I have a disease. My symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, despair, worthlessness, guilt and shame. I lose interest in things that used to make me happy, like soccer, music and good conversations. I’m tired all the time. I have difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions. I’m irritable. I have obsessive, racing and destructive thoughts. I feel fear, sorrow and sadness all the time. My diagnosis: depression and anxiety.
I ask myself, why me? I realized that there was probably nothing I could have done to avoid it. Whatever it was, I never felt like I deserved to be depressed, which fed even more into my depression. I’m just some white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, average woman. I have pretty good friends, play sports, get good grades. I have loving, supportive, happily married parents who always have my back. I’ve never suffered any serious trauma. I wasn’t forced out of my home because of a natural disaster. I’m not addicted to drugs, alcohol or tobacco. I’ve never been the victim of a hate crime. And this is not to make it sound like I’ve never had any problems. Sure, I got into fights with friends, lost soccer games, failed tests and overdrew my bank account. But there was nothing that I thought could lead to this disease.
So, seriously, who am I to complain or be sad?
Yet depression doesn’t discriminate based on any of those things. Sure, there are some factors that make it more likely that a person will become depressed, like a family history of mental illness or going through a bad breakup. But depression is an illness, just like diabetes or the flu. It’s a chemical imbalance. I don’t have as much serotonin or norepinephrine or dopamine neurotransmitters and receptors in my brain. Those happy feelings you get when you laugh or win a game or hug a friend or kiss your partner are few and far between. The disease has taken over my mind and made me miserable, sad, desolate, lonely and hopeless the majority of the time.
But with therapy and medication, I survived. In the end, I walked out a healthier, more-informed individual with the tools of how to talk to myself positively. I had effectively learned cognitive behavioral therapy. Now reading this you might be thinking, “What the heck is that? It sounds like a warped science experiment.” Allow me to explain. I used to mind read all the time, assuming everyone around me was judging me. Having casual conversations with people was pretty much impossible. When I was talking to people, I would tell myself that they thought what I was saying was stupid or that I looked fat or ugly or that I was annoying. Because I felt so awkward, uncomfortable and self-conscious, I avoided conversations and only met a few people in my hall. This led to a pretty lonely and miserable freshman year.
In therapy, I learned that I was really my own biggest critic. I would write in a mood log where I would talk about what triggered the anxiety, such as talking to my neighbor. Then I would associate what emotions I was feeling during the situation, like “anxious” or “insecure,” and what was going on in my head, like the way that I believed everyone thought I was a loser. After writing everything down, I would reread the log, noting all the cognitive distortions. Then I’d figure out ways to think about the situation more positively and realistically, like the fact that mind reading is impossible and that maybe my neighbor was really thinking how intelligent and fit I am.
But I didn’t walk out of therapy a smiling ray of sunshine, completely cured of depression and anxiety. I still had a lot of work to do, but I was equipped with the tools, the knowledge, and a better outlook on life to start.