Bullying and Suicide…Teen Angst and Depression

I have been focusing my tweets on bullying and teen suicide lately due to the recent media attention on the topics due to the string of suicides—one of which is that of Phoebe Prince of S. Hadley, MA (which happens to be the town of my alma mater)–some of which were the consequence of bullying.  Now, before you start to think that perhaps I’ve digressed from the topic of postpartum depression (PPD), please take a few minutes to read on.   I hope you will do so, because I believe the message is extremely important. 

“Don’t wait for your child to come to you with information that she is being bullied. Watch for warning signs, and approach your child if you suspect bullying. Warning signs include unexplained injuries (including scratches); a lack of friends; fear about attending school/events with peers; suddenly beginning to do poorly in school; moodiness or change in demeanor; complaints of physical symptoms, such as stomachaches or headaches; and change in sleeping or eating habits.”

Most of these happen to be warning signs of depression.  Parents need to be able to recognize symptoms and understand the risk factors for depression and be on the lookout for them in their children proactively.  Parents should never make the assumption (you know what they say about assumptions) that their kid couldn’t possibly be struggling with a mood disorder –like depression, for one—because of their smiling and energetic outward appearances and involvement with activities, sports and friends.  My belief is that, if we all educate ourselves on the risk factors and symptoms of depression, we can help minimize and even help prevent the onset of depression when our children are at their most vulnerable emotionally, which is during their adolescent years.  Click here for what makes girls more prone to depression once they hit puberty.

These are my suggestions on what we can all do with respect to bullying in school:

  •  Parents need to serve as good role models of kindness and empathy, rather than the attributes I referred to in my last post as “Meow” behavior.  Parents also need to be proactive when they see their child or someone else’s child being bullied.  Don’t just stand around and think it will pass, it’s no big deal, and my (or the) kid can take it.  Doing nothing would support the already prevalent notion that bullying is acceptable and a normal part of growing up….when in fact it’s neither.
  • Society as a whole—including our school system—is culpable from not having enough educational campaigns on bullying and anti-bullying policies/laws….or even spotting symptoms of depression, for that matter.  The superintendent and principal in the S. Hadley high school should be fired. Intolerance for bullying behavior should be demonstrated via appropriate actions taken against those charged with the care of children. They should absolutely be held accountable for the behavior they knew about and yet chose to do nothing about. All schools should be required to develop anti-bullying policies. In my high school, I tried to speak to my guidance counselor, and she was of no help at all.  Well, then, make sure that people who hold such positions are properly trained to handle different circumstances of teen issues!

Who knows just how many teenagers want to commit suicide because they feel alone in their experience, miserable because no one seems to understand what they are going through? I’ve been through all this, I know. I’ve been bullied in school. But it was nothing compared to what Phoebe had to suffer day in and day out…..literally, because with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and texting, you can’t escape the bullying.  It all follows you into the privacy of your own home. Not only that, but the whole bullying thing opens up to a wider audience on the worldwide web. This is what kids being bullied now have to deal with. If I felt as miserable as I did back before the days of computers, God only knows what would’ve happened if I were a teenager today, being bullied via text messages, Facebook, Twitter, etc.?  I might have ended up like Phoebe. 

My Miserable Teenage Years

I had a lonely and miserable childhood.  It didn’t help that we moved eight times before my family finally settled in North Caldwell, NJ, right in time for my brothers to enter elementary school.  I can certainly understand how children of military families feel in terms of instability and no one place to call home.  My parents didn’t sell that house until both my brothers moved out of the house and I got married.  Great childhood experience for both my brothers.  Lousy one for me.  Unlike my brothers who are still friends with their childhood friends, I do not have any childhood friends from school, as I never had a chance to develop any long-term friendships.  It got to the point that I was scared to make friends.  It didn’t help that I was painfully shy.  And it wasn’t easy making friends from scratch at a junior high school where everyone already had their cliques and where I was the only Chinese girl in a class of approximately 350 students.  Prejudice was rampant at West Essex Regional School.  I had to endure people making fun of me, taunting me constantly.  I’ll never forget the day I walked by a school bus and someone spit at me through a window.  I may have survived all those taunts, and they indelibly molded me into the person I am today, but those memories still exist like scars from old wounds that won’t completely heal.  The instability, lack of nurturing and support and friendship, and prejudice were the basis for my low self-esteem that I have been trying hard to boost all my life.  I might’ve liked school more if I wasn’t so troubled, not trusting anyone, feeling isolated and facing racism every day.  Perhaps I would’ve done better.  Who knows?  I’ll never know now.  There’s no point dwelling on the past. 

