Personal Statement: The double life of depression

BY JANE COASTON

Published October 7, 2008

Mental illness is the awkward cousin in the family of illness. It's tough to discuss, tough to understand and tougher to admit to dealing with.
Perhaps it’s difficult to explain what's going on in your own head to someone else, even in a perfect setting of mutual respect and willingness to listen. For me, mental illness is a constant companion that refuses to leave. It's a houseguest I didn't invite, the last kid at the party, the drunk guy who threw up on my front lawn and won’t stop yelling at my roommate. Most people don't know I'm sick, and I typically like it that way. But it's time that someone talked about mental illness — the experience, not the theory. I'm not "crazy" or "disordered,” but I do have a disease, and like any other, it takes its toll.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 16, but I had been dealing with the effects for much longer. Maybe it first showed in elementary school, when I convinced myself that my father was trying to kill me in my sleep, or the times when I sat on the front porch of my house, waiting for the police to arrive to tell me that my mother had died in a car accident.
Before I had panic attacks during every test I took in high school, I was so estranged from everyone around me that my preschool teacher wrote on my progress report that she was worried about how lonely I was. I was three. I always think that a new stage of life will mean an end to my depression — graduating from grade school, having friends in high school, getting to college. But it doesn't, and I don't think anything ever will.
I'll try and put it into terms that might make more sense. Imagine that your everyday personality and behavior is a person. I'll call him Sam. Sam keeps up with homework and e-mails professors and GSIs. Sam fills out forms, pays rent on time, writes articles and applies for internships. Sam can visit with friends, meet new people and be interesting and enjoyable. Sam is a good guy, friendly and well-liked. Sam can get things done, enjoy life and survive the day.
Let's call depression Steve. Steve doesn't want to get out of bed. Steve is angry and mean and filled with self-doubt. Steve doesn't see how anyone could like him or want to be around him, because he is completely undeserving of anything but contempt. Steve feels nothing and yet hurts all the time, and the pain is unbearable. Steve hates his family, his job and himself. Steve wants to kill himself, but is too numb to get up the effort to try. Steve feels cut off from the rest of humanity, and can't quite bridge the gap between himself and everyone around him. Steve is completely alone and terribly lonely.
The switch between normalcy and depression can be instantaneous. Depression shows up at parties, in class or while I'm doing homework in the library. I start having thoughts so disturbing that I scare even myself. Then I know I have to leave or else the wave of depression might crush me. I tried to commit suicide twice in high school, but I don't regard those as true attempts to end my life. I just wanted someone to know how badly I felt and how much I needed help. The most difficult things I have ever done was to tell my mother that I tried to slit my wrists and then sit in a hospital psychologist's office with my parents, look my father in the eyes, and tell him that I wanted to die.
The worst part is knowing that I can't escape it. I'm afraid to try anti-depressants because of the "black box" warning that indicates an increased risk for suicidal tendencies (apparently, the drugs work so well that the increased energy and motivation can cause some to finally kill themselves when they might have felt too numb to do so previously). I've been to numerous therapists: the first one told me I needed to learn to “like myself,” the second seemed to want me to cry during every session. I don't think I'll go back into counseling.
So I try and find ways to fix my problems myself — keeping myself busy keeps the pain away for a little while. I try and avoid being alone without something to do, or I'll make sure that I have someone around that I can trust. I have a great friend who I used to live with and whom I call when I feel overwhelmed. She deals with the same issues and knows that I just need someone around me for a little while until I can take over again. I've learned the warning signs that tell me when to leave a situation, like if I’m feeling lonely. I know I don't have the capability to handle that feeling rationally. I listen to music all the time, just to feel less isolated. I avoid situations that trigger certain emotions. I can't express anger, and swallowing my feelings is unbelievably painful and causes days of internal chaos. So I avoid confrontation and people who like to argue.
It's an uphill battle to try and live with mental illness. I watch other people constantly, trying to figure out how they can be happy and capable of interacting with others on a normal basis. I want to leave depression behind as a stage of my life that I passed through, like acne or stuttering. But I set goals for myself. When I was fifteen, I swore that I was going to live to be eighteen. When I was 18, I promised that I wouldn't end my own life before I was 21. Now I'm trying to make it to be 25. It's the little things that help.

—Jane Coaston is an LSA senior