I Left My Cushy Job to Study Depression. Here’s What I Learned.
The self-loathing that often strikes in adolescence can fuel our inner critics
“You are 25 and already running your own business. Do you know how many people twice your age wish they could say that?”
My friend, a producer at the BBC, is baffled. I’ve just told her about my depression and how it’s only been getting worse since I co-founded a startup company two years earlier. She’s having none of it. In her mind, I’m living the life, and she’s stuck working for the man. I want to tell her that I’m drowning and losing it, fast. But she has that look on her face—one of genuine bewilderment on the cusp of spilling into mild reproach—and I know what’s coming. I’ve heard a version of it one too many times over the past months: You’ll snap out of it, hon. Just think positive! Look on the bright side! Be grateful!
But I don’t snap out of it. Depression and I go a long way back. I’ve denied, ignored, and stuffed it down for years. I’ve fought it and fled it, and when nothing worked, I walked for 500 miles across Spain, twice, in a desperate attempt to exorcise it. All in vain.
One thing I learned was that even at our most fragile, we are more resilient than we imagine ourselves to be.
This time, I decided to leave my company and spend the rest of the year talking to artists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, clinicians, teens, video game players—anyone I could track down who’s been touched by depression and was willing to open up about it. I wanted to find out why people break down and how they mend.
I was blown away by the response to my impromptu research. People opened up to me, a perfect stranger, and shared stories of loss and suffering but also of mettle and joy and overcoming. One thing I learned was that even at our most fragile, we are more resilient than we imagine ourselves to be. We hold on, we change, we heal.
Another unexpected thing that emerged from all those eclectic conversations was that I began to rethink my own relationship with depression. Some of the most complex, interesting, intelligent, creative, wonderfully twisted, and utterly original people I met have been (or still are) depressed. It’s almost as if the very extremity of their suffering allows them to tap into the deepest depths of their being, making them more indomitably alive.
A few months into my research, I went to a reading of Reasons to Stay Alive, a very personal account of battling depression by British author Matt Haig. Haig is soft-spoken and somewhat shy—or rather, I suspect, watchful of his words as a conduit of the universal and a mirror to the granular, the deeply personal. In lieu of answers to depression, Haig offered up new vantage points, but it was something he said in passing that froze me in my seat. He said that of all the fan letters he received after his book came out, most were from 13-year-olds.
I didn’t even know 13-year-olds still read anything beyond sultry, vampire-filled sagas. And even then, Reasons to Stay Alive? At 13? As people milled about the auditorium scrambling to get their paperback copies of the book signed, I sat stricken, an uncomfortable awareness taking shape inside me.
I could have brushed it off. Adolescents are not depressed; they are difficult. They are impulsive, immature, moody, overly sensitive, and horridly unfathomable. Ballistic, then mute. Suffering romantics and rebellious savages. It’s terrible, sure, but it’s the teens. The hormones eventually settle, and the madness mellows into maturity.
I also knew from the research volumes I’d ingested over the past months and the experts I’d interviewed on mental health that teens didn’t quite fit the most at-risk demographic. I knew it was the twenties and thirties that carried the brunt of depression, and—save for the occasional school shooting that drew attention to them—the inner lives of 13-year-olds didn’t make the cut as something to be probed into.
But I did not brush off Haig’s words as a false positive. My own research was leading me to a similarly disturbing pattern. Ever since I started collecting stories of depression and its overcoming, I’ve dived into therapy, science, and personal accounts. I’ve talked to people from all walks of life, and what struck me about their stories was that despite their individual differences, a common thread often ran under the surface.
When I asked them about the moment things began to crack, many interviewees pointed to their teen years—the pre-, early, and mid-teens. Back then, they didn’t recognize depression as such, not in the clinical sense at least. This awareness came later. Squinting into the past, they struggled to find the words, to capture into an intelligible way the what, the how, and the why of their unravelling. It wasn’t easy to reach into the raw emotion and try to make sense of the thoughts and feelings and stuff filed away in memory that are often concealed from conscious awareness.
Down to the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
Still, I kept probing into these memories—partly out of the mulish curiosity I’m known for but also because I could see something taking shape, a seedling of a clue. As people verbalized their experiences, reaching for a metaphor where words alone fell short, a phrase began to emerge that seemed to tie together their reflections: Down to the bone, depression sounded like a loss of innocence.
