I cannot tell her story, but she can. This week, Anna Jane and I sat down for a very formal interview (in our PJs) and talked about the last two months. Here are her words:
LH: If you could tell people one thing about what it is like to be depressed, what would you say?
AJ: I am not contagious.
LH: When you talk about having a lack of energy, what is that like?
AJ: It feels like I haven’t slept in 4 months. Your body hurts. It is like I have the flu. I can’t do the things that I want to do. I can’t read, I can’t even enjoy a good binge of Netflix. I don’t want to go to concerts – which is saying a lot.
LH: What’s the difference, in your experience, with depression vs. anxiety?
AJ: Depression is BLEH. Depression is being trapped in a dark room without having a light switch to turn on. It is like not even having a flashlight. Anxiety is a sense of constant fear. It is like being scared of the darkness that is your life. With anxiety, you have no control of your thoughts or physical movements. For more than a month, I was a zombie. I am just now to the point that I understand what is going on in my own body.
LH: What made it so hard to go to school?
AJ: I was scared to have a panic attack in front of people. You feel like you are dying. And when you worry about having a panic attack it only makes the panic attacks worse. It is a never ending spiral of thoughts…like my shower thoughts.
LH: Describe what shower thoughts are.
AJ: They are the random things that I think about when it is finally quiet. Some are not bad thoughts, but they begin to inhabit all of my thinking. Like ‘why does soap make you clean?’ That question got stuck in my brain and I spent the rest of the shower worried if I should just not use soap and just stay dirty.
LH: Even as we are talking, you are saying this with a smile on your face half laughing. So, if someone were to see you in Target, is your smile fake?
AJ: Yeah. I can put on a pretty face.
LH: Why do you feel like you have to put on a pretty face?
AJ: I just don’t want people look at me funny. It adds to the anxiety. The questions, the random comments…
LH: What’s the weirdest comment that you have heard?
AJ: I was told repeatedly that I was so stressed and I wanted to say, “NO, I am depressed and extremely anxious – which is a medical condition – but thank you for your insight.”
LH: So what is the most helpful thing people can do for someone that has depression and anxiety.
AJ: Don’t change how you act around them. I feel like everyone thinks that I am so fragile. I may cry, but it is not because of anything you did. Plus, don’t be afraid to talk about my Prozac, because it is saving lives. That’s the stigma we need to be talking about.
LH: What have you learned about medication as it relates to antidepressants?
AJ: It does not change you as a person. I am trying to return to my normal brain chemistry. It takes a really long time to find the right balance. It is not a quick fix. It can takes months. But once you figure it out, it is life saving. The panic attacks are what motivated me to want to take medicine. I might have been able to power through the depression, but you can’t hide a panic attack. When one sets in, I literally stand in the middle of the room and lose my shit. During the most severe attack, I was shaking uncontrollably. I felt like my knees were going to give out and I could not breathe. My teeth were chattering and I was sobbing uncontrollably.
LH: Is saying out loud that you are sick hard?
AJ: It’s hard to explain to people that don’t understand it. People can have nervous habits and assume that is the same as an anxiety. That is not what a serious anxiety disorder is like.
LH: How do you think that God is going to use this in your life?
AJ: Well, I am thankful that this happened in 10th grade and I can learn how to handle it, so HELLO DUKE. I won’t have to come home from college.
(this would be when I fell off the chair laughing…she has not lost her wit)
Now, I have a greater understanding of not just depression, but deep hopelessness. I think this will be a connecting point with people. And even as common as it is, it is still taboo to talk about it in our society.
LH: How do we start to break the shame cycle associated with mental health disorders?
AJ: In teenagers, I think it starts with parents. Parents don’t talk to their kids about it. And if you don’t acknowledge that you have an issue or your grandma has an issue or your best friend has an issue, people are not willing to reach out. It’s seen as shameful. For me, it was a little easier because you and dad have always been upfront about our family history.
LH: So send us out with one final message. What does the world need to know about anxiety and depression in teens?
AJ: Don’t be stupid. I’m cool with questions. But there are also answers to many basic questions on WebMD. Read up. There are also better questions. Rather than “Are you better?” try asking things like “Have you had a good week?” This is a day to day, hour to hour condition. Even on medicine, I have days where the panic attacks are not under control. It is frustrating. I knew it was not going to be an instant fix, but I can have a good day and think I am getting better and the next day I will have a terrible panic attack. Your thought in that moment is ‘I thought I was better.’ That is the frustrating reality.
I’m not sure that I could be more proud. She is doing this. She is fighting for her life. AND she will not be silent. There are so many turns and twists that set you up for guilt and hiding with mental illness. I am so proud that she is throwing up her middle finger in the face of secrets. THIS GIRL. To have her courage…
What a brave and wonderful family. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.
Oh my goodness! She is going to do so much to eliminate the stigma on mental illness! If she wants to, of course. But oh my goodness. Love.
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REALity. Love knowing that shame and silence will not be adding any more complicating or painful layers. Love AJ how you are rumbling with and speaking your current needs and writing your own story. Thank you for the courage it took to share and with you.
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