Sixteen in America

Vlad Chernolyasov

By all accounts, I have it together. To the outside, I’m your perfect American teenage girl. I live in a safe neighborhood, I have a supportive family, and I’m on the way to being class valedictorian. My Instagram feed shows me laughing with friends and playing the flute with the highest youth symphony in Portland. I spent last summer at Barnard College in New York City, and my private college counselor and I have spent countless hours narrowing down where I’ll spend my time after high school.

But inside, this means shit to me.

I take a pill every morning to fight the kicking and screaming of my own thoughts. First, it was Citalopram: twenty milligrams of an antidepressant that took away my anxiety, added to my depression, and made me gain weight. Then, it was Prozac: sixty milligrams of an antidepressant with side effects that were so painful, I would’ve rather been fat and on Citalopram. Now, I’m trying to figure out what’s next.

I'm at the mercy of my chemically imbalanced brain. It tells me to rip my eyebrows out. It tells me to stop eating, to stop talking to my friends, to stay in bed. It tells me that I don’t hate myself enough. And it told me for two weeks straight that I wasn’t able to write this paper.

Besides my brain, I’m not sure who or what to blame. I believe that society has contributed to raising a generation of more depressed teens. A Time article, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” gave me an idea to place some of the responsibility on the current social climate in America. When talking about teenagers today, Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote, “They are the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm.” Schrobsdorff says that living through a depressing era has hurt teens’ mental health. Further, she notes that my generation is the first to grow up in a time when technology is quickly changing the notion of reality. The media has provided a platform for mental illness to be moved to the forefront, though not necessarily in a positive light. Consider 13 Reasons Why or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where mental illness is the central theme of the show. Maybe our culture is responsible for some of my hurting.

Social media is another rapidly changing aspect of society that may play a role, but we may not fully understand the repercussions for another generation. I spend hours on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook pretending to be tuned into the real world, while actually trying to escape my own reality. I have so many “friends” following my social media accounts, but so few who actually know who I am. Perhaps this is because I have created a different version of myself on the internet, a digital identity, one that is carefully crafted so that others view me in the best light. According to my digital identity, my hair is soft and wavy, oftentimes blowing in the wind. I coyly smile from behind my Ray-Ban sunglasses. I spend my weekends going to coffee shops in Portland with my friends.

But my digital identity doesn’t brag about the weekends I so often spend stuck in my bed, paralyzed by my depression and anxiety. It neglects to mention the tireless self-loathing tape that plays in my head, one whose chorus sounds like my father’s voice talking about my “thunder thighs” and my “big, stupid mouth.”

A quick scroll on Instagram shows my friends at the beach with their tiny legs and tinier bathing suits, a pretty girl going to prom with her prettier boyfriend, and a girl I’ve never met on an incredible Europe trip with her even more incredible family. And while I realize that other people likely tailor their digital identity too, I am so engrossed in the contrast between their perfection and my imperfection that I can’t see past my small screen. While social media has helped me to stay close to friends that are far away, it has had negative effects on my self esteem. Igor Pantic, a doctor who has studied social media and mental health, found that behaviors resulting from unhealthy social media habits, such as “constant self-evaluation … competition and comparing one’s own achievements … incorrectly perceiving physical/emotional/social characteristic of others” can have detrimental effects on one’s self esteem. It’s possible that social media could be contributing to the concept of the unreachable ideal American girl.

Teenagers today face more pressures when it comes to identifying their future. The stress of standardized tests and grades and extracurriculars on students is tremendous. As Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview on NPR, “They're far too busy—and highly stressed—all in the service of getting into college.” The greater incidence of depression and anxiety in teens can be attributed to the pressures placed on students to determine their future by parents, teachers, and counselors. As a sixteen-year-old girl with a brain that’s not yet fully developed, I find the future identification process daunting. While the boundaries of what is typical for the American high school graduate have expanded, the competition has tightened. More opportunities mean more people going after them. And I’m fairly confident that adding “Depressed and Anxious Valedictorian” to my resume isn’t impressive enough to grant me a spot in America’s top schools.

