One of the most difficult things to understand about my depression is that there was no trigger.
“No way, something must have happened,” people kept saying over and over.
“I swear, I was really happy one minute just staring at Conan O’Brien and then I walked out of the door and all of a sudden, I was an alien version of myself.”
“Maybe you were stressed at work.”
“I’m used to the stress at work. I relish the stress at work. Those crazy deadlines? I actually like them. If stress at work was the cause, it should have happened long ago.”
“Were you sad about anything?”
“I really wasn’t.”
“So nothing triggered it?”
“Yeah, nothing. It just happened.”
I’ve had variations of that conversation again and again and again.
I get it. People want a reason. People want something to blame it on. My condition will be easier to understand if there was a person, a thing, anything to point at and yell at, “You! You did this!”
But there’s nothing. And to them, it’s alarming.
Because if it hit me seemingly out of nowhere, does that mean it can happen to them? To people they love?
On my very first session with Dr. D, she explained very gently, “Anak, some people get depressed because they’re going through a breakup or they’re mourning the death of someone they loved. But your case isn’t like that. I suspect that it’s genetic. You were predisposed… there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.”
Aunt Marie agrees. She says that sometimes, anxiety or depression can be self-made from habits or habitual ways of thinking. But that’s not my case.
Sometimes, people can be predisposed to anxiety or depression but if they’ve had “a perfect life of sorts,” they may not manifest it at a clinical level.
Aunt Marie also said that other people who are predisposed only need one or two successful trigger events to plunge them into full-blown clinical anxiety and depression. “A break up, a death in the family, not getting a promotion, being unemployed” were some her examples.
And then there’s me. Depressed, anxious trigger-less me.
Aunt Marie wrote, “Sometimes, just like a panic attack coming out of nowhere, a major depressive episode may suddenly be an unwelcome visitor such as you experienced… When one has a pretty satisfying life and lots of support, as you do, and anxiety and depression grow, that’s a different type of anxiety and depression than simple neuroticism; it strongly suggests predisposition and speaks more to neurochemistry.”
And now that I know what I know, I realize that I was like a ticking time bomb depression-wise.
Aunt Marie calls me genetically loaded. “That’s just how the dice roll. It’s nobody’s fault,” she said.
I never blamed anyone for my depression—not myself, not my family, not the people around me. In fact, I don’t think I spent a single second trying to look for someone to blame. I didn’t waste time looking for nonexistent triggers either.
I did, however, dig into my past to look for signs. And there were a handful.
Sign #1: This weird conversation with Lolo Osing
When my depression first hit in November on my way home from the States, I remembered a strange conversation I had with Lolo Osing when I was 18 or 19. I wrote about it during my flight from Korea to Manila.
My grandfather summoned me to his hospital bed.
He wasn’t dying. Yet. I think he died weeks or months after, I’m not really sure. But whenever it was, I fear that he took a part of me with him to the grave.
He didn’t call me to his side for expressions of love and the beginning of goodbyes. Everything else he said faded and only one thing stayed: “You will find it very difficult to make your life happy.”
It wasn’t a warning, it wasn’t advice, I hope it wasn’t a curse. He was stating it, like it was sure, like he was sure, 100%, that his granddaughter, the only one he met, was going to have a miserable existence.
It was strange. And I walked out of that hospital confused, not telling anyone what he said. But I’ve always been stubborn and so his words had one effect on me: I was determined to prove him wrong.
I’d like to think of myself as a happy person. I find pleasure in all kinds of things, big or small, I find thrills and adventures in the everyday.
But sometimes, sadness rears its head. Sometimes, things feel extra hard. Sometimes, my emotions are a mixed bag that I couldn’t explain. Sometimes, it’s like you have to dig and claw to find the happy underneath a mess of crap. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m going crazy.
And during these moments, I am transported to that day, in that hospital, sitting on that white bed, wondering what the hell this old man was telling me.
The scene comes flashing back when I am swimming in misery, when I feel like I’m about to make bad life decisions and would still go ahead with them.
And I thought of that scene again as I walked and walked and walked in the streets of Los Angeles late one night, fighting the urge to cry, letting the cold wash over me because freezing was the only feeling I understood.
It better not have been a curse.
I still wonder what made him say that to me. Did he see something nobody else did? Did he notice depressive symptoms? I will never know. But my grandfather was an architect, not a psychologist. What did he know? And I am still stubborn. I am still determined to prove him wrong. I am unwavering in my belief that I can be happy despite being depressed. In fact, I can honestly say that I’m happy right now. I love my grandpa but screw that conversation and screw that day in the hospital. I refuse to let it kill my joy.
Sign #2: My addictions
Those who know me well know my tendency to get… obsessed with things. Trolls. Penguins. Havaianas. Nail polish. Lipstick. A collector, if you want to be kind about it. An addict, if you wish to be blunt.
I wrote to Aunt Marie: “Looking back, I believe that I did develop addictions and obsessions with things because of the condition that I didn’t know existed yet. When the depression set in, I felt really bad about amassing so many material things. I even had the urge to start giving things away and I kind of did.”
My brother and I both believe we have the addictive gene. This is why I’ve never tried smoking or, with the exception of pot brownies that brought me to Super Mario’s warp zone and caused me to have really profound thoughts about sour cream and onion potato chips, doing drugs. After those pot brownies which I ate at a party, I said, “Never again.” And I have stayed true to my word.
But just because I don’t smoke or do drugs doesn’t mean I have been entirely kind to my body. I drank alcohol, although not to excess, and I ate bad food without giving it much thought.
Aunt Marie wrote: “A lot of my work was with people with eating disorders and addictions. Often, people predisposed to binge-eating or drinking or drugging or gambling or sexcapades to excess are really responding to the body’s craving for something to straighten out the chemistry. In the case of gambling and sex, they are the purest form of addiction as no external chemicals are ingested. Thus, it’s really important to treat the anxiety or depression or people become predisposed to the addictive behaviors.”
I believe her because since my diagnosis and being on medication, I haven’t bought any of those things I collect. (I still use my nail polish and lipstick and flip flops, yes, but I haven’t been itching to buy new ones like I used to.) And I’ve been eating healthier food. I still buy a lot of books though. But an addiction to reading is the best addiction there is. And Dr. Martens. Dr. Martens are not a symptom of my strangeness, they are awesome.
Sign #3: My 365 Days Project
In 2009, like many other people on Flickr, I made several attempts to complete the challenge of shooting creative self-portraits for 365 days. My longest run lasted 183 days. And it was only years after that I realized how sad most of my photos were. I mean, look at these pictures:
I look at them and wonder: what was going on with this girl?
I showed them to Dr. D and asked, “Could I have been depressed then without knowing it?”
“You could have been, on a subclinical level.”
Sign #4: My numerous fears
I have mentioned fear of death and my fear of needles in the past. And I still have quite a bit to say about fears but I think they deserve their own post.
That’s what we have. No triggers but several signs.
But while I spent some time looking back for explanations, I have really dedicated most of my attention to the present and the future. What can I do? What can I change? How do I deal with this? What will I do next?
And Aunt Marie thinks that’s a good thing. “Clearly, you’re doing much better as you’ve got motivation back to think of the future…”
She’s right. And the future looks bright. Bright and hopefully free of obsessions, irrational fears, sad photos and strange conversations in hospitals.