Out of the darkness

This is a post that I’ve been allowing to incubate for a long time, to the point where its title almost has an extra meaning! I usually don’t write about personal, potentially controversial subjects on this blog, but I think it’s time for this post to exist.

About two and a half years ago, I went to see a therapist, and was diagnosed with dysthymic depression (DSM-IV 300.4). When I first saw the diagnosis (which was actually a while after I started seeing my therapist, although she told me intially that she thought I was depressed), I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. So I did some Google searching and found that it basically means I was having, and had had for a while, chronic mild-to-moderate depression. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me as I have struggled with depression on and off, with one serious episode each in high school, college, grad school, and my working life, all of which were preceded and followed by varying durations of more minor symptoms. I’ve seen counselors before, but this is the first time I’ve gotten genuine, thorough, lasting help from a professional.

What made me want to write about this, way back when I first conceived this post, was when I found a particular page about dysthymia that said “Dysthymia is a condition that tends to develop early in a person’s life, but most people delay approximately ten years before every [sic] seeking treatment.” And I thought, that rings a bell. I was first depressed when I was about 16, and I was 26 when I finally got serious about getting help. I wish I had gotten effective help sooner, and I don’t want other people to have to do what I did and struggle by themselves for ten years, not knowing they have a recognizable, diagnosable, helpable disorder. Going up and down with each new problem, struggling to keep going, to get out of the hole. Self-medicating, not sleeping well (or too well), not eating enough (or too much), maybe hurting themselves in other ways.

Part of the difficulty for me in getting my problems identified and diagnosed is that I remained largely functional through even my worst times. There were never the falling grades and slipping engagement in chores and activities that are classic symptoms of major depression. Instead, I kept pushing myself through the days or weeks when I looked up at a blue sky and felt a big gray blanket between me and my beautiful surroundings, when doing anything seemed pointless, when I felt simultaneously restless and yet paralyzed, unable to find anything to attach my restlessness to, and even when crushing and inexplicable pain and darkness seemed to crash over me, as happened on a few occasions — once, memorably, during a music theory class.

Finally, one morning in April 2007, I was passing through Burgess Park, looking up at another beautiful Bay Area day but feeling gray, and I thought, this is just not working. There has to be a better way to do this. And I started researching therapists.

I’m simultaneously grateful to and resentful of the part of me that kept going through all that. Without it I might have been diagnosed sooner, but without it I might have given up sooner, too.

I know that depression is not uncommon. I know a number of people who have been diagnosed with depression of some kind, and you probably do too. Some have seen therapists, some not, some have taken pills, some not. Yet I often haven’t shared much about my experience with them, or vice versa. Back in high school I was embarrassed to tell people I was seeing a counselor, and it’s still something that I’ve generally kept private, for reasons both personal and professional. Struggling with daily life the way I do when I’m depressed feels shameful. Why should I find it so hard to get things done, something that everyone else does to all appearances every day without trouble? There can be a significant stigma on it.

I found it really reassuring to know that I have a pattern of symptoms that’s recognized. My perspective on depression is a little uncommon, since I don’t regard my depression as an organic illness, based on brain chemistry — with some perspective to look back on it, it seems to me it was temperamental and/or habitual (in the sense of resulting from habits of thought), and indirectly, situational. But dysthymic depression, regardless of its origin, is a syndrome with recognized symptoms, different from other manifestations of depression, and thus with its own particular challenges, including the challenge of recognizing it in the first place. And it’s awesome that I finally found someone who told me what it was and who could help me with it.

I wish I had known ten years ago that if I kept looking I could find a helpful therapist, and that there wasn’t something unidentifiably, unpredictably wrong with my ability to cope with life. I wish I had known that life without depression would be possible for me, if not easy to achieve. And I wish someone who had experienced these problems and found possible solutions had come out in the open and told me that, and given me their knowledge and their experience and their hope. Told me that someone much like me had struggled and had suffered and had succeeded.

My life today, after two years of therapy (yes, that’s a lot, but I think of it as an investment in my future) is happier than it has been in many years, happier than I thought it would ever be again, and I look forward to more happiness in the future. Therapy helped me unwind the muddle that my thoughts and emotions had gotten into, and identify and change unhelpful ways of experiencing and thinking about myself and my life. Changing the way I approached the situations I was in naturally led me to change some of the situations as well (the indirect situational component), but in many cases it just led to feeling a lot happier about the same situation.

I still struggle at times with a tendency to think or process experiences the way that I used to, and it’s hard for me to say whether that’s just habit or an inherent, temperamental tendency, although it feels like the latter to me, so I do sometimes wonder if there will always be a bit of uphill struggle for me to avoid those patterns. But on the scale of things it’s a relatively small struggle in a life of much awesome.

So that’s why I’m coming out of the darkness. To be the one offering my experience and my hope, as I wish someone had done for me. It’s not just you struggling. It’s a recognized problem, and one for which there are solutions. The solution I tried may not be the right one for you, but there are solutions. If you’re stuck or floundering, keep trying — and ask for help. The right solution is out there.

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