Authors Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing about other people’s experience with mental illness. I so appreciate Sonja, her brave heart and her willingness to share her story with fellow sufferers. If you’d like to share your story, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can set up an interview.
There is nothing more awkward than being fourteen years old.
Unless you’re a 14-year-old homeschooled redhead with clinical depression.
And while I’m completely kidding about the redheaded-homeschool part, Sonja Carlson possessed all four traits.
Sonja was at a campout with her private homeschool friends when her mom, who was a chaperone on the trip, noticed she was behaving differently.
“There was no good way to explain how I was feeling, but my mom took me out to the car and said ‘What’s going on? I think you’re depressed,'” Sonja said. “I felt sad and I felt different but I didn’t want to admit there was something wrong.”
It took two years before Sonja admitted she should go to the doctor.
And from the moment her doctor informed her the chemicals in her brain were imbalanced, a variety of medicine flew on and off the shelves in her bathroom, though none of them seemed to work.
At age 17, her depression worsened.
It was days before her high school graduation and her friend Isaac had just asked her to be his girlfriend.
But the elated feeling of being somebody’s girlfriend quickly wore off when Isaac’s brother and his best friend were killed in a car accident that night.
“The next few months were really hard,” Sonja said. “We had a lot of friends that were affected by it, and a lot of them grew up together for a long time.”
A few days after the accident, several of those friends gathered together to talk and lean on each other for strength.
Sonja recalls one of her friends mothers telling them “you are all having to grow up really quickly.”
“She was so right,” Sonja said. “That’s when I realized I was growing up. That’s not something every teenager has to go through.”
Sonja was scheduled to start college at BYU-Idaho that fall.
“I was all set to go,” Sonja said. “But I was 17. I graduated a year early, so I was already feeling like I wasn’t prepared to go. I was signing up for classes and couldn’t get what I wanted. I was feeling uneasy.”
When summer turned to autumn, Sonja decided to defer from college for one semester so she could continue therapy and stabilize her mental condition.
“I started therapy, which I hated really bad,” Sonja said. “I was so far [emotionally] gone I was like this wall. I hated my therapist, so at least there was some emotion.”
Sonja’s days were blurred together and resulted in her and Isaac breaking up and a struggle with a borderline eating disorder.
To this day, she barely remembers her therapy sessions, apart from two.
“At one point, she told me if I kept living like I was I’d end up in the hospital. But I didn’t really care,” Sonja said. “At another point, she told me I needed to become more spiritual. I was upset, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that’s what i needed to hear, but it was hard to hear it from someone who wasn’t my bishop or my mom.”
When January came, Sonja was cleared by her therapist and her parents to move from Portland, Oregon to Rexburg, Idaho for school.
Although she still wasn’t thriving, they decided the best medicine would be to send her out into the world to be independent.
“At school, I was blessed with a fantastic group of roommates who I’m still close with to this day,” Sonja said. “I loved school and BYU-I and the people I was meeting. It was exactly what I needed.”
The same year Sonja started college, her close friend Risa was diagnosed with cancer.
Risa hosted cancer in her body for most of her life, but it went undetected until 2010.
Her cancer was so advanced that when she had a PET scan the doctors couldn’t tell what was and wasn’t cancer in her abdomen.
“I was up at school the entire time she was going through the whole process,” Sonja said. My grandpa had passed away ten years before with cancer, so I’d known since a child that cancer wasn’t something you mess around with.”
Early on, Sonja prepared herself for another friend’s death. And although it made her feel like she didn’t have enough faith, she didn’t feel like she could handle being shocked again.
“It was really hard not to be with her like my other friends were,” Sonja said.
Less than one year after Risa’s diagnosis, Sonja ran into one of her Oregon friends at school.
“She sat me down in a practice room in the music building and told me Risa’s liver was failing and that the doctors said she had about one week.”
On March 31, 2011 Risa returned to her father in heaven.
It was during finals week at BYU-Idaho that Sonja received the news.
“During that week and a half when she was dying, I remember having a conversation with my mom on the phone and I was beside myself,” Sonja said. “I told her ‘Mom, I can’t go through this again. It’s going to ruin me.’ She said, ‘Sonja, you’ve been through this before, shouldn’t it be easier this time?’ Of course she meant well by that, but in that moment, I realized it was going to be harder. Gabe and Grant had passed away two years before so I almost felt like I could expect it every two years.”
During that time, Sonja experienced something special.
After Risa’s death, she felt closer to God than she ever had.
“She was the most perfect person I have ever met on this earth,” Sonja said. “I believe it was her time to go because she was ready for it and that kind of helped.”
Though the years succeeding Risa’s death brought heartache and depression, Sonja learned to rely more on her faith for comfort.
Last October, Sonja’s life was rocked even harder when her uncle passed away from a disease he’d been sick with for a long time.
She had just started her final semester of college, she was living with her best friends and she had a top position at the school paper.
Suddenly the semester she had looked forward to most turned into the worst of her college career.
“My uncle treated me like his own daughter,” Sonja said. “He would message me on Facebook just to tell me how proud he was of me.”
To date, her uncle’s death has been the hardest thing she’s experienced in her life.
“I know without a doubt that I will be able to see my loved ones again somebody,” Sonja said. “But knowing that is really hard, because I’m still on this earth and have to go through each and everyday without them here.”
Sonja said she constantly worried that her friends at school were judging her for not coping as well as she should have.
“The pain wasn’t what I had experienced before, it was just intensified,” Sonja said. “The only way I’ve been able to pull out of it is the Savior and the Atonement and knowing that the Atonement works for them and for me too.”
Although Sonja still struggles with her uncle’s death and her depression, she has found strength in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“I literally do not know how people who have depression and don’t have faith in the Gospel or don’t know the Gospel exists even get on with their lives,” Sonja said. “I know I’ll be healed eventually, and if it’s not tomorrow, it’s still eventually.”
Sonja would like to encourage others who have depression to doubt not the importance of their own diagnosis.
“There is opposition in all things,” Sonja said. “I know Risa will be able to dance again someday without pain because she will have a perfect body. My uncle will be able to walk on a regular basis. Gabe and Grant have probably been doing so much missionary work.”