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I don’t know if I recall a time in my life where I felt true joy. There are many years of my life that are blocked from my memory; the details are fuzzy, and there are vague memories of people coming in and out of my life periodically. When I was finally diagnosed with major depressive disorder in my early twenties after experiencing symptoms for several years, I thought it would be like treating a broken bone – see a doctor a few times, maybe take some medication, then  move on with my life. Little did I know that years later I would still be fighting this same battle.

It has taken a lot to accept that I have treatment resistant depression. It’s been challenging to find a treatment plan that works for me. For some time, I thought the intensive partial hospitalization program (PHP) and intensive outpatient program (IOP) were working. Then, I relapsed and ended up in a psychiatric unit. Next, it was residential treatment, and for some time after I was discharged, I was okay. And then, I relapsed again. This led to more intensive treatment, some improvement, but then I felt myself falling back into a downward spiral. 

To be clear, there is no right or wrong approach to depression or any other mental illness. What works for one person may not work for another. There is no one prescribed treatment that works for all patients with a diagnosis of depression. With each individual’s experience, treatment needs to be tailored. There is trial and error in treatment, as there is with medication and finding the right match for a treatment provider. Treatment is a puzzle — finding the right pieces that fit together to create a team that helps us reach our best. While there may be prescribed therapies that have worked traditionally, there is always continuing research that can contribute to widening the options for treatment of depression.

 In all this, while battling my own thoughts, I also experienced something that I was not warned about or had ever heard about: emotional numbness. As a side effect of my medication which helped me manage the urges to hurt myself or take my own life, it also made me numb to everything. I did not feel much at all. I felt like my ability to find joy and light in my life were switched off. When I was on leave from graduate school, for example, I had no reason to go out at all. The one reason I even saw the sun for a few minutes a day was to take out my rescue pup for a walk around the block. Often, people say their pets saved their life. I know my rescue pup saved mine. My primary care provider at the time prescribed her as an emotional support animal because I left my apartment for no reason other than to visit the doctor and attend school. However, things continued to get worse. I stopped eating. I stopped taking care of my basic needs, maintaining a clean living space, and keeping up with my health. I stopped seeing people. When I did see someone, they had to come to my apartment and pick me up, sometimes physically helping me out of my apartment to remove me from isolation. 

In a recent session with my therapist, we were talking about what it meant to have achieved what I have in my life. I shared my accomplishments with her — academic, athletic, awards — as well as all the activities I am involved in, and she asked how I feel about it. I could only respond with a shrug of my shoulders and “eh.” When she heard this, she shared something she recently achieved and said that it brought her joy and pride.

I don’t have that experience. Being emotionally numb leads me to not feel any sense of pride in my accomplishments. Everything I do is a task, a box to check off on the to-do list of my life. I am not able to feel any sense of enjoyment because I am numb to my experiences and accomplishments. 

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of emotional numbness because it validates the person’s experiences and feelings who lives with this numbness. Another reason why recognizing numbness is important is to keep the individual safe and out of harm’s way. What I mean is this: when I feel numb, I want to feel so desperately that I sometimes let down my safety senses and purposely put myself in danger to simply feel. 

It’s also important for you to find a healthcare provider you can trust and talk with about how your treatment resistant depression is affecting you. However, a provider that you can trust is hard to come by. When you find them, like I did with my primary care provider who advised me to get a support animal and now with my current therapist, you feel as if you can open up to them without judgment. When getting treatment for depression, being able to share openly and not feel like you are being judged helps create a bond with the provider. In turn, this helps with sharing your struggles truthfully and with transparency; it also helps the provider know what the best course of treatment is for you to take. Being able to speak honestly about your journey — the good, the bad, and the ugly — lets you paint a fuller picture of the story and allows you and your care team to find the best ways to support your healing where you can find your light again.

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