Would you believe me if I told you I have been depressed my whole life? While it sounds melodramatic and maybe even a little bit impossible, I remember having depressive episodes as early as preschool. During lesson breaks, I would walk the perimeter of the schoolyard alone, under the shadows of the infinitely tall pine trees, dragging a stick across the metal fence, and soaking up the feeling that I would later learn to identify as depression. I was 3 years old.
The melancholy I felt within those walls of my church’s preschool never fully went away, and it probably never will. Depression ebbs and flows, takes many forms, and creeps up unexpectedly. While I am highly functioning and have developed the skill set to live my life day-to-day during the colorful seasons of my depression, I’ve finally reached a point where I don’t want to have to suffer alone in this invisible illness that gives everything a cloudy filter. This week, I decided to seek out therapy. I’m now 29 years old.
I didn’t think I deserved it
I grew up in a safe, sunny suburb just north of Los Angeles. I have a supportive set of parents who are still married, an older sister who always included and protected me, and a network of ride-or-die friends that make me laugh until my guts fall out. Because of my traditionally positive upbringing, I never felt that my depression was validated, which prevented me from speaking up about my feelings and seeking help. If I’m being very honest, I still feel uneasy admitting that despite the wonderful things in my life, there is a steady stream of darkness that hovers overhead. What I’ve now learned is that depression doesn’t discriminate – it exists independently around your circumstances, and not necessarily because of them.
I wanted to cure it on my own
Part of my apprehension with finding help was my stubbornness to solve my mental illness by myself. While there is inherent value in learning to cope with depression, I found that I was submitting myself to a life of just getting by, when I needed to examine the cognitive reasoning for my sadness. “It’s simple,” I thought. “I’ll go to work, accomplish a few of my daily tasks, and go to bed as soon as I get home.” Absolving myself to a life planned around when I could go back to bed again wasn’t fixing anything, and may have even worsened the condition I’d grown so comfortable with. And depression becomes just that – comfortable. It was familiar, like an old, worn in sweatshirt I could wallow within. The very walls that I felt constrained by were the same walls that gave me great comfort.
It unexpectedly changed forms
I’ve recently become cognizant to the fact that mental distress will eventually multiply itself, and potentially even manifest physically. After surviving a traumatic car wreck in which I briefly believed my two best friends had been killed (they weren’t) and the subsequent $7 million lawsuit from the other involved drivers at the age of 17 (yes, really), I experienced what I can recount as my first panic attack. A serious car accident is horrible for anyone, but there was a great deal of accompanying guilt and feelings of worthlessness resulting from thinking I’d hurt my best friends and seeing how it had affected them and their families. When I moved to college six months later, I was diagnosed by a campus psychologist with agoraphobia, an anxiety-related condition that prevented me from being able to attend events or even leave my home for weeks on end. I found myself floating listlessly through the semester by overloading on courses and homework in an effort to distract myself from the outside world.
Medication didn’t help me
I reluctantly started attending on-campus counseling and was prescribed a multitude of different antidepressants that seemed to trigger my anxiety even more. I grew so anxious and restless that I was physically getting ill several times a week. (Please note: This is not at all to say that medication doesn’t work. It’s tremendously helpful for so many people, and if you’re having trouble with depression, talking to your doctor about medicinal options is so, so important. And finding the right path for coping with depression can take a while to figure out; always talk to a professional about how you’re feeling. It’s just in my experience, I didn’t find something that worked at that time.) I never felt a real connection with my school’s therapist and decided to write off therapy and medication entirely, choosing instead to work through the anxiety as it came up – even when that meant staying home and hiding. Gradually, I was able to get a real handle on identifying triggers, implement breathing techniques, and generally work through what had become an actual lifestyle. But I still didn’t feel right about it.
I finally found the right therapist
You know how sometimes in toxic relationships, you end up having the same fight over and over again? That’s kind of what happened, except the person I was fighting with was myself. It’s been 12 years since the car accident that exacerbated a lot of my lifelong depression, and I got so sick of experiencing the unstable symptoms over and over and OVER again that I finally – finally! – made the decision to dump my unhealthy relationship with depression and anxiety for a professional therapist instead. The thing is, finding a therapist is a lot like dating. You want to enter into treatment with someone you trust and whose personality blends with yours. After mulling it over for several weeks, I made an appointment with someone who gave me a great first impression via email.
I nervously sat in my car outside of her office for 20 minutes before my designated appointment time. I’m not sure what I was afraid of, but I could sense that change was on the horizon. After meeting with her for nearly 90 minutes, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. She understood me. She validated my fears and my insecurities. She even gave me the term for what I’d actually been suffering from for so many years: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Things aren’t perfect, and that’s OK
The most important thing I learned from my journey to seeking help is that your well-being DOES matter, even when you might not think so. There is nothing shameful about admitting that you need a little bit of help sometimes. I’m not aiming to eliminate depression or anxiety from my life entirely, but rather learn how to obtain a more functioning balance for the times it will, inevitably, show up again unannounced.
And while medication didn’t work for me, I would certainly encourage anyone else to give it a try – what works for one person may not work for someone else. The process of finding a therapist can be confusing, especially if you don’t know where to begin. Try not to get frustrated with this part; it took contacting six different therapists before I found one I felt confident in speaking with. Now, for the first time in my life, I am willing to march straight through my depression and anxiety instead of tiptoeing around it. Emotional pain, just like physical pain, needs to be addressed before it can be healed. I feel empowered by my decision and only hope that anyone else living with this burden finds the courage to reach out for help as well. After all, my only regret is waiting this long.
[Image via iStock]