The Difference a Year Makes: A Story and a Request

Finals are over and my summer class at HoneyRock doesn’t start for another week, so I’ve road tripped out to Michigan to visit some family. Exactly one year ago I was in the exact same place – here, at my Aunt and Uncle’s in Michigan, waiting for HoneyRock to start. Except last year, this time, I really wanted to die, and this year I really want to live.

I’ve struggled with depression for a long time, but it didn’t become disabling until college. My first year was a roller coaster, and it was nothing like what I thought it would be. I didn’t make many friends, I was terrible at doing things responsible people can do, like eating healthy foods and getting places on time, and I felt like a failure. I got terrible grades my first semester, and went home hanging my head in shame, trying to explain to my parents how it’s even possible to get a D in Wellness (I still have to explain this to people…trust me, it’s very difficult to do that poorly in that class). One of my few friends pushed me to go use our school’s counseling center, which I did, and which helped a little bit. But by the end of the year, I was really, truly depressed. When my parents came to help move me out and roadtrip to visit our Midwestern relatives, they could tell I was not okay. I remember my mom asking me, when my dad was away from the table one night the three of us were out to dinner, what was wrong. I shrugged my shoulders and felt tears well up in my eyes: “I hate myself.”

I started seeing a psychologist that summer, and she recommended I come in twice a week. She was (and continues to be) wonderful. I made new friends that summer, and they too were (and continue to be) wonderful. I thought I was ready to go back to school, that the time off and the therapy and the friends had healed me. I thought that my sadness wouldn’t come back; but it did, worse than ever.

The Fall of 2015 ended up being the hardest period of my life. I spent many nights crying in the bathroom, trying not to wake up my roommates, and many nights crying in bed, trying even harder not to wake up my roommates, who were asleep only a few feet away from me. The first month of school had been so painful, and the realization that I had to make it through another eight felt impossible. Several nights one of my roommates, who developed a sixth sense for my episodes, would come into the bathroom and sit on the floor with me and rub my back or stroke my hair, and let me cry. There were a lot of things I thought during those times, but few of them I said. One of them was this: my therapist once asked me who I cried with, and I told her no one. But now, here was this new friend – someone who had agreed to let me live with her without even knowing me (I had no friends to room with) – and she was loving me better than anyone had before, and she let me cry with her, made me cry with her, when my depression tried to isolate me.

When I went home for Fall Break, my family and I discussed taking a semester off. I remember my dad checked out a book from the church library, in which the author spent the first chapter detailing his depression. My dad had me read the chapter, and he asked if that was how I felt – I told him it was. I never expected my parents to understand what I was going through, but it meant so much to see them trying – for them to ask me questions instead of try to pretend like everything was fine, and then to trust me when I told them.

When I went for ADHD testing, I didn’t think we’d really talk about my depression. Even though I had been depressed – really depressed – for about a year. Depressed like I can’t make myself get out of bed, or eat, or shower. Depressed like sometimes I cry for no reason, and other times I feel so empty I wish I could cry. Somehow, I didn’t think any of this would come up during eight hours of psychological evaluation with two psychologists. I was surprised, and a bit embarrassed, when the administrator called me a few days after I took the extensive Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index (MMPI) test, which basically screens you for everything, saying she was looking at my results and that they had raised some flags. She said she was worried they had even let me leave their office; she asked if I wanted to kill myself. It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this, so I had an answer rehearsed. I told her that sometimes I’m really sad but that “I don’t worry about myself.” That was my line. That if I ever got “that bad,” I would reach out – I would tell someone. But until then, I wasn’t worried about myself. I liked to think that I was “the kind of person” who would be “strong enough” to ask for help. When all was said and done, I was diagnosed with moderate ADHD (with inattentive presentation), but also with major depressive disorder (with anxious distress). They recommended medication for both and, for the depression, therapy three times a week. I told them I was okay calling my therapist just once a week, and the two psychologists glanced at each other. I told them I had been tested during an unusually hard week, and promised if things ever got that bad again I would add additional sessions. Because I was “the kind of person” who was “strong enough” to ask for help.

