Therapy Didn’t Rid Me Of My Depression. But It Helped Me Understand It
It’s true when they say pains that don’t get discussed aren’t perceived as important or even real to the rest of the world.
“You’re scaring me,” my sister said quietly as I sobbed into the phone. Her voice was steady, unlike mine. It was September 2015 — not the first time I’d called her during one of my episodes. I’d learned in college that a wandering mind and alcohol don’t go well together; whenever I drank too much, it became difficult for me to process anxiety and sadness, usually culminating in drunken, frenzied calls to my sister. But that day, I was wide-awake and sober, balled up on my couch in the middle of the afternoon, wailing for no apparent reason.
Thousands of miles away from home and having exhausted the patience of my friends in Los Angeles, I felt completely and utterly alone with no idea how to make the pain I felt go away. As much as I didn’t want to alarm my younger sibling, I didn’t know what else to do or what I might have done had she not answered.
“Some days you’re up, some days you’re down,” she told me gently. “I think you need help.”
I’ve never had the urge to hurt myself, but I remember genuinely wishing I didn’t have to be alive that day. If I were dead, I told myself, then at least I wouldn’t have to live with these thoughts anymore. Later that night, I had another episode, and I cried until I was numb. With nothing to lose and at my sister’s urging, I decided I’d try talking to someone. The following day, I dialed the number of the first therapist I found listed on my insurance’s website.
“What is the reason for your appointment?” The woman who picked up had sounded so clinical over the phone.
“I’m depressed,” I responded, choking up. It was the first time I’d called my affliction by its name.
It’s true when they say pains that don’t get discussed aren’t perceived as important or even real to the rest of the world.
In the days prior to my appointment, I was so ready to acknowledge that I was unwell, feeling lighter for the first time in months, counting down the days until I’d finally have help. But when faced with a clipboard and forms that reduced my suffering to a checklist of symptoms — I feel sad or depressed. I have felt very depressed daily for at least 2 weeks. I have had similar episodes during my lifetime. I feel hopeless and helpless. I have been thinking about suicide — suddenly, I wasn’t so confident.
Was I suicidal? I mean, the world is heavy, and sometimes I really don’t want to be here, but does that make me suicidal? And if not, was I even really depressed? Maybe I wasn’t ready to talk about my problems. There was no one but me in the waiting room that Saturday morning, which only exacerbated my anxiety. What if this is a waste of time? What if she tells me nothing is wrong with me and I’m just a brat going through trivial millennial problems? What if I’m unable to convince her that I need help? By the time my therapist finally called me into her office, I was on the verge of tears.
“I might cry,” I said in a small voice as I took my seat in front of the stranger across from me in that cramped, unadorned space. My eyes welled up before I could finish that sentence. “Sorry,” I mumbled, hastily wiping away my tears. I am always apologizing for no reason.
“That’s OK,” she said, handing me a box of tissues. Her tone was warm, somewhat authoritative, and encouraging as she assured me that being in therapy didn’t make me “abnormal” or “weak.” It felt strange being comforted by someone I had just met minutes ago. After some more convincing — and after I agreed not to use the word “abnormal” to describe myself — I told her how I’d been feeling for the past few months.
I told her that at 23, it felt like I had hit rock bottom. I was going to work and crying silently at my desk every day, anxious over whether I’d still have a job at the end of the year but too drained to write anything. I had to summon all of my strength to get out of bed in the morning and last through an entire day of being around people. I’d just cut out a dude who’d been interested in me solely for sex, but I ended it believing I was unworthy of love. Nothing anyone said comforted me; I resented my friends for being able to laugh while I was hurting so badly. The only time I felt better was during sleep, my only break from the negativity and paranoia.
To a certain degree, sadness has always been a part of me. But I’d spent so many years of my life feeling sad, not knowing there were others out there who experienced these emotions as intensely as I did; and since mental illness was never discussed in my household or in my circle of friends, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that life didn’t have to be this way.
Growing up with Asian parents who stressed academic achievement and financial stability over anything else, I was taught to strive for success, not happiness. I spent most of my adolescence fighting with my mom, who put me in piano and violin lessons, years of Chinese school, and even a very brief stint on the swim team — things I wanted nothing to do with — all so I could become the refined and accomplished daughter she’d always wanted. But for how well my loving mother fed me, clothed me, and nurtured me academically, I was starving emotionally. There was simply no room for feelings in our family.
My parents moved to this country, endured a dysfunctional marriage that was doomed from the start, and worked backbreaking hours at a Chinese restaurant so my siblings and I could afford college and ultimately go on to lead better lives. Even my mother, the more affectionate and more present authority figure in my life, avoided talking about emotions.
“I immigrated to an entirely new country not knowing a word of English or anyone besides the cruel family I married into, and you want to talk to me about feeling sad, about feeling lonely?” I imagined her yelling at me as she wiped down our kitchen counters and hardwood floors like she did every night after a long day at work — her way of combatting anxiety, I’m sure.
