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I still remember my first visit to Dr. Looney as a junior in high school (yes, that was actually his name). Earlier in the week, I had a particularly painful and awkward conversation with my parents in which I finally opened up about my struggle with depression and my past struggle with self-injury.
Both my mother and father were incredibly supportive, even though they had difficulty understanding.
They promptly scheduled an “emergency visit” to a psychiatrist that we knew through our church.
Even though I hated divulging everything to my parents, the thought of opening up to a complete stranger so I could be “cured” seemed insensitive at best and immoral at worst. However, I couldn’t deal with another sleepless night filled with thoughts of self-injury. I was exhausted, and even though I was unsure about the effectiveness of psychiatric medication, or even counseling, I was hopeful that soon I would find relief.
I did my best to walk into his office with an open mind.
Whenever anyone tells me they had a horrible experience with counseling, it breaks my heart. While no one is perfect, I have to say that my psychiatrist was one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. He was also incredibly intelligent, a combination I had rarely encountered previously.
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I began to understand that no one’s struggle with mental illness looks exactly the same, and accordingly, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to treatment.
“I absolutely believe that there is a physical element to your depression,” he said warmly. “Our bodies are imperfect, so sometimes things go wrong.”
“This is an oversimplification,” he explained, “but if you are born with type 1 diabetes, no amount of self-confidence will make your body produce insulin, and even healthy lifestyle changes that would benefit a diabetic can’t bring back those insulin producing cells in your pancreas. Now the human brain is the most complex and intricate object we know of, and just like the rest of our bodies it is imperfect, so sometimes things will not work as designed”.
I once heard a doctor describe antidepressants and SSRI’s in particular as “pouring oil onto an open engine of a car: we don’t know exactly where it’s going or what it is doing in every place it reaches, but we know some of it gets to the right spot.” In my case, as with many others, my doctor had me try several different types of antidepressants until we found one that addressed my symptoms with minimal side effects.
In my experience, medication has not turned me into a zombie or changed my personality.
I still have good days and bad, highs and lows, it’s just the lows are no longer debilitating. With any medication, there is a risk of side effects, and it is always a personal choice, but we are learning more and more about the human brain all the time.
I believe medication will continue to get safer and more specific. However, even when it is prescribed, it is just one piece of the puzzle.
“Even though I believe that medication would be beneficial in your case, you absolutely need to be proactive about addressing your depression every day,” Dr. Looney continued, “and even though I know you spoke with your parents and some friends, you need to make sure that you have someone to talk to if you begin to think about hurting yourself.”
I had to learn (and I’m still learning) that healthy eating and exercise is crucial.
Even little things like getting outside and going on a run, just finishing something, can really add up. I also discovered that the times I am most vulnerable to dangerous thoughts is when I am alone. If I start having depressive thoughts when I’m by myself at the house, I have to get out. If something happens that gets me down, I have to talk about it with a friend.
It’s hard, and there are still days where I keep to myself and just bottle things up, but I am getting better at it.
Finally, Dr. Looney spoke to me about the spiritual aspect of mental health. “Any mental illness has a spiritual aspect as well. We think of our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being as very distinct categories, but they are not. The brain is where all of those things come together”.
My spiritual journey has been one of discovering who I was created to be, what I was created to do, and for whose joy I was created.
It is impossible to live a life of fulfillment without purpose, and when I stray from pursuing the passions I have and the relationships I cherish, I lose sight of my purpose. And that’s when I struggle with the most dangerous questions like “What am I doing here?” “Have I done anything worthwhile?” and “Would I be missed?”
I have not been able to experience mental peace without spiritual security.
I can only speak based on my limited experience, and I am no expert, but if you are struggling with depression, I hope to encourage you.
There is no quick, “one-size-fits-all” solution, and that is wonderful news. Your journey to healing will be a continuous one in which you will discover who you were uniquely created to be; where your relationships with friends and family will become deeper and more meaningful that you ever thought possible, and where you will learn to love your body instead of wishing it harm. It is not easy, but nothing worth while is.
Life’s greatest difficulties are usually where we find our greatest purpose, and if just one person is encouraged by my experience to take that first step towards healing, than that is a great purpose, indeed.
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