Riley McCanna, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, took his own life on April 14th. He was 15 years old. Since then, his family, friends and community are working to make sure that people understand the reality of depression and how to ask for and find help.
Riley was like most 15-year-olds. He was popular, loved skateboarding and was on the honor roll. But he fought against depression in private, seeing multiple medical professionals. He lost the battle, and his family is taking his fight with depression public, hoping that Riley's death can help save the lives of others.
"If this is Riley's lesson to the world, depression is real and it should be taken seriously," Riley's mother, Kari, told the Leader-Telegram. They want the stigma against mental health to end, and they have the support of the community. Hundreds of people attended Riley's memorial at his favorite skate park, encouraging those in pain to reach out.
"Depression is a treatable condition, and the family was doing what they could to treat it," Molly Quigley, Riley's cousin told the crowd. "To lose anyone is such a great loss, not only to you and your family, but to your community. If you need help, please reach out."
Others exhorted friends and loved ones to speak up and offer support to those hurting. Jon Snider, a clinical psychologist in the area, said that it's important to ask if someone is depressed or even suicidal. While it may be an uncomfortable conversation, he said, it may save a life. "I've never had anyone get mad at me because I asked," he told The Chippewa Herald. He also stressed ending the stigma against depression and putting down the idea that people struggling from depression can simply "snap out of it."
"It doesn't work that way. You don't just say 'stop having cancer.'" Comparing it to the day after a long illness, Snider said, "You are no longer ill but you are physically wiped out. You feel flat-out done...[with an illness] you know the next day you are going to feel better." That doesn't go away with depression, and that hopelessness can push an already depressed person to the edge.
The McCannas are hoping that despite the pain that comes with losing a son, his story can help others avoid the same fate. "Riley needs to help someone, and I believe he will," Kari McCanna said.
These kind of tragedies occur with such frustrating regularity, and it's heartening to see the bravery his family has shown in the face of such unthinkable pain and sorrow. It's a reminder that we can't just hope that depression will go away, whether we're dealing with the pain ourselves or it's a loved one that's struggling. Ask - ask if people are having a hard time, ask if you can help. Ask for help. There are too many stories, too many lives, that end like Riley McCanna's.
As always, I have linked to each contributor's full story. Clicking on each name will take you to their full story. I will be continuing to publish Depression Stories volumes until I have no more stories in my inbox; e-mail me your story with the subject line "Depression" if you would like it included in a future volume, and remember to indicate whether you would like your story to be anonymous.
I also want to take this opportunity to announce the launch of The Couch, a new blog on Kinja focusing on mental health. We hope it can be a place for people to talk about struggles with mental health issues (their own or others'), share articles, and in general create a really strong community for people that care about this issue. We also intend to have experts in mental health and depression to answer questions (possibly things like live Q&As as well). If you have any questions, tweet or e-mail.
Previous Depression Stories
The Deepest, Darkest Pit: Depression Stories, Vol. 6
Withdrawing Into the Darkness: Depression Stories, Vol. 5
We Just Want to Be Free: Depression Stories, Vol. 4
'I Feel Like I've Failed': Depression Stories, Vol. 3
Dullness and Fog: Depression Stories, Vol. 2
Somewhere Someone Loves Us: Depression Stories, Vol. 1
*some names changed
I remember being very young, maybe 7 or 8, and bursting into tears for no apparent reason one day while I was in the shower. This is the earliest memory I have of my depression, which is almost as old as my earliest memory ever. In other words, I have almost no memory of a life without depression. I had a great childhood. Stable family, two amazing, loving parents, no financial problems, no major health problems, good school, regular beautiful family vacations. Sounds idyllic. Yet I was constantly sad. I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I felt guilty for my good fortune. I didn't allow myself to enjoy my life when every night in the news I would see images of starving children in Ethiopia.
When I was about 15, my sadness became more unbearable. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know yet that it was called depression. The first time I spoke about it I was telling my best friend that I felt like I was trapped inside a bubble, and the air inside this bubble was heavier than the air outside. And that no matter how much I try, it is impossible to get out of this bubble. This is what my depression still feels like to me today, 21 years later.
After much discussion and pleading with my parents (the idea that I was asking to see a psychologist was just impossible for them to accept), my mom took me to see my GP so i could talk about it. I was quickly dismissed by the doctor who attributed my infinite sadness to typical teenage stuff. "You'll snap out of it, you're just a normal 15 year old".
