My name is Lynn, and I'm so pleased you've come to visit my page. Here's a story that's sad but true. When I was in junior high and high school, I felt like I was a space alien dropped into the world and left there. It was awful. I had an illness that was invisible. You couldn't see it, couldn't hear it, in fact, my teachers and the other kids didn't even guess that what I had was an illness that might have a name. Instead, they saw it a personality flaw. It wasn't, though. Much later I discovered my illness was called Major Depression.
My parents were both very ill themselves, so they couldn’t help me. I was an only child and most of my parents’ relatives had died. But an older woman named T Ella gave me love and hope every chance she got. She lived too far away to visit more than twice a year, but she wrote kind letters I’ve saved all these years. She was a strong Black woman, orphaned at birth in Mississippi then starved and beaten by cruel foster parents. Yet somehow T Ella had grown into a kind and generous woman who was everybody’s friend.
I felt like a little gray creature looking up into a tree where rainbow-colored birds chirped and sang. I wondered why they hated me for being small and gray and voiceless, as if I wouldn’t fly and sing if only I could! It was so hard for me that for much of 9th grade I considered suicide. Luckily, though, I was smart, and I found that my overwhelmingly sad thoughts were softened a bit when I was reading. I especially enjoyed books about people who triumphed over their problems and made their world a better place.
Unfortunately, the culture of my school seemed to be anti-learning, so this strength took me even farther from the other kids. They seemed to think I got good grades just to make them feel bad. I tried hard to keep my chin up--but when your chin's up your nose is up too, and people thought I was "looking down my nose" at them. Someone took a photo of me studying and put it in the yearbook with the caption “Alas, what fools these mortals be!”
I couldn’t explain what was going on, since I didn’t know myself. Teachers said being teased was my fault for not being strong enough to fight back. It’s true that if I’d been stronger I might have just laughed off the kids who teased and maybe made friends. But I felt like I had no skin. Everything hurt me to the core, so I was always on guard for attacks. Instead of comforting myself I turned the pain inward, figuring that if I was being treated like a social leper I probably was one. I felt so frustrated. I just didn't know how to change things.
In our small country school, all the kids walked down a long hill to get to the gym. At the beginning of 10th grade a girl named Fredda suddenly stopped, turned to me, and announced that I was no longer welcome in the group. Nobody stood up for me. For the rest of the year I walked that long road alone, behind the clustered kids.
On those lonely walks I had plenty of time to look at the hayfields and sky and flowers that the brightly chattering girls didn’t seem to see. I thought of how T Ella was never bitter but always kind in spite of going through a lot worse problems than mine. By summer I knew two things: I was a very strong person--a survivor--and I could surely figure out a way around this problem.
At the start of 11th grade I befriended a couple of “unpopular” girls in other classes. After that, none of us had to be alone all the time. Talking with them didn’t banish my depression, because that came from my body chemistry. But it did help me feel less isolated.
Freshman year of college I tried out some of the "normal" behaviors I'd been silently memorizing and managed to fit in a little better. But I was so used to being socially ostracized that sometimes I worried that I might suddenly be exposed as an actress--an imposter!
Just before my second year of college my parents died and my depression deepened. Nobody in my little college had ever faced such a problem, as far as I could tell. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. I felt cruelly alone all over again. Then one day T Ella called.
She had always longed for a daughter, and I certainly needed a mother. “T” and her husband took me into their home. As I became an adult and got to know their wide range of friends, I gradually realized that feeling “different” is normal. It can happen to people because of race, culture, family history, an illness--many things. I stopped feeling like an imposter. I was simply a person who, like T Ella, had to face and overcome some very real problems. I lived with her five years, until I married.
Many years after the onset of my depression, thanks to a dogged search forhelp, I found a wonderful therapist and some useful medication. What a difference. I’ve been happily married a long time, and we have two children with joys and problems all their own.
As I began to feel better, I acquired a thirst for the knowledge that would help other people with depression. I had learned lessons through the pain of my experiences, and I wanted to share. So now I'm a doctoral student in clinical psychology, working mostly with adolescents and adults who have depression and anxiety disorders. It's so sad that people with symptoms of psychiatric illness are still widely seen as having "behavior" or "personality" problems that they could fix if they were just motivated and would give up their quest for "attention."
In psychology classes I learned about something called “the fundamental error of attribution.” When we observe our own behavior, we “attribute” it to our situation-- we know why we have to be that way. But when we observe other people’s behavior, we don’t really know their situation, so we “attribute” it to their personality. When we really get to know people who have depression or other psychiatric illnesses, we understand that they're searching for attention because they need it!
Depressed children and adolescents need empathic and resourceful parents and teachers who can help them learn to stop hating themselves and start healing from this painful illness. They also need classmates who try to understand. Most of all, they must dare to have hope.
Though it’s invisible, this is a very painful illness. It can have many causes, from body chemistry (such as a thyroid problem) to difficult life situations. And it can have all sorts of cures, from psychotherapy to medication. Sometimes it takes a long time to get better. But now--at last--this illness has a name. And the name is not “space alien” or “worthless person” or “social leper.” It’s just Depression.
Depression in children and adolescents
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Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468
Last updated: November 14, 2004