I was sitting on the gray carpet in my bedroom playing with McDonald’s Happy Meal toys when Mom tapped on the door. I wasn’t used to seeing her upstairs. The only things on the second floor of our house were my bedroom and a small area for storage, so she didn’t usually make the trek up the steep stairs other than to tuck me into bed or scold about the near-toxic state of my bedroom.
Lowering herself onto the floor next to me, Mom looked serious. This was one of those important parental discussions. I wondered if I was in trouble. “Kelsey, do you know what depression is?” she finally asked.
I’d never heard the term, so I shook my head no.
Mom explained depression was when you’re sad more than everyone else because the chemicals in your brain are different. The scientific cause of depression was not something that’d been covered on the “Magic School Bus,” so I just nodded along, pretending to understand.
“I think you’re depressed,” Mom said.
“Is that why I cry more than the other kids?” I asked. Other kids didn’t seem to understand how it felt to live with the gloom of a dark cloud hanging over everything.
“Yes,” Mom said, “and you need to stop crying so much, or no one will want to play with you.” She said other kids would start writing me off as “overly sensitive” and “dramatic.” In fact, it was already happening. She told me how some of the older kids in the neighborhood had nicknamed me a china tea set because I was fragile, more likely to break.
I couldn’t deny feeling like I lived on the brink of falling apart, crashing into little pieces, or bursting into tears. Maybe the name was accurate. Maybe I was a china tea set. I looked down at the bedroom floor, feeling shame at the nickname.
I hadn’t realized I was doing something so bad that it could drive the other kids away. And now, even though I knew it wasn’t a problem, I wasn’t sure how to stop crying. Sometimes the sadness felt as heavy as the lead apron at the dentist’s office.
Mom said some people went to the doctor about their depression, but she wasn’t going to take me because antidepressants came with nasty side effects. She had a better plan: what I needed was an herbal supplement and some good old-fashioned positive thinking.
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Shortly after our talk, Mom gave me a pretty Peter Rabbit journal. “You need to write five things you’re thankful for in it every day,” she said. Listing what I was thankful for was my defeating-depression homework, and I took it seriously.
I’d been taught that thankfulness was a Christian virtue. Not only was it a sign of someone’s love for God, but my mom said choosing to be thankful is how Christians keep from becoming clinically depressed. I was depressed because I was being too negative. I wasn’t grateful for what I had. I wasn’t being a good Christian. It was my fault.
But Mom said if I made giving thanks to God a regular part of my life, the depression would go away. And just in case positive thinking couldn’t do the trick alone, Mom had me start taking the dietary supplement St. John’s Wort. She said it was like an antidepressant, only without all the bad effects.
I took the St. John’s Wort daily, even though it tasted terrible if I didn’t swallow it quickly and smelled even worse. And every afternoon I’d sit on my bed writing out what I was the most thankful for. After a couple of days, the journal entries began to repeat: “I’m thankful for my mom and dad, younger siblings, our cats, and the sunshine.”
I wasn’t going to be a china tea set anymore. While I played with my toys, I’d tell myself that I wasn’t going to stop being depressed. If I was just thankful enough and wrote enough journal entries, Mom said the depression would vanish. I was as hopeful as someone making their very first New Year’s resolution—new year, new you. I could do this.
“Mom, I haven’t been crying as much,” I proudly announced a few weeks later.
“That’s good!” Mom said. “The St. John’s Wort and journaling is working. You’re controlling your depression.”
Eventually, after I started taking St. John's Wort and writing thankfulness lists, I swung out of depression and towards mania. Mom thought she'd cured me. I’d gotten better. But then, eventually, the dark clouds rolled in again.
It was either hard to talk at all or hard to shut up. But there was no middle ground. It felt like I was always upsetting people, no matter which side of the emotional spectrum I was currently on.
“You haven’t been using your journal, have you?” Mom scolded. She seemed upset, disappointed. “Are you still taking your St. John’s Wort daily?”
I tried to explain to Mom that I was still using my journal and taking my supplements. But because she’d mistaken my last swing into mania as a sign her depression-fighting techniques worked, she didn’t believe me. How could I be doing them and be so depressed? Mom said I wasn’t taking my depression seriously. I was being too negative again. I wasn’t being thankful. My depression was my fault.
No matter which way that my moods swung, it seemed like I was always in trouble. When I was depressed, adults were constantly saying, “You need to talk louder. I can’t hear you.” I’d feel so tiny and unimportant that it was almost painful to say something loud enough that others could hear. But then I’d swing towards mania. I’d feel happier and more confident, and the adults would tell me to use an inside voice and to stop dominating conversations.
It was either hard to talk at all or hard to shut up. But there was no middle ground. It felt like I was always upsetting people, no matter which side of the emotional spectrum I was currently on. What’s wrong with me? I wondered.