 If it weren’t for the friends I made at church retreats, my Northern NJ Chinese teen club, and Chinese School, I would not have had any friends during my teen years.  It was bad timing in terms of when my father decided to move to North Caldwell.  I was a pretty unhappy teenager having to cope with my Asian identity being brought up as a first generation Chinese girl in a predominantly Caucasian and prejudiced community.  It was even tough for me to make friends at my Chinese church in Montville, NJ.  Surprisingly, some of the kids there weren’t necessarily the friendliest bunch either.  I didn’t fit in with the “in crowd” there who for some reason refused to welcome me into their group, yet another clique I had neither the patience nor desire to try to fit in with.  But at least I shared something in common with these kids.  My Asian ethnicity.   

I survived most of these years without talking to anyone about what I was going through.  As with most Chinese parents of my parents’ era (i.e., those born and raised in China), feelings and emotions are not expressed.  They are kept inside.  That was just part of their culture and upbringing, which was in complete contrast to the Western way.  I couldn’t talk to my brothers because they were mere kids, one of whom was nearly half my age.  I didn’t have close friends or relatives.  And I could never get anywhere talking to my mother, as she would defend her behavior and my father’s, insisting over and over again that they were doing the best they could to raise the three of us.  This is why I’ve always had the tendency to withdraw into my own world.  It’s because I had nowhere else to go.  No one to talk to.  No one to listen.  No one who could provide me with advice.  No shoulder to cry on.  No one who could understand me.  My high school years were so lonely, and why I abhor looking back on those days.  I so wanted someone to understand and listen to me, but there was no one.  Not a single soul.  Every once in a while I would get a momentary flashback that would cause me to shiver and grimace.  I hated my high school and pretty much everyone in it.  I hated and saw no purpose to my life, if I was going to be this miserable. 

Like many teenagers, I thought about suicide a lot because I was so unhappy with my life.   I wanted a quick way to escape from my miserable life.  Luckily, I was always too afraid to carry out my thoughts.  I never had insomnia, didn’t experience any significant weight loss (though I was always thin throughout my high school years), and didn’t experience constant sadness or restlessness (though I constantly worried, which was my nature which I inherited from my mother).  I was able to make it to school each day—though with anxiety and dread—and despite my angst, I even managed to make it into the National Honor Society.   Despite my misery, I never developed any kind of dependence to sleeping pills or alcohol.  I never tried drugs and never picked up a cigarette in my life, which given how unhappy I was, was quite a remarkable feat.  Looking back now, I have to give myself a lot of credit.  I’m a much stronger person than I ever imagined I was capable of being.   

The defense mechanism I developed over the years was distancing myself from all those around me.  Many a person has admitted to me how difficult it is to get to know me. Even my closest friends have never seen me cry.   There always seems to be this invisible barrier around me that prevents me from truly confiding in and trusting anyone with my emotions.  This would ultimately work against me as I found out during my PPD.   I couldn’t ever let my friends know how down I was, let alone see me while I was depressed.  Unfortunately, it was during the throes of PPD that I needed support the most.  Because I never confided much in any of my friends to begin with, why should now be any different?  It was partly my fault for not confiding my experience with my friends.  So I can’t fault them for not talking to me or coming to visit me more often. 

All throughout life, I have had to keep reminding myself that it’s not possible to be friends with everyone you know.  I had to keep these thoughts engrained in my mind throughout most of my life:

  • Friendships are two-way streets. 
  • Life is too short to try to make a friendship work when it really wasn’t meant to be. 
  • In most cases, it’s not what you do or don’t do.  If you’re consistently nice to everyone, and some people aren’t for whatever reason nice to you or don’t want to be your friend, it’s not your fault.  It’s them.  They’re the ones with an issue with which you shouldn’t have to be bothered.
  • You can’t force a friendship to work. 
  • You can’t change a dead-end street into a two-way one. 
  • There’s a lot more fish in the pond, as they say.  Just move on.

