This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.
When I was in junior high school, the school had something called “The Care Team.” Or maybe it was the “CARE Team,” an acronym for something or other. I have no idea what it might have stood for. But here’s what it was: a group of teachers and staff whose mission was to identify students who were having trouble due to drug addiction or mental illness, and to connect those students with appropriate resources to help them. I remember learning about the CARE team in Health class in ninth grade, and how students could refer other students to the team…I think perhaps it was a new program that year. I have no idea if they succeeded in helping any kids or not. But they certainly tried. They tried to help me.
I was absent one day. I don’t know why. Maybe I was sick. Maybe I was pretending to be sick. I don’t know. I do know that I wasn’t smoking weed or shooting up. But either way, I missed school that day, and in doing so, I missed Health class. And boy did I miss a good class there. When I returned the following day, I discovered that I had been the topic of discussion in Health class. Apparently some of my friends decided to share with the Health teacher some of my quirks. Now I was no longer claiming to be “manic depressive,” like I did in elementary school, but I was certainly still moody. I still had moments when I would get upset or grumpy. I still had moments when I would just not talk to people. I was an excellent student, as always, but I was probably a weird friend. Ninth grade was actually the year I finally started to make a lot of friends. And I guess some of my new friends were seeing something weird in me.
So I came back to school, and my friend Virginia told me about the Health class. Virginia was very kind…I don’t remember, but knowing her she probably told me that she was sorry if she spoke out of turn. And I probably told her that it didn’t matter. I didn’t know yet that in response to that class, the CARE team had been activated. But later that day, I got called down to the school nurse’s office.
She asked me a lot of questions. She didn’t come out and ask it explicitly, but I got the sense she thought I was on drugs. (This was the 80’s, so that was the way to put it: “being on drugs.”) I had no idea what drugs were even like, or where to get them. I’d never touched tobacco or alcohol. She seemed skeptical, but let me go back to class.
The next day, I got called down to the guidance counselor’s office.
This was a much longer meeting. Looking back, it feels like it must have been an hour or more, but I have no idea how long it really was. I don’t recall many details of the conversation, but I remember feeling very uncomfortable, like he was trying to pry into my life. I remember getting the feeling that he thought I was suicidal. And I distinctly remember him encouraging me to join a gym. (And I don’t think this was a reflection on my weight, either.) I believe that at the end of the meeting, we had scheduled another meeting for sometime in the future.
I was starting to get really upset about this. I told my mother about the meetings with the nurse and the guidance counselor. I realized then that some of the loose talk I sometimes had would have repercussions. My mother always thought I was just looking for attention when I talked about suicide or “manic depression” as a child…and honestly, I believe she was right. I think I was just looking for attention then. And now I realized that I’d gotten the wrong kind of attention. I just wanted this CARE team stuff to end, and I did not want to join a gym, and I was very willing to try and think more about what effect my words had.
My mother called the school, and talked to the guidance counselor. She told him that these meetings were starting to get me depressed, and he told her (and I remember this vividly, even though he didn’t say it to me), “I’d rather have a depressed Michael than no Michael at all.” There it was…proof that he thought I was suicidal. My mom did prevail, and I never met with him again. I never heard from the CARE team again, except for once. The next day, I was called out of class one more time, this time to go and speak to my math teacher. He was one of my favorite teachers, and I knew that he liked me too. I also knew that he was on the CARE team. When I went to see him, he stepped out of his classroom and talked with me in the hall. He said something like, “Mike, is everything alright?” I smiled and told him, “I’m not suicidal or on drugs, Mr. M____.” He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Good. I didn’t think so.” He went back into his classroom.
And that was the end of that.
NOTE: I want to make something clear here. I do not blame my parents for anything they did, for any choices they made regarding my mental health. I’m really not sure if there was anything to be done anyway in these early days. I am confident that no counseling or medication would have helped me back then. My parents made good choices. They gave me a safe home where I could slowly, slowly figure myself out. They supported me and loved me, but let me figure myself out on my own. Now that I have kids of my own, I’m just starting to see how difficult that must have been for them. I am very grateful for all they’ve done for me.