The Signs and Signals of Adolescent Depression

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The bigger challenge with depression for people who seem to come from privileged backgrounds is that other people don’t take it seriously. “What do you have to be depressed about? You have everything!”

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The older we get, the more we tend to filter our high school experiences through the lens of nostalgia. At least I do. I remember episodes of adolescent depression, but that’s not where I choose to dwell.

I prefer instead to remember hanging out at the North Star Mall picnic court with my friends; cutting class to eat tacos at Abundios on Broadway; rayon pants that I purchased through layaway; and the saucy waitresses at my first job, Carlos Kelly’s Steaks and Seafood.

And that was indeed part of my reality. The good part that wasn’t at school.

I’d like to think everyone had at least some good experiences during adolescence.

My nostalgia lenses were ripped off my face and I was catapulted back to 1988 recently, when I uncovered a box in my mother’s shed. There were the notes from friends, music from my oboe solos, spirit ribbons (“Beat the Chargers!”, which we never did.) Then I found it: the creative writing club’s annual journal, called “The MacArthur Bulls Eye.” (Our mascot’s a brahma bull, you see).

Opening up the journal, partially to jog my memory of what it actually was, I saw that the poems, short stories, and drawings that were supplied by the art students, all neatly organized under the following Table of Contents:

Love

Solitude & Loneliness

Unrest & Compassion

Aging & Death

Search for Identity.

Seeing it first through my adult eyes that are trained to recognize signs and signals of depression, my reaction was, “The school published this; but did they alert the parents that these kids were in crisis?!”

Re-centering myself into awareness that this was published in 1988, just a year after silly shit like “pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder” had been removed as a psychiatric diagnosis, I settled down a bit. No, mental health awareness was a fools game in the 80s, and adolescent depression would have just been dismissed as teenage angst. These kids, whose parents were busting tail to send them to a good school, would have been seen as ingrates.

And there the trivializing of their hurt began.

I read the short stories and poems with titles like “Silence Smothers my Screams” and “I was terrified today,” complimented by drawings of trees that dripped blood. A dead man hung from a tree below a piece called “No Answer.”  And it occurred to me that there was there was still a larger community of kids who felt different, Other, than I’d written about before.

I’ve talked a great deal about Otherness (see my blog from August 6), the first message we got that we were less than and inferior. Our sense of being different centered around experiences such as: 

I was the visibly gay kid who didn’t fit in

I was the only dark-skinned child in our new neighborhood

I was the poor kid at a wealthy school

These are the sorts of things that are easily recognizable as a struggle, both for the people who lived through them and for others. Our childhood experiences as outsiders are often easier to articulate when we’re adults and choose our audience. We can put a name and location to the first time we knew we were Other. As such, we can draw in allies who may or may not share our experience; but who willingly can say with us: NO MORE.

For many of the Bulls Eye writers, that wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

At least some if not most of these kids were clearly struggling with depression; and I’m wagering that many of them still are. The bigger challenge with depression for people who seem to come from privileged backgrounds is that other people don’t take it seriously. “What do you have to be depressed about? You have everything!”

This, of course, deepens the depressed person’s sense of isolation as it leads to self-blame about not feeling happier or more grateful, and a general inability to articulate any of this because no one seems to get it. 

The sense of Otherness seems like an endless chasm.

The kids with whom I went to school are all adults in their 40s now and I imagine that many have children of their own. I hope they’re doing well, and I’m making attempts to reach out to as many as I can just to connect with them and let them know that I enjoyed their work, recently excavated as it was from my mother’s backyard shed.

Maybe it’s 27 years too late, and maybe it doesn’t matter much to them at this point. But I want them to know that I give witness to them and their story. For the one who are parents especially, I hope to also offer this:

Teenage angst is wondering what to wear on the first day of school or to prom; or whether that special girl or boy likes us as much as we like them. 

Isolation, hopelessness, and preoccupation with death and dying is called adolescent depression. Your kid needs help. Now.

I’ve included a link to an extremely helpful guide for parents that’s published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Please pass along to anyone who may benefit from the information: http://www2.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/CAAC/FamilyGuidePRINT.pdf

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where I’ll be talking about the social impact of high school in these kids’ lives.

* The drawing was one that appeared in the 1988 Macarthur Bulls Eye.