It’s innocence in the sense of that unselfconscious existence that kids have about them, the way they inhabit their skins so effortlessly and innately trust that all is well just as it is. The loss of that innocence, I think, is not so much about growing up as it is about losing our sense of innate worthiness. It’s about experiencing what researcher Brené Brown identifies as shame, the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Indeed, this sense of unworthiness and loss of innocence permeated my encounters. I found that once you peel back the symptomatic layers of mental illness—the lack of energy, the inability to feel pleasure, the loss of purpose, the gnawing anxiety, and the isolation—you strike shame. Not in the Freudian sense of perverted desires, base impulses, Oedipus complexes, and such. It’s shame as self-loathing and the voice of the inner critic who whispers, “You don’t measure up, you don’t deserve, you don’t belong, you don’t matter.” With shame, we are at fault by default because of who we are deep down when no one’s looking. It’s what fuels depression even when we are not supposed to be depressed, even when ours is the proverbial white-picket-fence life.
The inner critic sounds like the truth or else feels inevitable, immutable, and ingrained in our personality. But it’s not.
Shame grows in the teen years and sometimes earlier. Therapy rooms are filled with people who have, on the surface, made it and yet still feel like the weird kid inside, the black sheep, or the child who always fell short and always will. We all know that inner critic, but some of us—artists, entrepreneurs, and depressives—know that voice more intimately than others. We walk around with it on a loudspeaker. Brené Brown calls it “the gremlins”; Arianna Huffington dubs it “the obnoxious roommate.” Mine is “the editor.” I can always hear “the editor” in the back of my mind, muttering and making corrections to things I say, scratching out whole scenes of my life and rewriting them the way they could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve gone if only I weren’t the dismal failure that I am.
The inner critic sounds like the truth or else feels inevitable, immutable, and ingrained in our personality. But it’s not. Instead, it often is the judgment of others, real or imagined, that we internalized at one point when our identity was still fragile and taking shape. And then, we fell from grace. This judgment may not have been anything objectively traumatic. A passing comment, a certain stare, or a mere hint of a criticism is often enough for shame to tack itself onto our sense of worth and, like a parasite, slowly starve it off.
We lose our innocence, too, when certain grounding beliefs we hold about life and ourselves are called into question. A parent leaves, and the sanctity of family is shattered. It can feel like we’ve lost our orienting principle, our anchor and safe harbor. If home is no longer that sacred place we could always go back to, then what is? Were we ever loved at all? Can we trust again? Our utter vulnerability often hardens us to the world.
And if life alone isn’t enough, there’s school. Zipped into uniforms, praised for knowing, and punished for messing around, we armor up against play, curiosity, and imagination. Whatever wide-eyed wonder we had at the world is drummed out of us so we can be molded into an ideal social unit.
Incidentally, many of my interviewees who battle depression were bad students. They were bored, and someone—a teacher or counselor maybe—told them they had motivation issues or learning difficulties or ADD. Or, to take the political correctness out of it, that they were stupid, lazy, and undisciplined. They skipped classes and spent their days playing video games. Why? “To be any place other than here,” one person told me.
What I’m saying might not particularly seem like a revelation. Surely childhood and adolescence play a key role in becoming depressed. Therapy is predicated on all the various neuroses our parents conferred upon us and the ways these creep up through the subconscious to haunt us later in life. But the spotlight is on the obvious suspects—the family secrets, the disgraces swept under the rug, the shouting matches, the abusive uncle, or the drinking mother—and then we lump these in with genetics, brain dysfunction, and whatnot to construct an elaborate theory of mental illness.
Without trying to trivialize depression, I think we are too quick to apply pathology to something that is, at its core, deeply human. I think we won’t find depression in the brain so much as in the fuzzy ground of being alive, in the relationship between ourselves and others and the big wide world. And, perhaps, instead of medicating misery with more and better drugs, we could listen to the shame tapes that we—as a society, as parents, and as teachers—put on for kids. Perhaps we could help them reclaim their innocence.
If I’ve learned anything from the people who have come out the other end of depression, it’s that there’s no magic pill, mindful pose, or therapy practice that cures all. These might help, but the real key is simple and unsexy yet hard to obtain and to own: the realization that we are enough already. That we are not different, weird, broken, damaged, fucked up, faulty, guilty, unloved, or unlovable but worthy in our imperfection, strong in our vulnerability, brave in our fear, good, capable, unique, wonderful, and fumbling around to find who we really are. Just like everyone else.