I do anything but let it win.
I convince myself to leave the house, to put headphones in and get on the bus and look out the window and remind myself that the ache in my chest is something I’m familiar with and it will go away. I get off the bus and I walk, tell myself I’ve made it this far and that I will keep on going.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and…suicidepreventionlifeline.org