Coming Out As an NFL Fan

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And so another fall begins. It’s that time of year when I surprise gay guy friends whom I’ve met in the last 8 months by revealing that against all of their expectations, I’m an NFL fan. Gay brunches must be wrapped up by noon. I only attend house parties where I’m assured something other than relegation to a spare bedroom at game time. Indeed, Sundays with Stacee are about to become a strictly-regulated affair. With a deep breath and a great deal of ambivalence, I once again reveal myself, coming out to gay men as an NFL fan.

Sorry, friends.

It’s actually kind of fun to surprise people with the unexpected aspects of self. Each of us has them. These are the things that make us human and distinct from one-another. I, for example,

  • Am white (mostly Euro-mutt, but a fragment of Cherokee)
  • Was raised in a middle class home in San Antonio, TX
  • Had parents of differing religious backgrounds who divorced and remarried, allowing me to experience a variety of familial and child-rearing circumstances
  • Had my intelligence and creativity nurtured as a child and adolescent
  • Identified as gay when I was 13
  • Identified as transsexual when I was 19
  • Identified as a woman when I was 22

And none of that took into account the experiences I had in moving around the country, changing careers, or growing a network of friends and family-of-choice. All of that enriched the development of interests and hobbies I picked up along the way, like watching NFL games.

Each of us exists beyond the restricted space of any one aspect of our identity. Oftentimes though, people miss the person because they see us only in terms of our most obvious trait. As such, they ascribe values and expectations that are based on the most observable characteristics.

Ask any person of color to tell you about assumptions they’ve encountered in white people;

Or ask a lesbian woman or gay man to tell you the assumptions they’ve encountered in heterosexual persons;

Or ask a bisexual person to tell you what’s been assumed about them by people who are gay, lesbian, or heterosexual;

Or ask a Muslim what’s been assumed about them.

Or someone who’s fat.

Or someone who’s from the Southern U.S.

You get the drift. People often see us in a narrow and confining way, and are always surprised when we reveal ourselves to be something deeper, richer, and more nuanced than what first appears at the surface.

Yet, I can’t get mad at anyone for succumbing to a very natural tendency. All creatures on Earth have to learn to size up others creatures pretty quickly. Our brains are wired to look at a person, make a quick assessment of danger or no danger, and go on about our business. This is why we’re often told, particularly by marketing folks, that others make up their minds about us in the first 20 seconds or so of interaction. That’s not a lot of time. Many people have difficulty updating their understanding of us, even as we reveal fairly innocuous facts.

As we have opportunities though to encounter people who differ from us, we have the choice to resist the immediate instinct to differentiate “like me/not like me.” Our summary judgements and expectations for the individual aren’t necessarily reduced to a few quick reads of what we see before us. We recognize that much more can reveal itself over time if given the chance. If we’re interested in learning more, this is where the opportunity exists.

And it’s here that I get to come out as an NFL fan. I sure hope others will find the courage to do the same. You’re out there. I know it!

I’m still down for the Oscars Party, though.

No Blog This Week

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Hi folks, I’m on vacation; and like SNL will do a month into its new season, I am rerunning my old stuff. I’m not writing a new blog until next week, so stay tuned. The wheels are turning and I am feeling frisky and wise.

See y’all again next week!

 

Six Tough Truths About Being a Call Center Representative

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“Mom, Dad- when I grow up, I want to be a call center representative. I hope I can be on the phone all day under fluorescent lights talking to angry people about their bills. I hope my sales quota is this high!” A tiny hand stretches as far overhead as it can reach.

This has never once happened. Ever.

What’s so stressful though about a job in a climate-controlled environment that offers a living wage and good benefit package with no requirements of a college degree?

Plenty actually, if the sheer numbers of people on stress disability at any one time are any indication. Here then are my Six Tough Truths About Being a Call Center Representative, aka An Homage to My First Real Job (“real” in this case meaning, “not at the mall.”)

1) Fitness goes down the tube. Bad eating habits are a way of life in call centers. Reps sit all day and eat their feelings, often in great secrecy. This is especially true in offices that forbid food at the desk. Nothing tastes as good as a clandestine bag of Doritos or plate of fried chicken, tucked slyly away in a desk drawer and gobbled down with a customer on hold. Couple this with morning donuts and tacos, office pizzas and potlucks, anniversary cakes, candy bars from the vending machine, and what my gym trainer calls “a sedentary lifestyle” when I see her each year for about a week in January. Good thing those office ergonomic chairs are built so sturdily!

