In honor and observance of Suicide Prevention Month I’m hoping to share a weekly blog post in September covering a mental health topic that’s important to me.
I’d first like to share my personal experience with anxiety and depression in hopes that it may speak to someone that’s unfamiliar with these mental illnesses and/or give hope, advice, or encouragement to someone facing similar struggles. Please understand that I’m not a doctor and this is in no way a recommendation or prescription on what you should do. This is simply my own life and experience.
Science shows that those with mental health illnesses are predisposed because of genetics. Anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, and major depressive disorders are 30-40% inherited, alcohol dependence is 40-60% inherited, and bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorders, and schizophrenia are upwards of 60% inherited (taken from various sources, feel free to do your own research). In my immediate family (grandparents, parents, aunts/uncles, siblings) I’d roughly say that 50% of us unfortunately suffer from some mental health disease whether it be anxiety, depression, bipolar, or some combination of these. Growing up I don’t believe anyone spoke to me or educated me regarding mental illnesses. I doubt it was common for people to talk about openly at the time. I’m not sure exactly when (I’d guess late elementary school), but I began to realize not by name but by exposure and observance that mental illnesses existed and played a role in my life and the lives of those around me. The role they played was not positive. Because I wasn’t educated, I was ignorant and naive and grew up with an attitude and understanding that with strong mental fortitude and strength that someone could ward off mental illness as if it were a weakness.
In my sophomore year of college I experienced what I would call my first stint of situational depression. I’m not sure if that’s actually a medical diagnosis but I remember my therapist at the time saying that and it made sense and resonated with me. The phrase “situational” made sense to me because until that point in my life I would say that I was generally a happy person. It also made sense because I could pin point a targeting event (a breakup) that was the culminating point of my depression. Honestly I also liked that she said it was situational because that meant it could be something I could address and treat and hopefully move on with my life.
Clinical depression symptoms to watch for:
Mood: anxious, discontent, guilt, hopelessness, mood swings, sadness
Behavioral: agitation, excessive crying, irritability, restlessness, social isolation
Sleep: early awakening, excessive sleepiness, insomnia, restless sleep
Body: excessive hunger, fatigue, loss of appetite
Cognitive: lack of concentration, slowness in activity, thoughts of suicide
During this time I was just so sad. I remember crying constantly. When I say constantly I really mean it. At home in my room at my college apartment, in the pool during swim practice, in an auditorium lecture hall, in front of friends, in front of strangers. I just could not help myself. I think I slept fine (minus the crying) but I had no desire to eat. Nothing ever sounded good. I remember friends would try to get me to do things. “It might be fun and make you feel better to take your mind off things.” Of course they were only trying to help, but whether I went or didn’t I’d end up sad or crying either way.
Eventually, likely after guidance from family and I think after realizing I just couldn’t bare anymore, I started seeing the swim team’s sports psychologist along with a therapist I mentioned previously. The psychologist asked your typical questions and at some point in time prescribed a medication for anxiety/depression. I was extremely hesitant. Again I had always thought that I should be strong enough to get through anything by my own will power. I didn’t want to take a medication. And I feared having to take it forever.
My therapist and I discussed a lot but one of the major shifts in my mindset was when she told me to think of my anxiety/depression like any other sickness. Say you were sick with strep throat; you would take medication for that right? Or if someone you knew had cancer, you’d want them to be treated to cure their cancer right? I believe there was, and still is, such a stigma against medication for mental illnesses. Of course if you can treat mild anxiety with meditation, therapy, journaling, exercise or other means that is wonderful! Medication certainly isn’t necessary for everyone. However I would leave that for a medical professional to make a recommendation and not public opinion. Please do not think you are “too good” for medication and please do not place that mindset on anyone else (I see this quite a bit on social media) as it can be extremely impactful on someone’s well being.
I admitted I thought myself someone could or should be stronger than a mental illness but it’s called a mental illness for a reason. I was completely wrong. Strength, will power, sheer stubbornness are not enough. Mental illness should never be viewed as a weakness of any kind and I had to experience it myself to really understand but I hope that someone reading this who hasn’t gone through it can understand more.
My therapist and I talked about my break up, the stresses of school, swimming, and finances as a college student. I vented, she listened and gave advice and provided understanding. She helped me to wait until some of the “depression fog” cleared to make the decision to quit swimming. We put together a budget and outlined steps I could take with my family to help me worry less about the costs associated with being in school. The therapy along with the medication allowed me to get back to feeling like myself and eventually I followed my doctor’s recommendations to gradually lower the dosage and eventually stop taking medication.
