5 Ways Life Changes When You Suffer Depression As A Child
Can you imagine anything sadder than a clinically depressed eight-year-old? Just sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of Cheerios, watching Power Rangers before school, but unable to lift the spoon because he feels like he has a swirling black vortex in his chest sucking away all joy? Well, that was me.
Only 2 percent of children suffer from depression. Not only was I one of them, but I was also unlucky enough to get a side dish of intense childhood anxiety, which resulted in a series of panic attacks that often made it feel like the world was collapsing in around me and only me. I'm better now, but there is much to be learned from my awful, awful experience.
For A Kid, There's No Frame Of Reference
A depressed adult at least knows what they're going through. You've spent your entire life hearing about depression or knowing people who have it (even if they're fictional characters; modern comedy is almost entirely about depression). You've seen commercials for antidepressants. Kids don't have any of that -- or at least I didn't at the time. Muppet Babies and Batman: The Animated Series didn't take the time to explain how sometimes you're going to wake up feeling like you'd rather not exist and you won't know why.
A lot of people suffering depression walk around looking at happy people and wondering how they do it. Now imagine you're a child who's looking at everyone else frolicking on the playground, wondering why they don't want to break down in tears and sleep all day. "Very sad" was as much as my limited vocabulary and frame of reference gave me.
For as confused as I was, the adults around me were even more baffled. My mother and teachers didn't know whether I was suffering through a traumatic emotional experience (this all occurred after my parents went through a messy divorce), or if I just had overactive tear ducts that exploded every now and then. No one knew what to do with me, so I was treated like any other crying third-grader -- either told to shut up or offered a shoulder to cry on that did nothing but give me a golden opportunity to smear snot all over someone's shirt. For teachers, a problem they couldn't yell at or tell to go to the principal's office was a problem they couldn't solve.
I Got Really Good At Hiding My Emotions
Sometimes childhood depression counterintuitively comes bundled with a ton of energy. It's a sugar rush fueled by ennui. I was just as excessively irritable and prone to temper tantrums as I was to fits of profound sadness and endless streams of tears. As such, my fight-or-flight instincts were always on high alert. I was constantly on the lookout for the next thing that was going to hurt me, which eventually led to a series of panic attacks.
I remember that one day, we were sitting through a presentation in the cafeteria/auditorium when the entire student body broke out into a loud applause. The cacophonous hooting and hollering created a wave of sound that crushed me beneath it. I covered my ears and ducked my head. I went as fetal as I could while maintaining as much of my cool as possible. In what I still consider to be one of the greatest achievements of my life, I somehow managed to have a complete breakdown in the middle of a large crowd without a single person noticing.
After that, it almost became a game. Whenever I felt an attack coming on, I'd judge how well I was hiding it against how well I had hid previous episodes. I'd take into account all sorts of factors, like the intensity of the attack, the situation I was in, the number of people I had around me, and how embarrassed I'd feel if I got caught. I used all of those factors to determine how well I had performed. I was Moneyballing my depression. The auditorium episode scored pretty high.
Another time, I had an attack during a visit to the orthodontist, brought on by the stresses of getting my braces tightened. I disguised it as a coughing fit. I really should've gotten some kind of medal for that one, so I'll give it to myself now.
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I Had No Idea How To Talk To My Friends About It
Children, in fact, do a lot of silent suffering. They can't verbalize much of anything other than the backstories of their favorite action figures (in excruciating detail, to anyone who'll listen). So when I was around all my friends trying to have fun, unable to escape this ominous sense of despair, I had no idea what to do or say. Even then, I could recognize the innocence of childhood, since I had experienced it in all of its glory just the day before. But then I'd look around at all my friends and wonder how to break it to them that life is nothing but a bubbling cauldron of shit.
I was never able to figure out how to tell my best friend that I didn't feel like climbing that big spooky banyan tree at the end of the block because getting all worked up like that would draw out the emotions. "Nah, you go ahead. I'll be down here identifying with the dead leaves on the ground." The only way to achieve some semblance of normality was to put on a tough face and pretend I wasn't falling apart.
