In the years leading up to my official diagnosis, I’d been on a journey to find out what was wrong with me. Going under the assumption that anyone with expensively framed degrees made them qualified to evaluate, diagnose, and treat whatever was causing my consistent dark thoughts, extreme anxiety and suicidal thoughts, was, to put it mildly, a big mistake. From what I now know, I have a classic textbook case of dysthymia, Major Depression and General Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
It seems pretty straightforward and I would guess simple to diagnosis, considering it’s not a rare form of mental illness. If only there were online tests for depression when I was struggling to get answers, I probably could have saved a lot of time and a ton of money, going from doctor to doctor without any formidable solution for my emotional pain. The mental health providers and doctors I went to never even mentioned the word depression during our appointments.
Stress over exams, or expecting something bad to happen to me, supposedly explained my anxiety, even though nervousness and chronic anxiety are not the same things. From my late teens through early 20’s, therapy meant talking to a “highly esteemed” professional about my crying outbursts, insomnia, warped body image, lack of confidence and self-worth. I always left with the sense that I’d wasted time. Putting blame on myself for not even getting therapy right, I’d walk out of each session frustrated and feeling worse – validating my belief I was worthless.
After a decade of my symptoms worsening, I finally found a psychiatrist who realized that I had an illness that required professional treatment. By then, I was so worn out and plagued with dreadful images of death.
I can only chalk up how I managed to earn my BA degree, have a successful career, good friends, and a social life to the months of relief when my symptoms were not as severe, and an innate survival instinct. The new psychiatrist spent hours gathering info on my past, and she was the first to prescribe medication for my Major Depression and GAD. I was relieved, but terrified of taking drugs. I didn’t know how I would react to these green and white capsules. Would they really help? What did needing medication say about me? I felt like a failure. The stigma and shame of having a psychological problem I couldn’t cure on my own—without pills or talk therapy—was fierce. I kept the news of my medicinal tryouts to one close friend, and a few family members.
When the anxiety medication began to work right away, it left me baffled. I was doing all of the things I did before, but without the dizziness and panic that encumbered my daily life for as long as I could remember. The anti-depressants took three weeks to work. I woke up one morning without the ball and chain around my neck. For the first time in two decades, life was starting to look promising. Over the following 12 months, I had to tweak the dosages, under my doctor’s supervision, until we found the perfect recipe. That was the same year I received a handwritten birthday card from my pharmacist.
Sadly, I’ve heard similar stories from people who also weren’t properly diagnosed and thereby not treated for large chunks of their lives. I used to dwell on all of years I spent in virtual hell and chastise myself for not pushing harder to find help sooner, until I realized that the illness was still in control if I kept on playing useless mind games.
Instead of getting angry about losing time, I’ve mentally separated my life into two eras – BD and AD – Before Diagnosis and After Diagnosis. For anyone who has had a heart attack, stroke, or cancer, there’s a good chance that these life-changing illnesses have divided their lives into pre and post, too.
There’s not a thing I can do to change what happened before my diagnosis. Whenever I’m having a bad day, my mind automatically goes to if-onlys – if only I had been diagnosed sooner. I’ve learned to stop. I refuse to allow my diagnosis to define who I am. I’m a worthwhile human being who happens to have a mental illness.
Adrienne Gurman has over 20 years of experience in advertising, marketing and magazine publishing. She is currently the Vice President of 1212-Studio, a product design company in NYC. A native New Yorker, Adrienne lives with her husband and their vivacious chocolate lab, Anya. Adrienne began volunteering for Bring Change 2 Mind not long after the organization was founded, and has since been a leading advocate for fighting the stigma that surrounds mental illness. She has lived with Major Depression since the age of 12. Adrienne writes a weekly blog for esperanza magazine and continues to be a growing voice in the anti-stigma community.