What I didn’t realize then, that I only see now at 43, is that I suffered from depression at seventeen years old.
In 1985, a 17-year-old didn’t know as much about depression as a 17-year-old does today. In 1985, we didn’t have access to the Internet, nor did we talk openly about “being blue”. In 1985, a 17-year-old couldn’t Google “I feel sad” or “my life sucks” or find a blog about someone’s similar experience. We’d have to go to the public library or use the Encyclopedia Britannica our parents collected with grocery store stamps to look up the term “depression” yet even then, depression was all about the crazy-haired kooks who laid in bed all day drinking Sanka and snacking on toenails.
It’s now 2012, and I’m here to tell you: depression affects anyone at any time.
I’m also here to tell you that it gets better.
At 17, I was emotional. I cared deeply—often too much—about everything, and I tried to please everyone: parents; friends; friends of friends; boyfriends; teachers; boyfriends’ teachers; coaches; boyfriends’ coaches; the senior citizens I played bingo with; even my cranky boss at Baker’s Square Restaurant. I rarely felt good enough or that I tried hard enough, which always left me feeling exhausted.
From the outside, I came off as the consummate over-achiever, the go-to gal willing to fix, mend, take charge or carry the load when no one else could or would. Inside, however, I never felt I gave 100% of my efforts to any one thing (excellent preparation for motherhood, but how was I to know?).
To my surprise, I was nominated to the Homecoming Court my senior year in high school. I should have been on top of the world, right? But, the honest-to-God truth was that I never once understood why I was on that damn court. I never felt I belonged. I didn’t feel pretty enough. Tall enough. Smart enough. Nice enough. Worthy.
The afternoon of the Homecoming assembly, the ten members of the Homecoming Court (5 guys, 5 girls) were excused from their regularly scheduled classes to primp and fuss in the locker rooms. The 5 of us girls smiled nervously at each other as we reached for our long dresses, hanging in plastic bags suspended from the open, upper lockers. My dress was a satiny, fuschia number with big, puffy shoulders to match my permed, soon-to-be-Aqua-Net-crusted hairdo. While I couldn’t read the other girls’ minds, I still remember my own dizzying thoughts as I waited for the butane to heat up my portable curling iron:
Why am I even on the Homecoming Court?
Kari should win because she’s sporty and smart and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.
Simone should win because she’s the kindest, sweetest person.
Kim’s going to win because she’s so smart and nice to everyone.
Tracy ought to win since she knows who she is and isn’t fake at all.
This is insane. Why should any one of us even win? Who’s to say one person is better than another?
Some teacher probably felt sorry for me and fixed the voting to get me onto the Court.
I can’t wait to see the water fountains they’re putting up in the gym. I hope I can see them in the dark.
I bet I’m only here because I’m one of the shortest kids in the school — all the short kids must have voted for me. Oh, and probably all of Beth’s [my sophomore sister's] friends, too.
As the five of us prepped for the assembly in the locker room, I thought about how I’d known these girls my entire high school career, if not longer. We’d sat through classes together; rode buses together; stood in cafeteria lines, crossed our arms across our budding chests on the sides of the school swimming pool so the totally disgusting boys in their gross Speedos wouldn’t stare at us; researched papers with them; held doors for each other, jockeyed for mirror space during passing periods, sat through assemblies and cheered at bonfires with them. I’d seen each of them at Woodfield Shopping Mall with their boyfriends or their families, buying salted pretzels from Hot Sam or walking out of Chess King with a pair of parachute pants. I’d noticed how nice/quiet/friendly/moody/beautiful each of them could be on any given day. Most of all, I envied each one of those girls for what they were and for what I was not.
Yet, as the clock clicked closer to the assembly’s start, I felt an ironic sense of distance and tension. The five of us, alone yet together in this vast locker room, were all that we had, yet we barely spoke a word.
“You look so pretty,” someone said.
“No, no, you look gorgeous,” another insisted.