But depression drains you of your strength. Depression lies to you, isolates you, and takes away all the resources you could have used to even ask for help. And that’s why I tried – twice, with cuticle scissors I use to trim my bangs – to cut myself. Perhaps I should not say “try,” but I still feel like I never really did it – they were more like scratches than cuts, they didn’t even bleed, though I do still have three tiny, pink shadow-like scars. I had heard before that people did stuff like this “for attention,” which I always thought was a really mean thing to say. What I learned those two nights on the bathroom floor was that, as much as people who say it’s “for attention” don’t understand, in a way I kind of was doing it for attention; but not the kind they meant. And don’t hear me justifying that narrative that we “do it for attention” – people may try to hurt themselves for lots of different reasons, and writing them off as desperate attention-seekers is really hurtful. I was doing it because I didn’t have the voice to ask for help. I wanted someone to notice, to care enough to ask; to ask for help for me. I remember once, last year, texting a pastor late at night, saying, “I’m in a really dark place. Please pray for me.” He asked if I would ever tell him if I thought about hurting myself. I thought this over and I told him I would but only if he asked. I was too scared and embarrassed to be the one to offer information, I needed someone else to make the first step of noticing, asking, checking in. Which is hard for someone to do when they’re a few thousand miles away, as virtually all my touchstone supporters (friends, family, church, therapist) were at the time.

And that’s part of why I’m writing this. Because being embarrassed almost killed me. Here’s an excerpt from my diary from just last semester:

I have nothing in me. The desire to give up has never been so strong. I just want to lay around, sleep time away. I can’t make myself do anything, enjoy anything. I want to say I’m miserable, but tonight I don’t even feel that, I just feel nothing. Boredom. Emptiness. I want to talk to [my therapist] again. I’m embarrassed about having to do phone therapy twice a week, so I’m only doing it once, plus it’s expensive. But I can’t wait until Tuesday. Sometimes it’s hard to be honest. It’s hard to be as blunt as I want to be, because it’s embarrassing, shameful. Because it’s “overdramatic.” Because wanting to stay in bed all day is a problem of laziness, not depression. Which makes it my problem – my fixable problem.

I think that excerpt from late on a Thursday night in September captures part of why it was so hard for me to say, “I need help.” Other entries show someone I didn’t realize I was, and who I now have only a memory of being. Some parts of my diary from that time are so dark I don’t even want to share them, but I’m committing to transparency here. I never would have called myself suicidal, yet I still wrote things like this:

I think about killing myself. Quite a bit, actually. I don’t want to kill myself, I don’t think I could do it. But I wish I didn’t have to go on, because I don’t think I can. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘get it together.’ I don’t think I can be who and what I want to be. I’ll always be a mess, I’ll always be sad. I’ll never be enough. Not even for other people, just for myself. I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to die. At least I think I do, maybe I’m only second guessing that because it sounds so severe, so not what I’m supposed to think. But I think I think it. I’m pretty fucking miserable.

 Everything else in the world would go on without me. Most people would say, “What a waste” not “I miss her.” And even if I lived I’d still be a waste, because I’m never going to be what I could be. Because I can’t. I’m just feeling more and more hopeless and trapped, and wondering what else there is to do, what other way out there could be. But like I said, I don’t think I could really do it.

 I’m sure some of you are probably thinking that what I’m sharing is too personal. Yeah, okay, one thing to tell the internet you used to be depressed, or to talk to a few close friends in person about seeing a therapist, but posting your diary online is too far. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m oversharing. But maybe not. I think that, just maybe, you need to know that just because I look okay now, because you can’t really see those three tiny physical scars on my wrist or the scars I will always bear in my soul from thinking or feeling those awful things, you need to know I wasn’t always okay. You need to know that someone can still smile and laugh and look happy and then cry herself to sleep and wish she’d get killed in some sort of happy accident. Maybe you need to know it’s really hard for people to ask for help, and that offering it first can make all the difference. Maybe you’re the person who feels like she can’t ask for help, and you need to know that you aren’t alone, that not everyone who seems happy really is, and you aren’t some broken weirdo who can’t make herself get out of bed in the morning, or who eats junk food to punish herself, or because she already used all her willpower for the day to take a shower.

If you’re reading this and you’re hurting: you are not alone. I know that’s cliché, and I heard it a million times too and it didn’t feel like it helped that much (and neither did “it gets better,” because I believed with every fiber in my being that wasn’t true). But I promise you – I am right here. I am in your classroom, your floor meeting, your bible study, your lunch group. I know I believed that maybe other people in the world are this sad, but not here – everyone here is fine. That’s just not true. If you are reading this and you’re hurting, I am begging you to take the step and ask for help. Even if you, like me, thought that your bad feelings are probably your fault, and that no one can help you but yourself, ask for help. Because those are lies, and this is not your fault. Let other people walk with you. It doesn’t have to be me, but know that I’m ready and willing to walk with you.