5 years later, after some disruptive life changes (a move to a foreign country away from my friends and my old life), the death of my beloved grandfather precipitated my depressed state. I spent a whole week in my bed, refusing to talk to anyone or to even see daylight. I did not take a single shower that week. All I ate in those 7 days was a bowl of plain white rice. I did not stop crying. Finally my mom agreed that I needed help and took me to a psychiatrist.
He prescribed anti-depressants, which I ended up staying on for 11 years. This doesn't mean that I was happy during those 11 years. The drugs did not help me feel happy; they helped me to not feel sad. They numbed me. Today I have very fuzzy memory of my 20's, even though I am only 36, because I spent that entire decade "high". When you look at pictures of me during that time, you can tell in my eyes that I was just "not there". I was on auto-pilot. Constantly tired, not showing any emotion. It's as if my emotional brain was shut off. Finally after 11 years I decided that I had had enough and wanted to see life without drugs. After a long withdrawal process (lighting in the brain is a very real thing), I was finally drug-free. I now feel the full range of emotions, from incredible joy to horrible sadness.
Sadly, depression will never leave me. I can be fine for a few months, but out of the blue it comes back. I start feeling the bubble building all around me, it becomes more and more difficult to get up and shower, to be social, to see the future in a positive light.
The worst part about depression is that it can hit you when you have absolutely nothing to be sad about.
Depression looms, it never goes away but is sneaks up on you a little at a time. Sometimes you've been swallowed neck deep for weeks before you spot it, which makes it all the harder to fight back. Sometimes you can learn the triggers, the signs that you're sinking and need to kick harder to keep on the surface. But it always remains.
What a lot of people don't realise is depression can be sporadic. I first got depression after my GCSEs. I felt like I lost my purpose to get out of bed each day. When I was forced into a task like going into school, or work, I was fine, but the second I had a moment to myself my brain would kick in and my body would shut down. I could stare at a wall and not move for literally hours. My brother and sister had moved out, and my dad was working away and then had a stroke. I was alone most of the holidays and wouldn't get dressed until I knew they would be home soon (usually 6pm). I would be making toast for breakfast, and realise tears were pouring down my face for no reason. I wasn't bullied or abused, I had no real hardships in life. I'm just wired differently- one reason suggested by one of many therapy sessions was that it was a lack of a chemical that enables coping mechanisms when things go wrong. All I know is that solitude and lack of tasks is dangerous to my stability, which is difficult to balance along with my introverted nature.
On applying as disabled for various reasons (to make sure I got into shared halls at university for instance, as living alone would be exacerbate my illness) and on telling people such as my boss I was depressed, I was even flat out told "no you aren't!", because I was always upbeat at work. Even now as a teacher in a school where several teenagers have depression and don't always make it in, I have to explain that they aren't just faking it when other teachers have "seen them looking happy sometimes so it can't be depression"
At one point at university everything was wonderful, then my grandpa died. I became convinced that every time I was happy, something terrible would happen to balance it out, and the only way to stop this was to stay totally ambivalent, neutral. Eventually I learned that I preferred the highs and lows to not feeling at all, but even that took a long time.
My family had no idea how to handle my crashes. They knew it was worse than normal teenage angst, but didn't know what to say. I was desperate for them to force me to go to a doctor, but we were a family who don't discuss our problems, and just keep quite after arguments and pretended they didn't happen. My mum eventually mentioned it, and I was lucky enough to have a great GP I'd known all my life and going on medication helped, even though I hate that I need external chemicals to make me level out to where everyone else is, like a failure for not doing it myself. I know that to this day that my mum tortures herself that she didn't do something sooner.
Almost three years ago, my mother pleaded with me to call my therapist. My sister picked me up off the floor, helped me undress and put me in the shower. My husband carted me to the emergency room and stayed with me for hours on end.
The hospital trip was a precaution. I hadn't threatened suicide nor had I made any attempts. I simply told my husband and mother that "it might be easier if I wasn't here anymore." I said it casually, as if I just decided at the last minute to order a salad with my dinner. At least it sounded casual to me. Not so much for the two people who were hearing the numbness in my voice and seeing the dark under-eye circles and sullen face in front of them.
