Lessons Learned from Childhood Depression

A sad kid grows up.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

It hit me when I was about seven or eight years old. I’d be sitting and watching TV with my brother, laughing one minute and overcome with sadness the next. I’d mope through seemingly ordinary days. Gradually, this feeling became more intense, as well as frequent. I’d be in the bathroom brushing my teeth before school and just feel overwhelmed to the point where I’d cry so hard that sometimes I’d throw up — all while still trying to complete the simple task of brushing my teeth. It’s all I wanted to do, and my young mind couldn’t fathom why this had become such a difficult task to complete.

My alarming bouts with sorrow weren’t influenced by attention-seeking. Most of the time it would happen while I was alone. Or, I would go to be alone because I felt so low. On occasion someone would see my tear-streaked face, hear my violent cries or muffled whimpers and ask what was wrong. My reply was always the same. “I don’t know, I just feel sad.” And I did, feel sad. All the time, for no apparent reason.

I didn’t know that kids could be depressed. Well, being a kid, I didn’t even know what it really meant. Yet, even as an adult, if I hadn’t experienced it for myself I would not know of any cases that involved children. I’ve never seen a kid sad without a cause. Now knowing more about depression and what it looks like, I can step back and say unequivocally that I suffered from this as a child.

Overall, I was a nice, happy kid. Always smiling, laughing and playing. My childhood was very imperfect, but nothing particularly traumatic was happening at school or home during this time to change that. These moments of melancholy would just overtake me without warning. Being ill-equipped to comprehend let alone control what was happening, I’d be just as afraid as confused.

When my grandmother learned of my unexplained sadness, she addressed it as she did all of life’s ails. That Sunday she marched me up to the front of the church and asked the pastor to pray for me. He did, and then we headed back to our seats. My grandmother was a woman of tremendous faith. There was no problem in her eyes that God could not fix. So, in her mind the situation had been resolved. That was the end.

I don’t fault her. She handled it the best way she knew how. Perhaps the only way she knew how. We took care of each other in my family. Everyone had a roof over their heads, food to eat and clothes on their backs. But, we were not even close to what you would consider affluent. No one knew much about therapy, and who could afford it if we did? Prayer was the treatment. At least that was the outlook in my household of devout Christians.

There was just one issue. I still felt sad. Suffering in silence just became a skill of mine. I learned to do a better job of not being found out. I became really shy and withdrawn, wondering what was wrong with me.

The crippling sadness would subside as I got older, but having no desire to interact or engage much would remain. I was likeable and never had trouble making friends. When I came home from school, however, I’d stay literally locked away in my room. I had little contact with anyone who didn’t come and knock on my door. We could have a house full of people and I wouldn’t care to make an appearance.

What would I do in there all day? Listen to music, watch tv, read books and sleep through most of it. This current state was likely not far off from how most teenagers operate. At least I didn’t feel sad.

Eventually, I did become free of it all. For a long while I felt whole, fully functional, and happy. I went to college and had the time of my life. I made a bunch of friends, cultivated meaningful relationships and fulfilled some dreams. I’d never been in such a good place.

Of course, once I started adulting and had actual problems to serve as reasons to be depressed, those same feelings, the same weight that little girl found suffocating her heart and invading her space reemerged. But that’s thing, you don’t need a “thing” to be depressed about. That is the most profound lesson I learned from having been a carefree kid overcome by such a fate.

I was a grown up now, and sure, everything wasn’t going as I’d hoped, it never does for anyone though. I understood that lethargy and indifference to life could only be slightly affected by external conditions. This was an inside job, and I recognized it.

We tend to think that if we had this or that, if certain things happened or didn’t, we’d be happier. Perhaps it’s true to an extent. Having things go our way makes us feel good, but only momentarily. There will always be an expiration date on our joy as we find something new to desire, something old over which to lament, and are ultimately left unfulfilled. We can’t attach our happiness to people, places, things or circumstances.

Suffering through childhood depression taught me the importance of healing. I could have been on the road to recovery much more quickly had I gotten some help. Had I been given the tools, I could have been emotionally healthier, sooner, instead of giving my limited energy to simply enduring.

Better late than never.

This is why I take seriously my practice of meditation. It’s why I read self-help books, implement what I learn into my life and would willingly, proudly seek therapy. I try so hard to stay ahead of this thing, so that sadness can never grip me again the way that it has proven it can.

When feeling extremely depressed or defeated, just making it through the day is an accomplishment. But we can’t stop there. It’s important that we go a step further than toleration and work to be restored, or we will bear an endless cycle of modest highs and severe lows. Give up the band-aids for the cure.

Is it as simple as thinking positively, and digesting inspirational content? Absolutely not. It’s an on-going process that is different for everyone. Yet, we won’t find out what works for us until we are determined to do so.

I learned that depression is a very real monster that does not discriminate. It affects those old and young, rich and poor, those in the limelight and those living in the shadows. It’s not as simple as getting over it, and it frustrates me to no end when people suggest that it is.

Perhaps the most important lesson that my gloomy adolescent existence taught me was the level of strength and resilience I possess. There I was at such a young age, navigating my way through something that felt much bigger than me. I struggled mightily internally, but I went to school and got good grades. I was well-behaved, friendly and kind. It didn’t break my spirit.

Now, here I am. I don’t know how she did it but that self-conscious little girl with the pig tails and crooked teeth carried me here. So, no matter what happens, I always know that I have it within me to keep going.

Author of a critically-acclaimed book on women and dating. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687069786

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