My younger sister was a happy and ambitious kid and did well in school until she turned 12. Something must have happened because she changed very much and has been different ever since. She is now 22 years old. I think she has been depressed because she doesn’t really ever want to do anything and she spends most of her time in her room looking at her computer or watching TV. She has a few friends but hardly ever sees them. She has somehow passed her classes at university, even though she said she is not interested in what she studied. My parents are worried about her but have never known what to do. I am afraid that she will waste her life if she doesn’t change. What can we do?
— Worried Family
Dear Worried Family,
It does sound like your sister has been chronically depressed, although wanting to be alone is not by itself the definition of depression. I would want to know more about her moods and outlook on life.
The fact that she changed around the age of 12 and is not interested in activities or people outside of her room seems like reason for concern. While being careful not to draw premature conclusions, it seems important to explore, with her, the possibility that something did happen around that time in her life.
We know, for example, that as many as one in three girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18 and that many will deny it, if asked, because they are overwhelmed by an experience they are not developmentally ready to talk about. If it did occur, it will be important for her to talk about it to a trusted person… when she is ready. The repression of incidents like this and how it affects one’s sense of self, often takes the shape of depression. Once again, I want to say that I am not assuming anything, but that it might suggest questions worth asking.
Another reason for concern is the chronic long-lasting nature of the depression. When people are depressed, the emotions they experience are only on one half of the spectrum. They feel sad, lonely, disillusioned, fearful, frustrated, angry, guilty, shame… and sometimes no feelings, like empty or numb. What they rarely feel is joyful, peaceful, excited, proud, courageous or accepting. It is harder to experience the good things of life when we don’t have much experience with those feelings. It can become a self-fulfilling rut, where we don’t come to expect to feel good and don’t know how to create those feelings.
When a person is depressed for a long time they shut down opportunities to try things that might give them pleasure and, which ultimately, shape their identity. For example, imagine that someone decides to learn to play an instrument. They might find that they don’t really like it and drop it after a period of time. But they also might find they do like it and want to play it a lot. It becomes part of their identity… I am a guitar player or a piano player. This can be applied to many things in life. People can say, “I am a musician, an athlete, an artist, a writer, a climber, a swimmer, a cook, a dancer, a computer-gamer, a reader etc.” People can say, “I love puzzles, or fashion, or TV shows, or coffee, of photography, or travelling,” or… fill in the blank. The by-product of this is that it attracts us to people who have similar interests and helps us to find our place amongst others.
I know that these things might be hard to hear, given that your sister has not engaged in life and continues to avoid things she might need to face. Let me say that it is not too late for her. We all have within us an inner child who is resilient and ready to explore life when we are ready to let it. Yes, the hard part comes first. We have to be willing to face some difficult things before we can feel unburdened by the weight they have held on us. We have to be willing to change our approach to life, which is not so easy.
I have worked with many people that are tired of being depressed and become willing to get support to find a different way of going about their lives. Encourage your sister to go to a psychotherapist, just to see if it can help. Also, think about the aspects of your life that give you pleasure, and bring her along. She might not like it at first, but it will give her some options she is not creating for herself.
Good luck to you and your sister,