August 12, 2019:
Early medical and psychiatric beliefs regarding depression in children and adolescents were that juveniles were psychologically unable to experience 'true' depression, and consequently, depression in this population was considered to be rare. As the theoretical and clinical understanding of depression has grown, it has become apparent that depression does occur in juveniles and that it is diagnostically predictive. It is now recognized that despressive disorders occur more frequently than previously believed, and, if left untreated, may seriously compromise a patient’s sense of self-worth, impair school performance, damage familial bonds, and impair both interpersonal and peer functioning, as well as intrapersonal capacities.
— William P Fleisher, MD FRCPC1,2 and Laurence Y Katz, MD FRCPC, "Early onset major depressive disorder", Paediatr Child Health. 2001 Sep; 6(7): 444–448.
For me, "adolescent onset" lasted about four years and was very different to the two subsequent periods of major depression I experienced later in life. Today it would probably be diagnosed as Agitated Depression or Mixed Affective State. While I experienced many of the classic symptoms I was also very angry, and wired with jittery electrical energy which sometimes felt uncontrollable.
Around age 15, ish, I found myself having difficulty concentrating. I became disinterested — obviously disinterested in school, that goes without saying — now also disinterested in friendships, sports, dating, reading. I'm surprised they didn't put me on ritalin — today they'd have me on Adderall in half a heartbeat. I shook and bounced and spun, rocked on my heels, chattered continually, all the while feeling more and more that I was somehow sinking into the ground while shooting up about six inches a year, so that my bones ached and my muscles felt like they were burning from the inside out.
Reading was difficult. As a child I'd loved reading but with depression in adolescence it was necessary to concentrate in order to concentrate. I'd have to double-back to re-read whole chapters 'cos I'd lost the thread somewhere. I'd have twenty books open, each of which I'd partly absorbed and partly forgotten. Studying required re-reading many many times.
Circadian rhythm was fully whack. My pattern for about ten years was to stay up all night in intense anxiety which drained away only at dawn. It was an extreme hypervigilance, where rustling leaves outside would leave me bolt upright in bed, listening with all the might I could summon. Much of my truancy was driven by insomnia. Even on days when I did turn up I was frequently a couple of hours late.
I grew my hair. This was less a badge of post-Hippie teenage Zeppelin-worship than a physical screen to hide behind. If I wanted to talk to you I'd put it back in a pony tail. If I didn't, which was most of the time, I'd shake it forward: now you see me, now you don't. I was scrawny and girlish, a favorite target for bullies and jocks, until the bullies figured out that if they fucked with me I was willing to die to kill them first, and the jocks came to realize that I was better at most sports than they were. Hair was a costume, and I had a lot of practice assuming false personae.
The masks I wore became more and more extreme. I lived parallel lives. The nerdy wargame boys, the older stoners, my neighborhood kids, girls on the beach. These were separate universes I moved between, a Postmodernist collision of disparate worlds with me as the gateway.
At school I lost my formerly upright posture and walked with stooped shoulders, so that hair covered my face; I'd peer out from dirty wireframes with owlish vigilance. I was simultaneously fast-talking and uncommunicative. I learned that jokes were as effective a screen as hair: if I kept people entertained they'd not ask questions. So that I was both class clown and deeply withdrawn.
Humor was handy with the stoners, too, typically in the canyon a block from campus. There was very little money, so getting high required mad skill at social engineering. Little by little I slipped into drug abuse. If this was an attempt at self-medication, I picked the wrong medicines. My favorites were acid or alcohol-plus-speed, the best bang-for-the-buck highs, dramatically exacerbating my already manic hyperactivity. If I couldn't get those I'd do weed or reds, at that time the primary teenage drugs of abuse. It was the uppers I lived for, though. Speed made me even more physically jittery than before, but it calmed the racing thoughts which kept me so distracted.
On my block I was able to channel my agitation into sports. I played football or basketball every day, and in summer I'd go for sixty or eighty mile bike rides all over the city. I joined in crazyass games of bicycle chase: up and down curbs, around trees, down flights of concrete stairs, between and around moving cars on the street. A scene in Alicia Vikander's Lara Croft movie is similar, but we'd have five or six rabbits running at once. After dark I'd run two or three miles, trying to calm down. The endorphin made me feel like God, but I still couldn't sleep.
My only memories of calm during these years is of girls on the beach. I'd skip school to hang with the girlfriends of the silly surfer dudes. I wasn't yet hitting on the girls, I was inexperienced and they were frequently college women, allkindsa beyond scrawny teenagers. But I loved being with them. I loved their voices: womanly yet still girlish. They were kind to me and patient with me and it felt good to be with them. It felt like they were looking after me, although I was keenly aware of not truly belonging.
Always, wherever I was was the wrong place to be. I felt close to no-one, confided in no-one, hid my disparate realities each from the others. Didn't care, wasn't interested. Couldn't see the point. Frequently had trouble processing what people said to me. Didn't see how it applied to me. Couldn't tell what they wanted from me, or why I should give a fuck.
In hindsight, depression is so painfully clear in the limited number of school pics I failed to prevent. Hair; body language; dirty wireframes masking dilated eyeballs. Downcast, confused, lonely. Poster boy for teenage onset congenital yeeps. Thanks gene pool! Your boy is fucked.
There was — of course — no diagnosis. This was fifteen years before Prozac, when the culture had no realistic concept of "mood disorder", and "mental illness" was synonymous with "booby hatch". In adults, symptoms of depression were commonly viewed as laziness or self-pity, while the same symptoms in teenagers were seen as perfectly ordinary acting-out. My family's hillbilly outlook was that the emotions of children are unreal: children have no lasting or deep feelings, and whatever complaints they may express are hollow holdovers from infancy, crying at every little thing. All the adults thought this way. My mother was distant, inward, wrapped-up in her own multiple legacies of childhood abuse. School authorities showed no interest at all.
Most importantly, nobody knew. I was extremely skilled at dissembling, and I was not about to share the real events of my life, the important events. Adults could not be trusted. They were incompetent, and they were disinterested. I wore my masks. I kept adults and schoolkids alike at far more than arm's length. It's not really anyone's fault that nobody understood.
I had a girlfriend for a year I was not close with. Another for another year I was equally not close with. There were school kids who imagined we were friends, who I gave not a second thought to after graduation until they looked me up on Facebook decades later to tell me they missed me. I had no idea who they were.
From middle school through high school I have very few memories. The ones I'm able to bring into focus feel like someone else's home movies. Yah I was there, but it has nothing to do with me. Just passing through. In many of them I'm at the beach when I should be in school, getting high with older girls I'm not yet having sex with. In others I'm drinking rum on the bleachers, or spending the schoolday holding hands with my neighborhood gf at her mother's apartment. Over time I'm increasingly at the university, UC San Diego, when I should be in high school. I'm volunteering at the Che Cafe or at Groundwork Books, I'm learning about Anarchism from the milieu and about Frankfort School Marxism from Marcuse's grad students.
I used the word "graduation" back there but it was others who graduated, not me. The Adult Powers took notice of me long enough to inform me, about three weeks before the end of my senior year, that my services were no longer required. Motherfuckers! To have waited that long. I assume it was their little bureaucratic way of saying "Fuck you too, kid." If they'd been even remotely polite they'd have done it years before.