Childhood mental illness: The somewhere between nonexistence and normal

Depression isn’t only for adults, and as much as people want to think that childhood should get an exemption from all the nastiness life has to offer, it doesn’t.
As a matter of fact depression is certainly not the only mental health abnormality that children can experience, but it is the one I can speak about from experience because I was a depressed child.
I want to talk about that a little bit. I’m going to be candid but not go into too much detail.
[TW: Discussion of depression, and suicidal-thoughts]

My life didn’t have any truly significantly abnormal events that immediately proceeded my depression, even if some of them could have been seen as sort of traumatic in a way (moving, parents not fighting but still living apart temporarily). In the interest of honesty, there is one potential exception which is that my younger brother (who was 5 at the time, hardly a threat) did cause me some minor wounds with a nail, and a kitchen (possibly paring) knife. It felt like a big deal at the time, because all injuries did, but really it wasn’t.
So knowing that, there isn’t anything I can think of which would account for how I felt.

This is going to sound either ridiculous or horrifying, but the first time I remember wanting to die was my sixth birthday party. Laugh if you want, but please remember I only wish I could be joking, and it wouldn’t be a very funny joke.
Speaking of wishes, what I wished for that birthday, was to explode and disappear, right then, right there. You have no idea how fast my mind back-peddled, as fast as thoughts can move I was thinking to myself over and over again “no, no, no, no, that’s not really what I want, I take it back, I take it back” I still believed wishes could come true.
I’d been told that wishes didn’t come true if you told someone, but I didn’t tell anyone.
I can’t remember if that’s because I’d ‘waffled’ and wanted it to become true, or because I was too scared of what someone might think…
Probably the latter, I was six after all. I had scared myself though, and I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
Still I couldn’t seem to stop. While I knew that some kids said things like “if I died you’d be sorry” I thought maybe people wouldn’t really be sorry if I died. The depression you see already had me thinking I wasn’t worth crying over.

My family used to take camping trips in the summer, and we’d go rock climbing. (My dad was in search and rescue, he knew how to properly secure ropes, and we had proper harnesses with one parent up at the top and one parent at the bottom holding the rope.)
I started thinking about the cliffs, and I really wanted to go camping and enjoy things, I was upset at myself for wrecking that fun, but when I couldn’t stop thinking about them I told my parents they shouldn’t take me.
They tried to brush off my sudden lack of enthusiasm, so I eventually told them outright that if they took me near the cliffs I would jump. That they took seriously.
Say what you want, that I can’t remember, that kids can’t possibly think that way. –Well, that’s nice, but as much as I wish it weren’t true, it is. Even if you don’t believe me it won’t make it any less true nor give me back my childhood.
Do you remember being seven and the things you cared about? Did you want toys, videogames, a bike? Well I wanted those too, but when I lay in bed at night I thought about cliffs, and falling, and not existing, and running into traffic.
It’s actually rather sickening to remember, I was so damned young, I knew almost nothing of life. Unfortunately knowing things or experiencing things isn’t a prerequisite for depression, and when it strikes in children they are merciless to themselves.

My parents put me into counseling immediately, and I think that is the best thing that they could have possibly done.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
Because they felt like I was too young, my parents didn’t want to put me on any medications. I can’t comment if this is good thing or a bad thing for someone in that situation, it was simply the choice they made.
Though they did want me to learn as many skills for coping with my emotions as possible, I learned an early version of CBT, and I went into both individual talk therapy, as well as group therapy. (mostly with kids who were in foster-care or had experienced some type of trauma)
My depression persisted, but at least I had words for what I was experiencing, and methods to push back against the overwhelming flood of negative self talk that utterly permeated my life.

Most of it feels like a different life now. I really don’t know why I felt that way, I just did.
What does it mean though for a child to be so depressed? Well, as far as I can tell, nothing. I think it may just be a variation in human experience, some people are exceptionally happy during their childhoods, I was exceptionally– err– not happy.
When you get past the shock of just how young I was, and the fact that it wasn’t just a mild depression it really isn’t anything amazing.
It was depression, it was the same experience which other depressed people I told about it related to.
What I’m getting at when I mention that is that it wasn’t anything super special just felt by kids, and it wasn’t lesser or more, it was just depression, inconveniently experienced at a much younger age than is typical.

