“What’s the matter?” my mother asked one morning during my sophomore year of high school.
“Nothing,” I responded. “My chest hurts a little, but I’ll go to school.”
“It must be your heart again!” she cried.
“Maybe. I’ll just run some laps in P.E. Maybe that will help.”
“No laps! No school!” she said.
For years, I had watched my mother, a lovable hypochondriac, convince herself that she had heart problems. When it came time for me, like some teens, to find a way to skip school, I went right to the heart of the matter. Since I shared half of my mother’s genes, I figured she would believe I had cardiac problems as well. After all, we were cut from the same mold. But I was moldier.
Not surprisingly, my mother believed me. My pathetic performance, complete with holding my chest and squinting my eyes, were on par with Marlon Brando’s last scene in “The Godfather.” In hindsight, I believe I spent more time in the cardiologist’s office than in the classroom during sophomore year.
And no matter how many times the doctor assured my mother I was fine, she never believed him. I knew I could count on her combination of anxiety and hypochondria.
Here’s the strange part: I was mostly a straight ‘A’ student (more on that later) and even enrolled in AP (Advanced Placement) classes. I had good friends and fulfilling extracurriculars, especially my beloved journalism class. I didn’t mean to miss school so often, and I certainly never meant to mimic teens who had actual heart problems. But when I was a sixteen-year-old at Beverly Hills High School, I was suffering from acute depression. I just didn’t know it. And neither did anyone else.
In America, mental health wasn’t even on the list of survival necessities for my refugee parents. Was I basically safe? Yes — Middle Eastern dictators were 7,000 miles away.
In America, mental health wasn’t even on the list of survival necessities for my refugee parents. Was I basically safe? Yes — Middle Eastern dictators were 7,000 miles away. Did I have enough clothes? Yes, depending on how often we visited Ross Dress for Less. Was I well-fed? Moderately, once I discovered I could eat right out of half-opened cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli.
Still, something was wrong. By sophomore year, I couldn’t muster the bandwidth to even get out of bed. I wasn’t tired from too little sleep; I actually couldn’t bring myself to pull off the covers, leave the bed and face the day.
That year, my sister moved out of our apartment and into a college dormitory. It was painful. It was traumatic. And it was unimaginable.
I should mention that she moved three miles away, to UCLA. But when you’re as tight-knit and Persian as my family, it seemed like she had moved to Beirut.
To make things worse, for the first time in my life as a student, I was close to failing a class because it started at an excruciating 7 a.m., exactly the time I was clinging to the covers each morning. I had always conflated my identity, and worse, my worth, with academic achievement. If I received my first ‘F,’ I feared my entire being would unravel and I would even lose friends.
My parents chalked up my incessantly morose moods to normal teenage angst. For them, it was impossible to live in America and be depressed. America — with its freedoms and glorious opportunities — was supposed to offer a built-in prevention system against any form of depression.
One day, my guidance counselor called my mother and expressed concern over my absences. Usually, the kids who missed so much school were also failing classes across the board or loitering around town with others during school hours. Why was the overachieving journalism aficionado missing so much class?
I was assigned a counselor-in-training from The Maple Center (now known as Maple Counseling), which offers low-cost mental health services for thousands in Los Angeles. But it didn’t help. I only pathologized myself by thinking that there really must have been something wrong with me if I needed to talk to someone.
But there was a silver lining, and it was a major one: I struggled with depression in 1999, five years before Facebook, seven years before Twitter, 11 years before Instagram and a whopping 17 years before TikTok was created. Today, I consider my social-media-free childhood the most important blessing of my adolescence. In fact, it’s actually on par with having escaped Iran. Let me explain.
I have a lot of affection for Beverly Hills High School — it was truly an extraordinary institution and I loved several inimitable teachers who taught there. But it wasn’t exactly a place to go to feel good about yourself.
Every morning, the parade of fabulous cars, driven by kids not old enough to vote, made its way onto campus. The closest I ever came to my own means of transportation was riding the shopping carts at the local Rite-Aid on Canon Drive. And nothing could have prepared me for the fashion scene. Here were teens who wore actual Armani shirts; I had an impressive collection of fake Calvin Klein T-shirts from peddlers in downtown LA.
Was everyone at ‘Beverly’ like this? Of course not. But I didn’t have my eyes on everyone; I was laser-focused on the cream of the crop. And the cream was shopping at MAC cosmetics while I was shuffling through dollar stores, in search of $1 eyeshadow.
During school hours, I was inundated with evidence of my own inadequacy, from kids who could afford individual tutors to help them master the Pre-SATs to girls who were so beautiful that I almost wanted to poke them to make sure they were real. But once school ended, I was free of the constant reminders of how I fell short. I could go home, watch TV, do homework, and eat my Chef Boyardee in peace (until my mother grabbed it and handed me a plate of herbed meatballs with Persian rice).
I didn’t know which of my friends were ‘hanging out’ together without me; I didn’t know what my peers looked like while on vacation (I didn’t even know who was on vacation); and best of all, if anyone was giving me a hard time at school, I didn’t have to interact with him or her again until the next day. For the generation that followed me, social media took all of that away.
That’s why I’m stating with unequivocal certainty: If social media had existed when I was in high school, I would have had a mental breakdown. I know there are many others who will agree with me.
Rather than condemning today’s teens, I have love and, yes, sympathy, for them. That’s why I loved profiling 16-year-old Zach Gottlieb. Once you read the story, you’ll know why I wish Zach and others like him had existed when I was in high school.
And that’s precisely why, rather than condemning today’s teens, I have love and yes, sympathy, for them. That’s why I loved profiling 16-year-old Zach Gottlieb, the subject of this week’s cover story. Once you read the story, you’ll know why I wish Zach and others like him had existed when I was in high school.
Eventually, my depression subsided by junior year, but the darkness, as I call it, that I experienced as a sophomore shamed and scared me for a long time. I was lucky enough to make it through to the other side. But there were many who didn’t. Their stories remain the ones that left me with a true heartache.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael