Camille Walker: Teens are good at hiding their struggles. What can we look for?
Deseret News - 11/30/2018
Editor's note: The Deseret News asked members of the community to share their experiences with anxiety.
Read their stories here.
"Alexi? Alexa? Lexi? Alexis?"
It was time to start kindergarten, and making the decision of what she will be known as from now until eternity put Alexis into a tailspin of doubt. What was the right choice? What impact would it have on the rest of her life? Was there a wrong choice? At even 5 years old, the pressure of decisions weighed heavily on her mind. This is Lexi's first memory of feeling anxiety.
Anxiety and depression often start for a teen well before hormones and clogged pores ever make their debut. It is now estimated that anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences and engage in substance abuse.
Anxiety and depression are treatable, but 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment, according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report.
Thankfully, resources are becoming more and more available, and we can find opportunities to share what we've learned from firsthand experiences. Lexi shares her story in the hopes that she will help someone reading this who is looking for answers.
Lexi was surrounded by loved ones who cared, were invested in her future, and still missed some of the signs that led to very serious situations of potential suicide.
They missed the signs of her growing depression as a teen because she was excellent at hiding her struggles. She would gracefully put on the perfect face at school and among friends, and crash into a deep hole that nearly led to her demise.
Lexi was an exceptional high school student, a talented photographer, a beautiful petite blond with a smile that could stop a crowd. So how did she get to this place?
She says she knows she was born with a propensity to worry and over-analyze, but it wasn't until her grandmother died that she really understood the depths of the struggles she would face through her life. As early as first grade, she had a teacher who took interest in her and was concerned for her level of shyness and had Lexi attend a group therapy that the school provided.
This was in the first grade, but it taught her a lot about how to make friends and understand what bullying was, and gave her the tools to feel more confident about who she was in general. By third grade she remembers feeling really worried about decisions she made and whether they would harm her or her family in the long term. Feelings of self doubt were sneaking up again and she wasn't sure how to handle them.
It was in sixth grade that her grandmother died.
Lexi's grandmother had been living with her family and she was extremely close to her. So when cancer took her away so quickly, Lexi didn't know how to handle the emotions and felt alone and confused. For the first time, she said, she had an un-supportive teacher and it made it so she didn't want to attend school at all.
She says this is when her OCD really started coming out and she would obsessively wash her hands multiple times a day, keep a strict routine of what she wore, what she did, and who she spent time with. She pulled away from her friends and fell behind in school. She was trying her best to create "normalcy" in her life, but was drowning in sorrow.
Seventh grade felt like the perfect time to start anew. She improved her grades and got caught up in math. She found good friends and took up photography, which allowed her to make friends easily. "What 14-year-old girl would NOT want their picture taken?" she said with a laugh. Life became a bit easier again and her life fell back into a healthy rhythm.
She says one of the best bits of advice her mother gave her was: find something to invest yourself into. Join a club, play an instrument, follow a passion. Lexi adds, it can literally save your life.
In her first year of high school her family decided to move. It was across town, but in another high school boundary. Lexi felt like she could still hang onto her old friends and be OK with making new ones. This proved to be a lot more difficult than she realized because by that age, friendships have already been building for years and she felt like she could never catch up. She said she felt like that nervous kindergartener all over again, unsure and completely alone.
Anxiety in high school
Lexi was unable to drive, so staying in touch with her old friends became harder. She remembers the first blow that hurt the worst was seeing her best friends on social media sharing fun pictures of things they were doing without her. She said, "I felt like I didn't know a part of them anymore and that hurt."
She was seeing her friends go through important things that she was no longer a part of and this really made her lose a sense of self of who she used to be.
Despite this, she felt she had something to prove. There was no time to be sad, so she would act like she was happy, stay on top of things, and pretend as if nothing was wrong at all. Out of nowhere she started being hit with pent-up emotions of sadness that would burst out because for so long she was pretending that nothing was wrong.
She would put on a show all day long and then come home and crash. She says she would turn all the lights off and listen to music in the dark for hours, giving herself the space and time to just be sad. "I had to allow myself this down time because I couldn't function otherwise."
Just as she had in the sixth grade, she started to compartmentalize her day between school friends, home friends and old high school friends. They couldn't mix and she was carefully orchestrating her life as she played a role in each part.
