What Battling Depression Was Like as a Teenager in India
I don’t know when I started struggling with depression. But I do know even as a child, I thought and worried about things way too much and I vaguely remember being hit with bouts of exhaustion and not feeling like doing anything. Physically, I was always fortunate enough to be healthy. Mentally, I don’t think I can say the same.
I started seeing a counselor in school at the age of 14, after weeks of feeling uncharacteristically low. I vividly remember telling my mom, “I can’t feel happy anywhere. When I’m at school, I miss you and Papa, and when I’m at home, I don’t want to be here.”
After years of loving school, I suddenly started begging to not go, and nothing seemed like fun anymore. I also dismissed all of my sadness as “mood swings” and kept telling my parents it was “normal” at my age — something I kept hearing from those around me — something that normalized what I felt in the worst way possible, and made me feel like I was overreacting and blowing things way out of proportion.
I pushed away all my friends, snapped at people who tried to talk to me and broke down continuously for no apparent reason. I never wanted to eat, but binged on chocolates when I felt low. I barely slept, going over terrifying scenarios in my head. Every little problem felt like the end of the world and I felt like a shadow of my old, bubbly self — the girl who was constantly full of things to say.
A day that was worse than usual finally pushed me over the edge, and after spending my lunch break sobbing and telling my friends to stay away from me, I found myself sneaking into the school counselor’s office.
What I didn’t know though, was that at this time, my friends who didn’t know where I was, were searching the entire school for me, along with the teachers. I found out about it only an hour later, when the counselor received a call from the school management, asking if I was with her. In no time, my friends were all outside the room, and I broke down again, begging the counselor not to let them in. I kept saying that I couldn’t see them then, and simultaneously felt guilty because I thought I didn’t deserve how much they cared.
My counselor went out to talk to them, and while most of my friends were just concerned, I remember one of my friends saying, “She’s so sad all the time, it’s like she doesn’t even try.” I’d finally calmed down again, but on hearing that, I started crying once more.
In this period, I realized what depression really is: it’s not constant sadness, crying and listening to sad music while looking out of the window. It’s deep-rooted hopelessness, unfounded fears and entirely unromantic. It’s tiring and all-consuming and hard to get through.
Eventually, slowly, I started improving, though. The adults around me, and even my friends, were surprisingly supportive and encouraging. I could tell they were all trying their best, but despite all this, I still felt alone. I wasn’t trying my best and it felt like something had snapped between my friends and me. Our dynamic had changed entirely. My friends tiptoed around me, and were always too careful — and there was nothing I could do about it.
I continued to go to the counselor, and more than anything, we talked about how I felt and why I felt that way. Sometimes we made timetables, decisions or did other activities that would help me get better. I enjoyed therapy, and little by little, I began to feel more like the person I used to be. However, I couldn’t help but feel I was doing something shameful every time I went to the counselor’s room, and always looked around me to make sure no one saw me enter or leave the room. While my friends were understanding and caring, I couldn’t say the same of my classmates, who were majorly divided into two parts: one part of my class thought my pain was hilarious and made hurtful remarks about it; the other thought my sadness was contagious, and steered clear of me.
None of this really affected me. I had people who understood me and supported me, and a counselor who was helping me through my problems. I am aware a lot of people don’t have this, and I recognize today how fortunate I was — and to this day, am — to have this support system.
One morning, on the bus ride to school that I still remember vividly, I realized just how badly I wanted to get better and put all of this behind me. That was when my journey to recovery actually, truly began. But it was still far from the end.
With time and effort, I became even more like the person I once was — but I was stronger. I had been through more and I knew I would never really be the same again. I still had bad days and low periods — times when I would spend the entire day sleeping or times when my problems seemed way bigger than they actually were. I continued seeing a counselor until the end of my school-life but even then, things seemed very black and white to me — my future wasn’t going anywhere, no one loved me, I was a bad person. It was easy for me to believe these things, despite knowing they weren’t founded on logic.