This meant never declining an invite to participate in childlike fun. I'm down for a bike ride, just as long as I can linger in the rear of the pack, so I can really wallow in being the last-place loser I felt like. I was always down for a neighborhood-wide game of manhunt, since it offered solid crying-in-the-neighbor's-bushes time. It gave me even more motivation to find a great hiding spot. You might be shocked to learn that no, these coping mechanisms did not work out in the long term.
Not Being Able To Talk About It Turned Me Into A Bully
Humans have a horrible tendency to deal with negative feelings by making others feel even worse. Some kids master this at an early age. At least, I did.
One afternoon on the school playground, a friend said something which, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have cared about one way or another. Since I was on a depressed quest for vengeance against no one in particular, I angrily told him that if he didn't shut up, I was going to spit on him. I then said that all eight or nine of us standing around in a circle talking would also spit on him (none of them had actually agreed to that).
He didn't speak for the rest of the day. He told his parents, and his towering father, who I remember thinking looked like a hippie lumberjack, pulled me aside one afternoon. Rather than scold me, he told me that what I had done to his son was "very uncool." As a kid obsessed with trying to be cool, that was devastating. I had a sense that some adults knew more about what I was going through than I did. He was one of them.
Not that it made a difference. I got into a lot of fights. I lost most of them, and didn't care -- fighting felt good. It was a way to channel the anger while pretending I was a Power Ranger fighting another one of Rita Repulsa's hapless bad guys (it's important to keep picturing me as a small child through all of this). If anyone slighted me, no matter how insignificant the infraction, I would unleash every curse word I absorbed through the couple of R-rated movies I'd caught secretly on cable.
I became an expert at targeting my victims' most closely guarded insecurities with deadly precision (cruel people get that way via practice). Once, I asked a girl in my after-school care program if my friends and I could play Connect Four when she was done with it. She told me to get lost and stuck her tongue out. My human vulnerability sensors detected that she walked with noticeable limp, so I called her a cripple. She burst into tears.
I'm certain that this period of my life landed me a permanent spot on more than a few Kill Bill-style revenge lists. I was well on my way to being an adult with multiple felonies when my mom and school faculty started to piece together what was wrong.
I Had No Idea I Was Going Through Therapy
After my mom spoke to the administrative staff about how I was a walking cliche of troubled youth, I started seeing the school guidance counselor a couple of times a week to just talk. People may not realize that guidance counselors have degrees in educational psychology -- they're equipped to handle kids with mental health issues. They are the unsung heroes of any school, along with the janitors who clean up vomit and the lunch ladies who must heroically summon the will to not spit in the mashed potatoes every day. That's the Justice League that keeps a school running.
I had no idea I was going to therapy. I thought I'd won a lottery where I got to take an hour-long vacation from class a couple of times a week. I figured that if all I have to do to get out of class was rip out my heart, lay bare my soul, and reveal every dark twisted horrific thought rolling around in my childish little brain, then great! Better get a box of permission slips ready, because I'm about to miss so much class that by the time I get back, everyone's going to be uploading textbooks into their brain chips.
Everything I didn't know was tormenting me came to light without a hint of resistance. I wasn't put on medication, even though antidepressants are a common treatment for childhood depression. Someone just sat me down and asked me what was wrong. This helped tremendously. It still does.
I was fortunate in that this is all it took -- a chance to explore my mind with a trained professional who knew how to sweet-talk kids into spilling their guts. It instilled in me tools I still use today, and it makes one wonder how many kids need this but don't get it.
Earlier, I said that 2 percent of prepubescent kids suffer from depression. That figure comes from this study, which also points out that it's hard as hell to spot it. Depressed kids may only complain of physical things (like bellyaches), and may even excel in school. Some channel their low self-esteem into attempts to please everyone, rather than just becoming an an angry little shithead. Still, if you see a raging little monster on a path to becoming a terrifying adult, remember that they may be one trained professional away from turning their life around.
Childhood is rough stuff. Remember, Disney movies will always be there for you.
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