May 7-13 is CMHA Mental Health Week. This week let’s #GetLoud, end stigma, and have meaningful conversations.
Don’t let the title fool you: this isn’t a reflective piece that explores all the ways in which a job with the youths has made me depressed. (I’m assuming everyone is pessimistic like me and came here to commiserate). Quite the opposite in fact!
I have depression and I’m here to tell you that even though my job sometimes consists of sweeping cracker crumbs out of furniture crevices, taking dick drawings down from our Teen Talk Bulletin Board, and hearing over and over that I am both a) short and b) old (btw I’m 27 but in teen years that’s basically 74), my job is incredibly rewarding and has taught me a lot about depression and mental health. *Considers where to put in the line, “Indeed, they teach me more than I teach them.”*
Speaking Out Is Important
A little background about myself: I was born in the 90s to a conservative-ass mother and stoned-ass father in a town of about 3000. Soooo basically growing up with depression was hell. The thing is, I didn’t even know I had depression until I was about 26 (which was last year…) because NO ONE EVER TALKED ABOUT IT.
When I was a kid, I remember I would throw up all the time because I was so anxious about stuff. Like, I literally slept with a cup of water beside my bed because I was worried about my room catching fire. Then as a pre-teen I started feeling sad a lot. As a teen I felt really sad a lot and like everything was exploding all around me. As a young adult, I felt the same, only worse. And then, lo and behold, I was 26 and in the emergency room because I couldn’t handle how fucking sad I was anymore and I knew if I didn’t get help now I would totally sink into my own head. So, uh, bit of a rough go there.
I remember, especially in my early 20s, some friends of mine tried to talk to me about how they thought I was depressed. I was so indignant. “Um no, I’m just a brooding artist who makes cool art when they are sad, and maybe I drink too much and that’s kind of making me sad too, but like everything is fine, I’m just all dark and creative.” (Remind me to tell you guys later about some of my dark art stuff). I couldn’t believe what they were saying to me. But when they got up the nerve to recommend that I get medication I really lost it.
The reality is, I was always super willing to express myself. Regardless of the emotion I was feeling, I was always able to articulate what it was. But when I reached out to my parents about feeling sad, lonely, and hopeless about the future, my dad would respond by cracking a beer for me (yup even though I was 16) and my mom would usually stonewall me for being dramatic. So naturally, I didn’t have a healthy view of managing emotions.
There was also the unspoken rule in my school that people weren’t struggling with mental health, they were just “living with hormones,” “annoyingly emotional,” and “dramatic.” That last one was specially reserved for the girls.
I went to the guidance counselor, talked to my teachers, talked to friends. And yet… no one was able to tell me what I needed to hear: you have a real illness, and that’s okay.
Fast forward to 2017 when I’m 26 and finally accept that I have depression and need medication. The day I take my first pill is the day I promise to not be ashamed of the fact that I have an illness. I always used to joke about my asthma and tendency to gain weight easily, so why the hell not joke about this as a way to own it? But it wasn’t until I really started getting to know my teens at the library that I realized just how important owning it and speaking out really was.
When my teen programs end, we inevitably get a few stragglers in the room. I used to find it frustrating, but now I value this time as an opportunity to get to know the teens. It’s amazing how easily they will open up as long as they have someone to listen to. In these quiet moments, many of the teens have confessed to me that they think they have depression. And it truly comes off like that, like a confession; they shift their eyes nervously about the room, lower their voice, and say it as if they’ve just committed their first murder (does that make it sound like they might commit more?). And it happens with almost all of them.
From these interactions I have learned that today’s teens may not have it any easier than we did, and that they are still living with misconceptions about mental illness and a fear of being stigmatized. The best way to eradicate this? SPEAK OUT! Educate people, talk openly about it, make it seem like even though it sucks and is hard to deal with, it’s nothing to be ashamed of! The more my teens tell me about their struggles with mental illness, the more committed I am to talking about my own in an effort to help normalize it.
