Celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride
Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom from a Formerly Depressed Teen
When Ruby Walker was 15, she went from a numb, silent, miserable high school dropout to a joyous loudmouth in one year flat. And now, she’s written about it! Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom from a Formerly Depressed Teen answers the question everyone has been asking her since: What happened?
Full of stories, honest advice, and fierce hope, Walker’s self-help book is for people who hate help. And themselves. In conjunction with Pride Month, The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present excerpts from Ruby’s important resource for teens suffering from depression (which has reached epidemic proportions), parents who have one, and educators who want to help. Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom from a Formerly Depressed Teen is believed to be the only book on teenage mental health actually written by a teenager.
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If I had to describe how depression made me feel in four words, I’d say unwelcome in my mind. That was the primary sensation. That’s why it was different from just being sad. Day in, day out, I was bullying myself. I was under constant attack. Of course I was tired! Of course I broke down! Of course I was numb, hopeless, and angry! How would you feel about a friend who makes jokes at your expense, puts you down when you fail, ignores your successes, and never thinks you’re good enough?
That is exactly how I used to treat myself. It was always ?Sorry I’m this, sorry I’m that.” There are a hundred thousand ways to bully yourself with words.
All the little things added up. Criticism turned to hatred. Everything made me tired. Everything made me hate myself. The more I hated myself, the more tired I felt, and the more tired I felt, the further I fell. My grades slipped. When I spoke, I snapped. When I wasn’t angry, I’d cry. I didn’t notice how much my self-deprecation was affecting me. Slowly but surely, it became my status quo.
And how could I have noticed? That’s how my friends talked about themselves. We made jokes at our own expense at lunch, on twitter, in the morning, before bed. You?ve seen the jokes, the posts, the fatalistic streak my generation has. It’s a culture of fear and loathing. I hardly knew there was another way to exist.
I think everyone would like to have better self-esteem. I did, too, but I wanted it in the sort of far-off fantasy way that someone living paycheck-to-paycheck wants a cherry red Porsche. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had better self-esteem?
But I found the secret. Words. Whether it’s a joke or not–whether they really mean it or not–when someone says something mean to you, doesn’t it hurt?
A relationship doesn’t go sour for no reason: it’s the daily practice of talking to each other that forms how we feel. Compliments grow scarce; words of support are out the door. Every situation becomes an excuse to snipe at each other! Every problem is your fault.
No, your fault. No, it’s your fault.
The same goes for what we say about ourselves. Every little comment matters. I changed the way I felt about myself by changing the way I talked about myself. It wasn’t easy, but it was a measurable, achievable goal. That was more than I’d ever had before.
I did three things:
- I stopped saying mean things about myself, full stop. Even jokes! And I loved a good self-deprecating joke.
- Even when I couldn’t believe them yet, I started saying positive affirmations instead.
- Everything I said to or about myself came under the same scrutiny: The Friend Rule. If I wouldn’t say it to my best friend, I don’t say it to myself.
Somehow it worked. The words I spoke turned into the words I thought, and the words I thought turned into me. I went from just feigning self-respect to truly wanting to look out for myself. Like any relationship, it took time and work; it didn’t happen overnight. And still, it’s the foundation of my recovery. Every time I do something good for myself, I do it because I give a damn whether I am okay or not.
Actually giving a damn starts with the words you say to yourself, and eventually, this self-respect extends to actions. You start to improve your life. Kick addictions. Take care of yourself.
I know that for some blessed people, self-respect is automatic. I had to learn. My friends and family taught me how to love myself: not by telling me, “Ruby, you need to love yourself,” but by showing me what acceptance feels like. I always knew how to treat others with basic decency, and I knew what standard to expect from strangers and pals. I just had to apply that same standard to my inner life.
Being a friend to yourself means cutting yourself the same slack you already give to others. It means recognizing setbacks, celebrating progress, and forgiving mistakes. It means making a conscious effort to speak kindly and show respect. And most of all, it means pushing through, even when all you want is to sink down. By changing the words I used, I became my own best friend. I keep my successes folded carefully in my heart. I wipe my own eyes when the world is too much to handle. And you know what?
I had a personality beyond my depression. I had a world of quirks, tendencies, and beautiful unique truths about myself to discover. Mind clouded with sadness and hatred, I didn’t always believe this. Wasn’t I just a natural pessimist? It may feel like your mental illness (and all the habits and preferences that make up its body) is the bulk of your personality.
Not so! Not so! I have become so much since I recovered from depression. Old things came back? how loud I am when I can find my voice, my love of birds, my love of art.
Others are new: I write now. I’m involved in local politics. I like to make people I don’t know very well feel welcome at parties. I’m obsessed with cacti.
Knowing yourself is useful two ways. First off, any decision you make for yourself, whether it’s to move to a new city or just be more comfortable in your skin, will work better if it’s informed by your personal, unique attributes. Do you love to sleep in? Do you care a lot about children? Knowledge of who you are affects what you do, what will make you happy, and your success.
Second, having a positive idea of your identity is nice on its own. Not because it’s advantageous, but because it’s right. Living just feels better when you are surrounded by people who are affirming to your true, honest self. I have personal experience with this as a member of the LGBT community: realizing that there are aspects of you that are difficult to face in the first place is a necessary step towards self-acceptance and self-love.
Maybe you’re the only Indian kid in your grade, you have a disability, your friends don’t share your religion, you’re transgender, you talk too fast, or you prefer not to talk much at all. Everyone has something about them that makes them different from others. You might not want to recognize that. You might want it to go away. That’s okay.
