Hello! I have dysthymia.

Hello! Frankie here! It’s funny how I’ve never really directly addressed something that I’ve learned about myself last year. I suppose I was afraid, even after a formal diagnosis, that I was just making a big deal out of being “emotional”: something I’d been labelled since I was a kid. But I suppose I’d be making an even bigger deal out of it if I pretended to be “fine” when I’m obviously not, so here goes!

Last April, I went to a psychiatrist in order to confirm or else refute suspicions I’d been having about myself since late 2013. As I said before, I’d always been a rather emotional person, but back then those emotions had been easier to understand as they had obvious triggers. Starting December 2013–around the time my dad had a massive stroke–that started to change, until by February 2014–the month my paternal grandmother passed away–I was grappling with bouts of sadness, anger, and fear that felt like they would come out of nowhere.

It was around that time that my mother revealed we had a family history of depression/depressive episodes, but I suppose both of us were reluctant to make that suspicion official for the fear that naming it gives it power. I have always felt that people consider me a “drama queen,” and feared this would just look like another bid for attention. Still, something really did feel seriously wrong, and while I got somewhat used to living with it (I became very good at putting up fronts for long stretches), it got to a point where I couldn’t pretend I was okay anymore. I wanted to know if I actually had something or if, indeed, I was simply an emotional drama queen seeking attention.

Last April, I took a day off work and visited a psychiatrist referred to me over the holidays by a relative whose own child was grappling with mental illness (anxiety, in their case). I won’t reveal the name of the doctor–for reasons that I’ll make clear in a bit–but I will say that they came highly recommended as supposedly they had experience with individuals coming from traumatically broken families, something that my relatives speculated was contributing to my psychological health. While I don’t believe I am “damaged” by my family history (or well, no more than usual; didn’t an author say somewhere that all families mess up their members somehow?), it seemed wise to visit someone who might be able to understand my situation better and chalk things up to unresolved issues versus actual mental illness.

I was very nervous walking in to the appointment, more so because the receptionist had asked me point blank if I was bipolar (apparently there was a “look”? But then again, the receptionist didn’t exactly have psychiatric training.). Half of me feared a diagnosis, while the other half feared that I didn’t actually have one and, again, was simply a weak and wimpy drama queen with no emotional maturity. My nervousness was apparently obvious to the doctor, because when he finally saw me he asked if why I seemed so scared.

The interview/consult itself didn’t go the way I expected. Really, I’m not sure what I was expecting: more…tests? Instead, we had a freeform chat where he asked me why I wanted to consult, what I had been experiencing, what I think triggered it, etcetera. He told me he found I often used “intellectualizing” as a way of deflecting emotions, which was odd because I definitely saw myself as more of a feeling than a thinking person, but when he mentioned that I probably had walked in with a suspected diagnosis because I’d already pre-researched my symptoms…I figured he might be on to something.

What I thought I had was something called “adjustment disorder,” which is described by Psychology Today as:

…an abnormal and excessive reaction to an identifiable life stressor. The reaction is more severe than would normally be expected and can result in significant impairment in social, occupational, or academic functioning. Symptoms must arise within three months of the onset of the stressor and last no longer than six months after the stressor has ended. The response may be linked to a single event (a flood or fire, marriage, divorce, starting school, a new job) or multiple events (marital problems or severe business difficulties). Stressors may be recurrent events (a child witnessing parents constantly fighting, chemotherapy, financial difficulties) or continuous (living in a crime-ridden neighborhood).

Adjustment disorder often occurs with one or more of the following: depressed mood, anxiety, disturbance of conduct (in which the patient violates rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules), and maladaptive reactions (i.e. problems related to work or school, physical complaints, social isolation).

I guess the words “abnormal or excessive” appealed to me because they felt suitably intolerant of my turbulence, which I disliked because I didn’t understand it (if you can’t tell from this blog, I like reasons and understanding things). Still, my self-diagnosis was bunk since it’d been more that six months since my identified triggers (dad’s stroke, grandmother dying) and I was still unstable.

In the end, after what felt like a relatively short talk (turned out we’d been chatting for an hour and a half), the doctor laid out his diagnosis: dysthymia, which he was kind enough to spell out for me knowing that I would try to Google it later. He also described my constant lack of will to do anything as asthenia, and recommended supplements for it (which, looking back, I probably should start taking again?). He explained my body possibly had a hard time converting serotonin, so said that my self-medicating with 5-HTP (something an officemate had recommended; it’s a mood stablilizing, organic food supplement) was a step in the right direction, but that he feared I might become more “unstable” in the future, and suggested I look into…well this is the reason I didn’t go back to him.

He suggested I go on lithium.

