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September 6, 2021

How the Journey with Depression Changes Us.

 

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Etched into my mind with painful clarity is the window of my college dorm room, seven stories high, with a stark view of the street below.

That street could have been my escape.

Isolation and claustrophobia had pulled me into a conversation with death during a rough depressive episode, and I wanted to escape the pain so desperately that I considered everything, including ending my life.

After backing away from the window, I fought a powerful impulse to hurt myself. In high school, teens who cut themselves confused me. Yet here I was, mustering all of my self-control to avoid doing it to myself only a few years later. I called the college’s crisis line, and they suggested I hold onto ice, which I did, and the freezing pain created space from the emotional pain I had been feeling without drawing blood. Though bleak, my crisis experience could be considered a best-case scenario situation. I’m still here.

Depression is difficult to talk about. Personal vulnerabilities and age-old stigmas make it uncomfortable territory. Despite the taboo, or maybe because of it, it feels important for me to share my story. Sharing our experiences of pain offers solace to others and normalizes hidden aspects of being human. The journey through the swamplands of the psyche is painful and difficult, and yet it can be transformative and lead to growth with the right support and interventions. I have been lucky to have those available to me.

My initial brushes with depression happened, perhaps not surprisingly, during the confusing, uncomfortable, and inherently awkward middle school years. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t want to climb into a hole at some point (or multiple points) during middle school? Here I was, like the rest of us, trying to figure out who I was and how to fit in while navigating those moments when the two felt at odds with each other. How much could I be myself, and how much did I have to play a role?

As a teen experiencing depression, I was fortunate to have a strong, healthy, and open relationship with my parents, who offered support, validation, and space. I felt close enough to share with my parents when I was feeling depressed, which says a lot about the quality of our relationship. My dad let me know that we have a family history of the illness, and he told me he was there for me (yes, just like those awkward scenes in “American Pie”). Ultimately, what kept me alive during my moments of crisis in college, was this knowing that people love and care about me. In those harsh moments, I couldn’t feel the love, but I knew it was there.

As I navigated depression, journaling and listening to music were my catharses. I wrote journal pages full of morose adolescent poetry and prose and listened to Adam Duritz’s forlorn voice as he sang through one Counting Crows song after another while I cried in my room. I learned about my thoughts and feelings through writing, and I also got them out of my system, so that I was no longer bottling them up inside. I’ve lost those journals since, which I’m okay with; I’m pretty sure I wasn’t going to be the next poet laureate. I can say that both the self-discovery and the expression were vital to my healing, with or without a Nobel prize.

Running was also a game-changer—an antidote to the pain, or in certain ways, an acceptable and healthy way to inflict pain upon me. Striding through streets and in fields and amongst orchards became the release valve I needed for all of my inner tensions compounded by a body adjusting to new hormones. The rhythmic pulse of my heart, lungs, and feet all dancing together was strong medicine. Running made me feel free and gave me space. It offered me time and a forum to process my thoughts and feelings while moving through them.

I learned a lot from my depressive episodes and that suicidal moment staring down at death. I began to find ways to grow from it and was compelled to discover coping mechanisms, find support, and learn about myself and the human condition. Ultimately, like the rest of us, I needed to find a way to achieve a deep and lasting sense of well-being.

It wasn’t until I met an acupuncturist that a deeper change to my aching psyche started to happen. This person led me on a transformative journey. Using acupuncture, he opened me up to new and old facets of myself and exposed to me different ways of understanding reality and life. He helped rekindle the fire in my heart.

Acupuncture, an alchemical medicine, transformed the angst, pain, and discomfort of those difficult parts of my youth into an essential part of my mature adult self. It taught me to relate to my emotions in new ways. For instance, I once received a “homework assignment” to go home and evoke as much fear inside of me as possible and to just sit with the fear, to get comfortable with it, to learn how to be troubled without feeling terrified. It was a strange yet liberating experience, a realization that I didn’t have to react to my emotions or let them take the reins. I could manage to stay in control while in inner turmoil.

I also realized through my experiences with acupuncture that connecting intimately with people and supporting their movement toward a fuller range of experience and personal freedom is my life’s calling. I started studying Chinese medicine, Eastern and Western perspectives on psychology, and working with mentors in the field.

Practicing medicine has been incredibly rewarding for me. Offering solace and relief and watching people grow back into themselves is an honor and privilege. Stepping into the mystery of the process of healing with someone is among the most meaningful things I do with my life. There is a level of intimacy that develops with patients that are rare in our culture but so necessary for our humanness to unfold and thrive.

Supporting people through depression, after having been through it myself, is both redemptive and difficult. I cannot simply press a button (or put in some needles) and make depression go away. It is a process, much like that of a caterpillar cocooning itself, disintegrating to emerge later as a changed being. The end result I’ve learned is always worth the challenge of the struggle.

~

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