“Am I secretly depressed?”
This was a question I asked my primary care provider over five years ago. The question came about after she asked me if I was depressed, and I told her no. Why did she ask? Because one of the meds in my history was for depression. When I explained that no, it was for headaches, she just nodded. Then, when I asked if that meant I was secretly depressed, she said no; the medication was contraindicated for headaches.
Fast-forward to a few months ago when I had the same thought. There were a number of factors this time. First, when my therapist asked me why I tried so hard to avoid being sad, my answer was that there was a big black hole behind the sadness that I would not be able to escape. Then, I remembered my experience with Topomax and how my headaches went away but I developed symptoms of depression. Then, I remembered that previous doctor’s question and how when I took an anti-depressant that I didn’t know was an anti-depressant, my headaches went away. (Do not ask me why I stopped taking that medication. Actually, we all know why: I started feeling better and thought I didn’t need it anymore. I know better now.) On top of that, my friend told me a long time ago that her husband had many of the same food challenges I did, and a low dose of Lexapro helped and he could eat normally after that.
So I asked the question again: Am I secretly depressed?
My therapist referred me out to a psychiatrist and the answer was yes–except it was only a secret to me, I guess.
In August, I officially got diagnosed with major depressive disorder (aka clinical depression). I was not happy about that, and not because of my diagnosis, but because, well, I’ll just copy and paste the last bullet point from that NIMH link:
Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
When I tell you I was FURIOUS when I read that. Not only have I been dealing with chronic daily headaches and IBS for years–YEARS–no one mentioned that depression could be the root cause. The closest I got was a therapist who told me, when I said I was doing better after leaving my PhD program, that I obviously wasn’t because I was still having headaches. Oh, and my last primary care physician who wrote me a referral for therapy because “It seems like you have a lot of stress. Talking to someone might help.” And, granted, my current therapist (and the one before that) has been working with me on identifying my feelings and trying to help me identify triggers for my stomach issues/migraines. HOWEVER, no one said to me, “Wow, you’re ticking a lot of boxes on this list, and I know you are especially concerned with that last one because it has completely wrecked your quality of life ON LEVELS. It’s entirely possible you are depressed.”
When I brought this up to my therapist, she said that she’s treating me for anxiety, and that’s really my issue because, according to her, the anxiety is causing the depression. So that probably explains why anti-depressants by themselves didn’t make me feel better, but once the anti-anxiety meds were added, I felt a marked difference.
(Also, yes, I am now medicated.)
Anyway, I didn’t post about any of this here because, apparently, blogging was one of those hobbies and activities I lost interest in. But you know what I made plenty of time for? Endlessly scrolling. Sigh.
What was interesting about this bout of depression is that, unlike last time, I didn’t have a dramatic shift in my behavior or mood. In fact, I did what I always do, which is function at a high level. I did everything that was asked of me. I showed up where I was supposed to, when I was supposed to. The one thing that, to me, was off was that I didn’t feel great AND I couldn’t remember what I had done in the past to make myself feel better. (And part of that anxiety–the need to fix it–also added to the depression. Of course. It’s an ouroboros of brain chemistry fail.) Also, unlike last time, I didn’t share what was going on with me once I got diagnosed because i didn’t feel like talking about it. (I did post about my diagnosis in my Instagram stories because I knew the post would disappear and most people would probably miss it.)
Someone on Twitter posted that for Black women, depression often feels like failure. And that’s how I felt, but mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to make myself feel better. Not only was none of the everything I had done before and was currently trying again not working, but I also couldn’t make sense of a lot of things. I didn’t understand why I could only read in fits and starts or why I wasn’t (am not) watching TV that makes me happy or why I wasn’t updating my blog or why I kept gaining weight or why I couldn’t (can’t) get to bed on time or why I would (do) just stare at the wall instead of going to sleep or a bunch of other things. (Talk about death by a thousand paper cuts.) Once I got my diagnosis, however, I was able to say to myself “That’s why it’s called a mental illness. It’s because your brain doesn’t feel good.”
So, how am I doing now? I feel better, which is to say things don’t feel so flat. Most things feel like less of a chore, and I know what’s going on with me, which makes it easier for me to move through the world. The number of migraines and flare-ups I experience have decreased. The psychiatrist told me to just eat whatever I wanted since I’m home all the time, and I’ve found that I can tolerate a lot of foods I was unable to before. And I do have hope that I will continue to get better when before I thought I was going to be miserable (especially physically) possibly forever.