Depression as a Medical Illness

Image: The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

The following story describes, for anyone who’s never experienced it, what it’s like, and for anyone currently suffering a similar experience, the story offers hope, because this story has a happy ending. At least, it’s been happy for several years now.

The greatest fear I have ever felt, a fear on a par with the vastness of eternity, was when I feared there would be an after life.This was for me the deepest darkest fear imaginable. I was afraid of living forever because I did not like life. I had a good family, I had a few friends, I was a very good student in school, everything seemed to be going my way, but there was something wrong with my life — I was not happy. I wasn’t particularly unhappy on any given day, but there was a general mild unhappiness which I bore day after day. One day of this mild unhappiness was no problem, even a week was easy to bear. But the constant month after month, year after year of bearing it day after day began to take its toll.

I felt I was unhappy because I was alone. I wanted to have more friends, go out more often, do more fun things so I would be happy. I began to think of ways to meet more people. I tried hard to make more friends, and I was actually quite successful to some extent. But still I felt other people were happier than me because they were doing more fun things than I was doing. So I tried harder and harder to be with friends and avoid being alone. I was not happy being alone. I abhorred being alone because it meant I was failing when I should have been out with friends having fun. Soon being alone became synonymous with failure. I had to succeed, I had to try harder, if only I could find a friend to be with I wouldn’t be unhappy anymore. And it was true, when I was with a friend I was happy, but when it came time to leave I was once again alone and unhappy.

Over a span of time it seemed as if I was waiting for things to get better. I waited for tomorrow, another chance to meet friends again. I waited for next week, when perhaps something special was planned. I waited for the next school quarter, an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. I waited patiently day after day. I waited and waited, but nothing ever changed. I felt it was my fault that nothing changed. If something good was going to happen, I had to make it happen. I couldn’t just be waiting around, I had to do something. I was trying to do everything I could think of to make my life better, but somehow I still wasn’t satisfied. I became frustrated. There must be something I’m overlooking. There must be another solution I hadn’t thought of yet.

I went to a psychologist and told him my impossible to solve problem. How I had thought and thought trying to find something I had overlooked and hadn’t tried yet. The psychologist was very good. He could see through me like glass. He knew every thought I had, and he was very helpful in clearing up the confusion I felt. But still, still there was something eating away at me. I couldn’t get what I thought I needed to be happy, and the more I tried, the more frustrated and depressed I became.

Image: Depths of the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones
Depths of the Sea by Edward Burne-Jones

My predicament became more intense as the years passed on. I knew what I wanted to make me happy, but I couldn’t get it. I had already tried everything I could think of, and I had tried and tried to think of something else I hadn’t already thought of yet. I went to church, I read books, I consulted therapists, but I still remained the same. The message which haunted me became stronger and stronger. It seemed that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how long I waited, I still couldn’t get what I needed to be happy. I had been trying for as long as I could remember to make my life a happier one, but still I was not happy.

Then came the problems and pressures of school. What if I didn’t graduate? What if I didn’t make it through college? Then that happy prosperous future of mine would vanish, or so I believed, and I’d be stuck with a mediocre job I didn’t like for the rest of my life. I was already unhappy because of my inability to find friends, now I was being threatened with lifetime unhappiness because of my difficulty with college.

Then, one afternoon while I was again alone, the unhappiness I felt suddenly intensified and turned into the greatest pain one could possibly imagine. All I felt was pain. And when I say pain I cannot explain to you what I felt. It was not a pain in my body, it wasn’t in me, the pain didn’t exist anywhere, there was no way to point to this pain, nothing in the world hurt. It was a real pain, but the pain had no location. There was no way to identify this pain, and likewise there was no way to turn away from it.

Along with this excruciating pain was a thought that I had been trying to ignore, but could ignore no longer. It had become extremely obvious that there was absolutely nothing I could ever do to rid myself of the unhappiness I always felt. I was completely helpless, at the mercy of the universe. There was nothing I could do, no place I could go, no amount of time I could wait to escape this unhappy life. This was simply the way life was. This was a permanent condition, one that would last forever, one that had lasted forever, one from which there was no escape. The reality of my situation had become crystal clear. I had been unhappy as far back as I could remember, I was unhappy now, I’ll be unhappy tomorrow, I’ll probably be unhappy for the rest of my life, and Lord help me, I might not even find peace when I die. My greatest fear, a fear beyond imagination, was that when I died I wouldg o to heaven, and there I would live forever, unhappy for the rest of eternity.

