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How My Group Helped Me Fight Depression
I learned my depression is nothing to hide
D.S.
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“Last night I was a four and now I’m a two,” one kid said. I didn’t know what he was talking about. As Steve, the program coordinator, called on other teens in the group, a dozen of them said similar things, adding on a goal for the day at the end. Then Steve turned to me. “All right, Dina—now I’m going to ask you to introduce yourself, and tell us a little about why you’re here,” he said.

Now? Just like that? What was I supposed to say? That I was here because my dad died and I had stopped going to school and I needed to do something? And I had to say it to a room full of strangers?

I had struggled with depression and anxiety on and off for nearly five years. I only talked to a few of my close friends about it, but by sophomore year of high school, everyone at school could tell something was going on. Ever since my dad had died in the middle of freshman year, I’d been missing school a lot, sometimes for weeks at a time.

But if anyone asked where I’d been, I just said I hadn’t been feeling well. After a while, they learned to stop asking. I avoided the subject at all costs. Sometimes, that was why I didn’t go to school. I was ashamed and didn’t want to have to explain to anyone that I was depressed. I was sure they would’ve been puzzled by the idea that living was so incredibly difficult.

But living was difficult for me. Depression makes everything difficult. It takes over your body, mind, and spirit. Simple things like getting up in the morning can take so much effort that by the time you do it, you’re so tired that you need to lie back down.

By the middle of my junior year, I was sick of struggling every day, always having trouble getting to school. I decided something had to change. With the help of my psychiatrist, I decided to go to Four Winds, a psychiatric treatment center in Westchester, New York, that has programs specifically for adolescents. I wanted to be rid of my depression, or at least learn how to deal with it. I ended up learning a lot more than I expected.

I started commuting to Four Winds each day to take part in a three-month program. When I got there on the first day, I waited anxiously for my group therapy to begin. This was the morning check-in group, the staff told me, during which we were supposed to say how our night was and choose a goal for the day, anything from talking more in groups to not arguing with staff.

When they asked me to introduce myself, I spoke softly. “Um, I’m Dina. I’m here because I guess I’ve just been having, um, a lot of trouble, like, getting to school lately…”

Some of the other teens asked questions. I liked the easy ones.

“Where are you from?”

“Manhattan.”

image by Thaynia Waldron

Then someone asked why I wasn’t going to school.

“Well, my, uh, father died a couple years ago, and since then I, it’s been, um, kind of hard for me to, um, go to school because of…depression,” I said.

Steve explained that the numbers corresponded to feelings, one being great, five being in crisis. He asked me what I was at the moment. “Um, about a…a three?” I said, meaning that I was so-so. They moved on to the next person, and I became a bit closer to a 2.5.

We spent most of our time at Four Winds in various groups. Each group had a different aim, like discussing family conflict or medications. In the psychodrama group, we acted out situations and figured out how to respond. There was even a sharing group, where we had the opportunity to show other participants anything that we did or made, like art or photography. There was school for a couple of hours a day. And after lunch, we usually had a bit of downtime where we just hung around and talked.

As the days went by and the routines and people became more familiar, I became more comfortable there. I talked more about my feelings in group therapy. I began to give advice as well as take it. During sharing group, I sang. But I had to push myself to do all this. I still felt ashamed of being depressed and being at a treatment center.

One day, after a few weeks in the program, I woke up and my mood was pretty low. On the train to Four Winds, I only felt worse. By the time group therapy began, I was feeling suicidal. I surprised myself by telling everyone at group that morning. I had sometimes told people about being suicidal once I felt better, but I had never told anyone I was suicidal while I still felt it. I was nervous that people would get really worried about me and just feel bad.

Other kids in the group started saying things like, “You’re such a great person,” and, “We would be so upset if you died,” and, “Think about your family and friends.” It was nice to hear I was wanted, but it didn’t help much. I still felt terrible, and their words did not make me want to live.

Then a girl named Melanie spoke. “But when you’re suicidal, you’re selfish. You’re not thinking about all the other people. You’re so upset that nothing else matters. You can’t worry about how other people would feel. You’re too focused on how you’re feeling.”

I was in shock. All I could say was, “Yeah, exactly!” She knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She knew it and she could say it. I’d never really put what I felt into words before, but whatever I was feeling, I didn’t think it was OK to feel that way.

image by Thaynia Waldron

Melanie helped me realize what I was feeling: selfish. But not the kind of selfish you can help feeling, not the kind of selfish I should blame myself for feeling. Being suicidal meant all you could think about was how awful you felt, not about how it affected anyone else.

