3 Things I’d Like to Say to My 19-Yr Old Depressed Self
(Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Said Yes to Medication)
To my dear, gentle and ferocious 19 yr-old,
Here are some things I wish I could’ve told you just before you crumpled into that psychiatrist’s chair, desperate for help, answers and guidance 20 years ago:
1. You are not broken. You make sense, and you can trust your body as the ultimate authority on what is true for you.
Your body is speaking a language you may not understand yet, but what if you began to trust that it only speaks the truth? That your body is infinite and perfect in its wisdom?
Imagine yourself in a forest. You look up and see a tree that has an unusual shape. Does it occur to you that the tree is “weird” or sick? Do you say “that tree is clearly diseased, look: it’s leaning to the right for no apparent reason!”
Of course not. The tree has very good reason for shaping itself that way. Perhaps there wasn’t enough light or water, or the roots didn’t have enough space and needed to crawl around another tree to survive.
Your body is the same. There is something your body needs, and the signals it’s using which we call anxiety, or depression, or despair or exhaustion… these are symptoms of something that’s not quite right, but they are not disease in itself!
Your therapist, your friends or your family might try to coach you to ignore or re-frame certain emotions or critical thoughts, they might tell you those thoughts and feelings “aren’t helpful” or “aren’t real,” and they may coach you to use mindfulness to watch without judgement, knowing that those feelings and thoughts will pass.
They might tell you that certain unpleasant physical sensations (like the pitter-pattering of anxiety in your sternum, or the shortness of breath when you enter a room full of people,) are signs of a disease and can/should be ignored or silenced with medication.
I know you’re wanting answers, wanting to know why your body is reacting this way… but what would happen if you trusted that your body is an exquisite tuning fork that is the ultimate barometer of health for your organism? That is it infallible in its wisdom? That is it attempting to give you an important message?
Whatever you are feeling: there’s a good reason for it. Your body is reaching for health and wholeness all the time. You can trust that whatever’s there, is longing for your attention. It would love to be heard.
What would happen if you gently turned toward it with curiosity and warmth?
2. Grief is normal, and feeling it can help us connect to what we really love. If you’re feeling grief, there is a GOOD reason.
When you sat down in that therapist’s chair, I wonder if you would’ve loved to hear “Oh honey! you’re desperately and persistently sad? I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason for that sadness!”
Instead we have the DSM, a diagnostic dictionary that categorizes, quantifies, qualifies and medicalizes human experience. This mental health bible puts parameters around what is “too much” grief, what is “normal” grief versus “complicated” grief, and what grief should qualify as “major depression.”
(I could talk about the controversial removal of the bereavement clause in 2013, but that’s another story… or I could also talk about the fact that there is a lack of biological markers for the mental disorder labels the DSM catalogs. But that’s an even larger, other story.)
The gist is: someone else is in charge of determining what is “normal grief” for you, and what isn’t.
And those someones are part of a dominant culture (as we all are!) that has lost touch with the value of grief, a culture that avoids the depths of feeling, a culture that beholds our planet as a mechanical collection of disconnected parts, where the suffering of one living being is isolated and doesn’t directly affect the whole.
I would love to tell my 19 year old that she’s living in a culture that doesn’t make room for her (perfectly reasonable) sadness.
And I’d like to validate her sadness by shouting from the rooftop:
If you all don’t realize how much there is to grieve, if you don’t see that something is deeply amiss on our planet today, then you’re not fucking paying attention!
I could talk here about environmental collapse, destruction of indigenous cultures and traditions, the earth’s body being turned into products that are mostly wasted then buried in toxic waste dumps, social alienation, lack of meaning and purpose, domination and oppression, war… all the things that are less than life-serving. And so really, what kind of measure of health is it, to be well-adjusted in a profoundly sick society? (a la Krishnamurti)
Now — I get it: maybe you’re terrified, you’re so sad and defeated you can barely get out of bed.
Or perhaps you don’t sense that there’s a particular reason or easily identifiable incident that’s causing your sadness, and you feel concern that maybe something is really wrong…
If you have a sense that you’re “sad for no reason” I encourage you to broaden your perspective, and see that you have deep, profoundly meaningful reasons to grieve.
If you have a sense that it isn’t “normal” to be able to barely get out of bed, I encourage you to consider that perhaps part of you has a sense that the world, as it is now, is not worthy of your full participation.
And if you have a sense that medication is your only option to get back to life, I invite you to first learn about the risks and lack of scientific integrity in the research and reporting about the effectiveness of these drugs.
Now, you might think, “well what the fuck am I supposed to do, then? Something is wrong!”
Yes — something is wrong. And I’m encouraging you, before jumping to strategy, to slow down and reclaim your right to have all the feelings you’re feeling, and to know that your pain and capacity to feel is a sign of awakening.
3. Your exquisite sensitivity is not an accident, nor a liability. It is a gift. And we need your gifts now, more than ever.
