Battling depression, Adrian Leuthauser learns how to keep himself afloat and cope while trying to help others along the way.

Words by Adrian Leuthauser
Photo by Erin McLaughlin
Illustration by Alexis Scranton

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It all looked the same: Teachers talked to students about missed assignments, kids grabbed binders and books from their lockers as they ran to beat the late bell. Instead of heading straight to class, I’d sit against the walls in the hallway. Talking to my soccer team about that day’s game, watching freshmen try to find their classrooms in hurried confusion—it was a good time, and it’s always worth looking back and smiling about.   

At that point, everyone’s neurons were exploding one right after another as they talked and rushed to class. It’s a beautiful, chemical explosion in the brain: Each neuron bursting into thousands of different lights, triggering the next, setting off a display of color like on the Fourth of July during the finale. But for some reason, my fireworks never lit.

This magnificent yet chaotic beauty isn’t seen by everyone. Any glimpse we can hope to get is from the way people are interacting with us. How they feel, how expressions flit across their faces, how their eyes speak thousands of words—that’s the best way to read someone’s mind. Some people learn how to smile and act as if everything is OK, even if their mind is crumbling asunder with their very own thoughts.

My thoughts would eat away at me to the point where I didn’t know what was up and what was down. I wanted to swim out of my own mind, but my thoughts could swim right alongside me. It felt like they were trying to drown me. Any effort was futile as I kept sinking farther down. I knew I needed to get out, and I could not do this on my own, but speaking up was hopeless because my thoughts clogged my throat.

Depression is exhausting, especially in today’s society. Mental illnesses are rarely recognized as illnesses in the first place, and they are seen more as a “feeling” or “emotion.”

Pamela Farer-Singleton, the chief psychologist at Kent State, says “depression is an illness, not a weakness.”

I know when the agony of getting out of bed first started, when the depression hit. I felt like I shouldn’t speak out because of the fear people would judge and look down on me. It’s not like breaking an arm and wearing a cast, and walking into school the next day, people wanting to write their names on it because they feel bad. No one ever really feels bad about depression because they never see it. There’s no handwritten sympathy.

Robin Joynes, a psychology professor, says there are multiple causes for depression.

“Sometimes it’s an event, it might be a brain chemistry imbalance or a personality kind of thing,” Joynes says. “Some people might have the tendency to ruminate on things that are sad and anxiety-producing.”

Anxiety is a friend that usually walks hand in hand with depression, making things more difficult. Sometimes the anxiety just comes out of nowhere, but it typically will follow depression, especially clinical or major depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety may occur as a symptom of depression, but it’s also common to have depression due to anxiety. In the end, many people have both.

“My fireworks are somewhere waiting to be set off, but I just don’t have the energy to light them.”

Neither are easy to mend. There are no vaccinations for them, and if there were, it wouldn’t work for everyone. The best someone with depression and anxiety can do is take antidepressants or go to therapy. Even then, it’s a long process because it can take weeks, sometimes months, for antidepressants to work.

I’ve been taking mine for two months now, and I am slowly noticing a difference. All the negative thoughts in my head aren’t swimming around as much. The voices have quieted down to a low whisper and hum. Occasionally, there will be one that gathers enough strength to scream and remind me of everything.

There are days when I ignore that scream and just pretend it isn’t there. Sometimes, though, my mind’s shrieks of terror get to me. I won’t leave my room because I’m locked inside my own prison, curled up in a ball hyperventilating because I can’t cry anymore and all I want to do is scream to get out of my mind. The worst part is, I have the keys to get out, but the shrieks and howls wrap themselves around my hands, and I just can’t move.

Sophomore Adrian Leuthauser has battled depression from a young age.

I know my fireworks are somewhere waiting to be set off, but I just don’t have the energy to light them. I know this wave will eventually die down, but I just keep getting caught in the current. Those are some of the hardest days.

Approaching help with the idea that everything will immediately get better is wrong, and I think that’s why many people don’t stick with their medications. They think, “Oh, once I swallow this pill and close my eyes, I’ll open them again and everything will be all right.” But that’s not the case.

It’s a long-term relationship you have to constantly work on. According to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 percent of Americans have been taking antidepressants for more than two years. I know it’s not the happy thought people are looking for when talking about depression, but it’s something that needs to be established and realized.