So I ask what is good enough? Is it juggling an instrument, community service projects, and standardized tests? Balancing a part time job, AP classes, and leading a club? Then where the hell are the best years of my life supposed to fit in? That’s certainly not the way I would describe my high school years.

And part of being an American teenager, I guess, means fulfilling the roles that I’m supposed to, starting now. It means being a daughter who has it all together, which is likely why, despite years of struggling with this, I’ve never told my dad that I take medication to manage my major depressive disorder. I don’t feel as though he’d be able to understand, and in turn, I’d end up feeling like a failure. He’d certainly see me as one. Truthfully, his views on mental health are not unlike mainstream opinions of mental illness.

Our society has simplified and romanticized the real meaning of a mental illness. The glorification of mental illnesses directly affects people like me who are struggling to come to terms with their mental health. The media portrays those suffering from mental illnesses as violent (e.g., American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs), but a study in 2009 revealed that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. Silver Linings Playbook simplifies the meaning of having a mental illness. This movie, says Jay Boll of the Resources to Recover.org, emphasizes that “having a romantic relationship [serves] as a cure for your mental health issues.” These stereotypes reinforced by the media help contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness in today’s world. This stigma prevents many individuals from seeking help and is contributing to the rise in teenagers with depression.

I know I am not the only miserable American teenager. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 children between ages thirteen and eighteen have, or will have, a serious mental illness. Mental health treatment is inaccessible to many people for a myriad of reasons, including the high price of healthcare, logistics of fitting appointments and therapy into daily life, and the stigma surrounding mental illness. NAMI says that for these reasons, it takes most people ten years to seek help for their mental health issues. This delay contributes to the increasing mental illness epidemic in our country, as, year after year, mental health needs are not being met.  

No, my depression does not mean I cut my wrists or thighs. My depression is not something I fabricate or embellish to get attention. I don’t hallucinate either. My depression is complex. The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it difficult for people to understand the severity of my illness. This is not just a phase. I'm not on my period. I likely won't grow out of it. I wish I had some hope that I’d get through it. Most days I don’t have any hope, and the fact that most Americans don’t understand how debilitating my illness is makes me even less hopeful.

Many people, including teachers and even members of my own family, treat me like my depression is something that I can just escape. And this attitude from my support system further contributes to the stigma surrounding my mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “internalizing these negative stereotypes and perceptions (self stigma) can further contribute to challenges.”  I am suffering so much, and many of the people I am closest to invalidate the way that I can’t help but feel.

NAMI says that half of all lifetime mental illness cases begin by the age of fourteen. Statistics regarding mental health don’t feel like numbers to me because I am a part of them. I am the one in five. I am going to be an adult in America with depression. I'm struggling with a debilitating mental illness, and the most help I can get is a pill and one hour each week with a psychiatrist.

Sitting with my psychiatrist doesn’t make me feel better. He doesn’t have a big velvet couch for me to relax on, and he doesn’t have a cure. It’s hard to hash out the things that I’m struggling through. However, it is more difficult to reenter a world that cares more about arms and legs than brains and minds. It is most difficult to be in a constant fight between my thoughts and the rest of the world.

And I know that there are kids in America with smaller support systems than mine, who must be struggling more than me. That breaks my heart. NAMI says American teenagers with mental health issues are more likely to drop out of high school or end up in juvenile systems. I’m lucky: I have white skin, working parents, a loud voice, clothes on my body, shoes on my feet, and health insurance. All individuals suffering from an illness or a sickness, including those with a mental illness, deserve to be treated with care. Just like someone with a broken leg, we need support and help mending.

Obviously, I want the nasty little echo of my own voice in my head to stop feeding my sense of self-doubt and inferiority. I wish I didn’t hear my dad’s snide remarks about what I eat or what I bought at the mall as a scolding voice telling me I’m stupid, fat, and undeserving all day long. I wish that I had been born with perfectly balanced brain chemistry, so I would never have to take another “happy” pill again. I wish I wasn’t so hurt.