"I can't always be happy."
This was something now as a 20-year-old she can look back on and understand, but at the time it was a continuing internal battle.
The summer after her sophomore year she had her first anxiety attack. She says she still doesn't know exactly why it happened, but after we sat and reviewed the previous year in the retelling of her life, she was seeing things a bit more clearly. Her sophomore year had been full of anxiety that led to digestive issues, compulsive behaviors and her own imposed solitary confinement.
She was trying new diets to combat her digestive problems, but looking back now realizes she wasn't eating well or enough. Eating became another thing she could control when everything felt so out of control, and this led to her anxiety getting worse.
Her first anxiety attack
She was at a youth conference. She was tired and hungry, but otherwise was feeling good. She said that it hit her like a freight train: one minute she was fine and then the next she had never felt sadder. An overwhelming sickness came over her with sobs of sadness choking her. She felt like her lungs were crushing in. She said she literally felt like she would die that very night. Through a lot of love and help from adults around her, she got through the night.
After that experience, with the help of her parents she started exploring treatments. Her parents were supportive, but not sure where to turn or how to help her. She felt like talking about it made them uncomfortable, so she did her best to hide it again.
She started with a doctor pushing heavy drugs on her that she wasn't comfortable with, a therapist who didn't know how to help her, and she desperately wanted more open discussion because she was sinking deeper.
Junior year she started cutting. Her therapist didn't know. Her parents didn't know. What once started as a curiosity became a daily coping mechanism to level her mind and relieve stress.
According to WebMD, "When teens feel sad, distressed, anxious, or confused, the emotions might be so extreme that they lead to acts of self-injury (also called cutting, self-mutilation, or self-harm). Most teens who inflict injury on themselves do so because they are experiencing stress and anxiety."
Lexi eventually told one adult and this adult was ultimately the one who saved her life. She says she opened up to her because she could tell that she really cared and she listened when she talked without judgment.
This adult was Shannon, Lexi's youth leader, which made the situation sticky because she was doing her best to keep the parents informed while at the same time knowing Lexi was telling her parents a different story of how she was doing.
She started making comments like, "It would all just be so much easier if I wasn't here any more," or "I wouldn't ever do it, but ..."
By the summer before her senior year Lexi was in a dark place that she says she doesn't fully remember. She was still able to keep up a believable facade that made the phone call from Shannon even harder to believe: "You need to get Lexi to a hospital."
Lexi spent a week in a facility that helped her cope with and approach her difficulties. She said the mandatory therapy sessions for herself and her family helped immensely. "For the first time I had everything all out in the open, and I didn't have to hide anymore."
This experience also showed her that she wasn't alone in experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression and she knew that she could overcome this with the help of her family, friends and therapists.
It hasn't been a smooth ride, but she was able to overcome those difficult teen years with help from those around her.
What to look for with teens experiencing anxiety and/or depression.
— Pay attention. Most teenagers will not volunteer exactly how they are feeling or tell you what they need from you to stay healthy and safe. Talk therapy is the perfect place to start if you feel like your teen may need help beyond what you can give personally. There is no shame in getting a professional involved in helping your teen navigate his/her feelings and emotions.
Having parental involvement is very important, but also having other good influences/adults that your child may open up to is important too. Your teen may open up to other adults in a way they won't open up with you. It was when this resource was cut off for Lexi that things got worse for her.
— Look for changes in behavior. Isolation can be a cry for help that your teen doesn't know how to make.
— Medications may be necessary. Lexi wishes she would have had access to a good psychiatrist sooner. She eventually found one that really took the time to analyze her unique makeup and DNA. She nows feels stronger than ever knowing she has the support and medication she needs to lead a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Ask for referrals or references from people you trust, even Google reviews can help steer you in the right direction. Therapists are unique people just like you and your teen are unique people, it is certainly not a one-size-fits-all. Find one that really works for you and your teen.
— A drop in grades.
— Eating habits: rapid weight gain/weight loss.
— Substance abuse.
If you are a loved one of someone experiencing anxiety or depression, do not blame yourself for what your child is going through. Your love, support, and willingness to talk is what will mean the very most so you can all get the help and support you need to be successful.
CREDIT: Camille Walker