The depression disconnect broke my family
Something I have always wondered about is why my parents never picked up on how bad my depression was as a teen. I have talked to hundreds of people battling depression. The more people I spoke with, I discovered that pretty much everyone battling depression has felt misunderstood by their loved ones and friends to varying degrees.
It made me think about the disconnect depression creates between people. The wedge it drives between loved ones and the incredible damage that distance causes.
When I was a teenager, several events combined to kick off what were to be nearly two decades of depression. I developed an eating disorder and attempted suicide, but somehow I felt my parents did not take any of this seriously. All I felt was confusion and despair.
I felt unloved, unsupported, and lost and I did not know who I could even ask for help.
What did we ever do without the Internet?
Now, I am not that old but at the time the Internet was just becoming popular for the average household. I did not have a Smartphone or any kind of mobile phone. I had a pager if that tells you anything. But you definitely could not browse the Internet with that. Resources only included people and books at the time. I was not able to connect to any online depression forums or chat with a counselor online.
We have come a long way with the understanding that there need to be more mental health resources and immediate access for people in crisis. I also believe that children today are much more aware of depression (maybe because of the Internet). The scary thing is that way too many teens and adults know of someone who has committed suicide.
“And something inside me just...broke...That's the only way I could describe it.”
- Ranata Suzuki
We have already succeeded in creating more awareness around depression and mental health in general. The Internet has definitely been a major factor in making that information accessible.
But none of that actually changes the fact that there is still a disconnect between people battling depression and the loved ones who are trying to support them. One of the biggest disconnects can happen between parents and children, for example, as was the case for me.
Hindsight is always 20-20
Now, twenty years after the fact, I can look back and understand what happened back then. As a teenager, the lack of support almost cost me my life.
And today I understand that my parents were just as traumatized as I was and lost without resources to cope with a depressed teenager.
As I learned more about my family, I began to understand that the pre and post-war generations had their very own approach to depression - "suck it up princess". If you can imagine that men who fought in the war were just expected to return to their normal lives after witnessing traumatizing events or after being held prisoner of war, it might not come as a surprise that my grandparents were ill-equipped to define depression, never mind talk about it and try to break through it.
This type of thinking passed to my parents' generation, who also largely grew up with the sense that depression was a weakness of the mind and the only way to deal with it was to ignore it and get through it.
Depression during the post-war years
One did not complain because being depressed meant there was something wrong with you. And there was no room for broken people. Depression was something shameful and "broken" people just ended up at asylums and sanatoriums.
Fast forward to me and I can understand why my parents may have sensed that something was off, but again had no skills to deal with it in any kind of way. And the more they realized something was wrong, the more they panicked because they did not know how to fix it.
The result was me, as a depressed teenager, feeling abandoned in my depression, and my family, traumatized by watching me go through this and unable to help. It was not that they did not want to help. They told me this many, many years later, when I was actually able to talk about all this. They just did not know how to help me and watching me suffer froze them in pain and fear.
The depression disconnect for a teenager
When I was going through depression as a teenager, I was not able to see any of this. And I am pretty sure that anyone battling depression right now won’t have the clarity of mind to understand the situation either.
It will just seem like family and friends don’t care and you are all alone with your depression. The other very common problem is that depressed people are very good at hiding their depression. That can contribute to the confusion loved ones experience around depression and what it “should” look like.
This can be especially true for teenagers, where their depression symptoms could be put off as regular teenage moodiness. Having gone through teenage depression, there are a few things that felt off to me. But the chances of getting me to talk about it with my parents were pretty much zero. Instead, I first went over the top crazy-busy and then completely isolated myself.
The extremes of depression
So what can depression look like in teenagers? I think one possible way to clue in is to look for extremes. I know that does not happen for everyone, but most teenagers I know who are battling depression did experience an “extreme” at some point.
But again, some of these can also be normal things happening to teenagers. I think the key was that these things didn’t just pass for me. And I wasn’t just exhausted because I partied all night and had a great time.