A Support Network is Key
Talking is a great way to start breaking down barriers, but finding your support group is so important to maintaining good mental health.
Personally, my own depression has left me feeling outcast more times than I can count. It’s been hard finding the right people to confide in about it. But, as those who suffer from depression know, isolating yourself can make things so much worse. When you find the people who can support you, it makes a huge difference.
The teens have certainly picked up on this as well. I’ve seen so many of them admit to someone in the group that they are suffering, and it almost always attracts other teens who want to share as well. When this happens, a community is formed where no one is judged and everyone feels supported. Watching this always makes me emotional because I think back to when I was a teen and needed (but didn’t get) the support I was looking for.
Pretending To Be Strong Makes You Realize You Actually Are
This is a big one for me. I take my job really seriously and I always strive to be a good role model for the teens. (I mean, they don’t know that I binge drank on the weekend or spent my last 10$ on scented candles instead of food, but it’s fine).
Sometimes I get to work and need to shut off the lights in my office and cry for a bit while listening to Ben Howard. I usually try to do this before the customers get arrive. And while I know they would be supportive if I just admitted that I was having a rough day, I find it gives me strength to pretend that I’m doing just fine.
When the teens get here, it helps me get out of my head when I engage with them. Particularly if they are struggling with something, listening to them and talking to them about what they could do really pulls me out of myself.
In trying to stay calm when the teens piss me off, I take deep breaths and remind myself why I love this job. And even though sometimes I doubt myself and want to lose my fucking shit, I still smile and pretend that I got dis.
At the end of the day after pretending to be confident, happy, sure, and a good role model, I realize something important: I actually am those things. It’s like when an actor commits so fully to a role they start to think they really are that person! (That’s a thing that happens right?) I don’t know if it’s just my brain responding to the muscles in my face reluctantly forming into a smile, but after 8 hours of fake-niceness, I feel fucking awesome.
Now on the flip side of pretending to be strong….
It’s Okay To Admit That You Feel Like Shit and Need Help
I’m going to admit that this is still something I struggle with. I’ve pretty much nailed the pretending to be okay until I actually feel okay thing. But sometimes, asking for help can seem like the most daunting task of all.
As I mentioned before, the teens are really good at sourcing out their support network. What I have realized is that the teens will openly and readily tell someone when they are not okay. This happens in my programs all the time. Their peers will be there to offer help, a hug, or an off colour joke that kind of makes me want to discipline them, but works in the moment for the person who is crying.
What I realize in these moment is that teens are stronger than so many adults who’d rather swallow their emotions than reach out for support. It takes courage to admit your vulnerability, but the return is often worth it.
Having a Sense of Purpose Makes Functioning with Depression a LOT Easier
My purpose of course is working with these teens who have enlightened me in so many ways. “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I used to cringe when I heard that shit. Then again, that’s when I was working for 13$ an hour at a sales job that made me want to die. Waking up with depression is hard enough. But waking up to go to a job that barely pays your bills and gives your life no meaning? Pretty much impossible.
Things are so different now. My job has given me a sense of purpose. I feel like I matter and that my work is important. I feel like I am contributing, and most days I look forward to coming to work. Some days, when things are really bad, I even come in early because I have found a sense of community here; just being in this spot puts me at ease. But it’s more than just having a comfortable place to go outside of my head and home. It’s that for once, I have internalized that I am good at something, that I can do something, and that I can be successful even though I have a mental illness.
This job has given me so much confidence. As a result I was able to leave an unhealthy relationship without crumbling. I am able to see a future for myself, and I am pushed and challenged each day; that is how I will keep growing.
Working with teens can be unforgiving sometimes. They don’t always listen to me, they talk back, they put me in situations that I have no idea how to handle, and they always find a way to stink up the program room with a combination of Axe and B.O. But they have brought so much purpose into my life and taught me so many things. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.