I’ve since sought a second opinion on the meds and everyone agrees lithium is pretty much overkill, but other than that the diagnosis seems pretty sound, especially considering people’s descriptions of me as “having a permanent cloud” (despite also being probably one of the wacky drunk-est sober people ever). It was a relief to know that this was actually something, and while I can’t as yet afford regular therapy (hence me trying to angle for a schedule at at UST), so far I’ve been able to manage it with a support group, plus occasional consultations. It helps to know that my perennial sadness is basically a “brain allergy” versus a character flaw (which was how I treated it), and knowing that my body’s just wonky somewhere has helped shut up my self-condemnation a bit.

I’m probably going to go for another check-up since I’m at UST now and I think they’d be less inclined to throwing heavy metals at me, but for now…hi. I’m Frankie, and I’m one of a huge number of people with some form of mental illness. And all things considered, I live a pretty normal life!

I hope this helps encourage you, if you feel you might be struggling with undiagnosed mental illness or just an emotional problem you feel you need to address, to seek counseling or diagnosis from a medical professional. Let me be the first to tell you that you are not being a drama king/queen, and that getting checked out is a perfectly valid act. I treat this a bit like having a chronic allergy: it’s just your body needing a little help running.

Anyway, that’s all for now! I hope I can update more often, but I promise that, at the very least, I’ll be posting a blog on how I coped with my most recent–and quite intense–depressive bout, which happened in Q4 of last year. Hint: it involves KPop.

Until then, I still am:



Today was a bad day. It was fine.

Today was a bad day. It was fine.

It didn’t start that way. I felt okay this morning, or well, maybe not totally okay. Maybe a little under-the-weather mood wise, like the threat of a fever before a fever: small enough to be brushed off. I’m fine. A little cranky, a little sleepy, but fine.

Dysthymia–the name they call my “baby depression”–is a little like if depression were a flu: when you least expect it (when you have no real reason to expect it, actually), it just…shows up. That fact used to bother me so much, to the point that I spent days picking myself apart in frustration: why couldn’t I just be happy? Why couldn’t I just do the work? Why couldn’t I function the way I was supposed to? 

Nowadays, these sudden bouts of sadness just annoy me, this reminder that I am feeble and human. But while I am young and still idiotic the way young people are (let’s be honest; at this age we’re stupid, but only because we have to be. Because this is the season for learning and honestly we learn best when we make our best mistakes.), I’m old enough to know that being feeble and human won’t change. This is yet another in-between, a sort of emotional second puberty, where I transition from boldly proclaiming invincibility towards acceptance of my inadequacies.

It’s not wrong to not always be enough.

Today was a bad day. But it wasn’t a dark one. I don’t like the weight of that word, darkness, as if clouds don’t lift. Like a cold, this heaviness comes and goes, staying for hours or days or weeks or months but eventually–even if only briefly–leaving. There are times you wake up with the flu. There are times I wake up in the morning and find am wary and defensive, consumed by a need to protect myself from some unnameable thing that will inevitably go wrong.

This is not a “place.” These are simply symptoms. I do not need fixing. I am not broken. My brain is simply telling me it has a flu.

There is no cure for the common cold: it just passes. I drink water. I listen to music. I message a friend–one I know won’t romanticize this, won’t let comfort turn maudlin–and we sigh, accept that sometimes people wake up with bad stomachs and worse colds.

I tell him I don’t want to be kind to myself–I would rather nuke this sadness into submission and why haven’t they made a Berrocca for depressive episodes yet!? He tells me, matter of fact, that I’ll need to accept that I have to be kind to myself, someday. Even if that day is not today.

These things do not necessarily make me feel better, but they make it easier to accept that I do not feel better. That this is what today will look like, for now, and that’s fine.

Sometimes I need the bad days, the way they bring out the worst in me, because I’ve gotten so used to pretending I don’t have issues that I risk letting it get to my head. When I’m having a bad day, the pride and prickliness come to fore, and I am reminded that there are still things wrong with me. That people do have to be patient with me. Eating humble pie doesn’t feel good, but then again I already feel bad, so it’s not like things have changed. Maybe this is what it means, accepting your human frailty: admitting that you’ll still have things to work on, and maybe you’ll never be done working on them.

I can’t work. Today wasn’t as productive as I wanted it to be. The heaviness I feel has me dreading tomorrow, dreading the week after, dreading the endless procession of days the way you do when you face the prospect of having to get up and go even if you don’t feel like it. But that’s life, really: not feeling like going and doing the thing but going and doing the thing anyway because you know you have to. Because it matters. Because knowing it matters means, in a sense, that you want to, and isn’t it nice to know that, in some small way, you aren’t completely a slave to how you feel?

Eventually, I will learn to be really kind to myself. Today is not that day. Today was a bad day.

But it was a start.