These changes stayed with me for months and years, which is definitely not normal. As a result, my personality changed and I became a different person. For a parent or loved one, these might be some of the clues that something other than a passing moodiness is going on.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Thankfully, my parents found a way to get through to me at least to some extent. Credit for that one goes to my family doctor. She did take my symptoms very seriously. My doctor referred me to the eating disorder clinic as an outpatient and understood that if I was to beat this, I needed my family’s support. So, she had us all go to family therapy together to learn how to communicate.
Although this did not help me break through my depression long-term, it was a crucial skill we all learned and is probably part of why I am still alive today.
For me, I learned that I needed to ask for help at certain points and share what I was going through. Even if my family had not experienced the same, they were able to simply be there for me.
My parents learned how to communicate with a depressed teenager and provide support. They also learned that nobody expected them to understand everything that was happening and they were not responsible for fixing it. They realized that depression creates a disconnect and an important part of bridging this disconnect is reaching out, being there and communicating.
A point of view on the depression disconnect
Looking back, I believe that loved ones of depressed people need just as much support as depressed people, if the depression disconnect is to be overcome. They are also being traumatized by what is happening and often they don’t have the first clue how to help.
Our loved ones are not counselors, but people watching their loved ones suffer and hurt. It might not be as much that they don’t know that something is wrong. I think it’s more that they don’t know where to start.
What the depression disconnect does to our loved ones
Just recently my mom and I talked about my depression and I asked her about how she felt at the time. I am still trying to come to grips with everything that happened. I very often think about why I was not able to share what was happening and how that affected those around me.
My mom confessed that my depression left her traumatized and scared every day of what would happen. She was unsure whether the next thing she said to me would lead me to commit suicide. My mother was afraid of coming home one day and finding me dead somewhere, or receiving the news that something had happened.
She was unable to shake this fear for a very long time and even now it sometimes hits her. There is still the uncertainty of the depression returning one day and taking away her daughter. This is, of course, not something I was able to realize in the fog of depression. But it is something I have to come to terms with now.
Depression did not just affect me. It also changed the dynamics of our family unit and our relationships by creating a disconnect that lasted for years.
As the depressed person...
If you are battling depression and feel you are not being understood and supported by your loved ones, take a deep breath and understand that this disconnect happens. It happens simply because you are living through a different experience than your loved ones. This does not mean this disconnect is here to stay. You are loved and cherished.
One thing you might want to give some thought to is group or family therapy. It was a huge step toward helping my family understand what was happening with me and how they could begin to help. I was a little uncomfortable in the group setting at first, but when I did not know how to explain or talk to my family, the counselor was there to gently help guide the conversation. This was crucial for understanding each other and explaining what we each were facing on a daily basis.
Learning how to communicate with each other will go a long way in healing the depression disconnect and starting to break through it.
Most loved ones are very eager to help. They are just as lost and afraid as you. One of the hardest things in life is watching someone you love slowly drown in depression, unable to do anything.
As the one looking in on depression...
And, if you are struggling to reach a depressed person, I encourage you to talk to a therapist about how best to communicate with them. This will help ease some of the anxiety and fear of not knowing what to say and thinking you will "make their depression worse". It is also just as important that you learn how to self-care. Supporting someone with depression can pull you under just the same.
The biggest thing is to understand that they will feel isolated and abandoned. This is not anybody's fault, but a side effect of depression. Even though you may not be able to fully understand it, you can maybe relate to times when you have felt misunderstood by someone. The only real solution is to share the experience, communicate, and give support. You do not need to provide a solution, just a shoulder to lean on.
You might also find that starting with writing little notes might be easier. Often, I was not able to talk to my parents about what I was going through. I was able to write words or short sentences on a sticky note and give that to them. Start small. The important thing is that even the smallest communication starts to happen and you can progress from there. Opening communication was the first step for me toward bridging the depression disconnect.
Push the door open just a little bit and reach out. You are not alone. You deserve to heal the depression disconnect and feel all the love your family and friends have to give!