(Content Notice: Suicidal ideation, suicide attempt. If you’re contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 911. These services provide free, confidential support 24 hours/day and can assist you with finding the resources you need to get help. Also, reach out to a friend or family member for support—you don’t have to struggle alone or in silence.)
I don’t remember ever being formally diagnosed with depression as a teenager. Instead, the symptoms seemed to collect inside me over time, until it just hit me the way you’re jolted with a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, or you suddenly remember the one item you forgot to get at the supermarket. I knew what I was feeling was more than just the blues or typical teen angst. I was lucky enough to have a lot of friends when I was younger, and from what I could gather, no other 14-year-old I knew asked their parents how many Advil it would take to kill a person or wrote suicide notes in their diary after school. Even at that age, I had enough intuition to know that whatever was wrong with me was bigger than I was, bigger than I could handle on my own. I had no idea it would be a journey I’d be on for the rest of my life.
But what I do remember is being 15, standing in my living room, and telling my mother that I thought I was depressed. Her response? She asked me if I was on my period.
“No,” I said. “Why would that matter?”
“It could just be PMS,” she said. “It’ll probably pass.”
I insisted it was more than PMS—I told her that I was sad all the time, and I wanted to talk to someone about it.
A year before, my parents had forced me to see a counselor after a failed suicide attempt in eighth grade, but the experience was a disaster. The session was doomed from the start, most notably, because I wasn’t willing and ready to talk about what was going on inside my brain. I was embarrassed to be there, embarrassed to admit I had wanted to die so badly that I swallowed pills from my parents’ medicine cabinet without even looking at the label. Unforgettably, my attempt ended with me vomiting on my bathroom floor.
In addition, my entire family was asked to come to that first appointment, which included my father, whom I hated, and had never been to so much as a soccer game, and my two little sisters, who were far too young to understand depression, suicide, and hopelessness. I was uncomfortable and angry, and I refused to speak the entire hour. Needless to say, I never went back.
“You’re so young,” my mother told me. “Just wait and see if your mood changes.”
But in the living room on this particular day, I realized I didn’t want to wait. So, I went into my mother’s purse, took out her wallet, and found her insurance card. I called the customer service number on the back as my heart raced and my mind searched for what I would say.
Should I pretend to be my mom? Would they even buy that? What if they won’t even talk to me because I’m just a kid?
When a real person finally picked up the phone, the words just came to me: “Hello, my name is Brittany Kerfoot, and I need a therapist.”
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The rest of the conversation is a blur—I don’t recall setting up my first appointment, or even how I got to it. But I know I felt hopeful that this would be the first step to feeling better. Maybe giving a voice to my dark thoughts and having a professional validate those feelings as more than PMS, more than just a bad mood, would put me on a path to recovery instead of just grappling in the dark.
The therapy office was tastefully decorated, and I sat down on a couch surrounded by more pillows than any one person would ever need. My therapist was an older woman with glasses, who was missing part of her ring finger on her right hand. She was kind to me, and she told me that she was proud of me for seeking help.
I cried in her office that day, unabashed, and I told her about my abusive father, my abusive boyfriend, and how I often wanted to die. I spoke about the hopelessness I felt, and how I lay awake in bed at night wishing that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. She was the first person to ever openly acknowledge my pain, and the one who led me to my diagnosis—major depressive disorder and anxiety.
Over the next several weeks, we talked about medication, and she started me on a low dose of Prozac. When that wasn’t working, we tried something new. I trusted her; I grew to love her.
And then, my father forbade me to see her again.
“I am not going to pay some woman to tell my daughter everything is my fault,” he said after he asked me what I talked about in therapy, and I told him he was a frequent topic of our conversations.
I cried and pleaded, but it was no use—I never returned to the therapist I’d grown so fond of seeing.
Looking back on my teenage years, I know that my mother denied my depression because she couldn’t handle the guilt of passing along this disease to me, her eldest daughter. Every living female in my family has some form of mental illness: My grandmother has severe anxiety, my aunt is bipolar, my mother is manic-depressive, and my sisters both take medication for anxiety and depression like I do. I know my mom was ashamed of her illness, and even now, she will not admit just how sick she really is. I also know how brave I was to decide not to live that way, to make the call myself, and get help—even when I was scared.
Now, I live my life like an open book. For so long, I was taught to deny who I was and pretend what I was feeling wasn’t really happening. I have a mental illness, and I will have it for the rest of my life. No amount of therapy, pills, or yoga will change the wiring inside me. I will never be able to feel “normal” without medication; even with it, I will still always struggle. Clinical depression is not a mood that just goes away or a phase that passes with the seasons. Depression is part of who I am, and when I fully accepted that, I finally began to feel at peace with this hand I was dealt.
Depression isn’t a death sentence; it doesn’t mean you’re incapable of experiencing joy, or true love, or even happiness. My life with depression looks different from day to day, and just when things start to look up, it sneaks up on me and knocks me down again. But I have to get back up. I have to be stronger than my disease. I can’t let it beat me.
To my young self, I want to reach out to the child I used to be and tell her that she’s not alone. I want to give her all the love and support she never got, and squeeze her hand when she thinks about giving up. I want her to know that she’s strong, and I’m proud of her.
Since high school, I’ve seen many different therapists: traditional therapists, art therapists, and licensed social workers. I’ve even had an eating disorder counselor tell me she could no longer see me because “I wasn’t ready to get better.” I’ve been on all kinds of medications, from Celexa to Xanax to herbal supplements. I’ve taken up yoga and even tried my hand at meditation. I also write—I write in my journal, and I write essays like this one. I write for myself, and to let others know they’re not alone. I write to bring this invisible disease into the light, to prove that even if you can’t cure it, you can live alongside it and learn how to be okay with it.
Brittany Kerfoot is a writer and educator living in Washington, DC with her husband and their beloved rescue pets. She received her MFA in Creative Writing in 2015, and when she’s not freelancing, she teaches English at George Mason University and is at work on her first novel. You can see her complete publication history on her website at www.brittanykerfoot.com.