Until this point, I had largely kept my years-long battle with depression to myself. My husband was the only one who witnessed my daily half-hearted attempts at getting out of bed, eating, going to work and trying to be happy. I promised him I would be ok because I didn't actually think I was depressed. No way, not me.
Friends didn't know. They just assumed I was anti-social because I avoided parties and eye contact. Feigning happiness was exhausting. It was easier to stay home and gain a reputation for being aloof. What did I care?
I ratcheted things up on that day three years ago. Until those words came out of my mouth, I didn't want to admit depression plagued me. I told myself I was just cursed with a terrible personality. I was convinced I just had a bad attitude. I rationalized that I was a buzzkill who didn't deserve happiness. I was taking anti-depressants, yet it didn't register that I was depressed with a capital D.
There's no other way to describe what I did to my family and husband that day: I scared the shit out of them. I confused them with this news. Who was I? They had to look at me differently, at least temporarily. I was no longer the self-sufficient older sister who had it together. I was the oldest daughter who needed her family to save her and take care of her. I was a new wife who asked her husband of a mere three months to stand by me "in sickness and in (mental) health."
It doesn't escape me that I was one of the lucky ones. My family helped me climb out of one of the darkest times in my life. I sometimes feel guilty that I laid something so heavy on them, but speaking up was the best thing I did. I felt like a failure admitting I could no longer help myself, but that admission probably saved my life. Be good to yourself.
My father is extremely depressed. He's by his own admission been on everything, seen everyone, heard every diagnosis in the book. When I was growing up, he constantly said, "I hate my life. You'll be glad when I'm gone." His attempts at treatment left him better sometimes, worse others, but always the same end- he built up a resistance to those pills, and he raged. At us, around us, and guess what I mutter to myself now in my darkest moments? I hate my life. Fuck my life. You'd be happier without me.
Fast forward to the summer after my college graduation. I struggled with OCD and anxiety since I was in grade school, but this was the first time my depression manifested itself. My boyfriend was confused. Where did I go? I was dismayed. I swore I'd never become this, that I'd tough it out. I cried to my parents, went to therapy, where the suggestion was always, "Let's get your thyroid tested. Let's get you on some medication."
But always in the back of my head were the rage and the lectures. "You don't NEED it," my parents told me. "You're functioning. The meds won't work." My grades were good, I showed up to work every day, I still enjoyed some things. I came to feel guilty about those moments where I could enjoy nothing, and I came to believe that functioning was equivalent to normal. I was normal. It's normal to devolve into screaming, crying fits for no reason, right? I wasn't as bad as "some of the people" my dad knew. I wasn't as bad as him. I just wasn't motivated. I didn't have the right routine. I didn't have the right attitude. I wasn't sick enough to deserve help, because I still functioned.
I'm still not medicated. Now it's more a matter of cost than this aversion drummed into me, after months of careful consideration. I still find a dark hole and hide in it. Funny enough, my stigma isn't just from the un-depressed. I'm lucky enough to have people who care, people who listen, even when it gets tedious. I function extremely well. But existing is not the same as living, and functioning should not be the status quo.
My freshman year of college was everything that I had hoped it would be. I had a scholarship to a decent, albeit unknown, liberal arts college. I made the Dean's list while taking upper-level classes. I made friends with people that I respected and were interesting, but also spontaneous and fun. I was one of three freshman on the editorial board of the literary magazine (which was weirdly a "cool" thing at this school). I was taking classes that I enjoyed, learning things that I was genuinely interested in. Everything was new and exciting and wonderful. I remember myself for the majority of that year as very calm, content, and excited for the future. These are probably the best and most recent memories of happiness for me.
One night in the spring of that year, while at a friend's birthday-turned-house party, I got too drunk. I lost my phone and keys (having placed them in a closet when the party got busy) and I ran into a guy that I had a few classes with. According to an acquaintance, he offered to walk me home because I seemed tired. The next morning, I awoke on his bed, clothed except for my pants on the floor, and him asleep on his couch.
