I’m Being Listened To: A New Page in a Story of Anxiety and Depression
by Bryan Long
I find myself in a doctor’s office. It’s quiet. The room is the size of a closet; a tissue-paper covered seat is dead center; a counter is off to the side. The fluorescent light stares down at me; its harsh glow is only slightly less irritating than its accompanying buzz. The wait feels eternal. I’m a window fogging up from too much humidity. My leg bounces irritably, a stark contrast to the feeling of paralyzing anxiety to which the rest of my body had long ago succumbed.
I came to this new doctor with one goal in mind: to talk about my depression. For far too long, I’d felt sorry for myself and suffered alone. Of course, by alone I mean with a full support system ready, willing, and able to help. All I needed to do was ask.
I am an only child in a lower-middle class family. I’ve always been described as wise beyond my years. Well behaved and bookish, preferring to chat with the teacher as opposed to kids my age. This type of behavior leads to a lot of labels (and expectations) to be latched onto you. Every book and movie will tell you that the gifted child only has two possible outcomes. Option one, they graduate college before they’re old enough to drive and manage to change the world in unimaginable ways. Option two, their peers catch up to them intellectually and they graduate high school as “average.” When you grow up outside the social norms and treated like an adult, you miss out on socializing with kids your age, and you end up thinking you’re such a failure when you end up becoming option two.
My parents are everything they’re supposed to be. Loving and supportive to a fault. They somehow managed to have a child at 21 years old, break up three years later, and still maintain a healthy and positive parenting team for their beloved son—which is probably how I grew up so well adjusted. From the outside, it seems like I have absolutely everything I could ever need; a perception that often lead to my biggest struggle. How does someone who has everything ask for help? Who do you turn to when you’re the pillar of stability? I was afraid to talk to my parents about anything serious because I always wanted to remain perfect in their eyes. If they were having financial troubles or relationship issues or anything was bothering them, I always ended being their support team.
In high school, as I stopped being treated like the smartest person my age, I started being able to connect with my peers more. Something I didn’t understand at the time was everyone was already starting to get pretty well acquainted with themselves. Meanwhile, I had only just met myself. I do not blame my peers for not recognizing the issues of another teenager; after all they have their own issues to worry about. Regardless, it is these teenagers that had become a very important part of my social development, and of my mental illness.
In school, I had problems, just like everyone else. The difference was that my problems seemed insignificant compared to people who were ahead of me in their social lives. While my friends were going through the very “serious” relationships of junior year, I was trying to understand why dating was so unattainable for me. People’s parents got divorced, or got married, or moved, meanwhile I still had the “best” parents imaginable. Then you graduate. Everyone around you is leaving for college. And here I am; still not sure how to open up all the way. Still not too familiar with who I am.
Along the way to adulthood, I managed to make an appointment to actually deal with the issue. I recently got hired at a new job. With it came my own insurance, my own responsibility, and control over how I used it. The freedom was new and, like usual, my excitement was swallowed by the murky lake of fear that always sits beneath a new experience. I wasn’t going to listen, not this time. Everyone my age is going on this new path in their college aspirations. I’m taking my own new path—one of self care and strength.
Of course, actually being in that waiting room quickly erased that strength. I was so afraid to actually say the words. It had taken months to actually work up the courage to call the facility… maybe waiting a bit longer wouldn’t hurt. Just as that thought crossed my mind there was a knock on the door.
“Hey, nice to meet you, I’m the nurse practitioner,” a slender young man announces to me, shaking my hand.
“Hi,” I groan, my throat constricted and thick.
“So you’re just here for a physical, right?”
“Uh, yah, yah that’s it,” I respond. He asks a few questions about me, all of which are fairly easy to answer. Do I smoke, do I drink, do have any pains, do have history of anything he should know about. Now it’s time for my blood pressure. The black sleeve is Velcro wrapped on the upper part of my arm. He squishes the rubber bulb in his hand, causing the pad to grab onto me tighter. His stethoscope is surprisingly cold—couldn’t they at least warm the thing up?— a thought that is interrupted by a question.
“Have you ever had any issues with high blood pressure?”
“It’s a bit higher than we’d like to see,” he says, his brow furrowed.
“I think it’s just a nervous thing,” I reply.
There it is. The question set my nerves on edge. I can feel my blood boil, like I had just been caught stealing. I know the answer, hell it would be easy. Yes. Absolutely. Instantly, I want to tell him everything. Suddenly, I’m in the Confessional. Everything wants to come out.
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I’m afraid to talk to strangers, I’m nervous ordering my coffee in the morning, I’ll not leave my room for a full week because my entire body feels like it’s being weighed down. Stress, anxiety, and depression encompass my entire being.