DISCLAIMER: This blog reflects my personal experience and is in no way an authoritative account on dealing with mental illness, depression, dysthymia, etc. 


I’m not depressed (but depression is real).

Let me make this clear, before I begin: I don’t think I suffer depression.  At least, not the serious, clinical variety.  But, while I fully believe the above statement is true, I must admit there are times I have fits of uncontrollable sadness where the reason for the emotion escapes me.  It happened a lot after my grandmother died.  It still happens, from time to time, now.  And I know that does not, in any way, compare to the struggles people who truly suffer depression have, but it has given me the opportunity to witness, somewhat first hand, how people respond to the situation of a happy person suddenly sinking into uncharacteristic negativity.

And, to be very blunt, that response is not pretty.

A month after my grandmother had passed, I was still upset.  I was grieving.  There were days I felt I was okay—and I was, I think—but then something inside me would shift, like an earthquake or a tremble in the leg of a tightrope walker, and I would spiral downwards, even as I tried to hold myself together.  Hindsight has given me the ability to pinpoint the catalyst (the reality of a grandmother gone and, to add to it all, a father recovering from a stroke; perhaps never to be normal again), but in that moment it felt inexplicable, unexplainable, something like madness.

I believed that I had to be okay, because it had been a month already and general advice from well-meaning (but misguided) individuals told me I should just get over it.  I’d started a new job; I wanted to rain on my office’s parade as little as possible.  I wanted to be the bright and bubbly and amusing Frankie who had signed that internship contract, because it was a Frankie I believed everyone generally liked.  But I overestimated my capacity to “fake it until I made it,” and eventually the truth started to show.  I was still studying at the time—the evening classes of my masters—so it was usually at school, out of the office environment, that I was most comfortable letting the mask fall.

The first couple of times, I was thankfully ignored—possibly due in part to an already established penchant for being the stereotypical melancholy (read: moody) artist—but as it dragged on I started getting comments like “Smile more!” or “You look better when you’re happy!”  One time, I got so pissed I told a girl that I wanted to punch her in the face because “I’m depressed, okay?!”  I’m not proud of what I did, but it had been one comment too many that day, so I’d snapped.  She responded by asking me if I’d had it confirmed by a psychiatrist, if my problem was real, because she’d known someone who had made themselves think they were depressed only to be disproved by a diagnosis.

In short, she told me it was all in my head.

I bit my lip and apologised—upset or not, threatening to punch someone in the face is never acceptable behaviour—but what struck me most about this exchange, and all the ones before it, was how unacceptable my being chronically sad was to people.  Sadness—like death—is something we’ve learned to insulate ourselves from, something we’ve learned to avoid or deny in favor of “living life,” forgetting that sadness is a part of life, as is death, as is illness.  And while I won’t claim that my “chronic” sadness (as unexplainable as it felt then) was an illness…depression is.

Depression is a disease.  Like cancer.  Like bipolar disorder.  It’s unique in that it doesn’t only have a physical root—chemical imbalances considered, it takes more than a neural misfiring to trigger full-blown depression—but finds purchase in psychological trauma; a mind-virus taking advantage of existing physical vulnerability.  This combination of physiological, psychological, and one could even say spiritual factors make it unique, and uniquely debilitating, able to trickle into a life until it takes it over.  

To make things worse, depression exists in varying degrees of severity, meaning that it can easily be confused with the more “terrestrial” type of something-bad-happened-I’m-depressed depression, which is probably part and parcel for why most people react to it the way they do.  Add to this the rise of the “emo” movement–where it became cool to be disenfranchised and sad–and you have a recipe for major confusion here.

Still, there are general signs.  I’m not a psychologist, and I won’t pretend to be, but from what I’ve been told depression’s number-one symptom is a chronic, or recurring, unexplainable sadness.  Every variant–from seasonal, to post-partum, to severe–bears this mark.  So if someone has been telling you they’ve felt low/heavy-hearted/down for a while now, and they can’t figure out a reason, then there may be cause to suspect something’s wrong.  Usually, it comes after some kind of trauma–death, physical illness, witnessing a crime–but sometimes it can just creep up, a mental virus having incubated and finally taken hold.

Like most diseases, depression has a mortality rate—a fact once again made public recently with the recent tragedy that is the death of Robin Williams.  That depression can strike the happiest of us is an “accepted” fact, at least in terms of web articles and other literature, but despite the volley of information available online it remains a condition often misunderstood, something you can just “get over.”  And that, coupled with the social pressure to “be okay” has led to many remaining silent about their struggles, many times resulting in very real, very permanent—one could say terminal—consequences.  