No one suspected. No one knew. Friends, teachers, students, dozens of people knew me, dozens of people saw me every day, yet no one knew of the great burden I carried. And why should I tell them? There was nothing wrong. This was the way life was. These were the normal problems of life that everyone faced. Everyone felt lonely when they were alone. Everyone was worried about graduating from school. Everyone in the world had problems. Anyone in my situation would have felt the same way I felt. And since everyone struggled in their own way to stay happy, it was only in kindness to others that I did not further burden them by mentioning my own difficulties.

To a few select people I knew very closely I did occasionally mention my feelings. Most seemed to understand; a few disagreed with me. A few people told me they actually liked being alone. But ha! They were not me. They did not have my problems. They were not in my situation. And that point they seemed to understand. I actually envied those people. They had the lucky life. They were born into a situation where they always had enough people around them to keep them happy.They had all the people they could want. But I, I had to suffer the unlucky life. I had to be happy with what I could get.

It was then that my parents suggested to me a solution which at the time seemed absolutely absurd. The dumbest idea in the world. They suggested I go to a psychiatrist and get some medication to calm me down and make me feel better. I had already been going to a psychologist, and I didn’t particularly want to go see a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist, I thought, was just a psychologist who also prescribed medication. I didn’t think pills were a solution to life’s problems. I didn’t want to take pills to cover up my feelings. I knew what was causing me to be upset. It was friends. It was school. I didn’t need a doctor, I needed these problems fixed. How could a pill get me more friends? How could a pill solve my problems at school? Why should I need a pill to make me feel good? It seemed unnatural. It didn’t make sense. What would a society be like if everyone plugged themselves into a medicine cabinet to control their emotions? It was an absurd idea, but I was willing to have an open mind and give it a try, because in the back of my mind there was this small, small thought which went like this: since there were no more logical courses of action for me to try that I had not already tried many times in the past, then perhaps, just perhaps it made a strange sort of sense that the only way out of my predicament would be to try something completely illogical.

Image: The Prince Entering the Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones
The Prince Entering the Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

And so my parents, who for some reason still unknown to me have always had more wisdom than I, made an appointment and took me to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed Lithium and said the medication would take about a month to start working, if it was going to do anything at all. A month later I still had problems and I still felt the same way about them. It seemed obvious to me that this medication was doing nothing for me. So the psychiatrist added an antidepressant, Asendin, and said it would take another month for the antidepressant to start working, if it was going to work at all.

These medications were strange indeed. A medication that took a month to start working? Whatever happened to the instant relief medications I was used to? A medication should start working the moment you take it. Why should it take a month for this medication to start working anyway? Heck, if you waited long enough all my current troubles would eventually be solved one way or another and then you’d give credit to this medication, which does nothing. This seemed like a scam to me; I really did not understand it at all. I was very skeptical.

A month after starting on the antidepressant medication the current problems with school were all worked out and things seemed to be better. It was only coincidental to me that the problems had worked themselves out at about the same time I started taking the antidepressant medication. So I stopped taking the medication, stopped seeing the psychiatrist, and went back to being the way I was before.

Then one day, about a year later, I had a relapse. This time I was at Disneyland with some friends, and it was the worst day of my life. Sure there were the usual problems with my life I had to face, but I was at Disneyland, this was supposed to be the Enchanted Kingdom, a place to be happy. I was surrounded by my friends and a hundred thousand other people, yet I felt like the loneliest person on the face of the earth. The pain was back, and it was intense, and it was everywhere. Not everywhere as in the physical world, for this was not a physical pain, this pain originated in the realm of thoughts, and as thoughts are not considered part of the physical world but instead exist without location, so too this pain could not be pointed to but existed nonetheless, so that no matter where I looked, no matter where I turned, the pain was there, everywhere. I looked at the people around me, and they reminded me of the hopelessness of life. Every person in the park was trying to escape the same reality I was. They could try and divert their thoughts away from their true existence by an amusement ride or a video game, but it wouldn’t change anything. They all were still inthe same hopeless boat called life.