For whatever reason, I have this ache in my stomach that’s telling me I’m not a normal human because I can’t make my own true happiness. But again, that’s the depression disconnecting the wires in my mind. The medication tries to help reconnect them. It’s a losing battle when you have depression—not to mention it’s probably one of the hardest battles to fight against.

Sarah Heber understands that constant battle, and for her, she does it without medication.

“[People] shouldn’t believe everything their mind is making them believe,” Heber explains. “This is a battle and as weird and as schizophrenic as it may sound, you really do have to fight your own mind sometimes to save yourself. Your mind is going to make you believe that you’re alone, that no one understands you except for the posts on Tumblr. Those are the only things that get you.”

The transition from high school to college helped Heber overcome some of the thoughts in her head because she’s away from a lot of problems she used to deal with. While she was growing up, she felt different from everyone else, and getting away helped.

“My parents don’t really believe in mental disorders,” Heber says. “So when I went to talk to my doctor about it…I went in for stomach pains. I felt pressured to answer in a particular way, and it got to the point where I had to take a pregnancy test because I would have morning sickness, but I never could tell him what was actually wrong.”

Despite never really getting the proper help, Heber is happy where she is now and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. She’s glad she has been through everything—the endless fights with her mind, the feeling of being alone, the feeling of doubt—because mentally, she’s stronger than ever. There are days when it becomes difficult to move, but when she can, Heber will go on a run to clear her mind, which usually does the trick.

Because she has been through so much, Heber is really happy about seeing when someone isn’t having a good day. She can sense something is wrong and can see the ensuing war inside that person. She’s not afraid to go up and talk with them.

As weird as it may sound, I think that’s one of the most amazing things about depression once you’ve been through it. You’re able to sense it and see it in a person because you’ve been there. You know what it’s like to have that war waging in your mind. I’m not as afraid as I used to be, and I think because of that I’m more apt to ask if someone is OK or needs someone to talk to, because that’s all some people need sometimes.

I went almost eight years without saying a word. People would always ask me if I was OK, and I would just smile and say “of course.” At the time, I was in some very dark places that I wish to never revisit. Somehow, I made it out alive, breathing. Not having someone to talk with and get those demons out is horrible. Having someone, though, can honestly save your life. Especially if it is someone who knows what it’s like to go through this brief period of madness in your head.

Brief. That’s what all of this is. It may not seem like it, and I know eight years felt like an eternity, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing. It really is just a brief period of madness. I felt like I was going nowhere—like I had absolutely no direction in my life. I was going somewhere. I just didn’t know it.

The person you are today is very different from the person you were in middle school, in high school, last year—even yesterday. The person you are in this moment in time, as you read this, has shaped you into you. It might seem cheesy to say, but everything that has happened to

you, every consequence and every outcome of those consequences has formed the person that you are today.

Depression is something that should never be wished upon someone or discussed negatively. There are many people who are successful all while fighting their demons: Owen Wilson, Robin Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few. Some have lost this long battle and Robin Williams, considered one of the funniest actors around, unfortunately, was one of them.

He brought so much joy and happiness to people through his comedy and his movies, yet he was drowning and couldn’t find his own joy. Williams once said, “Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma.” He made everyone laugh, he made everyone happy, but unfortunately that’s what people with depression do. Instead of finding ways to make themselves happy, they try to make other people happy and laugh because they don’t want the people around them to feel the way they feel.

Seeing my friends and family laugh reassures me I’m making someone happy, even if that person isn’t me. It becomes a priority to make sure people close to me are OK. I wish I could tell you why it becomes a priority that I end up putting others first instead of myself. Trust me, if I could I would spew out the words in a second. But I can’t. I’m not sure what it is or why; all I know is that’s who I am. That’s who I have become because of the depression.

I’m OK with that, honestly. I’m OK with putting others in front of me. Truthfully, that’s what I prefer. It’s not that I’m trying to run away from my depression or my own war. I’m not waving the white flag any time soon. I’m just stepping off my own battlefield for a moment and walking onto someone else’s because they need the help and support. I might not completely win the battles with them, but at least I can help. It will be better than before; better than when their minds took that first shot. It’ll be OK.

And there’s a funny thing about being OK: Being OK is wonderful.