But why would they need to wolf anything down? Can’t reps just eat their food between calls?

If a “between calls” period actually existed long enough for a person to eat a bag of chips, well, then maybe we have too many reps working! Layoffs, anyone? The threat is always there. This brings us to the next item:

2) Uncertainty. The work that’s performed by call center reps generally comes complete with sales quotas, heavily-scripted customer responses, and cloyingly catchy branding phrases. Stray thee not far from these requirements, for thy manager is never far away! Managers (I was one of those, too) are ranked on their team’s performance using key metrics that relate to money: sales figures, efficiency, those sorts of things.

The only thing worse than being a manager on the bottom of that list is being a rep on her or his team. With their own bosses breathing down their necks, desperate first-level managers plead, cajole, and when they completely lose their shit, threaten. 

So why don’t reps just do the jobs they’re paid to do so they can keep their managers off their backs? Well, this leads us to:

3) Monotony. While changes to procedures and new business initiatives are constant enough in most call centers to ensure a permanent population of both puzzled reps and folks whose job it is to answer their questions; others absorb the changes quickly. Intelligent and highly-intuitive reps grasp key job concepts more easily. This isn’t always a good thing.

As any pet owner can tell you, cats and dogs that aren’t stimulated get into a whole lot of mess. People are much smarter than even the border collies who have their own featured episodes on Animal Planet. Deprived of creative outlets and feeling caged by monotonous work, bored reps get into all sorts of mischief to keep themselves entertained. Crafty practical jokes on office mates are ever-popular, as are singing and dancing among the musically-inclined (particularly popular when no managers are around, and generally following a polite “May I place you on hold?”).

Finding no outlet for their energy in the work they do, and looking to the future and seeing the same monotonous work ahead of them, many find it more and more difficult to drag themselves in every day. This is pretty much the death knell for the job because it tends to interfere with:

4) Attendance. In the call center world, attendance and punctuality are everything. A rep who’s walking in the door at 7:30am for a 7:30 shift is already late. That rep needed to be taking calls at 7:30, precisely. The 9:30am break, 11:00am lunch, and 2:00pm break must all be taken as scheduled. Anything longer than a short bathroom break or two outside of that isn’t tolerated, and every period away from the phone is logged. So goes the day until the shift ends at 4 or 4:30pm.

That’s assuming the rep has a day shift. Many call centers have extended hours, with shifts determined by seniority. Hopefully, the new people can adjust to this because it often means:

5) Evening and weekend shifts. Spending every Friday and Saturday night at an office while the rest of the world revels in weekend splendors has plunged many a young, single rep into an existential crisis. Young parents, meanwhile, find themselves strained to balance childcare needs. It’s marriages, though, that may be the biggest casualties of shift work. This is particularly true when the other spouse works during the daytime.

Call centers are generally large social environments, particularly among the young. Working the same shift schedule with the same people week after week, colleagues become friends. Friends become lovers. And so the cycle goes. Anyone who’s worked in a call center understands acutely what Diana Ross meant when she sang “we’ve seen how love can grow, now we’ll see how it dies.”  

Yet in spite of the invariable drama that ensues, the people at the office are what make it fun. This is a powerful antidote for the most difficult feature of call center work:

6) The customers. No one has ever called an 800 number to express gratitude for the services that a company provides. Many are confused and angry. This is worsened by the fact that finding a customer service number on a website is only slightly easier than spotting Jupiter’s moons with birding binoculars. Long hold times add to the magic, leading customers to ask accusatory opening questions like, “Are you the only one working today?!” to the frazzled rep who’s just hung up with someone else. Customer frustration has often reached such a fevered pitch by this point that the rep has to pull out every trick she or he has short of a lullaby in order to a) get the problem solved, b) use all the required catchphrases, and c) sell the customer all sorts of stuff that have nothing to do with the reason the person called.

Call center jobs for life are not something anyone should expect to be hired for in today’s changing global economy. I know of very few people who started with me 25 years who are still with the same company. That’s to say that a person starting a call center job today is almost certainly not going to retire from that company.

My advice to young people who land in these types of jobs is this:

  • Do it to the best of your ability.
  • Become great at customer service because the skill set will serve you well throughout your professional life.
  • Save overtime money for a rainy day.
  • If there’s a tuition benefit, use it to get your college degree; and
  • Leverage all of the other benefits to get yourself and your family situated.

Then, get out as early as you can to do something that’s better suited to your talents and gifts.