Dealing with Depression in College
It took me an impossibly long time to figure out what I wanted to write about this week, because no matter how many times I prompted myself with "What kinds of interesting things did you do this week, Celina?" or "What's the most exciting thing that's happened to you lately?" I wasn't able to formulate an answer. It's not that these past couple of weeks have been uneventful. They've been more than eventful, but not in the same positive light as many of the other happenings I've written about here on the Oberlin blogs.
A few weeks ago, I decided to start working off my anti-depressants because of how well I've been doing the past several months, because of the side-effects they've been causing me, and because my psychiatrist said I was good to go. I knew there would be withdrawal effects but what I didn't know was that the week of withdrawal effects would be equivalent to some of the worst depression I'd ever experienced. One day I was practicing six hours a day and the next I wasn't even able to get out of bed until 4pm, missing tests and classes, and bursting into tears at random moments. On some days I was functional, while on others I was not, but even the functional days felt lonely, empty, and thin, as if I were walking on a tightrope and a single gust of air would be enough to send me plummeting back into the depths of every awful emotion.
It's hard to talk about mental illness because it's so personal, but what I've come to realize is that although my depression may be a part of me and my experience, and while some of it may be stimulated by my overly critical perfectionist personality, I am not my depression. It is not in any way who I am.
I don't feel ashamed of my depression now, but that's because I've mostly recovered and feel detached from the person I was a week ago. However, when I was trapped in that pit of depression, I felt ashamed of every moment: ashamed of the negativity I was bestowing on all the people around me, ashamed of the fact that I couldn't get out of bed and live a normal day, ashamed that I was ashamed when everyone was telling me I shouldn't be. And that's why it's so hard to talk about depression; because if you've ever been around someone who's depressed, you know that it's no fun. And there's shame in knowing that you're the last person anyone in the world would want to be around, the last person that you would want to be around.
And still, I have been blessed with support from the friend who came and settled me down as I sobbed uncontrollably in Tappan Square at 3am, the friends who called Safety & Security and the counseling center and everywhere they could to try and get me the help I needed, the professors who extended my deadlines and rescheduled my tests, the dean who emailed me to see if I needed any help communicating my situation with my professors, my piano teacher who spent our entire lesson (which I was more than unprepared for) talking with me and giving his complete support, and the list goes on.
However, thinking about the mounds of work I still had to get done only made me feel more depressed, especially as it continued and continued to accumulate. What I found is that recovering from depression is much like recovering from a broken leg. You don't stand up one day and say, "Okay, I'm going to walk normally now." If you break a leg, you will probably need a wheelchair or crutches and physical therapy, and healing will be a gradual process that you have to take step by step. Same with depression.
My first step was just forcing myself out of bed to get food from the other side of the room. The second step was getting out and doing something - anything. For me, that was taking a walk through the beautiful arboretum. The third step was getting an assignment done. Because my understanding professors were able to reschedule tests and extend deadlines for me, I was able to take responsibilities one by one, which was so much less overwhelming and allowed me to still deal with my classes amidst my depression.
Lingering on the fact that I hadn't touched the piano in a week or so also continued to weigh me down, which is why I found that it's important to look forward and not back. There was nothing I could do to rework history. All I could do was admit that depression sucks and that I was going to escape it and regain the ability to practice.
The counseling center on campus has been a great help to me, and they even have an after-hours hotline that you can call if you need to talk. Depression is something that you should and need to find help for, and not just from your friends. Your friends can often make you feel better temporarily and be there for you, but the underlying issue of depression still remains and calls for professional help. When you're feeling depressed, it oftentimes feels like there's nothing and no one that could possibly help you, but there is. What I found was that the more I tried to hide my depression and keep it locked inside of me, the worse it became.
Although dealing with depression away from home has been slightly more difficult, my parents supported me over the phone and my sister never hesitated to send me funny youtube videos on a daily basis. Never once did I feel judged by my professors, floormates, or anyone who knew what I was going through. The intelligent people here at Oberlin aren't ignorant to the seriousness and the reality of mental illness.
For those who are trying to support their depressed friends or family members, remember that depressed thoughts often have a basis in something real. When I was depressed, I said things like "No one on Earth cares about me" or "I don't understand why anyone would want to be around me," and while those thoughts may be extreme and exaggerated, they were real feelings. It often felt invalidating to hear things like "Sorry, I don't know how to help you," or "I know you're insecure/depressed right now but you'll feel better tomorrow," because the best thing that a friend can do for a depressed person is listen and empathize. That, alone, is so much.
I would never want to repeat these past few weeks, but I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that my depression has shaped me into a different person, a stronger person. Depression is not a weakness, and I don't think enduring it is anything but a testament to your own strength. That being said, I would never wish depression upon anyone. Still, depression has been a part of my life and is a part of me that I won't deny, and I urge anyone suffering from this awful mental illness not to be ashamed. This isn't you, and you aren't defined by it. Every moment you spend living and breathing, you are fighting this illness, and that's what makes you strong. And even the strongest people need help.
(Another great post dealing with this topic can be found here.)