I nearly lost a friend to suicide, two years ago.  Thankfully, that person survived, but in the aftermath it was hard to say that we couldn’t have seen it coming.  We did, or we could have–the messages of desolation, hopelessness, exhaustion were there, written out in blogs and stories and occasional too-short, deceptively innocuous status messages.  That person wasn’t okay, but we expected them to be, chalked it up to a phase, and that led to frantic phone calls at eleven PM and a hospital stay.

Depressed people choose to commit suicide because in that moment, it just seems easier to give up.  The fight is exhausting, they feel they have no hope, that life doesn’t get better, that they can’t be okay, and nine times out of ten it’s because they decide to keep the problem to themselves, self-medicate, cope on their own because they think (and somewhat rightly so) that otherwise people are just going to end up tell them to “get over it.”  But the truth is, you can’t just “get over” this.  You fight it every day, and you can’t fight it alone.  We are not meant to deal with the frailties of our bodies and our souls alone—human beings are not meant to be alone in general—and so when we are forced deal with a struggle this deep all by ourselves, is it any wonder that some decide that not fighting anymore is the best choice?

But it does not have to be this way.  

Depression is an illness. Depression isn’t a choice. Suicide, as a solution, is, but you don’t lash out at someone who is mentally ill for their actions (because even if in the end it was their choice, their judgement was more than a little impaired).  You don’t judge people who are on the brink or headed there.  You don’t tell them to snap out of it.  Rather, you tell them to seek help before it’s too late.  You give them options.  Most of all, you listen–instead of writing it off as a phase or an act or a ploy or a mood, you listen, because there is a risk that something really is wrong.  True, the existence of “emo” and suicide-as-drama makes this a bit hard to pick out, but when our initial reaction is to think of those explanations, to think that it’s “all in someone’s head,” we may end up missing out on the moments when it’s not.   

When someone is depressed, you don’t tell them to get over it.  Ever.  Instead, you tell them there is hope to get better because there is.  You empower them to get the help to fix what’s broken, and while they’re fixing it you stand with them every step of the way, even in the moments they refuse to believe you’re there.

There’s this trend now to romanticize the idea of depression-induced suicide, to call those who kill themselves out of depression “victims of depression.”  I don’t like this term, because it takes away agency from the individuals who are fighting it and are still alive and who are coping.  It implies, for them, that the natural course of the disease is terminal.  As brutal as this sounds, you don’t die of depression.  Instead, you die of suicide, and that is a choice.  Depression is the illness.  Depression isn’t a choice.  But suicide as a solution is.  Matt Walsh, in his brutally honest blog post about the recent events, puts it so very well:

…suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.

Self-destruction is a tragedy, not just for the person concerned, but for those left behind robbed of the natural consolation that comes with death.  When the news broke out that Robin Williams died and it was an “alleged suicide,” I found myself hoping that he’d had a heart attack instead, that the cow valve had failed, that this man hadn’t chosen to end his own life, because while the circumstances of why could not be laid at his door (he was mentally ill, he was struggling, he fought and most days he won), what he did could, even if he wasn’t in his right mind when he did it.  And that is what makes it even more tragic, because it makes the last act of a good man’s amazing-inspiring-wonderful life something so very terrible that it leaves us grasping for something to hold on to in the aftermath.

What I hold on to is that there are others out there who are still fighting, fighting a very real battle that many people–even people I know and respect–refuse to see as real.  To those who are, to anyone reading this who has even toyed with the thought that “the final solution” is actually a solution, you need to hear this–we know that your struggle is real, but ending it all is not the solution to it.

Positivity is not going to help, and neither is the self-help claptrap we’re thrown (part of the problem, I have to say) about that says we “attract” this negativity and therefore just as easily can deflect it.  We can feed depression, yes–not seeking help is probably the biggest way–but it isn’t something we cosmically call to ourselves and cause to happen.  Depression is real.  It is a real disease.  And like any real disease, there are places to get real help for it.  You cannot fight it alone, and you don’t have to, because while the bulk of the battlefield is in your own mind and heart…we do not live in a vaccuum, and just as there are people who would be affected by your loss, so there are people who are willing to step in and prevent it.

Depression is real.  You are sick.  You can get better. There are no permanent “cures”–life isn’t so fuss-free and neat–but it is a way to keep going, a strength that can be built, borrowed from others, shared in the same way as the burden can, in some sense, be spread out amongst a support network.  Plug into one.  Get help.  And remember that fundamentally, even if we can’t feel it, joy exists.  Hope exists.  It is a rational, logical fact, not one founded on feelings.  Hang on to that, if you need a tether. 

In closing, lines of a poem I wrote when another celebrity, Cory Monteith, passed away a few years ago.  While the circumstances surrounding that death are different from this one, the closing message for all of us, I think, is the same:

…should I lose
This battle

In the shadow

Of a cold room

Let no one else

Lose my war.

 Joy exists.  Hope exists.  And you do not need to fight alone.