You don’t know (and won’t know that for many years yet) that this feeling you can’t find words to describe –the excessive guilt, the lying awake ruminating on things long past, the somatisation (those stomach aches, those headaches) – is depression. You’ve always heard that you’ve periodically been an “anxious child” but this will only make sense once you learn that anxiety and depression share the same unmade bed.
This is a part of your existence that you will grapple with long after middle school and high school and university, but it’s important that you realize that you aren’t alone. By the time you reach your mid-twenties, most of your friends will share, in bits and pieces over coffee and wine, this same experience of existential dread, this lack of motivation, this helplessness in the face of a world with too many problems for a young idealist to fix and an environment demands more than you can give, let alone want to. Isolation is a huge part of the problem, though learning that you’re “not the only one” will come as both a relief and an increased sense of sadness. Try not to drown beneath the weight of this heaviness – share the load, you’ll find so many willing pairs of arms. Learn to ask for help because it’s often freely given. Set boundaries with others, and understand that when others set boundaries with you it’s because they’re already struggling under the weight of their own burdens. Reach out to those you know are struggling, if and when you’re able to. No one has to go it alone.
Therapy is good for everyone. Try to exercise more regularly, just don’t do that thing where you run so much you forget that you were trying to feel better in the first place. Nature is healing; we spend too much time indoors on screens. Do yoga, because you know it works for you. Try medication – the right pill can be lifesaving and return you to that place where you can put in the necessary hard work. Just don’t over-rely on pharmacology, because it’s rarely (if ever) a miracle solution. The “necessary hard work” will not be linear – you’ll stumble and fall and catch yourself by your fingertips only to fall even further because you forget that your legs are better for supporting your weight.
You’ll come to the revolutionary realization that doing less is often more, which flies in the face of everything you’ve been socialized to believe. You’ll start doing less, feel guilty because now “everyone else is doing more”, realize that “more” is a social construct, grapple with the fact that some people just like keeping busy (you’re one of them, because it helps you avoid yourself) and that society rewards this, try to do less, feel more depressed, and find yourself striving towards the impossible ideal of “work-life balance”. This is normal, this is okay, and there’s no “right answer” other than to soul-search and decide what it is you want. This can be uncomfortable, but you’ll come to learn that if what you want is primarily based on what you perceive other people in your life want, you’ll never free yourself.
It’s okay to say no, to end that friendship or relationship, to leave your job or program, to do the brave thing – and it is brave – and set off on a path of self-discovery, even if that means saying goodbye to everything you thought you were. You might come full-circle, you might not. Someone dear to you will tell you that it’s important to become comfortable with discomfort, and you will take this up as a mantra of sorts. You’ll receive feedback constantly, some deliberately hurtful and some constructive; practice examining it at a distance, filtering it, keeping the pearls of wisdom and discarding the rest. Nothing is personal, even when words are carefully selected to hurt you; those reflect the inner state of another person. You’ll be okay as long as you don’t lose sight of you you are and who you want to be. Centre all of your decisions – including your reactions, as far as possible – around what is important to you.
You’re smart and brave. You’re worthy of your love. Go out and learn how to love yourself, forgive yourself the little things, make amends for the larger ones. Let go of guilt and the weight of expectation. Take days off. Ask for help when you need it. Fill your cup with gratitude and kindness. Become an activist. Acknowledge your privilege and adjust your lens so that you can make the world a more equitable place. Go hiking, go traveling, share meals with strangers and open your heart to the new and exciting. You don’t have to love every aspect of yourself, but eventually you’ll have to make peace with who you are.
P.S. You’ll end up liking the person you become, which will feel like a revolution in and of itself.