Alone. Numb. Weird. Different. Terrified. Tired. Misunderstood. Worried. Anxious. Sad.
We’ve all felt these feelings at some point in our lives. Usually they are only temporary feelings but for many that’s not the case. And when these feelings last, sometimes we feel like there is something wrong with us and we can't tell anyone because no one would understand. That simply isn't true.
I know from firsthand experience what it feels like to live with anxiety. As a young girl I had a fantastic imagination that helped me dream up wonderful stories and entertain my family and friends. But when left unchecked it also made me think up horrible scenarios – tragic things happening to those I love, grave diagnoses not based on reality, crazy wild dreams that terrified me. When simple worry becomes all consuming – that’s anxiety. The worry and the need for control over everything is exhausting. It’s taken years of therapy and support to keep that anxiety in check so I can use it for good, not evil.
I’ve also seen depression – up close and personal - when my son William, a high school junior at the time, came to my room one night to tell me something important. I could tell when he walked it that it was serious so when he asked “Mom, can we talk?” I stopped everything to listen. I had no idea what his next words would be or that this was the beginning of a life changing journey, I just knew that he was hurting and he needed to talk.
He went on to say that he was depressed, seriously depressed and had been for a long time.
It blew me away – I had no idea. You see, what he presented on the outside was a happy go lucky kid his whole life. He was up early and out the door every day ready to take on the world. When he was home he was laughing at funny videos in his room, hanging out with friends and involved in all the things he loved. So I was confused by what he was saying. I didn’t understand that what we “think” depression looks like it’s always what it “actually” looks like.
He didn’t look like depression. He looked like happiness.
As his mother, wouldn’t I know if he was depressed? As a parent all we really want is for our kids to be happy – so what do you do when you find out they aren’t? Thankfully I didn’t say any of that out loud – something made me sit there quietly and just listen to him. This wasn’t about me or what I thought – this was about him and what he was going through. His Dad was out that evening so when he got home we filled him in. I had not be able to “warn him” about what he was walking into when he came into our bedroom that night but no need to worry, he was amazing. He sat down and joined our conversation – he listened to Will’s confession – and we now we were all in this together. The weight that was lifted off Will’s shoulders was practically visible. Together we all came up with a plan of what to do next. Did we say and do all the right things that night – I don’t know, probably not. But I do know this, we were going to face this together and there absolutely is “strength in numbers.”
Will told us that he’d been struggling for years – years – since he was nine he later told me. He hadn’t told us sooner because he didn’t understand it himself. He didn’t understand his feelings – and since he didn’t understand them, he couldn’t find the words to adequately describe them to us so he kept them inside. Alone. He must have felt very alone during those years. He also said that he didn’t want to tell us because he didn’t want us to worry. It must have been terrifying for him – his thoughts and feelings must have terrified him and he didn’t want to burden us with that. Oh, that really broke my heart.
Here was my son - my sweet, kind, beautiful son standing before me revealing things to me that I never saw, never knew and he was being so strong and brave. I was in awe.
He only told us that night because a teacher he’d confided in insisted that he tell us. They said they could listen and understand but only we could help him. They will always hold a special place in my heart - such a special place.
That night changed our lives. Though Will’s journey through depression started years before, our journey as a family started that night. There were many ups and downs and many, many tears. Many times we second guessed what we were doing and many times we wondered if it would ever get better. It’s not a road I would wish on anyone. It’s filled with uncertainty, helplessness, trial and error, steps forward and back. It’s a dark and bumpy road but it’s taken us to places we otherwise never would have gone.
It’s made us even closer as a family, and most importantly, it’s made Will the man he is today. He’s gone from not being able to articulate his depression to speaking publicly and quite eloquently about it. He’s gone from being alone in his pain and suffering to being a warrior for those with mental health issues – and he’s taken us with him. He’s gone from asking for help to helping others.
Through our journey we have found that talking about mental health will not make it manifest in your child. Talking helps to put words to their feelings – the first step to getting help.
We desperately want to change the narrative around mental health. The statistics on teen suicides are heartbreaking. We are speaking out to let people know “you are not alone.” The shame and stigma that needlessly surround mental health issues keep many people isolated and so they suffer alone in silence. But those simple words – you are not alone – can change and even save lives.
Those four words say what other words can’t – I see you, I hear you, I believe you and though I don’t have the answer, the solution or the magic pill to make it all go away, you will not go through this by yourself. Anyone who has been through a difficult time knows that it can be very lonely – no one understands, no one has been through this, no one can help me are just some of the lies we tell ourselves. But when you tell someone or ask for help, your whole world changes – you are not alone anymore. You have support, encouragement and compassion and you can start to see the daylight again.
Not long ago someone close to me reached out to say her friend was thinking of harming herself. She was concerned and though she urged her to tell her parents, her friend said they just didn’t understand. I get it, I didn’t understand either – I wanted to think it was just a passing phase, normal sadness, or something that would go away. I wanted my son to be happy - but depression doesn’t work that way. So she was reaching out to me because she knew what Will went through and she wanted to help her friend – she wanted her friend to know that she was not alone. So we came up with a plan – she would go with her friend to see the school’s counselor (she’d already offered this but her friend was unsure). My niece promised me that if her friend wouldn’t go with her that she would go by herself and explain to the counselor what was going on. If needed, she would be the one to ask for help – because she recognized that she could not do this alone.
Here’s to all those who think they are alone – we see you. We’re with you. I promise you that you are not alone - there are so many people like you who stand with you.
Will now sees his depression as a gift – something I never could have imagined on that night so many years ago. Truly – a gift. He said it really made him look at himself and at what was important. It changed him – and he’s thriving now because of it. He told me that he knows he will live with it forever but now he knows what do to if he feels he’s spiraling down – he’s learned coping mechanisms that work for him.
As he told me, “We learned, suffered, and grew through all that together.” Together, not alone.
You are not alone...
If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website or call their helpline 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). In an emergency, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.
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