If you ask my therapist, she’ll say I’ve been struggling with hypomanic depression since my freshman year of college. But if you ask me, I think I’ve struggled with some form of mental illness since at least seventh grade. That’s when my bouts of melancholy, followed by periods of merriment began.
Until college, the emotions were manageable, not raising alarms as anything more than typical teenage mood swings. But by the middle of my freshman year, the fluctuations were more palpable. During the days of depression, I’d skip class, watching endless hours of TV and eating whatever takeout was easiest to get my hands on. Happiness eluded me, seemingly unattainable. Coming out of those moods felt better, but was by no means healthy. I’d feel frenzied, talkative and overexcited. I would stay up till three and wake up at five ready to take the day by storm. And while I seemed happy then, elation felt foreign, like it wasn’t really mine to feel.
My therapist says I was mourning. I hated my college for reasons that could fill an entire memoir and felt cheated out of the university experience I had been hoping for throughout high school. That loss, compiled with the ending of a summer romance, a longtime friendship and the destruction of my childhood home due to flooding back in Houston, sent me spiraling into the five stages of grief. I got stuck at depression and couldn’t move on to acceptance.
Looking back now, a year after graduation and eight months after starting antidepressants, I wonder how much of who I am today is because of my depression.
During those years, I was so overwhelmed with emotions that they spilled out in my writing and in endless conversations with friends. My roommate said I was over-sharing, both in print and in talk, but I couldn’t help it. Those feelings had to go somewhere, and I had no room in my heart or mind to house and process them. The solace and clarity I gained through writing led me to change my major from Biology to Creative Writing. The long hours of conversations threw me into deep, fast friendships; I met my current boyfriend, Nolan, through those relationships.
If I hadn’t been depressed, who would I be? When the antidepressants began to kick in, I asked myself this question over and over again. Would I be pursuing a career in journalism or have stayed on the pre-med path? Would I be dating Nolan? Would I be living in DC? I questioned the reality that I thought I had experienced in college: Was it that bad? Had depression caused me to overreact?
But there are no answers. At least not satisfying ones. And as I began to accept that truth, new questions replaced the old. Without depression, would I have gained the emotional self-awareness that I have today? Would I have found my voice through writing, something I’ve enjoyed since the first grade? Would I have developed the strong empathy that allows me to see everyone as human, something that seems rare these days? Would I be dating Nolan, a man who has encouraged and supported me throughout my mental health journey?
It’s ironic that, in the midst of a global pandemic, I feel more at ease than I have in years. So many people, especially my age, feel despondent, cheated out of months of our existence, lamenting the life we could be living if the coronavirus had been handled differently. But I try to focus on the person I am now and not mourn the person I could have been. I hope that after these months of masks and social distancing, others can too.
I wouldn’t say my depression was beshert or “meant to be,” because it’s filled me with anguish and doubt and feelings of such hopelessness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But maybe I was meant to learn something from it, grow and change and find myself. That’s all we really can do when life feels out of our hands.
Lilly Gelman is a journalist originally from Houston, Texas, and based in Washington, DC, currently working as the Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow at Moment Magazine. A graduate of Yeshiva University with a degree in creative writing, Lilly’s work has been featured in The Forward, Jewish Georgian, and Kol Habirah. Read her writing here.