It changed a lot of who I might have been to experience this, but realistically I not only don’t know who I would have been if I could have not felt it, I also don’t know that there’s any way I could have avoided having that experience. Perhaps it’s just genetic for me?
It’s okay though. I don’t really regret that this was my childhood, I may have when I was younger, but at this point I’m just glad to have made it through it, and feel better. At this point I only have short bouts of depression, and I actually know what being neither depressed nor happy feels like. (Something I didn’t even conceive of existing while I was depressed. Middle grounds? Are you speaking english, because that sounds like nonsense!?)
This is my life, like it or lump it, my childhood got eaten by depression, and now that I’m an adult I’m okay with that.
I’m not sure what it’s like for other children who were depressed, but this is my experience.

Thanks for reading.

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19 thoughts on “Childhood mental illness: The somewhere between nonexistence and normal

  1. pretty sure I’ve had depression since childhood, although things are looking up right now. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through so much.

    • I think there may be more of us who have had this experience than feel comfortable speaking up, but there isn’t much of a narrative for or from those of us who have lived it. (One of the reasons I thought that I should say something on the topic)
      Mutual sympathies my friend, emotional struggles are not an easy journey by their very nature. Thank you though, I appreciate your reaching out. πŸ™‚
      And I’m glad things are looking up for you (and me too at the moment) know too that your life is worth cherishing.

      • I totally agree with you there! Its sad that we are so afraid to speak up.
        I hope things continue to improve, and thank you for your kind words!

  2. I am taking my son to an official psychiatrist Friday for possible meds. I think he has ptsd (he has had two brain surgeries due to cancer) and his family hx I am desperate to have him have a better quality of life. Great article!

    • Oh man, cancer is very hard to handle emotionally, I’m sorry he, and your family, are going through that.
      I hope that he can feel a bit better quite soon, either via meds, talking it out or both and then some, as long as he can feel a bit better.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      I thought maybe the time for talking about growing up depressed had come. (and I hope it may spark others to not feel so alone if they also had mental health struggles young)
      —I’ll keep an eye on your blog for an update on how things go. πŸ™‚

  3. Just out of curiosity, whereabouts does a teenager not fall under being a child, and can then be under “adult?”

    • Realistically I think that teenagers are their own category. Though most times they are the ultimate in between and can count as either/both (child/adult) or as I mentioned neither.

      Teenagers and young adults combined comprise the largest group of people who are depressed, and many people who experience depression find it begins in their teens. That depression usually doesn’t start until at least puberty for most people certainly doesn’t diminish the importance of acknowledging teenage depression experiences, on the contrary I think it means that we must absolutely validate those experiences by acknowledging the reality of them.
      Which is just one of many reasons why I think teenagers who experience depression are their own category.

      I hope that answers your question in a not too rambly way. <.<

    • To add to PurpleShade’s wonderful response: neurologically your brain doesn’t stop maturing until well into your mid twenties. It has also been shown that most people don’t really even function psychologically like an adult until around the same time. In other words, society’s decrees of 12/13/14 = teenager and 18=adult is almost completely arbitrary; and the science doesn’t really support it.

      Now, I’m not going to touch that whole can of worms called “what does this mean?” I will say however, that “adulthood” is far fuzzier than we’re told. The same is true of teenagers, childhood, and yes, mental illness (with perhaps some exceptions to the latter).

      • Thank you for this comment; in a way, it kind of reminded me how it’s okay that not everything is so clear right now.
        It gets better, I anticipate.

      • It is indeed blurry, primarily it depends strongly on how one defines adult. There are some behaviours that most individuals will never exhibit that we consider part of being an adult (examining choices carefully for example, there are a lot of people who are impulsive, or without the tools of critical thinking, who will never have this ‘adult trait’.)
        I expect you’re probably thinking of the things which we start developing ’round about our mid teens which are part of maturing into adulthood, such as recognizing the consequences of our actions. (Which I think I had earlier than most, but which apparently many people don’t understand until they are into their 20’s.)