As I tried to find an answer to what was wrong with me, the fundamentalist Christianity I’d grown up in seemed to provide a solution. I’d heard pastors teach from the pulpit that self-control was evidence of someone’s love for God. Despite taking my family’s faith extremely seriously, self-control didn’t seem like it’d become a hallmark of my life. I still hadn’t mastered my moods.
I thought my mood swings were sinful, and within my religious subculture, there was no such thing as a minor sin.
“If you were the only person who ever lived and you only sinned once,” children’s Sunday school teachers liked to say, “Jesus would have still had to die.” My lack of self-control was Jesus-would-have-had-to-die-on-the-cross bad.
For years, I’d been trying to pray my mood swings away. I’d confess my inability to keep myself from swinging back into depression. I’d tell God I was sorry and that I wanted to have control over my life and myself. And I’d ask for help.
I'd swear this would be the last time it would happen. Sometimes I’d write the commitment to being done with depression in my journal the way some people carve their romantic declarations into tree stumps. This would be the last time I’d get so depressed I could barely get out of bed. I’d learn to be thankful and more positive. I’d learn to control myself. I wouldn’t get depressed again.
But then I'd swing… again.
When I was in late high school, my depression reached a new, frightening low. It felt like all the hope and light in the world had been flipped off, and my daydreams went pitch black. I started fantasizing about running into traffic, jumping off a building, or crashing a car. Sometimes I’d sit on the cold bathroom linoleum holding a razor, the door locked. I knew it wasn’t sharp enough to do much damage, and I wondered what my chance of success would be if I were to locate a sharper one.
Around this time, I met a guy named Jason who was the same age as me. Initially, we bonded over writing and our teenage pretentiousness. Jason teased that compared to the chatspeak most of our peers were fluent in, my correct use of a semicolon was swoon-worthy. But as we got to know each other better, Jason and I started talking about depression. It was something I’d never talked about with anyone about besides Mom. The subject felt taboo, and I’d always felt too ashamed.
Jason said he’d been suicidal for most of high school. “Antidepressants and The Matrix saved my life,” he said seriously.
“The Matrix?” I asked.
“I needed to know how it ended,” He said. The Matrix gave him something to stick around for. Jason said things changed when his parents took him to the doctor and he was put on antidepressants. He didn’t think about suicide anymore. Jason said he still battled depression sometimes, but that it was manageable.
Manageable was not a word I would’ve used to describe my own depression.
Hearing Jason talk about his battle with depression gave me hope. My mom had never been in favor of antidepressants, but maybe a prescription medication was exactly what I needed.
I begged Mom to take me to the doctor for my depression, trying to explain the urgency.
“There’s no reason to try something as extreme as antidepressants,” Mom told me. She said what she always did, that I wasn’t trying hard enough to manage my depression. And rather than taking me to the doctor, Mom added fresh air and exercise to the list. “Antidepressants can have bad side-effects,” she reminded me.
I don’t think Mom ever realized how her approach to handling mental illness had its own negative side-effect: shame.
After being told for years that I just needed to take my supplements and think positively to get my depression under control, I felt like a failure.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I’d been married for a few months when my depression reached the point where I couldn’t get out of bed some days. I’d called in sick from work so much that my boss called me into his office. He told me that I couldn’t continue taking time off, but I didn’t know how to make the depression stop.
I thought the fact that my depression would come and go meant that when I was getting close to managing it, I’d lose my grip. If I was just diligent enough and had enough self-control, I could finally permanently keep depression at bay. But I’d never been able to will my depression away through exercise and regular fresh air, positive thinking, herbal supplements, or even prayer.
Depression seemed like a sign of failure, so when my husband first brought up that I needed to go to the doctor, I didn’t want to listen. “I just need to try harder,” I said. “I can do better!” But no matter what I did, the depression eventually came back.
When I finally went to the doctor a few months later, I was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar type 2. She said that unlike bipolar type 1 (what people usually think of when they hear the term bipolar), people with bipolar type 2 tend to mainly be depressed. Once in a while, however, I’d swing out of depression for short periods of time, and it’d look like my depression had “gotten better,” leaving me to mistakenly believe I could control it if I just tried hard enough. But then the mania would end, and I’d swing back to depression.
The psychiatrist put me on mood stabilizers, and I almost immediately noticed a difference in the quality of my life.
But the best thing about going to the doctor was getting the diagnosis itself. For most of my life, I’d felt shame over my mood swings, thinking it was a failure on my part that I continued to be depressed. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wasn’t a good Christian. I wasn’t thankful. I was too negative. I wasn’t doing enough. When I found out my mood swings weren't my fault, that I had bipolar, I cried.