I have always believed I have a story to tell, and that one day, I will have the courage to share it and hope to inspire and make a difference in someone’s life. Today is that day; I am finally sharing my story.
It all started when I was 22. I was in college and I started hyperventilating during my volunteer hours at a physical therapy clinic. I was brought to the university’s wellness center to get checked. As it turned out, my body appeared to be under a lot of stress and I was having a “panic attack” – a term I was hearing for the first time. Then, I was advised to see the Psychiatrist, where I was diagnosed as having “major depression” weeks later – again a term I had never heard until then.
I didn’t think too much of it and didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t tell anyone and figured it’s something that would just go away. Besides, what was I depressed about? Everything seemed to be going well anyway. I was on my way to pursuing my goals, taking classes and earning my volunteer hours so I could pursue Physical Therapy. I had friends, I had a boyfriend and everything was going well with my family. So, what is this major depression again?
Since being diagnosed, I was prescribed my first medication, followed by numerous more tablets and colorful pills that were about to distress my body in more ways than one. But I was told to take it, so I did. Sometimes. I kept it from everyone around me, except my boyfriend at the time. Again, in my mind, it was no big deal. It’s just some meds I needed to take.
Soon after, the inevitable happened. A childhood trauma of being sexually abused, subconsciously suppressed for some 16 years of my life, resurfaced. This time, what appeared to be a recurring “nightmare” over the years, actually came to reality when I was about 5-6 years old. It was frightening and overwhelming but it was there, right in front of my eyes staring right at me and I didn’t know what to do. So I stared back, and started to learn how to accept it. Learning how to accept such a traumatic event was huge battle for me. I really wasn’t sure what to do. Later, I saw a therapist and talked about it as much as I could handle, until the feelings of disgust, anger, shame, embarrassment and sadness faded. It wasn’t easy. I really didn’t talk about it with anyone else then, but somehow, I got to a point when the negative feelings were no longer paralyzing me. I was able to accept that it happened, and whether I liked it or not, I needed to forgive- at least for my own sake. So, I did. Eventually.
About 2 years later, and for some unfathomable reason (to me at the time), I took a little too much of my “just some meds”. I basically overdosed. I can’t quite remember now the reason why however, I remember feeling exhausted from whatever I was feeling then. I know for a fact I didn’t want to end my life, as everyone would have guessed. I only wanted to stop thinking and stop the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to rest and I wanted to sleep, so I took more, a lot more than I was supposed to.
Then I got so sick and I got scared. I told my boyfriend and that’s when I was brought to the emergency room for the first time. It was my first taste of charcoal (something to help absorb all the toxins out of my body) and my first experience of being forced to drink the black liquid – as if I was being punished by the nurses, for doing something really stupid. Obviously, my family found out – the whole depression thing and what I had done. To this day, I’m pretty sure they had the same reaction I had when I was just diagnosed….What depression? Why is she depressed? I never asked and I never knew how they really reacted, but I’m pretty sure they were worried.
Shortly after that incident, my doctor enforced that I stay in a “behavioral hospital” for at least a week. It wasn’t a psychiatric ward, which was somehow comforting to me. Although when they started to check through my luggage and I was not able to bring even a lip balm inside, then that was enough to alarm me. I was aware I did something I was not supposed to do, but I don’t think I realized back then the severity of my illness. I downplayed it as usual. I knew I needed help but I never ever really “got it” for what help exactly.
So, that was the beginning of my life-altering journey, 1998, when I was admitted to a behavioral hospital (or should I say 1996, when I was actually diagnosed). To add more icing on the cake, a couple of weeks later, my dad also needed quintuple bypass heart surgery. For some time, I wondered if I triggered something in him that caused him to get sick around the same time. As you can imagine, more emotions poured in on top of everything else I was already going through having been just released from the hospital myself.
That was a pivotal moment in my life. I realized I was sick but I could not understand what I was going through. My family was so worried about my dad and I was feeling lost, mixed in with my own worries about my dad. I am daddy’s little girl after all, but at the time, I felt confused. I could not understand what I was going through, so I focused on my dad’s health and I vividly remember taking care of him and his post surgery incision. I was living at home then and I drove him to his regular visits to the doctors. I was feeling empty and crying from the inside but I put all those aside and suppressed all the feelings I had. I focused on him, on his health.
During that time, I wrote a lot in my journal. I had so many rapid thoughts, I ended up typing up my thoughts instead of writing, since my hand could not keep up with the speed of my monkey mind. It was my only outlet, together with the 3 other key people in my life then, my boyfriend and my 2 of my best friends from childhood. I relied on them. They were my pillars. I don’t think they understood my illness then, but they acknowledged it. Sometimes, acknowledgement is enough, even without understanding.
I didn’t grasp my diagnosis, my so-called illness. I didn’t know what it was. I read books and did my research, but I could not connect all the information I was reading, with everything I was actually feeling inside. There was a missing piece, for years. And if I didn’t understand it myself, I couldn’t expect anyone else to understand it either, even my own family.
Stigma was present. Ignorance was real. I stigmatized my own condition and so I expected nothing more from anyone. I never talked about it with my family. We have a very close-knit family, but that didn’t mean ignorance could not be present. One day, I photocopied a page from a book about depression and gave them to my family. I couldn't explain it to them so I thought reading a page from a book would somehow provide a window for them to see what I was going through. Days or weeks later, I remember asking one family member if she had read it. She quickly apologized for not reading it yet coz she had not had the time... that was enough for me to know; there was no interest, there was no acknowledgment of my illness. It hurt like a stab in my heart. But I couldn't blame her, nor the rest of the family... simply because I knew the denial of the situation was subconscious. It didn't mean they didn't care about me, it simply meant oblivion.
Being a Filipino, there was no such thing as mental illness, or at least that was my personal belief. Sadly, I think the outlook was, it’s either “you are crazy, or you are not”. There was nothing in between and definitely nothing to be sympathetic about. I was raised in that culture, so I thought the same of myself. It was a culture coming from a third world country then (now a developing country), where seeking medical help was only focused on matters of life and death. Otherwise, people could not afford it, and mental health was the least of everyone’s concerns. So, that was our culture, that was the approach; that was the attitude… and so was mine.
to be continued... Click here for Part 2
** Depression Statistics
According to NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In fact, an estimated 16 million adults and 2.2 million adolescents had at least one depressive episode in 2012. The number of patients diagnosed with depression increases by approximately 20% per year. An estimated 121 million people around the world currently suffer from some form of depression.