I’ve had times when I’ve sincerely wished I could be a heterosexual. Right after I came out as a lesbian, not a bisexual, I noticed my guy friends treating me differently. They weren’t as nice as they used to be. They paid more attention to girls they saw as sexually available, and I knew it was unconscious, but it still hurt. Was that all our friendship was worth? I couldn’t change who I was, but I still ran in loops around it, wishing I could be normal.
But what’s the point of trying to be “normal”? Really, what is it? Is anyone perfectly normal? And who sets the standard? I can’t think of a more boring aspiration. If someone hates me for something I can’t change, they just aren’t my audience. I will never dull myself trying to be “normal” for them. I’ll carefully choose the people whose opinions I really care about, and for them I will be fantastic.
What I learned about insecurities from being gay:
- I will never get 100% of people to like me.
- People are going to dislike me for parts of myself I just can’t change.
- I can’t let my difference be my weak point.
- If I face shame with pride, nobody can hurt me.
When all is said and done, I’m the only person on this Earth who will be present in my life every moment until my very last breath. Knowing myself deeply helps me connect to that life: through my relationships, my values, and through the face I choose to show the world. And the more I know, the more I can be sure that face is true.
Q&A with Ruby Walker
When did you realize you were depressed? Did you go to a doctor or were you feeling sad all the time?
I wish I had seen a doctor. Things might’ve been easier, or at least less confusing if I had. It sounds silly, but I think I realized something was seriously wrong when I stopped caring about birds. I used to run a blog about birds, I thought about them all the time, drew them, watched them–it was kind of my thing. And then, when I was 15, in the middle of a lot of other symptoms that were somehow easier to ignore? I realized I didn’t care about birds anymore. It was like that with everything–all the stuff that used to make me happy just? didn’t.
Why did you decide to start writing a book when you were only 16-years-old?
When I was fifteen, I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed most mornings, and I dropped out of high school. My mother bought me this stack of self-help books, books on psychology, books for teenagers with depression. I read them all, and some of the advice they gave ended up helping me later. But they were all written by adults who were looking in on my problems from this clinical perspective. After I began my process of recovery, I wanted to write a book that would represent my perspective, as a young teenager who had experience with depression, but also a lot of hope.
Is the depression you felt similar to how it’s portrayed in popular media?
Depression really isn’t about being sad all the time. At least for me, it was like a whole world I lived in. I felt fragile. Small things would ruin my day. Everything worried me, everything made me hate myself, and the more I hated myself, the worse I felt. In turn, I blamed myself for how awful I felt, and the cycle spiralled downward.
Do you think our schools are adequately equipped to help teens or kids with depression? What can teachers do or say to a teen who seems to be going through depression?
I don’t think schools are designed with mentally ill kids? needs in mind at all. I had a very negative experience with public Texas high school myself, which is why I dropped out. I really wish that my teachers had considered why I might be struggling to get work done, rather than just assuming I was lazy because I couldn’t stop doodling in class. I wasn’t lazy, I was in pain.
If you could give your 14-year-old self some advice, what would you say?
It’s bad enough now. I know you keep waiting for a big sign, a rock-bottom that will force you to get better. Well, it’s bad enough now. You can’t keep waiting for it to get worse. When you give up on the idea that there will be some kind of overnight solution and say, “I’m going to heal. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s pointless, even if I feel like giving up,” that is when you’ll start to see progress. It’s going to be the little things that save you.
Why did you decide to illustrate your book?
I learned to draw before I learned to write, so from the very first draft, there were illustrations scribbled into the margins. I wanted to break up the text with drawings so that it would be easier for someone with very little energy to read.
What can parents do if they believe their teen might be experiencing depression?
Love them. Depression can make people act in unpredictable or unsettling ways. When your kid is acting out, spacing out, staying up, skipping class, snapping, hiding things, and generally being “bad”–that’s when they need love and compassion the most. Don’t get them in trouble, offer them help. Let them know that your love is unconditional. That’s the best thing I think all parents should do.
You mention in the book that exercise was helpful in your recovery, what kind of exercise did you do? What if a teen is not “sporty” enough for exercise?
I was never an athletic kid–I had asthma attacks. I walked the mile in P.E. class. When I heard that exercise could be good for mood disorders, I started walking around the neighborhood at sunset every couple of days. Not only did those walks help my brain make more endorphins, they also became my quiet time for reflection. I’d listen to music, feel the grass, watch the clouds, smell the flowers. Spending some time in nature helped me feel more real somehow.
Do you think New Year’s Resolutions are helpful to someone who is battling depression? Why or why not?
It depends on the person, really. I think there’s this big pressure to make some kind of breakthrough around New Year’s, and that can be upsetting. Go at your own pace. Go slowly. Healing doesn’t happen according to a calendar.
If you could guide someone with depression into setting a couple of goals for 2020, what would you suggest?
I love small goals, because we all need a win sometimes. Very specific things like, “Go on a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood three times a week,” are easier to follow than “get more exercise.” Starting a journal and writing a page every once in a while is also a nice resolution, I think. Getting thoughts onto paper helps me untangle my head when I’m feeling bad.
Could you talk a bit about why hope is such an important aspect of your story?
When I was 16, after a very long and emotionally eventful year in recovery, I was happy with a vengeance. And honestly I could be a little annoying about it–I wore a lot of yellow because I only wanted to wear black before, and I laughed all the time– because it was easy to laugh again and I almost couldn’t believe it. It was the kind of joy you can only feel after a lot of misery. But I think that when it comes to books and movies and TV that deal with depressed teenagers, especially gay teenagers like me, I was only seeing the misery. In things like Thirteen Reasons Why and Dear Evan Hansen, the characters I related most to were always the ones that ended up dying. You never see them getting better. Of course those stories are real, the bad ones. They’re important to tell. But my story exists too. And I want to say: there’s always hope. I lived, here’s what happened, here’s my story.
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