However, with time, these days became rarer. My visits to the counselor became more of updating her on my progress, or just talking about life. I could see I was getting better, and I started feeling closer to my friends again — something that felt huge to me. In fact, we were closer than ever, and I finally put the past year behind me and began to move forward.
It was two years later that things started getting bad again. I started going to college — it was worse than I expected it to be, and I was amongst an entirely different group of people. This time, my experience with depression was drastically different from before.
Nothing felt real to me — I felt like I was living in a bubble, separated from the rest of the world. I felt empty and numb, devoid of feeling — the closest example of how I felt could be the book “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. I was physically unable to do anything, constantly overpowered by exhaustion and increasingly frustrated because I couldn’t feel a thing. I started having breakdowns again, to the point going a single day without crying was an achievement. I felt angry easily, and everything that happened during the day eventually built up and led to an outburst. I could hardly sleep, and being alone with my thoughts made me anxious beyond words and terrified me.
But worst of all, I refused to see a counselor. I was egoistic and in denial, I didn’t want to go back to the dark place I used to be in, and I believed that I could work through this low point myself. Which, surprisingly, I did. My strategy was to “fake it till I make it,” to stop talking and thinking too much about how I felt and throw myself headfirst into college life. I grew closer than ever to my new friends, who always knew the right things to say whenever I needed to hear them.
Just when I’d start to get better, though, I would have a particularly bad day and suddenly all the progress I made was gone, and I had to start all over again. An example of this was a day when I was going to have a sleepover with my friends. We had been planning it for over a month, and were more than excited. On the day of the sleepover, however, I woke up feeling heavy. I instantly knew this wouldn’t be a good day and sure enough, soon things escalated: all my fears hit me at once, I felt like I couldn’t do anything, didn’t deserve anything and no one cared. Logically, of course, I knew none of this was true and I would have fun if I went over to my friends’, but that didn’t stop me from cancelling on them and switching my phone off because I didn’t feel like talking to anyone.
The thing about these days, though, is they end. One moment, it feels like the world is crashing down on me and nothing can ever get better, but after hours of crying and contemplating, the hope and light begins to come through.
It was my friends, of course, who helped me see the light this time. They called my mom, concerned, and asked to speak to me. They told me I’d have fun if I went to the sleepover, but they’d still understand if I didn’t want to — which was exactly what I needed to hear. In the end, I did end up going and I did have fun, and I was more than grateful for a happy ending to a not-so-happy day.
While I still have days that make me feel like I’ll never be happy again, and several nights when I can’t sleep because I’m too anxious, I am also still working on my recovery. I am working on growing and improving as a person, doing things I’ve always wanted to do and trying to learn as much as I can. However, the difference now is I know my limits. I know when I need to give myself a break or when I need to push myself more. I can tell when I’m spiraling, and if I can’t stop it, the least I can do is tell myself I will get through it.
I don’t want my depression to define me. I don’t want it to be something that constantly looms over my head and the heads of those who know me. I don’t want it to be an excuse for not doing something, or worse, doing something wrong. I don’t want it to get in the way of how people see me or be someone’s reason for not choosing me to do something I can do.
But most of all, I know I need help, and I want to get it. Because there’s nothing weak about asking for help — in fact, it is the bravest thing you can do.
A girl I knew from school once told me no one can be depressed if they have friends and a family. You can only be depressed if you have absolutely nothing left, she told me. Needless to say, this enraged me. Depression is an illness. It can affect anyone — the rich, the poor, people with or without friends and family, you or me.
I recognize how privileged I am to have a strong support system like I do, and to be able to get help — something a lot of people don’t have.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates each year approximately 800,000 people die from suicide — which means there is one death by suicide every forty seconds. A large percentage of these people are affected by mental illnesses.
There are several mental illnesses that are less talked about than depression, that need to be discussed as well. The stigma around mental illnesses needs to disappear, so people can accept they are struggling and ask for help when they need to.
In India, mental health is still a taboo subject, something that is constantly dismissed and hushed up.
No matter where you are, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. I can’t promise you it will get better, but I hope you hold on, and I really hope it does.
Getty image by cheekudigital