I thought I was in the clear. Wouldn’t it have been nice if my “situational” depression was one and done. Years went by (four or five) and I was feeling just fine. Eventually amidst a move to a new city and a job I felt ill equipped for I quickly found myself depressed. This time it started with something new – a feeling like my throat wasn’t all the way opened. When I wasn’t eating or drinking it would drive me crazy. I’d salivate so much I’d constantly have to spit. I had a pH study done by an ENT doctor after I couldn’t take it anymore and was diagnosed with acid reflux and prescribed omeprazole. It marginally helped. Some relief was better than nothing. Before I knew it the non-stop crying was back crashing over me like a wave. I could barely get myself to work and even when I did I’d be crying on and off uncontrollably. Thank God for bathrooms and an office door.
Even after being through it once before, looking back I waited far too long to seek out assistance. It can be such a struggle when your head is barely above water trying to get help. It’s without a doubt an added weight. After a few weeks of therapy not making a difference I decided I needed to see a psychologist quickly as I was sinking deeper and deeper into my dark hole. In my first experience with depression I don’t ever recall ever having suicidal thoughts. This time though my long commute behind the wheel was my weak place. That’s where my thoughts had free reign. That’s when I was alone and I’d let it all out. That’s where I thought, “if only I could guarantee a car accident would kill me but not harm anyone else”. At this point I’m urgently looking for appointment availability with a health provider that was covered by my insurance. No big deal, easy peasy you think. Nope. Whatever was available first was far away from my work place and I had to drive so far in Chicago traffic. I remember I was 10-15 minutes late for an hour-long appointment. The doctor turned me away. I begged him to see me asking if we could just use the time that was left. I was distraught. ** I looked him up and he had the WORST reviews. I wish I still knew his name so I could put it here and advise no one to ever see him. Definitely should have looked him up BEFORE but again I was desperate.
I called my mom sobbing, freaking out knowing I needed to see someone as quickly as possible. Thankfully she told me it didn’t matter the cost or if it was covered by insurance to make an appointment. On my drive home I called all the top rated people on Yelp and left messages. A huge lesson I’ve learned is that getting help is sometimes not all that easy, even when you have a good job with good insurance. Many providers don’t accept insurance because they don’t have to. Any amount of money is worth your life and your well being. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost but I want to say something like $300/hr but it was worth every single dollar. My doctor prescribed the same medication I had taken back in college. Typically medication can take weeks to ramp up in your system for you to notice a difference. Unfortunately weeks went by and this time I noticed no difference. At this point I’m working on getting out of my position at work, considering checking myself into a facility, and contemplating a medical leave of absence at work (which I was told was a career diminishing decision). Thankfully I no longer work for this company and whole-heartedly believe with my current employer this wouldn’t be the case but I know not all companies have a culture where mental health is taken seriously and handled appropriately. I kept in touch with my doctor and after trying another medication finally started to feel relief. A haze was lifted. A heavy, nasty, awful, dark, sad haze. Also the irritability in my throat completely went away! It’s crazy how your body can have a physical reaction to anxiety or stress and that early on I didn’t even put it together but now it completely makes sense.
The first take away is act quickly (I needed to take my own advice) and do not try to push through. You know yourself best and if you aren’t feeling like yourself it’s better to make changes earlier than wait and feel even worse. If making an appointment or getting help is too much – ask for help! The second take away is that even for an individual person (me) experiencing depression multiple times it can present itself differently. Sometimes what helped the first time may not work the second time. If medication isn’t working or there are negative side effects do not stop there. Continue to explore all options as recommended by your doctor.
The second medication that my doctor prescribed five years ago is the medication I still take. She said that because that was my second experience it was likely for my depression to reoccur for the rest of my life. The medication has no long-term negative side effects, you can take it when you’re pregnant, and it’s often even used for post-partum depression. She said if there were changes in my life that may “set off” my depression it would make the deep dark waves much more manageable without taking away any of life’s enjoyment. That’s exactly what it’s done. I feel like myself. Of course I still get sad, but for the most part I feel like I can manage my life and my feelings. I touch base with her at least annually to check in on my dosage or reach out if I notice signs of something creeping in (i.e. the feeling in my throat, not wanting to get out of bed, etc.) and we adjust as needed.
Hopefully in reading this you thought of something in a new way or even just put a name and a face to someone you know with anxiety and depression. I hope that if you are struggling or have struggled that you are encouraged to ask for help or feel less alone or ostracized in reading this. I hope that this encourages you to evaluate how you think about mental health. I challenge you to think of friends and family members who you can have a real, open and honest conversation with about your mental well being or theirs.
Here for you in any way I can be.