If you’re reading this and you’re like, “Wow, Ellie. That’s sad. I’m going to continue on with my happy day now but I’ll be a little more bummed because of this.” I have something to say to you, too: keep a watchful eye for your brothers and sisters. We may try to keep you at an arm’s length, because we’re trying to protect you, or we’re ashamed, or we don’t think we deserve to be happy, or because we’re afraid of how hard getting better will be (or that it will never happen). But please, don’t abandon or ignore us. We need you. I am writing this on the bathroom floor at 2:30 in the morning to say: we need you to know us.

I am okay now. I still have depression, but with therapy and medication, the amazing love and grace of God, and wonderful friends and family, I am doing better than I ever thought I would. My life absolutely changed in a shockingly short period of time – I remember praying for just one or two friends, good friends, but He gave me a dozen. Antidepressant medication can take years to work out, to find one that works for you – I got mine on the first try. I am thriving today only by the grace of God and the ways He has worked in my life. Some days are still hard, but I have resources to help me through now, weather the storm until the calm I now have hope for.

I think this blog post will come as a bit of a surprise even to those people in my core support group, those I openly tell I have depression. This post will probably even hurt some of you, you may wonder if you did enough, if you are, at least in some part, to blame; you are not. You took good care of me, better care than a lot of people get. No one carries the blame for my depression, but many of you share the credit for my recovery.

But hear this: unless you are a therapist, you are not a therapist. The people who helped me did not help me by being my therapist – they helped me by telling me to go to one. Help by loving the person and encouraging her to get professional help, knowing you are not the professional, and that it is not your responsibility to be the professional; you are the friend, the parent, the sibling, the teacher, the pastor, the coworker.

Depression is a big deal, and it’s a big deal that affects a lot of people (1 in 6 in the US). We need to be able to talk openly about it so people aren’t embarrassed about asking for help, about going to therapy or taking medication. Treatment for depression has an extraordinarily high success rate – 80% of people show improvement within 4 to 6 weeks of starting treatment. And yet, two thirds of people with depression are not seeking or receiving treatment. I’m telling you my story because maybe it will be part of changing those statistics – maybe you will ask for help, or you’ll ask someone else if he needs help. This journey is not one to walk alone. I tried to, but I was blessed with a community of people who wouldn’t let me, and that made all the difference.

Exactly one year ago I closed the door of my Aunt and Uncle’s guest bathroom, sat on the floor, and cried. This year, in that same bathroom, I washed my face, looked in the mirror at myself and thanked God for His incredible provision, and swallowed an antidepressant. And then I went to bed – without crying.

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Information and statistics about depression are easily accessible with as little as a quick Google search, but I got the ones I included in this post from here and here.

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5 thoughts on “The Difference a Year Makes: A Story and a Request

  1. Not too much, Ellie. Never. I am glad you found the strength the share. I am another one of those people who most people (now) would never guess has struggled with severe depression and anxiety. Seeking help (and getting it) has literally made a night and day difference for me. I’m glad it sounds like it has for you as well. I hope you’re practicing being kind to yourself. I know that’s something I’m still working on. And reading Brene Brown. Have you read “Daring Greatly” ? I think it would really resonate with you, in terms of vulnerability being a strength. Thanks for sharing, brave girl 🙂

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I went through years of depression, but after the birth of my medically complex son, I hit an all-time low. I was constantly having unwanted suicidal thoughts and I couldn’t enjoy my children at all. I finally talked to my doctor about it and I wish I’d done it years ago. I feel like I wasted years of my life when I could’ve actually been happy.

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  3. Nothing is too personal for the internet hun and in a way having the support of a thousand virtual strangers can be strangely comforting. I was so saddened to hear about your story and everything you have been through but I can tell that you are such a strong person and so glad that friend was able to help you out. I suffer from depression myself and some days are worst than others.

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  4. Thank you for your courage in sharing this. Breaking down mental illness stigmas is close to my heart and it’s through the bravery of those experiencing, recovering or through it, sharing their experiences that this will happen. Depression is a receiver. It doesn’t want you to tell the truth, so it feeds you with lies that cause guilt and shame. I’ve been there too many times. That’s why I’m writing a novel about it now.

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  5. I relate to this so much, and I think it’s so important that people like you are sharing their experiences, because if it can encourage just one person going through the same things to seek help, then it’s making a difference that can potentially save lives. I am glad to hear that you are doing better, and I hope that by the end of next summer you are feeling better about starting a new semester. 🙂

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