But I also wish that everyone could hear what goes on in my head. I wish that people could hear those voices, so I wouldn’t have to play the role of interpreter. The truth is, I want people to know about my illness. I want to have enough strength to tell people about my depression. I’m learning to be unashamed of this part of me, like the freckle under my left eye or my love for iced coffee on cold days. What I once shared in private, I’m now willing to share with others. And so I’m learning. Learning to cope. Isn’t that what it is to be sixteen in America today?

Comments

23 comments have been posted.

Congratulations on your skill at building a credible, detailed look under the hood of you, Marissa. Wishing you helpful new connections and reliable support as you build your talent as a journalist. You've done a terrific job describing the first part of my life (minus the anti-depressant) when the best our family doc could offer my mother to "get me off the pity pot" was to put me on diet pills at age 14.

Meri Walker | May 2018 | Talent

This is an excellent piece for so many reasons. Thank you for being brave enough to share your story. Telling your truth not only helps others to understand your situation, but also the experience if those who are struggling to speak up. Best of luck to you as you navigate college. You are an e cells to writer and will surely do great things.

Christine Lazorishak | March 2018 | Montana

Thank you, Marissa, for sharing your deeply personal, courageous and provocative story. You, my dear, are more than enough. You are a leader and an inspiration to every young adult and advocate.

Larry Didway | February 2018 | Oregon City, OR

Marissa, As a mother to a teen struggling with her own identity and navigation into her womanhood, I applaud you for your courage and honesty. I want to wrap you up in a big hug followed by a cup of coffee as we sit next to the ocean. You are one smart young lady and I am enamored with your bravery. I know you deal with the emotions and bad thoughts daily so if you ever need comfort please read these comments to find some peace. You are ENOUGH. You are wonderful and I know your going to be a large contributor to society. Not that you should feel pressured by it, you should feel solace in the thought that you are a shining example of how Social Media wains on children and teens. Remind yourself to put down your phone, and engage with one or more of your closest friends and laugh. Play a game together, take a cooking class, or take a hike and most importantly, LIVE in the present without your phone. Again, I want to squeeze you and Hug you tightly because your essay made me really like you and your spirit! I am sure that you have that affect on others in person! Best of luck in college my dear!

CeCe Shiver | February 2018 | Portland

This is a powerful piece of writing. As an American expatriate, and someone that fudamentaly empathizes with this condition, I saw an underlying commonality in the writer's story - American. I would urge her to seek other shores - not to expatriate herself - but to experience living this life from another perspective. My niece, 20, is doing this. It seems to be helping to level out the anxiety of being a millenial in a very stressfull point of history. I don't have any answers, but if she can find a means - savings?, volunteer work? Peace Corp? Au Pair? ... The U.S. is very stressfull now. My two cents is that: I recognize your disability, you are obviously intelligent and tallented, and sometimes removing yourself from a distressing situation - if only for a short while - can offer some solace and sense of perspective. All the best to you, Articulate Teen Writer

Michael Kaminski | February 2018 | NSW Australia

Hey Marissa, I admire the fact that you've chosen to share your story publicly early on in life. You write, "I likely won't grow out of it." I too was diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a teenager. Around the same time, I was also diagnosed with attentional difficulties, body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and generalized anxiety disorder. I'm 29 now and finally off the multiple medications that I took daily for about a decade. I struggle with ADHD, am still in college working toward an undergraduate degree (I needed a serious break from academics), and have some remaining anxiety that may never fully disappear; I still see a therapist weekly. Overall though, I feel happy, and have felt happy for the past few years now. Of course, that word means something different to each of us. To me, "happy" means that I regularly feel a sense of peace that I was unable to feel before. As time passes, I continue to feel better and better emotionally. I like myself and the ways I interact with the world, for the most part. I genuinely enjoy going to therapy now, and wish that everyone could speak with a counselor regularly because the world is a giant mess -- whether or not one has mental illness. I write all this because I want you to know that your condition may improve or even go away entirely, like mine has. Maybe my depression will return one day, which is why I make it a point to prioritize my mental health despite the fact that I'm doing fine. If it returns, I won't hesitate to go back on medication (Prozac + Abilify was a magical combination for me personally, and I can recall Buspar lessening my once-debilitating anxiety in the distant past). I believe that medication saved my life, even if it also made me gain lots of weight, lose my sex drive and feel fatigued 24/7 for several years (but pros outweighed the cons, by far!). I do hear that genetic tests can be done these days (which may help you more easily find a medication or combination of meds that'll work for you specifically). Wishing you the best of luck with it all. And honestly, I suspect that your ability to be honest with yourself and others will only serve you well in the future. Rooting for you.

