Though I struggled with depression for much of my adolescence, my mental illness journey began not with me, but with my sister. She was battling bipolar disorder when the only things that I was concerned about were Pop Warner football and video games. In the span of two years during high school, she was hospitalized multiple times for suicidal thoughts and went through multiple medications and therapists. At the time, neither my parents nor I understood what she was going through. However, as I grew older and ran into issues of my own, I began to understand her fight, as well as the fight I was in for on the road to recovery. I credit much of the success I have had to watching her battle and ultimately beat her illness.
Starting high school may be difficult for everyone, but I had a particularly hard time adjusting. I was the youngest in my grade by a considerable margin; I turned fourteen in February of my freshman year. This made me an easy target, especially for the upperclassmen. I was hazed mercilessly by the seniors and juniors on my football team and was somewhat of a social pariah among my peers. As a young teenager I had heard of depression and mental illness, but never made the connection that there was something else at play beyond the problems I encountered in my high school environment. The mixture of abuse I received at school and a lack of a proper way to express my emotions led me to begin self-harming. This was an on-and-off behavior for me throughout high school, the longest period of inactivity being close to six months. Despite telling myself that each time was the last, whenever I eventually became overwhelmed by my emotions the first thing I reached for was a razorblade. At this point in my life I was only fighting the behavior, not the cause. It was the physical effects of cutting that upset me: the scars, the blood, and the judgmental looks. In my altered state of mind, I saw no problem with the way in which I was dealing with my emotions.
By the time I was a senior, the constant abuse I received at school made getting out of bed a task that increased in difficulty for me with each passing day. The tipping point was in October of 2012, when I tore my shoulder during football practice. Though I finished the season, I learned that I would need months of physical therapy and would not be able to play lacrosse in the spring, a sport that I loved as much or more than football. I stopped doing homework and began to eat and sleep excessively. I would come home from school, go to my physical therapy appointment, then come home around 5pm, cut if I was having an especially bad day, and sleep until I had to get up for school the next day. Every time I laid my head on the pillow I wished that I could sleep forever. The thing I dreaded above all else was waking up and continuing my life the next morning.
After several weeks, my parents confronted me about my slipping grades and unhealthy sleep habits. After a lengthy screaming match, I finally broke down and told them everything: the self-harm, the depression, the lack of will to live. After going through the same situation with my sister, my parents were quick to act. A week later, I started biweekly appointments with a therapist and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy. This was the turning point in my life; I was no longer a victim, I was fighting back. After almost two months of therapy sessions, some that left me in laughter and more that left me in tears, I had my first major breakthrough. February 21st, 2013 was the last day in my life that I self-harmed. The next day was my seventeenth birthday and I woke up with the resolve to put that part of my life behind me. Along with my sister, I credit my therapist, Melissa, for helping me get on track and deal with all of the things in my life that were causing my depression. Without them, I firmly believe that I would still be caught in a whirlpool, being drowned by my mental illness. Upon the urging of my therapist, I went to a psychiatrist in May of 2013. Melissa believed that medication would benefit me greatly, an idea that my psychiatrist agreed with. I was diagnosed with major depression and prescribed an SSRI. This was another major milestone in my life. I was getting the help that I needed without being judged. Though the medication did (and continues to) impact my mind and help immensely, the coping mechanisms that I developed over the months with my therapist are the most important things that I picked up on my journey. These will be with me for life and I can always turn to them in times of need, rather than to a razorblade.
Unlike many who suffer from mental illness, I was able to receive treatment relatively early in my life. For that, I am incredibly thankful. By the time I started college in the fall of 2013, I had developed all of the tools I needed to take control and prevent my depression from controlling my life. Though I faced adversity during my first semester in college, I was able to manage my depression with the help of my support network of family and friends; not once did I succumb to my illness. There were times that I felt I had hit rock bottom emotionally; there were times that I thought about taking up a blade for release. Fortunately, I was always able to stop myself. It may be cliché, but the quote that ran through my mind as I was battling the urge to relapse was “If I fail now I will be back to where I started, and when I started I was desperately wishing to be where I am today.” As I continue with my college career, I am locked in a constant struggle and the fear of relapsing into my old behaviors hangs over my head. Even so, I am determined to lead a life no different from my peers. I have come to terms with the fact that my depression has no bearing on the person I am or the person I strive to become.
Very few people are aware that I suffer from depression. There was a time when I was ashamed of myself for being weak and abnormal; I hid my condition from the world. At this point in my life, depression controlled me. I was passive and did not want to speak up for fear of ridicule and judgment. Today, there is an entirely different reason that my illness is not known to many around me. Now, my depression is just another fact of life. It is something that I live with, but not something that handicaps me in any way. I realize that I am not deficient or inadequate in any way. My journey has helped me realize that the stigma associated with mental illness is senseless. I am not any different or less of a person because I suffer from a mental illness; I am Nathaniel Mann, and I am not defined by my depression.
Nathaniel is an 18 year old college student from Englishtown, New Jersey. He is currently studying English and working to support his reading and writing habit. Nathaniel is the younger brother to an aspiring doctor and de facto parent to two cats. Someday he hopes to be a struggling writer, but for now is content with being a struggling college student.
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