Your tears, your rage, and your capacity to feel deeply is a gift. Your suffering is not in vain. You, deeply feeling one, help make it safe for other people to feel.
We know from the work of researcher Beatrice Beebe that we, as little humans, learn to restrict our emotional expression to be within the window of our primary care-giver’s window of tolerance.
And thus many of us have a MUCH GREATER potential to feel and grieve and rage than we learn to safely express.
And those feelings — that capacity to feel what is true — is what this world needs more than ever.
What would happen, do you think, if all humans learned to safely feel, honor and express our emotional landscape?
If we didn’t doubt our own feelings?
If we’d let our hearts ache?
If we leaned in to ask it what kind of world we’d love to live in, instead of this?
If we’d let ourselves rage?
If we honored the protective, life-serving energy of that anger that indicates the injustice of crossed boundaries, of homelessness, of black children criminalized for selling lemonade, or shot by police for simply existing?
So to my 19 year old, and any of you out there deeply feeling ones who’ve found yourselves medicalized for having access to your heart in ways that make other people uncomfortable, I say this:
Your time is coming. Your gifts are needed. You are not a mistake. And there is nothing wrong with you.
We need your sensitive and deeply feeling heart to take a stand!
For us. For our planet. For life. For the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
As the wonderful activist and ex-mental health patient Laura Delano writes, “it isn’t our suffering that needs dismantling — it’s the structures and systems and institutions that indoctrinate us into a sense of powerlessness and brokenness that do.”
Sadly, I didn’t receive any of these 3 empowering and hopeful messages. Instead, I went on psychotropic meds. For 15 years.
When I sat in that therapist’s chair at 19, I was given diagnosis #1 of many DSM labels I’d receive over the next 15 years: dysthymia [now known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD)].
I was told incontrovertibly and matter-of-factly that this was caused by a biochemical imbalance that required medication, and that I’d need to take it for the rest of my life.
I remember feeling relief and validation. Having an explanation provided me some sense of acknowledgement, and a sense that this disease wasn’t “my fault”.
And so, at 19, I allowed myself to be medicated.
Slowly at first, with one, then two SSRIs… but with each new medication came more side-effects and, over time, more diagnoses, and a more damning sense that I was broken and couldn’t trust myself.
Over time, I became really comfortable (in fact, dependent on) with this new identity: I would say to myself and others, valiantly: “I am VERY sick woman, struggling with a very real disease.”
By the time I was 30, I was barely recognizable… a stranger to myself, my family and friends. I’d gained over 75 pounds, received myriad additional diagnoses, and each day I’d swallow a toxic cocktail of 5 psychotropics prescribed to help me cope with the world and “my illness,” which was now bipolar II disorder.
I’d get enraged when family and friends shared their concerns for my well-being, their confusion over why I was taking so much medication, their relentless and useless reassurance that “there’s nothing wrong with you! You are a beautiful human being!”
If there’s nothing wrong, then why am I so exhausted? Why I am googling how to commit suicide? Why are my tear-ducts so sore? Why does joy and gratitude seem impossible? If I’m not sick, then what the fuck is going on?
I was relieved — unburdened, in a sense — by the “you’re sick b/c depression is a biochemical disorder in your brain” narrative.
Unfortunately, this narrative has some massive limitations.
If the thing that’s wrong is your brain, and then you get some meds that purportedly fix it, then if you’re still upset and unfulfilled, then maybe you’re just WRONG.
Slowly, as the pounds and diagnoses piled on, I lost my grip on reality and who I was in time and space, what my purpose was for being here on this earth. I lost touch with my authentic self, cut off completely from my inner authority and intuition.
My heart’s deepest longings that were underneath the symptoms of depression never had a chance to speak. Instead the medication buried them in a haze of zombie-like numbness. I’d go to work, come home, and do it again, feeling trapped in an endless loop of pointless existence, with a gnawing but vague sense that something wasn’t right…
In my experience, the cocktail of psychotropic medication turned a normal reaction to life into a chronic, medicated condition. I went on to gradually more and more drugs, and with it the exhaustion and the emotional lability did too, making it impossible to do all the things people tell you to do when you’re depressed (exercise, connecting with other humans, eating well, etc.)
It took about 6+ years to taper off the 5 psychotropics I was on for 15 years.
Today I’m medication-free and I’ve ditched the “mentally-ill” identity, including the urge to label or describe my feeling states in psychiatrist’s language.
I finally feeling like myself again, and I’m finding a ton of meaning and contribution helping others do the same.
I’m writing this article to offer a new narrative:
Your body is infinite and perfect in its wisdom, and all the feelings you’re feeling comprise a perfectly sane reaction to this world.
You are the canary in the coalmine. You are waking up, and it’s a fucking rough path, but you don’t have to do it alone. There are many of us, and we are coming. Our time is coming.
Believing we are perfect is a radical act, and together we can take radical acts to transform this world into one that is reflective of the values our hearts long for.