She was 15-years-old when she realized something was going on with her. In hindsight her attention to detail in Harley Quinn from the Batman realm made her see her behaviors and thoughts differently. 19 today, this California woman opened the door and let us into what it’s been like for her living with depression on a number of levels – from her father not really getting it to her sound advice to others out there.
Kendra: You’ve said that it was Harley Quinn whom you started to identify with because of your diagnosis. For those of us not familiar with the Batman realm, why is that?
Frances: She was madly in love with the Joker and she never felt complete or validated on her own, which was similar to my low self-esteem growing up. I noticed something was very off about her so-called love for him. Even as a child, that much was clear, and it made me think about how I saw myself. I bought into the whole damsel/passive princess ideal. I thought my worth depended on others, namely, a man, to tell me I was beautiful and worthy of love.
Kendra: Did you seek out help right away, or did you wait awhile?
Frances: I waited until I even felt worthy of being helped. For a long time, I felt like the scum of the earth. Who was I to take up someone’s time and effort? When I was 14, I talked to a family therapist once just because she was there and my parents told me to, but it wasn’t until I was 15 that I really started seeing her more.
Kendra: Did you get therapy, medication, or something else?
Frances: I had both. But in hindsight I’ve learned that my depression was situational, and so I think it was a mistake for the psychiatrists to put me on different antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. I can’t recall the prescriptions, but I switched between about three types of antidepressants because the side effects outweighed the benefits, until I finally realized that medication just wasn’t for me. I think it’s wonderful for people who have biologically-rooted illnesses, but it’s equally important for a therapist to recognize when a client’s illness is caused by their situation, as was mine, so they can begin healing from there.
Frances: I have felt different types of depression. When I was 16, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which was very specific to what I was experiencing at the time. I won’t go into the details of why I was feeling this way, but I just want to emphasize that the depression I felt was not very typical of what others describe when they discuss their depression with me. For me, I was in a state of constant grief. I have not lost a lot of people in my life, yet, and I have been fortunate enough not to know what that’s like. But on some level, I believe that’s the closest thing I can describe my experience as. It was a screaming sadness, not a quiet one. I felt a deep gash in the pit of my stomach. An empty, restless, sorrowful pain. I remember lying one horrible night, and, under the weight of it, feeling my body was literally being crushed by something huge and flat. I have been on “the other side” of depression as well, if I may call it that.
When I was wrongly prescribed antidepressants, they actually made me more depressed, which is not uncommon, but it was a different sensation entirely. It was more like what it sounds like depression is when I hear others describe it. I felt dull. There was nothing anymore, and I knew in my heart of hearts that it was unnatural and I wanted my feelings back, but how can someone who doesn’t feel really know what they want? And so, consciously, I also didn’t know it wasn’t right. It was my existence. It just was, nothing more. It was heavy and exhausting. I was drained. I had no motivation, no desire–just an empty, blank hole.
Kendra: Did anyone in your life start to treat you differently when you mentioned you had depression?
Frances: Yes. Unfortunately, my parents were not understanding at all. My dad is generally a good person. How he treated me when he found out was one of his faults. He’s a very tough guy, and he treated me like my depression was a choice, and I needed to “be strong and get over it.” I needed to “control myself.” He told me to meditate and do martial arts, both of which are very healthy practices, but he acted like I had an obligation to do them and they would solve all my problems. Well, I tried them, and guess what? I was still depressed. He would only make me feel worse with his “get over it” attitude, because with depression, you can’t just “get over it” and so you feel guilty for disappointing those who told you to, and if you’re really low like I was, you’ll just feel like a burden to them. What made it worse was that he was actually punitive about my depression. When I wouldn’t “overcome” it so quickly, he would become enraged and yell at me.
Kendra: There is still this sort of stigma attached to those suffering from things like depression and anxiety in our culture and only in the last two decades ago we started to really start having conversations about it. Why do you think that is?
Frances: Well, I can draw a hint from my dad’s attitude toward me. People think it’s weakness. People think it’s a choice, but an unhealthy one, like a person choosing candy-bars over salad. If only depression were so sweet and simple. In our society, people are so much valued for their occupations rather than for who they are, and since the depressed or mentally ill are sometimes less likely or unable to work, they are seen as lazy and burdensome. Also, when you look at history, the mentally ill, who were often simply deemed “mad” were seen as unpredictable and dangerous. We still see this misunderstanding and heavy dramatization of mental illness carried out today, even in Batman. As much as I love Batman, I have some criticisms, too. For example, in the Arkham Asylum games, the patients are let out of their cells by the bad guys, and as Batman runs through the asylum, screaming lunatics in straitjackets will run at him and try to bite him apart. However, it’s worth noting that Batman himself depicts a more realistically portrayed struggle with depression, so it’s a mix of good and bad for sure.
Kendra: What would you say to someone going through what you’ve gone through mentally, but haven’t yet realized what’s going on with themselves?
Frances: If you are not able to be doing the activities you’d like to do, you are not all well. If you are doing things you used to enjoy, but you no longer enjoy them, you are not all well. If you are unable to function in your day to day life, you lack motivation, and simply living is draining you, then you are not all well. Are you anything less than happy? If you’re not happy, why not strive to be? Believe me, you deserve it. It doesn’t matter what anyone has called you or said to you. Even whatever bad things you have done—they don’t change the fact that you were meant to strive toward happiness. I don’t mean momentary entertainment obtained from any number of behaviors. I mean true and healthy happiness: deep contentment.
First, you have to realize something is wrong, and you are very strong and capable of overcoming it, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Definitely get help from a licensed therapist, but don’t be afraid to refuse medication or switch therapists if neither is working for you. There is someone out there who can help you. Reach out to your most trusted and understanding friends and family because if they are really your friends, they will want to hear it and will value you for who you are no matter what. You are NOT a burden. You are a human being in need of healing. You need to love yourself. You need to care for yourself. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time and heavy amounts of introspection and self-awareness. By staying true to yourself and meeting your needs, by accepting yourself and your situation, you will get there. Stay at it. Don’t give up on yourself, and one day you will be able to say, “I am happy with my life. I really don’t need anything more.”