This obviously didn’t make sense. This obviously was not logical. This time I did not blame external events as the cause. Only I was feeling this way, nobody else. The problem was obviously in me. I was superimposing my own pain upon the park. I was reading into people’s faces my own thoughts. I obviously had a very big serious problem. I was in serious trouble. I needed help. I was in pain. It was then that I changed my mind about the medication. Suddenly, it all made sense.

I went back to the psychiatrist and got more medication. For the next two years we tried different medications, trying to find the best one for me which had the least side effects and the most therapeutic value. We tried Asendin, Norpramin, Desyrel, and then we tried Tofranil, and suddenly I knew we had found the right one. That mild feeling of unhappiness, I don’t know what happened to it, it just wasn’t there anymore.

That feeling of discontent, that worry about my future, that waiting for the future to come, that disappointment because the future never changed, that dangling fear that the future would never change, I had tried and tried for years and years to deal with those problems. They were caused by common problems of life. Finding more friends, meeting more people, being more active, having more fun, that’s what I needed. Then I found this medication, and those feelings aren’t there anymore. Suddenly I’m able to feel something which I’ve never felt before. I feel content. I feel satisfied. I’m at peace. I no longer wait for the future because I’m happy where I am now. I enjoy the friends I have, I meet new people when the opportunity arises, but I do not lament the friends I don’t have. The future will come when it does, and I will enjoy it when it gets here. I no longer think of life as difficult, now it’s challenging, exciting, interesting, fun.

Those feelings I had in the past don’t even seem to make sense now as I think back on them. What was I upset about? The solutions I sought made logical sense, but the problem itself was an emotional one. It wasn’t logical, it was just there. If I try to explain why I felt bad in the first place, there are no words I can think of to say. Back then when I felt bad it made sense because that was the way I felt. I would explain it to other people assuming they would feel the same way if they were in my place. Most people seemed to understand; a few seemed to disagree with me. I ignored the ones who disagreed with me. Obviously they weren’t me, so they couldn’t possibly feel as I felt.

Now I no longer feel bad, and if I try to explain how I felt before, I can’t. Because now when I describe the situation I was in, it no longer conjures up visions of unhappiness for me. It sounds like an ordinary situation of an average person leading a typical life. Back then it also sounded to me like an ordinary situation of an average person leading a typical life, except then for me it conjured up visions of great unhappiness, because back then for me that was normal, that was the way life was.

I used to imagine myself as living on the edge of a cliff, always in danger of being pushed too close; or as an airplane flying low and losing altitude, always headed towards the ground; or as in a rat race, always winning the race but somehow the race just keeps going. I always felt I was headed towards disaster, never actually reaching disaster but always headed towards it. I had to work to avoid the disaster, that’s how we survived, that’s how everyone survived, it was simply a part of life. One always had to work hard in life, and there was never any amount of work which was considered enough, because you always lived onthe edge of a cliff, the airplane was always pointed downwards, and the ratrace never ended even though you constantly won. But now things are different. I no longer think of cliffs or airplanes or races. I no longer think of life as a constant struggle to avoid disaster.

Unhappiness is a feeling which is difficult to pinpoint; it’s not always easy to tell if it’s really there or not. You have to think about it for a moment, go searching through your thoughts for any signs which indicate unhappiness is present. I used to frequently consider whether or not I was unhappy, but I was never really sure because I could never really find tangible evidence. When I was trying out the various medications I wondered how I would know when we had found the right one. I would constantly search for signs of unhappiness, as if I was performing a scientific survey to collect data. I figured I’d know when we had found the right medication because the data I was collecting would indicate there was no more unhappiness. I was wrong. I knew we had found the right medication because I stopped collecting data. I stopped searching for signs of unhappiness. I stopped wondering if I was unhappy or not. It was no longer an important issue. The unhappiness I always fought was no longer present. It was not missing or absent, it didn’t go anywhere, there was no void where it used to be, itwas just no longer there. What I always believed was caused by my interactions with society turned out to be a medical problem.

If one feels sick, we believe there is something wrong with his body. If one feels depressed, we believe there is something wrong with the world he lives in. These beliefs our culture has are accepted with such faith as being so obviously self evident that it is inconceivable to even question their validity. Yet one of them is wrong. Depression, like sickness or pain, is a condition of the body. It should be treated like any other illness, because that’s what mental illness is.

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