It would probably make it easier for you if I could pinpoint when this all started. I wish I could show you the date on a calendar, boldly marked with a red X, or find the place on a map.
But I can't. This howling parasite is tricky like that. All that I can give you are a series of ages and events, and hope that if anything I write here resonates with you, then you might take some comfort from that.
When I was ten I drew a picture of my four best friends. I wrote ANNE IS DEAD across the bottom of the page. My teacher found it and sent me to the principal. She told me that my picture was inappropriate, and I begged her not to call my mother. Nothing else was said.
When I was eleven I wrote "I wish I was dead" in my diary. I wrote it over and over, like a spell or a punishment. My diary was an orange Hilroy notebook decorated with a picture of a raccoon that I'd cut out of a nature magazine. I'd thought the raccoon was cute.
When I was twelve my four best friends told me that they'd held a meeting and decided that I was annoying. I was clingy, they said. Needy. The fact was, they didn't want me around anymore. And just like that, I was cut adrift. For the rest of the year, I spent every recess alone, sitting on a hillside at the edge of the schoolyard with my arms and head pulled into my coat. I didn't make any new friends.
When I was thirteen I cried all the time. Everyone told me it was hormones.
When I was fourteen I started high school at a place with a prestigious arts program that you had to audition to get into. I thought that it would be a fresh start, that I would be able to shake myself out of this funk and go back to being my real self, whoever that was. Instead, I kept crying. I cried in the bathroom. I cried in the hallways. When I got home I got into bed and cried some more.
I thought that if I could find a boyfriend everything would be better, but somehow he never materialized.
When I was fifteen I told my mother that I thought I should see a doctor. The doctor put me on Paxil and gave me a referral to a therapist. The therapist was an old, bald man with a white beard. He laughed when he read my intake form, where I'd written that I'd been made jaded and cynical by this miserable world. I'd tried to choose grown up words so that he would take me seriously; instead, he asked me if I really knew what jaded meant.
I never went back.
When I was sixteen I started cutting. I did it on my arms, with an orange plastic razor. It was late at night and I sobbed loudly the whole time; my mother called down from upstairs that if I kept making so much noise I was going to wake my sisters up. I don't know why I decided to cut myself, but I remember immediately being horrified and embarrassed by what I'd done. When I showed my mother, she wanted to take me to the hospital. I pleaded with her not to do that, so instead she wrapped my arm in a face cloth and made me sleep in her bed. Except that I couldn't sleep – even when I lay very still and matched my breathing to hers, I just couldn't make it happen. But I knew that what I'd done had scared her—maybe even more than it had scared me—and I also knew that having me beside her was comforting to her. So I stayed where I was.
Every time I went back to see my doctor, he asked how I felt and I told him that I still felt the same. So he would frown and look down at my chart and say, "Let's try increasing your dosage and see what that does, hmmm?" I started gaining weight. I stopped being able to sleep at night, so I would get up and wander around the house, my cat, thrilled that someone else was awake, trailing close behind me. Everything was grey from the street lights outside, and the air was very, very still. Sometimes I would play my sister's babyish computer games, or sometimes I would watch episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I'd taped off TV. Eventually I would feel a heavy, loose-limbed peace descend, at which point I knew I could safely go back to bed.
I kept falling asleep in class. I didn't mean to, it just sort of happened. After school I would nap until dinner time.
My mother said, "You know, you wouldn't have so much trouble sleeping at night if you didn't nap every day."
That year, I flunked grade eleven math. I was the overachieving kid who'd graduated from grade eight with a 97% average. I'd been on the honour roll in grade nine. I'd never flunked anything in my life. I was mortified.
I didn't tell anyone about the cutting. There was another girl in our grade who cut, and everyone made fun of her.
When I cried, my classmates said I was just doing it for attention.
When I told my best friend how I felt, she said that I needed to learn to make my own happiness.
When I failed to hand in my assignments, my teachers told me that I was lazy and disorganized.
A few months after I turned seventeen I got caught cheating on a math test. It was grade eleven math the second time around, and I was terrified of flunking again. The funny thing was that I was doing well in the class and had absolutely no reason to cheat. But I did it anyway. I got a three day suspension.
The vice principal said, "We'll be watching you very closely after this."
My mother said, "Annie, why do you always have to go and shoot yourself in the foot?"
My math teacher said, "I just wanted you to know that I tried to have you transferred to another class but I couldn't. I will never be able to trust you again."
That same year, another teacher tried to have me kicked out of the arts program because I fell asleep in class and didn't complete my assignments. She said that I was a bad influence, and that I wasn't the type of student they wanted to represent the program. She organized a meeting of the program's board of directors; my mother had to leave work early to attend. They decided that I could stay, and I was equal parts relieved that I wasn't being expelled and ashamed that I'd let it come to this.
Later, when I tried to tell that teacher that I was depressed, she shook her head and said, "I've seen depressed kids before. They don't act like this."
My father said, "Why can't you control yourself?"
My doctor said, "You're a bright, pretty young girl. These should be the best days of your life."
My grandmother said, "How do you know those pills you're taking won't give you cancer when you're forty?"
My mother said, "You're not going to graduate at this rate."
My guidance counsellor said, "You're not going to graduate at this rate."
My vice principal said, "You're not going to graduate at this rate."
I guess the symptoms of depression in teenagers look an awful lot like acting out. Lack of affect can be taken for sullenness. Inability to complete assignments can look like laziness or apathy. Sleeping in class can look like disrespect towards teachers. Cheating looks like an act of rebellion. Taken all together, isn't that just typical teenage behaviour?
So maybe that's why none of the grownups in my life offered me the kind of help I needed. Some of them, like my mother, were concerned but genuinely baffled by the change they'd seen in me. Some of them, like the teacher who tried to have me expelled from the arts program, were openly hostile. None of them, though, seemed able to recognize that I was struggling to stay afloat, that I was trying my hardest just to tread water long enough to make it through the day. And, to extend that metaphor, maybe none of them knew where the life preservers were, or how to throw them, or even if they should.
No one believed me when I tried to tell them what I was going through. But I believe you. I believe you, and it's not your fault.
- Anne Thériault, age 31
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and cat enthusiast who blogs about feminism, mental health, and parenting.
This post originally appeared on I Believe You | It's Not Your Fault, a blog devoted to telling teens that we've all been there. Republished with permission.
Image by Jim Cooke. Photo courtesy of Anne Thériault.