Op-Ed: On the stigma of depression (Part 1)

I think anyone who has been through a mental illness wants to spare other people the harm, and I hope that by sharing my story, I can generate some awareness regarding this matter. I was around ten when my mental illness began. For a year I was up all night, every night, nauseous and convinced that I was going to throw up, which scared me enough to not eat during the day. My mom tried everything, from serving me chocolate at all times, seeing every doctor there was, but they found nothing to be wrong. I rapidly lost weight and my energy disappeared. Coincidentally, it was also around that time that I started to get bullied.

At the age of twelve I then began consciously hating my body. On the outside I was still cheerful, ever so busy with my abundance of friends, extracurriculars and near-to-perfect grades. But I continued to be bullied until ninth grade and until then, my school friends decreased until none were left. I still remember all the ridiculous insults, for example, my full lips were a sign that I ate too much. I was called ugly, stupid, fat and many other things on an almost daily basis. And although therapy helped me see these things weren’t true and that the people who said them may not even have believed them, it could never make me forget them. It was the little things, that most people could easily ignore, that hurt me the most. How for example I was uninvited to parties, just so my hopes of finally belonging could be crushed. Or that one birthday where a girl I barely knew instructed everyone to ignore me and not mention my birthday. Or the tricks they played during swim meets, hiding and stealing my things, making sure I was never congratulated on any achievement. These psychological mind games were played on irregular schedules, so that I never knew when the next attack would come.

I started competitive swimming during that time and the pressure to eat little, swim faster, run longer, play piano better, speak the most languages and have the best grades was overwhelming. One of my “friends” who swam in my club and attended my school would taunt me with the fact that she had only had two strawberries before working out intensely for four hours and would not eat after because she had piano at 10pm, encouraging me to eat less and be more active. My parents didn’t notice what was going on, I rarely saw them and when I did they figured this was what teenagers were like. We were all distracted from acknowledging how fast things were going downhill. I was still strong academically, and even though I always looked tired, I had long hair, extravagant clothes and I was skinny and tall, at least that’s what other people said I was like. I only remember avoiding mirrors, punishing myself for anything but an A and trying to avoid the nightmares at night. I didn’t seem to fit the criteria for depression. But mental illnesses can’t be compartmentalized into checklists, just because you’re good at keeping a fake life doesn’t mean you aren’t sick. The whole process of treating mental illnesses is so standardized and therapists often assume we’re all sick for the same reasons and consequently treat us the same way, thereby depriving us of real help.

Throughout middle school, my self-destructive habits kept getting worse. I would work out until complete exhaustion, in hope that my mind would stop torturing me if all my energy was depleted. I stopped being able to swallow every time I felt stressed or pressured and consequently I would often go for up to two days drinking barely anything and not eating at all. One day I collapsed before school and my mom decided I needed to stay home and after a meager fight I lay in front of our front door crying for hours. During the following weeks I barely moved at all. I would lie in the most uncomfortable corners of our house, because I didn’t deserve to lie on sofas or beds and a few weeks later I fell severely sick. My doctor refused to treat me and instructed me to go to a hospital, but I knew once I went to hospital, I wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. I lay on his floor with a panic attack, until my mom had convinced him to treat me. For most of the following week I was unconscious, but I remember my mom staying next to me 24/7, making sure I didn’t stop breathing, coaxing water and nutritional shakes into my mouth every time I stirred.

Once I was somewhat stable again my mom began looking for rehab centers. We developed a little ritual of driving to a center with me in the front seat, followed by talking to some director of a rehab center with me glaring at him while he judged me as if I wasn’t in the room, after which I got in the back of the car and refused to talk to my mom for the rest of the day. I was misdiagnosed many times and almost all therapists came up with the same reasoning that my mother had pushed me too hard and I was just tired. I was asked the same questions over and over again and no one saw just how far I’d already sunk. Since none of the rehab centers would treat my depression (German doctors seem to believe it is impossible for 14 years olds to have major depressions, you need to be at least 16) and my mom was equally fed up with the irrelevant questions I was asked, she let me start treatment from home with one of the few therapists who seemed to understand me. But I although I gained weight and started drinking and eating again, my depression kept getting worse and my suicidal tendencies increased. My parents hid all the medications in our house, purposefully kept only blunt knives in our kitchen and never left me alone for long.

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