How have your friends and family reacted to this and how did you get a diagnosis?
The diagnosis was one clinically made by a Psychiatrist after my mom decided to take me to one at age 15. I had stopped speaking at all at school and was constantly crying and for the first time, self-harmed. I don’t remember much about the first appointments but I was asked a series of questions regarding my mood, behaviour, sleeping patterns, interest in daily activities, thought pattern and any suicidal ideation. I pretty much at that time filled all the criteria in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual) for major depressive disorder. In general, how it works now is the same. Diagnoses are made clinically, which can be problematic as one’s symptoms may fall into other conditions too, and later on in life other symptoms may manifest. I think what matters most is to not be put into a box. One need not be defined by a specific illness because you meet a specific set of criteria. What I think matters most is symptomatic management and unfortunately, that takes trial and error on medications. We all react differently. There’s no blood test or scan one can do to make a definitive diagnosis as in other diseases because mental illness is such a complex illness that involves many neurological events science still cannot fully piece together. There are newer developments like MRI scans that have shown strong evidence in structural abnormalities in the brain but it isn’t a standard procedure performed in diagnosis and also, these aren’t necessarily permanent structural changes. Medications have been shown to build new neurons and shrinking of the hippocampus reverses over time. There has been much development in understanding but specific targeted therapy is yet to be reached.
My friends and family didn’t react very positively initially as they had no understanding of it. Mainly, one gets told to build on your character yet it isn’t a character flaw we have. My mom was incredibly supportive although she didn’t understand and felt helpless, she loved me back to life in a sense by helping me with things that felt like mountains to me. She helped me resume daily life. I would lay in bed all day and cry and she’d take me by the hand and force me to go for a walk around the block with her or ordered my dad to take me out for cake. She took me to each of my psychologist appointments and was patient with me. The problem was, she expected a permanent fix and wanted it to be a once off event and when it wasn’t, she started reacting with disappointment and left me more to myself. The second time it happened it was to be kept quiet from people as I had to take time off from school, and so, instead, she told them I had a brain tumour, which was a coincidental finding and a benign lesion more likely from physical trauma at some point in my life, like falling when I was a baby, and had nothing to do with my depression. My dad wasn’t emotionally supportive and still isn’t. He had the view of, “suck it up.” You need to be more tough and just pull yourself together. Right now, I am on my own. I don’t have any family support with regards to my mental illness and it isn’t ever talked about. I schedule my own appointments, drive myself to and from hospital and take medications they know nothing about. I may lie in bed and cry and my dad would walk right past me as if not even acknowledging me. I cannot tell you how much more difficult it has made battling through this. Family support is such an incredibly important and necessary thing one needs in mental illness.
As for my friends, I have 3 close friends, 2 of which I grew up with. They never judged me or told me to be stronger or blamed me in any way. As one of them told me, she may not ever understand it but she’ll never love me any less or turn me away. She hasn’t. When I am admitted, they come to visit and check in on me from time to time. The 3rd friend I met in 1st year of medicine and she knows everything about the hell I’ve been through. There have been times she literally picked me up from the floor. We had times where we fought as she would get frustrated because she too, didn’t understand why it just wouldn’t go away and why I didn’t do more. Later on, she learned much more about it and has always been there. I am thankful for the support and acceptance and patience from them. We hardly ever see each other nowadays but whenever I fall, they never run away.
As for more distant friends at university, it has been much harder. Outsiders tend to have a very limited view of what you’re going through and so, it’s easy to make assumptions. I’ve had many things said to me that just showed this stigma. When I got admitted one guy asked me if it was because of a boyfriend leaving me. Little did he know the boyfriend left me after admission because of my illness which he “emotionally couldn’t cope with.” I’ve also had people “Bible bash” me with claims of the effects of “generational sins” being responsible and that they would rather not visit me at home because of influences from a spiritual realm. I’ve been told it is a flaw in my character and that I simply need to change my attitude. It’s incredibly easy for people who have had no exposure to the concept and effects of mental illness to make assumptions and say stupid things they don’t realise is hurtful to you. But luckily, it hasn’t affected me much because I know the truth and struggles and causes of this. I easily brush it off because a limited perception is to blame. What matters most to me, are the people in my inner circle in life.