Having grown up with 2 brothers, I’ve always found it easier to make friends with guys, since they are generally not prone to being driven by emotion, acting superficial, acting feline/catty, and being backstabbing gossipers.  A prime example was this Korean bitch (and that’s the nicest thing I can think of saying about this woman) that turned absolutely all of my friends from Columbia University against me by making up stories…..some people are just so twisted!  Needless to say, this behavior is the norm in high school, college and even into the 20s.  Luckily for me, Mt. Holyoke was generally not a breeding ground for this kind of inane and immature behavior.  Of course, there will always be exceptions.  For some people it never stops.  Some people are like that until the day they pass on. 

I’d had many people advise me that I will find, as time goes on, things wouldn’t be the same once all my male friends get married and have kids.  So I should try to make more female friends and nurture those friendships as much as I could.  For some women it’s a cinch.  For others like me, it’s not that easy.  It’s hard work, and sometimes I’d rather focus my energies on other things.  Little did I know back then that social support by other women in the community, including friends and neighbors, is very important during the postpartum period.

What I learned from doing the research for my book and from my experience with PPD, I am now certain I never suffered from clinical depression before.  I often felt unhappy and withdrawn, and tended to hide in my bedroom from the world that I felt was so cruel.  It is completely normal to experience sadness and cry in reaction to something negative that happens.  Depression, however, is an illness – experienced by men, women and children – that can be debilitating to the point of no longer being able to carry out normal functions.  Depression can also cause sleep disturbances (i.e., insomnia), appetite disturbances (e.g., over or under-eating, weight loss or gain), and digestive problems (e.g., nausea, diarrhea).  I never experienced any physical symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite or weight loss.  Sure, there were times where I wouldn’t be my “energetic” (the term many friends/associates have used to describe me) self and felt so unhappy (usually about someone that was causing anxiety, like a co-worker, a boss or a boyfriend) that I wouldn’t get out of bed. 

There were times during my high school years in which I just wanted to disappear because I wanted to “escape” from the problem, the easiest way out without having to deal with it.  I’d cry a lot and felt safest in my bedroom.  My bedroom was my sanctuary.  You could only imagine how difficult and sad it was when my parents sold our house of over 20 years, the only home I’ve ever stayed in for longer than 4 years at a stretch.  Saying goodbye to that bedroom was so, so difficult.

Now that I’ve experienced it, I know that my very first depressive episode ever was the one I experienced after my daughter’s birth.  What I felt growing up was mostly attributable to teen angst, a need to be understood and to understand myself and like myself, unhappiness about my life in general, and hatred of school and all things related to school including everyone in my high school class.  With PPD, I suffered from lack of appetite and rapid weight loss.  I never had that growing up.  My teenage weight was always steady and under 100 pounds (wow, those were the good ol’ days!).  I was just prone to anxiety, which caused such physical symptoms as dry heaving, nausea and stomachaches.  You would think my doctor back then would have attributed those symptoms to anxiety, but it never came up.  He never asked me questions to try to get to the bottom of it.  Not much difference in the medical profession from the 1970s and now.  What a shame!  I can distinctly recall experiencing dry heaves each morning as I was getting ready for school, not having any appetite to eat breakfast but forcing it down anyway because my mother insisted I eat.  Upset stomachs and a burning sensation in my gut were a regular occurrence – both of which I self-diagnosed as lactose intolerance (I self-diagnosed even back then, since I had to endure a number of unsuccessful treatments that included kaopectate, milk of magnesia, some kind of medication for ulcers—none of which helped relieve my symptoms), so I haven’t had a glass of milk since 10th grade.  The cessation of milk drinking seemed to relieve some of my symptoms, but ultimately my “nervous stomach” occurrences slowly but surely stopped in the years after I graduated from high school.  If you looked at my photos from my junior high and high school years, you’d see a shell of a person, all skinny and unhappy looking. 

Nowadays, I have trouble keeping my weight down to the level I’m supposed to be at for my height.  There’s a direct correlation of happiness to weight.  The happier I get, the heavier I am.  The weight gain, personality transformation and general increase in happiness about my life started when I went off to Mt. Holyoke.  My first time living away from home.  No more parental pressures and nagging.  Freedom!    With the exception of my tumultuous relationships with men, I did not suffer from the kind of unhappiness that I endured all throughout high school.  I definitely do NOT miss those years!

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