We never talked about how we felt in my household, but I saw them. My grandpa, who lost his job and status after the Cultural Revolution, and my mom, who lost her independence after she married. I saw how empty they looked, despite the promise in their voices when they told me how great my life was going to be and how good I already had it. Having spent much of my life wading into and out of these depressive spells, I’d just assumed that the unhappiness I felt inside was normal. Even my family’s native language led me to think this way: xin ku, which means “to work hard,” a phrase I heard a lot as a kid, contains the Chinese character for pain and suffering: ku.
I coasted through my adolescence and college years this way, my turbulent moods becoming harder and harder to manage as I got older. After I’d graduated college and landed my first full-time salary job, I didn’t know where to go from there. “Why do I still feel so empty, and how do I fill the void?” I often asked myself, not realizing I was experiencing something bigger and uglier than “moodiness.”
Depression is so subtle that if you’re not paying attention, you don’t notice it’s there. It’s an evil that creeps quietly and constantly in waves, washing over you again and again, and you do what you can do stay afloat, until it eventually builds into a tsunami. It feels like falling apart from the inside out, like watching everything you worked hard for collapse, even if in reality nothing at all has changed. It’s like being in a stuffy room when all the walls suddenly start caving in on you. Sometimes you fight back, but most days you just sit there in quiet resignation, trying your best to breathe. And because the illness is a part of you, engrained so deeply in your being, you start to believe that this is just how everyone must feel.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me how talking to a stranger twice a month would help me cope with a condition that has plagued me for most of my adult life, but I continued going to these sessions, wholeheartedly pouring myself into our conversations, despite my mother’s initial apprehension. “What do you need to see a therapist for? Do you tell her everything? Do you tell her about me?” she asked, as if my condition was somehow a result of a misstep on her part. She’s always been concerned about how others saw her.
Although many people are hesitant to open up in therapy, I’d been so desperate for emotional support my whole life that I was relieved to finally have someone who didn’t shame me for my pain, whose sole job was to listen to me. So I did tell my therapist everything. Talking about my feelings helped me find the real root of my unhappiness, it helped me see that my thoughts actually weren’t irrational, and it helped me discover ways I could actively work on the things in my life I was dissatisfied with.
Initially, I decided to give therapy a try because I wanted to be “diagnosed,” confirmation that I was indeed depressed. But more than anything, I wanted an instant cure, something to alleviate the pain or rid me entirely of depression, an illness I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. But emotional healing, I’ve learned, isn’t that simple. Yes, talking about it and acknowledging its presence can lessen the power it has over you, but after that comes the hard work of introspecting and confronting the dark thoughts.
A few months ago, I was going through a particularly nasty bout of depression that felt utterly paralyzing at the time. I couldn’t muster up the energy to feed myself, let alone drag myself to the gym or practice any of the self-care tactics I’d picked up. It would be days until my next appointment, and since my sister wasn’t answering her phone, I called my cousin, the next best person. “It feels like I’m going to be sad forever,” I told her, bawling uncontrollably on my bedroom floor. “It feels like I’m never going to beat it.”
The human mind is a beautiful thing, but sometimes mine feels less pretty and more like a device that’s been custom-designed to replay memories of all the times I’ve ever felt inadequate. It takes everything in me to yell back at the voices that taunt me and tell me I will never stop feeling this way. But after a while, the aching subsides.
It always does.
I didn’t realize it then, but depression sadly isn’t something you can “beat.” It’s a condition you learn to live with by loving yourself a little bit more, in any way you can, in spite of how easy it is to revert to self-loathing. For me, that meant no longer sabotaging myself whenever I did find reasons to be happy and when I finally grew comfortable with my mental health.
As with all lifestyle changes, my more hopeful outlook on life and these epiphanies did not come overnight. Not long after I began seeing a therapist, I met a guy.
It didn’t work out, nor did our relationship last very long, but there is one memory I shared with him that has been seared into my brain. On a visit to LACMA a month after we started dating, the two of us took a minute outside the museum to thank the universe for putting us in each other’s lives, our bodies locked in a warm embrace. It was a simple gesture, but I still remember exactly how I felt in that moment: completely infatuated with and in awe of this new person in my life, someone who seemed to appreciate the part of me I so hated. For the first time in a long time, I felt understood, accepted, comforted, safe. Like I’d never felt sadness before. Like nothing could ever hurt me again. Like I no longer need therapy.
Of course, that was not the case. I’ve plummeted again and again, dutifully returning to my therapist each time. But knowing it was possible for me to feel that carefree and cheerful gave me hope that I wouldn’t be debilitated by depression forever, and I’ve felt that optimism after the relationship ended too. I felt it watching a friend get married last summer. I felt it during a recent trip home to visit my family. I feel it now in my day-to-day life.
It’s been over a year since I began seeing a therapist, and I’m different from the person I was back then. I’m kinder to myself — something I picked up from all the people in my life who’ve shown me compassion and even from those who don’t understand or don’t want to understand my condition. I’m more patient with myself, having learned the importance of making time and space for my emotions through the many hours spent with my therapist. I see now that even though my depression will always be a part of me, it no longer debilitates me. And most of all, I no longer hate myself for hurting.
This essay was originally published on Sukeban.