The next year and a half is a fog for me. I began skipping classes, transferred schools, barely made an effort to make friends and get involved, and didn't tell anyone about what had happened. This culminated in a major depressive episode of about a month in which I did not leave my dorm room, I did not shower, I slept erratic hours (when I wasn't watching seasons of HIMYM or Bones), and I only ate food that I could get out of the vending machine at 3 in the morning, afraid that I would have to see another human being. During this entire time, my family and therapist all thought that I was doing "so well." I didn't want to burden anyone with my problems and I felt guilty about everything- convinced that my friends' and family's lives would be easier and happier without me. I showered, dressed, and smiled for appointments with the therapist, and I forced an upbeat voice on the phone with family. Only after planning a suicide and then deciding against it based on the guilt that some poor person would have the horror of finding me, did I admit to anyone that I needed help.
I used to be able to pull myself out of it years ago. But as I've aged it's become increasingly difficult. I'm a single parent. I tried meds a few years ago but they didn't help much. I love my career. It keeps me sane and gives me a sense of accomplishment. But there are days when I can barely handle my life. On those days my daughter is too damn demanding. I just want to be left alone. I can barely take care of myself and I have to take care of her. But I manage. I keep telling myself in another 6 years she will be an adult. I will move away and will be alone with my books and my cats. Then I won't have to deal with anyone.
I've felt insecure and worthless for as far back as I can remember. Sometimes a therapist will ask me, "What happened to you to make you feel this way?" There is not one thing. The feeling of being not good enough was always present, and I cannot recall an early impetus for that deep, core feeling of "not good enough." For the longest time I just assumed that this was my personality: shy, insecure, secretly desperate for validation but never, ever willing to admit that fact. It became integrated into my sense of humor – self-deprecating jokes! The therapy came when my depression started affecting my relationship, the medication came when it left me too incapacitated to go to work.
I was worried about the medication changing the core of who I was. My therapist gave me this analogy: "You are climbing up a hill with a backpack full of bricks. The medication isn't going to change who you are – you are still going to have the same struggles, and you'll still be climbing the hill. But it will be easier to deal with. The backpack won't be so heavy."
My doctor advised that it would take about a two week period for the Celexa to work. At the one week mark, I was saddled with an ugly clarity. I was coming out of the fog just enough to see a little more clearly, but not enough to really feel any happier. What I saw hit me like a ton of bricks: Everything in my life was being negatively affected by my depression, and had been for years. The arguments with my boyfriend, my poor performance at work, my inability to enjoy my nights out – depression. My failed internship interview at the magazine I had longed to work for all through college – depression. My loneliness throughout high school – depression. Everywhere I looked throughout my past I could see missed opportunities and moments where I had gotten in my own way. The things that I loved and cherished now were marred where my depression had raked its claws. It was devastating.
My medication limbo passed as the Celexa fully kicked in, but my therapist had been right: I clearly still had some struggles to work through. I still do today. I've cycled through different therapists and different medications, and I've made a lot of progress. But I'm still climbing the hill - the fear and the self-loathing are still there, and I am still incapacitated by them in many ways (sometimes new ways even crop up). No pill or professional can change that for me.
I'm a junior at a large public university. I'm a little past the year mark of when I was first diagnosed with major depression, and it's still something that I have to address when I wake up in the morning, pick apart and analyze as I go through my day, and swallow again as I take another dose of Cymbalta. One of the worst things about having depression is that no one around me seems to ever quite get it – no one reacts the way I want them to. Yes, that's unrealistic, but a small part of me demands since I've already been through so much, don't I deserve to have someone immediately get it and help me out?
Most of last spring is a haze, but I clearly remember the Saturday before Easter when I went out to dinner with my best friend from high school. As I sat with her, I described the process of falling deeper into depression, crafting my suicide plan and comforting myself with the idea of making everything end, and finally being sent to the mental ward and withdrawing for a semester from school. I felt a sense of relief that finally, I could spit all this out and have someone say, "I'm so sorry you went through this, no one deserves that." Instead, she said, "Well, at least you didn't break your leg or something." She went on to imply that my depression was uncalled for, since I had a much better childhood than she did and that her life was overall worse than mine.
I had similar reactions from other friends. Half of me was utterly devastated – my depression meant nothing at all. I was a weak, pathetic little girl who couldn't stand up when the going got rough in school and instead ran home to her mommy. The other half was furious that I could be so stupid as to pick those kinds of friends.
