Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Depressed and at Cal


I never really thought about mental illness until the start of my sophomore year when my psychotherapist diagnosed me with major depression. I saw the Prozac commercials on TV and the posters around campus, titled “Look for the Signs of Depression”, but I never suspected that it would happen to me— much less that it would force me to withdraw from school and admit myself into a hospital.
One day I was disturbed by the eccentricity of my thoughts, so I decided to call and make an appointment to see a counselor at the Tang center. As I found out, I had six free sessions, as all Cal students do even if they do not have insurance, which gave me some comfort. However I was very apprehensive about my first appointment—I am not all too comfortable with spilling all of my personal problems to a complete stranger. So in an attempt to regain some potential loss of control, I wrote a list of all of the questions that I would ask my counselor during our first appointment, such as “What are your religious views?” and “Why did you decide to become a counselor?”
The first counselor I saw at the Tang center was Dr. H, a non-intimidating, energetic man. When I sat at the chair in his office, and after he asked me, “so what brings you here,” my defenses somehow dropped, and thus my treatment began and continues until today, although with a different counselor. While sharing the experience of my first counselor visit with my friend over the phone, he asked me, “so how did it go?” To which I replied, in jest, “he said I was crazy”. He responded, “come on man, this is serious”. It is. As I later found out, one in ten students are treated for depression in the U.S. in any given year and many more are affected by it through knowing somebody who suffers from it.
            Despite seeing a counselor, watching my diet and exercising, I was feeling progressively worse, and even though I was attending my classes, I was failing them. This led me to withdraw from all of my classes by the end of every semester that year. So, Dr. H recommended me to take antidepressants, to which I initially was extremely opposed (“I am not down to take drugs”, I told him during our first meeting. I was against any sort of pharmaceutical intervention because my cultural background taught me that I was the one who should resolve all my difficulties and the belief that such medication is "unnatural"). However, the symptoms kept exacerbating, so I finally gave in and saw a psychiatrist, Dr. M, who prescribed me my first antidepressant, Paxil. I put all of my hope into these pills, and—thanks almost exclusively to the placebo effect—I started feeling better almost immediately. But this amelioration was ephemeral, and my health soon regressed.
When the summer came, and I went home to San Diego, thinking, "if I couldn’t get better at Berkeley, I will get better here". After all, the sun is supposed to be good for people with depression, right? When I stepped into my home in San Diego, I remember crying from relief. But as the end of summer drew nearer, things weren’t looking any better, especially because around that time I was going through withdrawal while trying to wean myself off of Paxil, which was only making me drowsy. So I withdrew from Berkeley and admitted myself into a hospital for “Cognitive Therapy Intensive Outpatient Program”.
This six-week, twenty-day program consisted of lectures and group therapy. The purpose of the lectures was to help us re-learn the rudimentary life skills, such as making decisions and being assertive. Group therapy was where everybody had a chance to talk about his or her issues and receive feedback from the rest of the group. Of course, the issues in these groups revolved around the most familiar topics of conflict, intimacy, and loss.
            Following the hospital, more treatment of meeting with my therapist followed as well as being put on a new antidepressant, Effexor XR, and then on Welbutrin. In addition, I was taking classes at UC San Diego and a community college to satisfy my UC Berkeley requirements, with the full intention of returning as soon as my health allowed. What was I doing in my spare time? Trying to escape my misery through watching TV shows, hanging out with friends, learning to meditate, volunteering, and making some pocket money through tutoring—everything a non-depressed me would do, only without enthusiasm.
            One spring day, I walked outside to go to my car and noticed that something was different, slightly yet distinctly so—that unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world was gone. For the first time in many months I felt pleasure—I could feel the sun’s warmth on my shoulders, I noticed the greenness of the grass, and I smelled the freshness in the air. That was the day my depression was gone, and tears of relief filled my face. Now it was time to face the life’s responsibilities and return to Berkeley, where I am currently continuing my study and reflecting on these past days.

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