What Goes Unnoticed: My Struggle With Depression

By James Finn

For most students, waking up in the morning is a chore. Hearing a blaring iPhone alarm at 7:00 in the morning instantly makes most teenagers irritable. But for me, and for the other 3 million Americans who struggle with depression, getting out of bed is one of many daily tasks that takes on another level of difficulty. Often, it can feel physically impossible. This morning, for example, I felt overcome by a deadening sense of lethargy that made dragging myself from my bed and into the shower a half-hour ordeal.

For the past nine months I have struggled with what was recently confirmed to me by a physician as “atypical depression,” the most common form of the illness, which is characterized by all of the stereotypical symptoms: lethargy, lack of motivation, hopelessness, deep sadness, and generally feeling disconnected. Depression seemed to strike all at once, after an encounter I had with an acquaintance who was contemplating suicide, but I had been struggling for a long time up to that point without realizing it. These nine months have been easily the most challenging period of my life.

On the surface, I fit the profile of your typical, functioning Tam student who has enjoyed many of the benefits that a place like Marin County has to offer. I’m an involved student, a committed athlete, an engaged member of Tam’s community through basketball, the Tam News, and Link Crew. I resemble hundreds of other kids at Tam who lead happy, full, engaged lives. I have plenty of people I’m close to. The circumstances present in my life are nowhere near as challenging as those faced by some Tam students on a daily basis. And because of all of this, most people who I’ve told I’m dealing with depression first responded by saying that they never would have guessed that there was anything wrong had I not told them. They have difficulty understanding how someone can smile and appear happy and can still be coping with this crippling illness.  It seems I’m too well-adjusted, too social, too successful, headed to too-good of a college to be unhappy. But my pursuit of all of these ideals constitutes a large part of the very reason that I am struggling.

The most misunderstood aspect of depression is that it is a true disease, an illness caused by neurological  imbalances in the mind that completely alter the ability to function as a normal, happy human being. Often, it arises in situations that would seem inconsequential to most people. Getting out of bed in the morning is just one of many daily tasks that becomes difficult when coping with this crippling imbalance.  Throughout the school day, I’m overcome by a deadening, enveloping, all-consuming lack of interest in absolutely anything—even subjects that have seized my interest for years. In a 2014 TED Talk, Andrew Solomon described depression  by saying that “happiness is not the opposite of depression—vitality is.”

That vitality is replaced by an equally powerful and enveloping sense of insidious hopelessness that makes me feel quite literally as though I will neither be happy again nor find interest in anything, and this feeling can persist for days without diminishing. I’m a huge Golden State Warriors fan, but I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed watching a game. Game One of the Western Conference Finals was yesterday, and I just wasn’t interested. I’ve loved English and writing ever since I can remember, but as I write this, the thought of sitting through another AP Lit class seems like nothing more than a mundane chore.

Social interaction can feel like a total pain, too—carrying on a simple conversation at break between third and fourth period isn’t always as easy as it seems. And as I walk to my car from class after school lets out, I’m often struck by an inexplicable urge to cry.

Depression can arise for a variety of reasons. Many complex, personal factors contributed to its onset in my case, but environmental factors obviously play a huge role as well—especially where we live. Marin County is one of the most affluent, high-achieving, privileged communities in the world. This reality affords us a myriad of advantages such as privilaged education, comfortable housing, opportunities to play youth sports, and access to college education after high school, but our community also perpetuates extreme pressures that can have seriously detrimental effects on students’ well being. Your “ideal” Marin County high schooler is good-looking, college-bound (preferably to a top-tier, competitive university), athletic, involved in a wealth of after-school activities, but still finds time to be exceedingly social. And many kids here are incredibly successful in all of these areas. Our senior class is sending dozens of students to schools such as Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, and Cal. These are truly incredible achievements, but when this becomes the standard for all students, unhealthy pressure is inevitable.

This all came as a surprise to me when I arrived at Tam from a small middle school in San Francisco. Over my first few weeks, I remember being completely overwhelmed by the girl in my English class who told me she had never received a B in middle school, the boy who had already made varsity water polo, and the hundreds of kids who seemed to devote so much time to their social lives outside of the classroom. I saw all of this, and immediately felt that I needed to conform to these archetypes in order to become an integrated, accepted, thriving member of Tam’s community. An unhealthy amount of my self worth began to ride on the pursuit of these traits. I know that I’m not the only student who has felt this pressure, and I’m definitely not the only student who has felt its negative repercussions.

The realization that wealth, affluence, and privilege can contribute to stress and mental health problems is hardly a new one. Over the past several years the New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post have reported extensively on the so-called “suicide clusters” that have plagued the two high schools in Palo Alto. Palo Alto is very similar to Marin demographically, and students in the area are subjected to many of the same parental, social, and college-related pressures. Besides the widespread news reporting, books such as “The Price of Privilege” (written by Madeline Levine, a Marin adolescent psychologist) explore the cost of living in a communities such as Marin and Palo Alto.

People are aware of this issue. What’s frustrating is that, as college admission becomes more competitive and high school becomes an ever-more intense proving ground as a result, more money, energy, and resources are thrown into producing “perfect” students instead of into combatting this problem. Something has to give, and in Palo Alto, that something happened to be teenagers’ lives.

Although I have never felt the urge to take my own life, the frustration, hopelessness, and anger that these students must have felt ring true for me.

Since September I’ve taken many steps to counter the effects of my depression, and I’m now in a better place. I’ve relied on medication, have used talk therapy, and I’ve thrown myself into exercise, writing, work, and spending time with my friends, when I can summon the motivation to do so. These activities all provide relief from the feelings of hopelessness, lethargy, and self-deprecation, but I would tell anyone struggling with the illness not to expect too much from these support systems— they may not make depression go away in a few days, weeks, or even months. Struggling with depression is really, really hard. But with time, effort, and growth, it will get better. Grit your teeth, accept the fact that you will struggle, try not to beat yourself up too much over that fact, GET HELP, and make an effort to “endure, and preserve yourself for better things,” as Virgil said. It should be noted that depression affects people in vastly different ways, though, and this advice won’t be valuable for everyone.

For six months, the only people who knew what I was struggling with were my parents and my therapist. I wrote this piece partially because getting all of this out was therapeutic, but also because I hope that my voice will resonate for other students who have struggled with the same pressures I have, who fit the same profile. There are no clear-cut ways to eliminate these pressures—how do you approach a problem that is such an ingrained part of our school and our society as a whole? But I hope that this piece will, at the very least, prompt conversations that will lead us to begin to alleviate some of the crushing pressures (the constant college talk, anxiety about grades, and social pressures) that many of Tam’s students confront every day.