        Likewise I am sure there are some things which we don’t acknowledge as ‘adult’ which we don’t have in childhood but do have during our teens, actually I can think of one fairly easily, a self awareness and exploring of ‘who we are’ that often people feel tippifies their teens, but is not very present in young children.
        It often levels out some as we grow more fully into adulthood, but it is still a stark difference between young children and teens, where teens are closer to adults.

    • Thank you – I’m glad if it can give others a sort of window into a different experience (or perhaps in some cases a different version of their own experience).
      Wordpress seemed to have an error, I didn’t see that this comment, and one other, existed til today when I got a new comment. XP
      Sorry for not replying sooner!

  4. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I was also a depressed child, and it’s so hard to think back on it. I feel so protective of that little girl, who on every birthday, at every “let us pray for our own intentions in silence” at church, with every penny thrown into a fountain, wished to “feel normal”. Sometimes I’d wish to be happy, but usually I felt like that would be asking too much. Hopefully the more we talk about childhood mental health issues, the more people will become aware of them. Thanks for writing about this!

    • You have my sympathy, and thank you.
      While I may feel alright about it now, I certainly know how hard it can be to talk about, or even think about, childhood with depression. People disbelieve that children can feel such a negative range of things, but their disbelief merely silences us.
      If I can find the words I may write other pieces on the experience, since that’s a lot of time and a lot of different experiences to have gone through in a radically different way than most people.
      Have you written about it as well? πŸ˜€
      Maybe it seems wrong to be excited about the possibility, but I should really like to read the words of others who went through something akin to what I have. πŸ™‚

  5. I agree that childhood depression/anxiety are probably far more common than we think. When I think back, I remember having agonizing anxiety as a young kid about the possibility of my father dying- he was 57 when I was born, so compared to other parents he was ‘old’. In my case though I couldn’t articulate my fear to anyone- my mother was anxious herself and intuitively I knew I couldn’t add to it by sharing my own worries. It was awful, awful, awful. Good on your parents though for being able to support you as much as they did.

    • They could be, yes, as there are many people who can’t talk about it, and probably many more who didn’t realize that’s what they had been experiencing. Even if they had the feeling as an adult they may not put 2 & 2 together and realize that’s also what they felt as a child.

      I’m sorry that you had to go it alone, I can hardly imagine what life would have been like if I hadn’t been able to tell anyone. I hope that you were still able to eventually get help and feel as supported as you need.

      They always had said to tell them if I needed help, so I just took them at their word. I am glad they did, though I struggle with social cues so I only had their words to go on, I doubt I realized that it could make things worse for them. In retrospect though, I think for them in particular it was probably better that they could help me; both of them struggle(d) with mental health problems themselves, but they each wanted help and support form their own parents that they couldn’t get, so I think being able to help me may have made them feel better.
      It’s a pretty individual thing, not all parents, even those who don’t struggle with mental health problems themselves, have the emotional energy to help a child who needs them.
      I am glad that I happened to have parents who could support me, and I am sorry that you did not have my luck, I wish you would have.

  6. I remember suicidal thoughts as a child too. For me it wasn’t so much that I wanted to die as that I just wanted to disappear. But I always wanted to open the car door when we were on the freeway and I had lots of thoughts of falling. I was always kind of afraid of my thoughts of dying. I thought one day I might not be able to control myself and I would actually do something that I thought of. I wonder how common it is for a child to think like that. I never really told anyone about my thoughts. I guess I thought it was just silly because I didn’t really have a good reason for wanting to die. But that depression and suicidal thoughts lasted all through college.

  7. Thanks for sharing all of this here. I have never experienced depression myself, and I feel lucky for that, but I have had depressed loved ones and whether you’re 6 or 60 when you’re going through it, it seems like the experience is remarkably similar, which is honestly great to know. It’s great to realize that kids aren’t automatically immune from these types of things. I mean, the fact that even kids can get cancer (as one commenter above mentioned they had firsthand experience with) doesn’t always make us think that kids can experience the same health problems as adults, because truthfully the types of cancers that kids get are mainly different/limited compared to what adults get. A lot of health problems aren’t the same. But this particular mental health problem sounds like it likely is the same, whatever happens in your brain chemistry probably can happen at any age, often for no specific reason (such as a trauma) – perhaps like you said for a genetic reason.

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