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How I Finally Came to Accept My Diagnosis of 'Smiling Depression'

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

My best friend repeated this phrase as she sat on the edge of my unmade bed with barely a sliver of light peeking out beneath the shades. My grey and black comforter was pulled up under my chin, submerging all of my extremities under the weight of the blanket, wishing I could bury my head, too. I stared straight ahead and fixed my gaze on the aromatherapy diffuser fading from blue, red, green, to yellow. Grace looked at the half-empty double bottle of white wine and Chinese food containers laying next to my bed and immediately ripped the covers off of me.

I felt exposed. Bare. Petrified. Suddenly, my green pajama suit seemed too embarrassing to be seen by anyone else. I became acutely aware of the sweat dripping down my back from lying in bed the last several hours. My mouth tasted stale and dry, lips cracked from a few too many wine glasses, and hair in a messy bun perched on top of my head. I grumbled and tried to pull my protective covers over me, but she grabbed me out of the dimly lit room with stagnant air and into my living room where the sunlight immediately blinded me. I bolted to the couch and pulled the fur blanket around me like a cloak. Before Grace could sit down next to me, she was sidetracked by the two wigs hanging on the chair from when my sister threw a wig party. Immediately, she put a pink curly haired wig on and handed me the blonde ringlet wig.

We both sat on the couch, glass of wine in hand, having a deep conversation where we poured our hearts out to one another. All while still wearing these absurd wigs, Grace assured me everything would get better and she would always be here for me. I nodded, trying to let her words resonate with me and truly believe them. I tried to forget about the past week that was spent in my room converted into a dungeon, the amount of hours I had been awake far less than the amount spent asleep. I tried to believe her when she repeated, “It’s always darkest before the dawn. It will get easier, I promise.” I wanted to feel the same faith she did so badly. I wanted it more than anything else. But instead, I looked away, took a deep breath and put the smiling mask on I was used to.

Smiling depression. That’s what they told me I had. I honestly did not believe the doctors for months, living in denial someone as energetic and vivacious as myself could be diagnosed with depression. Weren’t people with depression miserable and unhappy and always crying? At least, that’s what I thought. But slowly, I began to educate myself. I never knew depression could take many forms, and you may never know someone is battling it. You may never even know someone such as yourself could have it.

I spent months sleepwalking through life, living on autopilot. Just because my eyes were open did not mean I was awake. I had mastered turning my brain off while staring at the computer screen at work. I forced myself to sit at my desk, accomplishing one task if I was lucky, just so I could avoid any judgments or questions from co-workers. But after realizing hours had passed sitting in the same position hunched over the keyboard, I couldn’t bare to sit upright any longer, so I would pack up my things and leave, regardless of the time. I gasped for fresh air as I burst through the doors, my lungs expanding and my heart rate slowing. Every day felt as if I was spent underwater, suffocating and watching people around me breathe normally as if it wasn’t hard.

I always called an Uber, knowing walking home wasn’t even an option since my legs could barely hold me up, let alone walk 10 blocks. The moment I walked through the apartment door, I resumed position in my dungeon, letting myself breathe for the first time. I let the smooth sheets envelop me and remind me I was safe. I ignored the persistent troubling thoughts that would accompany me as I lay there visualizing suicidal scenarios that would take away my pain. The alcohol would only suppress my anxiety for a brief period of time before the pounding would begin. It would start off slow, and then as my palms became more clammy and my nails dug deeper into my skin, the “thump thump thump” drowned out the sounds of honking and sirens and the usual NYC daily life going on below me. It drowned out the voices in my head trying to calm me down and use the breathing techniques I was taught. The panic attack washed over me like a tsunami, and no matter how hard I tried to run from it, it always caught up to me and dragged me out into nothingness.

This scenario dragged on for weeks. I used to find solace when I slept, erasing any worries or sadness I had. But my sleep became disturbed, too, and soon I was waking up with headaches so intense I could feel my right eyelid drooping further and further. That was not all. My list of symptoms grew by the day: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), muscle tightness, chronic fatigue, joint pain, sinus congestion, migraine, weight gain, insomnia. I saw holistic doctors, ear, nose and throat doctors (ENTs), neurologists, gastroenterologists, orthopedic doctors. They all came up with their own diagnoses. But at the end of the day, I knew what the cause was. I knew it was my mental health. I was not willing to accept it, nor was my family. We were hoping it was just a virus antibiotics would fix. We were hoping it was anything other than depression and anxiety. Because that requires a shift in your mindset. A shift in your lifestyle. It requires you to have faith there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when you are left standing in pitch darkness with no real reassurance.

I have been attending a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) group once a week, along with individual therapy sessions once a week. I see a psychiatrist who has been monitoring my antidepressants and I am actively working toward being more mindful. I have made progress, but I am far from the finish line. I don’t think there ever will be one. This isn’t a race, this isn’t a war to be won, this is my life and my journey. I have come to accept these episodes will ebb and flow. The smiling mask can fade away on the days the pain is too severe. The thoughts should be honored, but never given more power than they deserve. My feelings are valid, even if I can’t explain them or find a reason for them. I have struggled to find the answer behind why all of this is happening to me when depression and anxiety does not affect a single family member. But I have come to terms with the fact I may never know the reason. My bed is a paradoxical creature who can keep me warm on the coldest days, or who can suck the life out of me. I have learned when to break free from the cycle and rip the covers off myself as my friend Grace once did to me. I am still learning this may never end, so I must find a way to light my own candle when the darkness engulfs me.

Getty image by innaharlamoff

Originally published: April 6, 2020
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