For some people living with mental illness, a diagnosis comes quickly after the symptoms appear, allowing for early intervention. My journey to an accurate diagnosis and successful treatment was much longer.
When I was a freshman in college, I knew something was off. Between the crying spells I had constantly in various places all over campus, the deep loneliness I felt, and the overwhelming sadness and despair, I began to realize something was truly wrong.
I had a great group of friends, was close with my family, and enjoyed my classes. But I still felt the weight of the world and the uncontrollable heaviness of the feelings inside me. My low moods continued, eventually causing me to forget meals, skip class to sleep, and isolate myself from my friends. “I’m OK; I just want to be alone,” I’d say to friends who invited me to lunch or to study together at the library. I began getting startled in the middle of the night by traumatic nightmares and utter sadness.
By mid-sophomore year, I knew I needed help. At that point, I had been calling my mom daily, sobbing and wondering why I felt like I couldn’t live a happy life, why I felt like I didn’t want to be on this earth much longer if this was the constant pain I had to endure. This sparked my journey of diagnosis, therapy, and medical intervention.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder soon afterward, even though my treatment team had considered other diagnoses. My diagnosis felt like a freeing relief. I felt like I finally had a true cause and reason for the way I was feeling. It took a long time for me to accept that I wasn’t feeling this way on purpose. I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t unreliable or purposeless. I wasn’t ungrateful or dramatic. It wasn’t my fault. This was a harder pill to swallow than any of the endless medications I tried over 7 years.
But the diagnosis also felt like a cage. A compartment I would be stuck in for maybe the rest of my life. A box that could lead to judgment and discrimination, that stopped me from living the life I wanted and the goals I wanted to achieve.
After nearly a decade of enough tears to fill the Atlantic Ocean, trying to shove down suicidal thoughts and urges, spending crisis moments in hospitals and outpatient programs, and exhausting nearly every treatment option, I slowly realized that I had a form of treatment-resistant depression. Something that would probably follow me for the rest of my life.
My depression is now like an old friend (or enemy I guess). I finally found the right therapist and medication combination to make the darkness subside. Before I was crying in bed for nearly 6 hours a day, forcing myself to leave jobs to focus on treatment, and quickly losing hope of any form of recovery. Now I was having more sunny days, some filled with gratitude and some filled with hope that maybe one day I would be cured.
Of course, that is not how it works with a debilitating mental illness. I don’t know if I will ever be able to live a life without my depression. It pops up on some days when I think I’ve surpassed the worst of it. Depression is relentless and unforgiving. It visits when I am on vacation sitting in the sun, ocean breeze on my face. And yet I’m overwhelmed with sadness that engulfs me. And the tears come.
It knocks on my door when I am sitting at home watching a movie with my boyfriend. The darkness envelops me like a hug; a suffocating one that leaves me in bed for the rest of the day. And the tears come.
It sneaks in when I am going about my day. Suddenly, I feel as though I am not grateful enough for the life I have, intimidated by thoughts of existentialism: What’s my purpose here on earth? How is everyone else so happy? Why can’t I be happy enough? And the tears come.
But I have come to accept that my diagnosis is simply one part of me. It is not my entirety. It is freeing, yet imprisoning, and I am slowly learning to accept that.
It is a shadow following close behind, but sometimes the sunlight in my life filters through, leaving just enough space to leave the shadow farther behind me. That sunlight -- music, my loved ones, my dogs, my hobbies, my meds, my therapist, my job and my home -- makes me want to stay. It makes me feel full, and in those moments I know that the shadow cannot swallow me whole anymore.
So I will bask in the sunlight that my life brings, and when I feel my depression shoving its way in, at least I have proof that the sunlight exists. In that strength, I can accept the shadow behind me. I’ll let it remind me that the sunlight has carried me through the darkness, and the tears no longer come.
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