Recently I learned that someone I care about is having trouble with their teenage child. It’s trouble of the major variety, requiring professional intervention. My heart aches for them.
I’ve been embarrassingly blessed (so far) in the teenage child department, although I’m scared to jinx it by saying so. I’d like to take credit for the fact that my kids are sweet and drama-free and honest and close to me, and I’m sure I must deserve some of it. But it’s also been dumb luck. My friends also seemed to do most things right, and yet here they are. Parenting is the great humbling experience that teaches you just how little control you have in the world.
Learning about this, though, made me think not just about my experiences as a mother, but also my experiences as a teenager. Looking back I can recognize I was almost certainly clinically depressed for much of it. I spent months wanting only to recline in a darkened room, music shutting out the rest of the world. I made little cuts on my wrists that I told myself were practice for when I’d get the courage to take them as deep as they’d need to go to shut off all the pain permanently. I was sure my difficulties would never end.
Because here’s the thing about being a teenager: you have no historical data to call upon. Today, when I get sad, I remind myself of all the times I’ve been blue but then felt better. “This too shall pass” means something at 45 that it can’t possibly mean at 15. At 15, things are endless, both because you haven’t had time to craft your own life and also because time moves differently. You’ve inherited a world you think is unchangeable. If that world feels like something you can’t cope with, you just know it will always be that way. How can you know any different?
The other thing about people who have been depressed is that depression feels like the truth, no matter how long it’s stayed away. I probably haven’t been “diagnosis-level” depressed for more than twenty years (I say this all very imprecisely and unclinically, because people living at the poverty level, as I was at the time, don’t get mental health attention). And, still, when something happens and I feel sad and the haunting thoughts swirl up – no one loves me, nothing I do matters – they feel like an old friend coming to visit. (Maybe not a friend so much, but a relative you don’t particularly like but know you’ll always be related to). One sad moment can crowd out a year of happy ones. Sadness feels like truth that’s been waiting in the wings as you tried to ignore it. When it shows back up, if you’ve ever been depressed, the feeling of it is, “Oh, yes, here you are. How foolish of me to hope I had left you behind.” It’s a sinking realization that every happy thought you’ve ever told yourself is a lie, a whistling in the darkness that will always envelop you in the end.
Except it isn’t, of course. But depression is wily and seductive. It tells you lies so convincing you are willing to overlook all evidence against them. Once it’s touched you, it’s like frostbite: you will always feel the tingle in your fingers when you step into the cold.
I have come to understand that the deep capacity for sadness is one side of what makes life rich. I cry at commercials (much to the amusement of my children). I get wrapped up into a movie or a story like I’m part of it. I can get lost deep in conversation for hours, pouring out my heart, listening to someone else pour out theirs. Did the darkness open those hollows, increasing my capacity to feel? Or does sadness plague those of us that feel things deeply more than others, who hang on to ideals, who imagine a world of beauty and love? (I do know that no one can get more wounded than someone who hopes for the best). But I don’t know which comes first: the sadness or the experience of being a raw nerve, walking through life delighted, amazed, appalled, shocked at the sheer brutality in so many things, enraptured by the endless joy of a first flower. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now.
So, when faced with a teenager in pain, remember, please, that perhaps the best thing we can teach them is that nothing lasts forever, except, perhaps, the marks things leave on you. And that those marks are the gift, what make you precious and irreplaceable.