Finding myself at 32

Recognizing a lifelong struggle with depression

Alisa Ryan Herr
8 min readJun 30, 2016

I turned 32 less than two months ago. By then, I was almost seven years into owning my first house. I drove a car that I bought with my own money. I had been with my husband ten and half years, married for the last six and a half of those. I had two kids (a three year old and a ten month old), two cats and a dog. I had graduated from my undergraduate university with a 3.92 GPA and had gone on to get a master’s degree from the top program in the country for my degree. I was a successful programmer and had a C-level job with a prestigious nonprofit.

Things were looking pretty good for my life. My husband had just accepted his dream job. Our marriage was stable. Our children were healthy.

Despite my successes, I was quite simply depressed.

A forced smile in the worst of times.

The easiest way for me to explain it at the time was to say I had postpartum depression. The worst of it did come on pretty suddenly around the time my baby was six months old. I was quick to anger and would spend days crying for no real reason (besides feeling like crying), while the logical part of me was saying, “Buck up, kiddo! You have it pretty well!”

But despite the timing of the most recent breakdown, it didn’t feel like my condition was connected to my baby in any way. The root problem has been around much longer, so I didn’t really identify much with the “postpartum” terminology.

I had actually “come down” with something I called depression a couple months before the baby was born. Same thing happened. Quick to anger and lots of crying for no real reason (again, besides feeling like crying). At the time, I brought it up with my midwife and we decided to use behavioral techniques to combat it instead of drugs. It kind of worked.

In December when I started feeling pulled under again, I felt 100 percent unmotivated to do any behavioral techniques to fix my brain. The thought of going outside to get fresh air and sunlight was deplorable. Thinking of, acknowledging, and writing down three good things about my day produced internal scoffing and eye rolling.

I was extra hard on myself and felt more like the moody teenager I had been a decade and a half ago than a successful adult with a house, car, family, degree, and job.

I knew I needed outside help to fight the demons because I sure as hell didn’t feel like doing it myself. So despite the crippling shame I felt about my condition, I sucked it up and asked for help.

I was referred to a great therapist who was actually able to provide cognitive behavioral therapy and prescribe medication. This was critical for me since even adding one extra thing to my week was beyond overwhelming. She got me on an SSRI. She helped me learn to squish the negative thoughts that creeped into my head before they got too loud. She helped me recognize things about myself of which I should be proud.

And after six months of treating the depression, I feel enlightened. Besides some minor side effects (like being incapable of crying, even when I really, really need to), I am so much better now. This is how I’m supposed to feel?! My baseline emotional state is simply higher than it was before. I still get sad, angry, annoyed, scared, stressed, elated, excited, and joyous. But overall, I can say I’m happy. I feel how I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to feel.

So I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. When was the last time I felt this good? Have I ever felt like this? I don’t remember.

Was it before my sister-in-law battled breast cancer? No.

Was it before my husband was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis? No.

Was it before I became a mom? No.

Was it before I worked in a high-paced, stressful industry? No.

Was it before I was unemployed and then underemployed with a master’s degree? No.

Was it before I was married? No.

Was it before I went to graduate school? No.

Was it before I floundered after graduating from undergrad without a plan for the future? No.

That covers the last 10 years. I’ve been battling depression since graduating from college?! Yeah. But did it start there? No.

Now with clear hindsight I can see that depression was with me all throughout college. When I attended freshman orientation and only made one friend. When I only had two friends at my school my freshman year, one of which was the friend I made at orientation and the other was my boyfriend I met through my friend. When I retreated into studying just to make it through the lonely days. When I fell in and out of relationships because being single was just a smidgen too lonely.

So I’ve had depression since I went to college? Yeah. But did it start there? No.

Was it when I got in with the “wrong” crowd in high school? Was it when my best friend decided I was too negative to be friends with anymore? Was it when my first boyfriend and I broke up and made up and broke up, over and over ad nauseam to the point where even the teachers for the most part ignored me as I sat in the hallways and cried (“There she goes again…”)? Was it in the car on the way to school when my mother told me my beloved cousin died in a car accident the day before? Was it when I left my best friends of many years to go to a tiny brand new private school in 8th grade?

An unfinished self-portrait of myself from 9th grade

Now we are nearly 20 years into my past. Let’s just stop since it doesn’t really matter exactly when it started.

Here’s the real question that’s been plaguing me: Since I’ve been suffering from covert depression for all of my adult life — and most of my entire life — who am I now that I’ve uncovered it?

I see my depression like this shadow of myself that has been permeating everything about me for decades. I didn’t notice it was there until it was filtered out. Of course, it’s still there, but now it’s off to the side, sort of following me around.

My primary self is brighter, lighter, more lucid and present. I can think much more clearly now. I feel more like myself than ever before. How is that even possible?

Test driving my dream car on my 32nd birthday

Sometimes the shadow tries to creep back in to my primary self. It whispers things to me about how I’m not good enough. It taunts me with how I should have done or said something differently. It tells me that nobody really likes me. But I know, I know, that is total crap.

It takes work. And it’s hard. Every day.

But with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy and an SSRI, I am doing so much better. I understand more than ever how much of a physical disorder depression is. There has been a chemical imbalance in my body for most of my life: My nerves are not processing serotonin the way they should. And because I did the scariest thing imaginable — reaching out for help and talking about it — I discovered the problem and can now address it.

So now I am a successful and happy 32 year old woman with a loving family, a great job, fantastic friends, and a bright future.

I still don’t know exactly who I am but I am actively having fun figuring it out.

As a historically shy and introverted person, one of the most surprising changes I have noticed is that I really enjoy spending time with people. Talking, listening to their stories. Learning about who they are and what makes them tick. Watching them and admiring the human qualities that unify us all.

As for the future, I look forward to moving into our dream home in a few weeks. I look forward to discovering my personal style and decorating my home to align with who I am. I look forward to picking up the hobbies I used to love (knitting, reading, drawing, painting, making things).

And most of all, I look forward to spending quality time with my family and friends. I look forward to hosting gatherings at our new house and filling our lives with abundance and love. I look forward to sharing my strengths with my greater community. I look forward to giving back to those who have given so much to me.

If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or any emotional crisis, know this: You are not alone. And you don’t have to feel like that forever.

Here are some resources for help:

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Alisa Ryan Herr

Founder & CEO of Unity Web Agency, creating inclusive and accessible websites for nonprofits and socially-responsible businesses. #BCorp #A11y