Irene Doukas Behrman | February 2018 | Portland, Oregon

You are incredible and your voice is heard. Thank you for being brave enough to allow us to hear you. Remarkable, simply remarkable.

Ashley Kaneda | February 2018 | Bend

The strength of your message comes through clearly in your writing. Keep finding the outlet that allows you to vent and, hopefully, heal. Thank you for your voice on this topic. It is important.

Anna | February 2018 | Clackamas, Oregon

You are a brave and strong soul! Thank you for putting into words what so many are feeling.

Michelle Maas | February 2018 | WI

Your thoughtful essay broke my heart. As a tetired teacher, I ache to know that so many of my former students were suffering as you are and that I didn’t have the capacity to reach all of them, not with large class sizes and the insane pressure to “teach to the test” (which I refused to do), and the lack of skilled mental health professionals in the schools. Thank you for your courage in sharing your pain with the world. I truly hope you find a way out of your depression.

Betty Olson-Jones | February 2018 | California

Please don't believe the lies - YOU are the real deal, I admire YOU and I am in awe of YOUR courage and strength. It hurts my heart that you are going through this, along with all the other teens experiencing similar challenges. There is light at the end of the tunnel and your bravery and willingness to be authentic will get you through this and you will be a beacon to others. There is ONE who loves you beyond measure and if you don't already know HIM, I hope you find HIM, whose name is Jesus, in the midst of your pain. I can't explain it, but I know it is true because I have been where you are and HE has loved me and given me the hope that keeps me going when all I feel is darkness surrounding me. Never forget - YOU are loved, you are important, you matter just for who you are - just as you are. YOU ARE enough.

Kathleen | February 2018 | Ohio

Thank you for sharing. I hope that you keep swallowing your medication. Keep searching for the medicine that helps. It can take time to find the right one and the right dose that will help. Keep talking it out. I will be praying for you. I too am a depressed / anxiety diagnosed person who will be 50 this year. I am a survivor of a brain that is mentally ill. I too grew up in a healthy good family and they are such a blessing to me. There is always more to our story; Always more;

Kari Stutzman | February 2018 | Canby

I applaud your strength and wisdom to address this private and personal issue within yourself as well as educating others and reminding people that they are are not alone. You are truly remarkable. So many people are experiencing similar ideas and feelings, and may not ask for help or seek education to help cope. Keep writing, keep pushing yourself, keep educating and keep telling yourself there’s always tomorrow. I wish you peace, love, happiness and success, now and always.

Carmen | February 2018 | Vancouver WA

So proud of you Marissa. You are blazing a trail for so many other teenagers like you. I always knew you’d do great things!

Kelly Schmidt | February 2018 |

Wishing you strength, brave girl. Thank you for being courageous enough to share...

Kelly | February 2018 | Molalla, OR

You have beautifully shared your reality and I have learned from reading this. Thank you. I do know that when I turn to nature for comfort and hope, it never disappoints. Once as a teen I used my camera in the back yard to document all the budding flowers, shrubs, and trees as spring unfurled. I glance up right now and see the plump buds on the star magnolia; so early, so beautiful. I hope you enjoy the nature close to you in Oregon City. Please know that life is a marathon, not a sprint. You are not always running; at times you are sipping a drink of much deserved water or just reflecting on how tired your muscles feel. None of us are perfect all the time, nor do we need to be. We can be hopeful of doing better and being better, especially if kindness is involved. Much love and feel blessed, as I know you do.