Melanie’s words made me realize that it was OK to feel that way at times. Sure, it wasn’t ideal to feel so down and I should work to change it if I could, but I realized I also shouldn’t beat myself up inside for being depressed. It was just the way I felt. I couldn’t help it; I didn’t ask for it.

Her words also made me feel a connection. Not just with Melanie, but with everyone who had been through depression. I realized that we all shared something special that no one else could understand. It was almost like I was part of a worldwide club filled with strangers who I would instantly feel comfortable talking to.

I could talk about my trouble getting to school, or being suicidal, or all the times I had hidden anxiety attacks in school. Talking to members of this “club” at Four Winds, hearing their experiences and relating mine to theirs, allowed me to be happy for the first time in years. It helped me to get things off my chest, and my new friends’ understanding responses helped even more. I had a support system. The feeling of complete loneliness withered away.

After that, when new people came to the program, I tried to make them comfortable. I showed them around, reassured them that this was a good place, asked them about their problems and often responded with my own story. I think it helped them, knowing they weren’t alone.

We had fun, too. You might not expect it in a place filled with depressed people, but we could laugh and smile and have a good time. My friends Rob and Zoe and I used to go down to school every morning and afternoon together. But we didn’t walk down the road from the main building to the school. We shuffled.

We shuffled our feet slowly but surely, all the while reminding each other and ourselves, “Shuffle!” It started out as a way to stall, but it became a way to make fun of ourselves. We joked about being mental patients, shuffling along the road rather than walking like “normal” people. Once a van drove by as we were shuffling along. “Ha ha, that van driver must know he’s in a mental hospital now,” Zoe laughed.

“Shuffle!” Rob shouted.

In unison, Zoe and I replied, “Shuffle!” And we continued, shuffling along to school.

image by Thaynia Waldron

In a way, our shuffling was the perfect metaphor for my entire experience at Four Winds. I took small steps, one at a time, and in the end, with others’ help and support, I got to my destination. I learned to accept my depression.

I also learned ways to cope with my depression, like opening up and talking to people about my issues while they were going on, not just afterward. I learned breathing exercises to help with my anxiety. And I learned that in order to feel less depressed, I needed to stop isolating myself and get involved in activities even when I didn’t feel like it.

Most of all, I was learning to feel comfortable in my own skin, comfortable with the fact that I was struggling, and even able to laugh and make fun of it. We all embraced our issues as a part of ourselves. In a way, I even began to be happy that I had struggled so hard, because it allowed me to go to Four Winds and meet these wonderful people I connected with so intensely. It was a connection that could only be made by fully understanding and talking about our hard times.

Leaving Four Winds after three months was extremely difficult. I loved my friends there. I didn’t want to leave that world, where people understood and accepted my many issues, and where everyone could relate to me. But my program was finished and it was time to go.

One day soon after I left, I was sitting in the student lounge back at my old school, talking with some classmates. Somehow we had gotten onto the subject of medications people were on, I think because someone mentioned his attention deficit disorder.

“Ah, medication. So helpful,” said Josh.

“I’ve been on everything,” I said. “All my craziness will get you to at least try just about everything. I never used to think of depression as a mental illness, but that’s what it is. I mean, clearly, with all these meds, I’m mentally ill,” I said, smiling. I was so used to it being normal to talk like this among my Four Winds friends that I had forgotten other people don’t see it this way.

No one said anything and an awkward silence filled the room. “And there goes my anxiety, skyrocketing,” I thought as I sat uncomfortably in the silence. But although it was awkward and I felt anxious, I’m glad I spoke about it. Hopefully, next time someone talks about mental illness with my classmates, particularly depression, they won’t feel quite as uncomfortable.

Depression isn’t a subject people talk about openly very often. When they do, it’s usually very serious. But that’s not how I talk about it now. I’m no longer ashamed of my struggles and I don’t want to go back to feeling that way. If it comes up, I tell my story, no matter who’s there. I let people know that there’s nothing to hide or be ashamed of. I do this in the hope that some day, depression will become less taboo.

I know depression doesn’t just go away. It continues to be a struggle for me and probably will be for quite some time. Luckily, I have the support of my friends from Four Winds who I’ve stayed in touch with. And although I’m still learning how to cope with my depression, I’ve taken the most important step—I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me.

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(NYC-2009-03-22)

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