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Dear Doctors: No, I’m Not Depressed Because of My 'Relationship Status'

The first time I needed to go to the hospital for mental health reasons, I was in my early 20s and I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. I had nearly no familiarity with talking openly to anyone about my inner workings, let alone to strangers.

Eventually, you, the doctor, commenced with asking me what was wrong. I didn’t know how to respond. I froze while searching for my words.

And that’s when you said “it.”

“Did your boyfriend break up with you?”

I stared back bewildered, and eventually replied:

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”

You: “Oh, is that why you’re sad?”

Me, in disbelief: “… No.”

If this was the only interaction I had like this that day, I probably could have lived with it, but it didn’t stop with you. You see, your various colleagues asked me those exact same questions again, and again. I didn’t understand why, and it had the effect of saddening me further. And while I did get the overall help I needed that day, it was a generally bad experience.

A few months later, I was having another difficult moment. I had never called a crisis hotline before, but I felt I needed to talk to someone. Again, this was a new experience for me and it was hard to find my courage.

In this instance, an answering service first took the call to get my details and then transferred me on. When you asked why I’d called, I hesitated, and the exact same sentence came out of your mouth.

“Did your boyfriend break up with you?”

I got angry. I said something about being depressed and needing someone to talk to.

I eventually got patched through to the appropriate person, and guess what you also said when I struggled to speak? By now, we are all familiar with it, so let’s sing it together:

“Did your boyfriend break up with you?”

I remember I started crying heavily and you figured you’d already cracked the case. You had not. They were white-hot tears born out of frustration and feeling invalidated.

This picture played out numerous times over my 20s. It didn’t seem to matter what type of helping professional I interacted with — a nurse, doctor, therapist, or similar support — you kept on asking me if my sadness was due to my relationship status.

I had (and have) major depressive disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and anxiety — not that I knew it back then. For your information, dating has never been of great interest to me, which you would have known if you tried to have a conversation rather than making assumptions. Surely you could have been just a little more patient as I tried to find my words. Also, why would you assume who it is I date, let alone that my dating life has anything to do with why I’m in front of you? Have you not taken training on how to interact with people who are clearly frightened, perhaps with white coat syndrome or worse? You should have done better.

When I moved into my 30s, for some reason, you all finally stopped making this assumption.  I’m guessing there are multiple explanations. It could be that in the late 2000s you got some better training or knowledge around the cause of mental illness, as well as new instructions on the type of questions to ask. It’s also true that over my 20s, I worked very hard at gaining my voice, and I no longer leave much space open for guessing anymore (though I do still freeze on occasion). Insidiously, it could be you expect people in their 20s to be distraught over relationship issues, and then don’t immediately consider it as we get older. Maybe you all went to the same bad conference or had the wrong professor.

When you asked me this question over and over again, it hurt me, and I want you to know that. I also want you to know it felt like you did not take my distress seriously. It seemed to me you were reducing my pain and struggle down to my age and gender. You were not asking me the right questions, and above all, you showed me a lack of patience and empathy. Y ‘all asked it so much, I began to wonder what was going on in your relationships.

It took a long time before I was able to really trust a professional, and while there are numerous reasons for that, this assumption you kept making certainly influenced the timeframe. You could have made my first mental health interactions so much better, but you did not — and this unfortunately added to my pain.

I’ve been asked the right questions since, and I most certainly prefer how that feels. It isn’t even that complicated. When they are relevant, these questions can sound like:

“Who is part of your support system?”

“How are your relationships going?”

“Can you tell me what’s been going on with you lately?”

“What would you like me to know about you?”

“Have you felt this way before?”

I could carry on for quite some time with all sorts of great sentences you could have tried back then, but since we can’t turn back time, I’ll just sign off here with hopes you have gotten better in this regard.

Sincerely,

Not depressed because of my “relationship status.”

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

Unsplash image by Lucas Quintana