Sue Heublein | February 2018 |

Thank you! That was an eye opener. I am glad you wrote the article as it made me question how I treat an illness I know very little about.

Nancy | February 2018 |

Marissa, Your essay is a well thought out and honest. I honor your wisdom and self reflection. Please be gentle with yourself and surround yourself with people who love you and support you for just who you are and know that who you are is just perfect. MY peace surround you. You have a gift of writing. Channel that talent.

Patti | February 2018 | Canby

hi, marissa. thank you for sharing with the world what it is you're going through, and contextualizing it with research. the part where you acknowledge the pain, bother to look further out than your own navel to find out what others are going through & what researchers have to say about it? the part where you reach past your fear to write and publish? that will SAVE YOUR LIFE, time after time, going forward. among that segment of the population known as The Writers, you will find a much higher incidence of both depression and bipolar disorder than the general populace. (you might enjoy reading Kay Redfield Jamison's work on the subject.) remember how this worked, so you can do it again later. keep in mind that your bravery and good writing are helping other people. you did it once. you can do it again. i'm sorry that the treatments offered you have been ineffective so far. there may be other ways to approach your condition, so please don't lose hope. i'm nearly 50 years old. that's long enough to try a heck of a lot of treatments; my problems started at 14 as well. back then, the social stigma surrounding common mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder was much, much worse. your struggles with medication sound like hell. then again, it wasn't great growing up in an era of complete stigma and denial, unmedicated and undiagnosed. i became a self-medicator with the sheer luck to not become a serious drug addict. medications eventually helped me, as did therapy, trauma work, a solid creative practice, energy work, spiritual practice, physical energy work such as Qi Gong, and meditation. new discoveries in genetics, EMDR therapy, environmental sensitivities, and the neurological effects of social media have made a big impact on my ongoing recovery. if i can do this, you can do this. it's not easy. it's hard. but we learn to slog through it and build up strength. many of us find unexpected stores of resiliency and strength along the path; this enables us to help others as we journey. going through these experiences opens up our capacity for compassion and understanding. it urges us to become less judgemental and less shallow. we learn to dive deep, into what looks like a dark sea, and come up carrying pearls. post a response here if you need an adult with experience in this realm that you can reach out to for a phone call or email. i would be happy to send my contact info to Oregon Humanities staff, to make contact with you or your parents. hang in there. and thank you again for sharing your story.

Ancient Bipolar Lady | February 2018 | Oregon

Melissa, I recommend that you attend the available Unitarian Universalist Assembly, say, this Sunday. Association with some of these finest people on the Earth cannot possibly aggravate your situation, in my opinion.

O'Neil Poree | February 2018 | Washington County, Oregon

I just witnessed a brave voice. I am caught in a moment of reverence, not for your pain which is untouchable, but a spirit and a cry into the wild world that perhaps someone might hear. I heard you. I am so very sorry we, the collective of us who let the world punish you, have made it easy to let you drift alone. I feel the day of 'no excuses' has visited my generation. Yes, we suffered, but we have had time to heal and try to do no more harm. May your voice rise and may that wind of Truth catch the thread you just offered.

Karin Larsen | February 2018 | Brookings, Oregon

Powerful and courageous writing. Arrows of words shot straight into the heart of how our society continues to stigmatize mental illness, which is all around us. Broken bones and cancer, we talk about. Depression? Not so much. But I'm hopeful the younger generation will help change this, as this essay bravely does. So thank you for sharing your story, Marissa; I hope your honest, open words help others feel not so alone. You've taken a bold step toward putting more cracks in the walls of stigma that shroud mental illness. Bravo. Thank you.

Gregg Kleiner | February 2018 | Corvallis, Oregon

A beautifully-written essay that captures the struggle of mental illness, showing how very difficult it can be in a culture that doesn't fully understand the complexity of this suffering. This brave piece addresses the feeling of isolation for people in similar circumstances and the families who love them - making them feel less alone. Thank you.

Melissa Madenski | February 2018 | Portland

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