Like many other people that have shared, I come from a family that has a long history with depression. My mom is clinical, as her multiple of her siblings though most of them haven't ever been diagnosed. Their father was an alcoholic. My dad has not been diagnosed with bipolar, but has manic episodes. He tried to commit suicide when I was 19. His mother probably would have been diagnosed with bipolar had that been a thing in the 1950s when she had her breakdown. Her maternal grandmother, my great-great-grandmother was said to have been a healer but was given a lobotomy in the early 1900s because of the "spells" she suffered from. My sister has bipolar. Depression is all around me.
I deal with mine, generally, differently than most of my family; it's not often as deep for me. Although, on the other hand, maybe I've been lying to myself about that for a long time and what is feeling normal for me would be below normal for others. I know that drugs help and I see that on a daily basis in my family. I've always been reluctant to use them, though, greatly preferring talk therapy when things are bad, which most of my family prefers to avoid. I have been in therapy off and on since college. More on the older I get. This past year I found myself back in therapy and in a place where I NEEDED the medications and couldn't avoid recognizing that.
I hate when people say that suicide is selfish. It is, on the surface, but you can't just look at the surface. Too many people are quick to dismiss depression and suicide as being sad and taking the coward's way out. I turned 35 this last year. I normally love to celebrate my birthday with large groups of friends. This year, I spent it primarily alone. I felt, very deeply, like I was not worth anyone else's time. There was no reason for people to do anything for me, because I just wasn't worth it. Happy birthday wishes and presents just made me cry—I felt like they were offerings of pity. I was completely unable to accept anyone's love. I've been through enough therapy to know that those were/are skewed thoughts and that my friends love me for many reasons, none of which have to do with pity. But even knowing that doesn't make the feelings go away. I have some friends that completely do not understand depression and some that know it too well themselves. Still, how do you ever tell a friend that sometimes you think about that bottle of narcotic painkillers leftover from foot surgery that is in your medicine cabinet.
I've come to think of my current therapist as my Jewish aunt. And my antidepressants have become as rote as my allergy pill. And these days, 9 months after my last birthday, I actually kind of like myself on some days. I keep trying anyway.
If you were to describe me as you met me today you probably wouldn't use the word depressed to do so.
Most consider me passionate, a little awkward and quirky maybe, studious at times and I and laugh talk a lot and often too loudly. I don't really tell people very often that I've ever felt depressed but when I do, I usually explain that I quite college for a short time after having experienced a roller coaster relationship with a former drug addict. People can understand that. They nod. Frown a bit. As if to say "Yes, I totally understand why that would be a depressing situation." But the thing is, you don't need a situation to be depressing to be depressed. I want to tell you a different story right now, if you'll let me.
When I was eleven years old I tried to drown myself. You read that correctly, I was 11 years old. And although I was considered a happy child, I was teased relentlessly. Kids called me disgusting, would pretend that I was contagious and my whole class would refuse to be near enough me that I could touch them. I wasn't a particularly ugly kid, and although I had eczema I was fairly healthy too. Kids are vicious and all I knew was that I was disgusting and I didn't want to be any more. I remember running to the bathroom, crying. And my class surrounding the cubicle I was in and laughing.
That's all they did, I was never beaten.
But they laughed and they pointed and they planted a seed that I don't think I ever lost. So at a birthday party of a girl from my class I tried to drown myself.
At eleven years old.
These were complicated emotions to have as a kid and I wasn't sure how to deal with them. I just felt so sad and disgusted with myself. I'm sure there were whispers after, from child to child and parent to parent. But I don't remember getting a talking to from my parents. My parents were dealing with their own things and couldn't always pay so much attention to me, although my mom tried. You see, my dad had a problem with drinking. When I mention this most folk envision an image like in the movies of an angry drunk, cursing and beating up on his family. But my dad wasn't abusive. He never laid a hand on me (not during that time), but it brought a darkness in our house.
In the middle of the afternoon when he took his nap my mom would teach us that we had to tiptoe through the house so we wouldn't wake him up.
Although I was young that first time that I tried to disappear from life, it wasn't the only time. And although a voice screamed inside my head constantly reminding me of what a worthless piece of shit I was, I also felt a deep burning that this was all wrong. Those kids were wrong and they were cruel. Having to tiptoe through my house and being afraid to invite other kids over was wrong. But I did nothing because I didn't know what I could possibly do about it, besides tell myself that I was wrong for feeling that way.
The feeling of wrongness never left.
Joshua David can be found on Twitter at @joshuaadavidd.
Image via Guilherme Yagui.