How a Mental Health Diagnosis Can Set You Free

Why being diagnosed with depression in my 20s was such sweet relief

Photo: Aki Tolentino

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was in my 20s. What I called it at the time was a mental breakdown. It was sparked by an on again/off again relationship with a lawyer turned carpenter from Lynn, Mass., who could offer me little more than sex and occasional friendship as he navigated through a painful divorce. I’m not sure why it happened when it did, but I’m grateful that it happened, despite the pain.

One morning after one of our late nights out drinking and then having sex back at my place, I received an email from my lawyer-carpenter. I don’t remember exactly what he said in his email, but I think it said something about not wanting an emotional relationship with me. Whatever he said left me feeling very alone and unwanted. The feelings were intense and it felt like a horrible wound was opening, an old wound that had been dug open and healed over and over again that finally refused to heal.

I spiraled emotionally and things went downhill in the next few days. I couldn’t stop crying and lost the ability to speak, had trouble getting out of bed and was afraid to leave my house. It felt like there was a veil separating me and the rest of the world. I felt separate and alone, like a foreigner in a world that didn’t want me. The emotional pain was like nothing I’d felt before. I wanted the bottomless emptiness to go away.

With help from a good friend, I found a therapist named Marcia and spent many sessions in the coming months crying and feeling awful in her office, trying to figure out why I felt so much pain. Eventually, we unwound some truths about my childhood and my relationships that helped me understand my emotions and made me realize I’d been depressed my whole life. At the same time, I began taking daily anti-depressants.

Photo: Tertia Van Rensburg

I continued working at my job during this time, though in retrospect I wonder how. It’s hard to interact with the world when you feel like the space you occupy is in a different dimension. I struggled to eat on a regular basis and stayed up late at night crying or breaking everything in my house or driving around Portland. I took showers and my medication and tried to pass for human.

The rest of the world barely noticed the change in my mental state or demeanor, though it was profound for me. A coworker at my job at one point during this period told me I looked skinny and awesome and asked me what my secret was. I looked at her blankly and told her it was staying up all night crying and breaking things. She laughed, thinking I was joking, and told me that whatever it was, I should keep it up.

After several months of therapy and medication, the depression and struggling to stay in the world of the living eased. I remember talking to Marcia in therapy one day, saying, “So this is what everyone else feels like everyday.” Feeling the burden of my depression lessen made me overjoyed and free, but also angry about my years lost and feeling alone.

Talking about my emotions and my inner world was a turning point for me. I grew up in New England, where reticence and silence in the face of upset are considered the norm. In my very first meeting with Marcia, I told her I thought I was depressed, which was a big step for me. She said, “Yes, I think you are, too.” What surprised me most that day was the pure relief I felt when she said those words, when she told me that she was diagnosing me with major depressive disorder and would help me get better.

As we continued through treatment, that relief grew incrementally. For all those years previous, I’d felt and was perhaps told in different ways that much of what I’d struggled with in life–not relating to other people, an unnamed sadness, not understanding social cues, feeling isolated and not on the ‘in’–were my fault. It was a character flaw, a deficiency.

With a depression diagnosis, things made more sense. There was a reason I had felt so bad for so long. It was called depression. It wasn’t my fault and it was treatable. I did feel some sadness that it took so many years to put a name to what I had, to what was my normal, but what wasn’t everyone else’s normal. But for the most part, being diagnosed with depression saved my life, as odd as it may sound.

My diagnosis led to long term treatment with medication and therapy. Marcia and later my Boston therapist Mitch helped me name my feelings and articulate what had been inside me for years. They taught me the language of feelings, which I’d longed for but somehow never knew existed, and gave me the space to talk about my inner world without judgment.

Because of that, I am grateful for my diagnosis of depression. The diagnosis and my subsequent treatment allowed me to see that I had/have an illness with specific symptoms and characteristics and that I’m not just an inherently bad person.

I’ve been blessed to work with two amazing therapists over the years who are kind, sensitive and genuine. They coaxed me out from the shadow of self doubt and helped me say hello to a world I never even knew existed. I can’t say every day is easy, but now I know I can deal with it. Learning the language of feelings means I know how to talk about my inner world now. Even on my darkest days, those words give me relief and sometimes even let me show compassion for myself.