“I love your dress,” one of us said.
“This? Oh, but look at yours.”
Not an ounce of cattiness was detected. Just deference — and an urgency to get this thing the hell over with.
The ceremony itself remains a blur. The packed gymnasium was dark and noisy. Worst of all, I couldn’t get a good view of the fountains. I thought about the kids who’d spent countless hours decorating the gym, wondering if they, like me, wished someone would turn up the lights, even for a few seconds. I knew my mom and my stepfather and my six-year-old sister were somewhere in the audience. My fifteen-year-old sister was definitely in the audience: I heard her (and all of her friends) calling my name. I wondered if my biological dad was somewhere nearby — possibly drunk – as well. Sure enough, he was (nearby — and possibly drunk) but that’s another story altogether.
The chorus sang. The King was crowned. My name was called…and as someone hung a white satin sash across my fuschia chest for everyone in the gym to see, I crumpled into tears. A local newspaper photographer ensured my twisted grimace was captured forevermore.
The King and I took our “victory lap” around the dreamy, faux path created by the Decorating Committee. We walked quickly — just as all of us on the Court had been instructed to do earlier in the day at the Homecoming Assembly Rehearsal – stepping in time with the music, past the spurting fountains, heading back toward the starting point so we’d land it just as the song wrapped up, exactly as we’d been told to do.
Ever the pleaser, I’d be damned not to hit the mark a second beyond the final note of the song.
My King and I clung to one another, elbows locked, along our faux path as the crowds in the bleachers yelled and screamed. I wanted to cry the entire time. I looked at my four Court-mates who should have strolled along with me. I wanted to say, Can’t you see? This is all so ridiculous! Come walk with us. This is so embarrassing. My King cracked heartfelt, smart-ass jokes that left me laughing until tears rolled down my face. I must have looked elated, but I was crying for real inside. It’s been my coping technique ever since: happy on the outside and they’ll never look deeper at the sadness within.
Before today, I’d never told my children about being named Homecoming Queen. I never felt it mattered, never felt I deserved it, never thought it was something to be proud of. Instead, I thought of it as some popularity contest I didn’t sign up for, one that I somehow won out of pity.
And that’s what depression can do. Even when the world is your oyster…even when things fire on every cylinder…depression has a way of whispering doubt and self-loathing so quietly that you’re almost able to convince yourself you didn’t hear it…until you start listening for it. You try to hear that whisper so intensely that, when it floats like steam past your tightly-wound psyche and evaporates before you can deal with it rationally, you feel sucker-punched and exhausted from the effort of it all.
Someone in my family recently told my daughter I’d been voted Homecoming Queen in high school. I pulled out the sash and hung it across my middle-aged chest, the same chest I used to hide with embarrassment, the one I nursed three children with and the one that now swells with pride when I see those children today at 14, 12 and 8.
My 12-year-old daughter looked at the sash with awe, and then said, “What exactly IS a Homecoming Queen?”
“You know,” I said, smiling. “It’s just a silly thing they do in high school.” While I’m glad she hasn’t lived in the shadow of a mom fixated on the notoriety of something as superficial as a homecoming title, I must remember to look for any shadows of depression she (or either of my boys) encounter. I know so much more about how it can be maked. Blended. Hidden. I know depression strikes anyone at anytime. That it hurts. That it feels like it will never end.
But I also know that it’s okay to talk about it. Not to be ashamed. Give myself permission to retreat and recharge. Let myself cocoon when I need to, and to accept that I am human like everyone else.
I tucked my homecoming sash back into the small cardboard box I store it in, a box that once held a corsage from some event I’ve long since forgotten. It’s been years since I thought of that sash, and even longer since I’d pulled it out; I suspect it won’t come out of that box for many years to come, but I no longer feel ashamed of it.
It’s taken me 26 years to accept the honor of my title, and while there is no white satin sash for depression, it is yet another title I carry that I am no longer ashamed of.