Yet the words don’t come out. Here I am in this room with this guy with this thing on my arm and he is asking me to admit there is something wrong. Every other time I’ve been faced with this question I immediately denied any issue because what will the person think about me. I’m afraid of coming off as less than or, worse, disappointing that person.
“Yah, a little,” I somehow manage to respond.
“Sure. Well I’m going to let the doctor know you’re ready to see him.” The nurse practitioner walks over to one of the drawers, and pulled out a sheet of paper. “While you’re waiting, do you mind reading this over and answering the questions?”
“No problem,” I say, taking the paper.
The form looked like some kind of mental health homework assignment. Although it felt a bit remedial—circling a 1-10 answer for “How often are you sad?—it was somewhat easier to describe my feelings in writing versus conversation. I mean the paper isn’t going to give me any sympathetic looks. Plus, the questions did kind of make me think the issue was affecting me more than “a little.” On my little homework assignment, pretty much every 1-10 question got a 10. More than a little.
Another knock. A slightly older woman walks in, introduces herself and shakes my hand, and asks a handful of the same questions I had heard earlier from the nurse practitioner. After the basics are over, she looks over the paper I filled out, and changes the focus of her questioning.
“So, have you ever been treated for any form of depression?” She asks. Something in her voice makes me feel a bit more relaxed. I don’t detect any underlying judgment… just genuine concern and understanding. I shake my head to answer the question.
“Is it something you’re interested in?”
“Oh, yah. Yes. What would that entail?”
“There’s a few options, really. We can try a couple of antidepressants; those things tend to be a trial and error type of process—just seeing what works the best. Sometimes people respond positively to the first thing they try, sometimes it’s the fifth, you never know. There’s also counseling, I can get you a list of therapists who work with you insurance. We can do a little of both, even neither, it’s one hundred percent up to you.”
This feels too easy. I start to worry that maybe this was some kind of trick, or maybe she was just humouring me. I had just told an adult that my deepest insecurity about myself, and I’m not being carted off to be examined by professionals. I’m being… listened to.
“Alright,” I say, “if I wanted to try an antidepressant, just to start…”
“I would start you with a small dose, 20mg, I’d suggest a medication for depression and anxiety. Basically you could try that for a month, and if you feel better we can continue and if not we can always take another path.”
“Okay. Yah, that sounds okay,” I agree, despite still feeling somewhat weird about taking medication. I hated the idea of a medical professional telling me that I was that bad. Of course, I already was “that bad.” I supposed it was worth a month, and at worst I could just stop.
My expectations were to try what the doctor said, not notice a difference, give up, and then continue to live life the way I had been. Mostly because that would be the easiest thing for me to do. Avoid change all together by defaulting to what I’m used to. By my next appointment this had basically been the case, I hadn’t noticed much of change. Maybe little changes. I guess getting up in the morning for work had been becoming easier. I started actually making plans to see some friends, who even pointed out how distant I’d been previously.
It was in my follow up appointments that I was truly noticing a change. Every time the doctor would run through the series of questions I’d become used to, I was a bit more honest and willing to open up. It isn’t just my mental illness that is changing; it’s the way I view and talk about mental illness that has changed entirely. I was always afraid admitting that I had a mental illness; I believed that it was a bad thing. Now I’m happy to be open and honest about it. I could address it for what it is, with other people and with myself.
Things didn’t magically turn perfect either, something that I find even more comforting. I’d always had a misconception that, once you’re medicated for a mental health problem, that you lose something that makes you who you are—that a piece of your personality gets lost. Instead, you get to be your full self at all times, without being hindered by the emotions bringing you down. I was acquainted with myself, maybe for the first time, and was actually focusing on doing things to continually make me feel better. Once I started to leave the shadow of my overbearing anxiety, I started noticing habits that had been attributing to it all this time. I stopped over-sleeping, and started getting on a healthy schedule. I started wanting to eat the normal amount of meals in a day when before I’d either starve or binge.
The better place I’m in became obvious when I had my first depressive episode since talking to my doctor the first time. I had been doing so well for so long; it was almost like I’d forgotten what it felt like to be in a bad place. So when I had a week were I was feeling down, for the first time I immediately noticed something was off. Previously it would have been so easy to fall back into the cycle and spiral back into a depression. But the difference this time was that depressed wasn’t my “default” setting; I could recognize these emotions and acknowledge that I needed to do something to change course. Whether that’s talking to someone, whether that’s addressing what might be causing stress, the remedy itself is never the same. The more I talk about it, and the more honest I can be about my mental illness, the less I have to worry about it controlling me.