The first step is recognizing that you need to see a psychiatrist.
In some cases, the first step may be finally being convinced by the people around you that you need to see a psychiatrist.
When I started telling my story, some people expressed surprise at my willingness to seek professional help.
“Who told you to go to a doctor?” I was asked several times.
“No one,” I would reply. “I felt like I had to.”
When I read about people who have been suffering from depression for two or three or more years without getting help, my heart breaks. How do they survive? I was just two weeks in and I couldn’t stand it.
The second step is finding a psychiatrist you can go to.
I wish I could tell you that that’s easy but I soon found myself wishing there was Tinder for shrinks. Or Grindr. (Because the truth is, as strange as this sounds, I have more Grindr than Tinder experience. My Tinder experience is limited to reading articles about it and my Singaporean tour guide showing me her creepy matches. I’ve had hands-on experience with Grindr though. I sometimes like to grab my friends’ phones to choose hot guys for them to talk to. Sometimes I send the hot guys emojis on their behalf. And then I stop when they start screaming at me.)
I began my search for a shrink on Facebook. I wasn’t ready to tell people about what I was going through yet but one of the many good things about being a journalist is people always assume you’re doing research. (Which can also be a bad thing. But not in this case.)
Can anyone recommend a great (not just good) psychiatrist?
My Facebook friends started sending me names of psychiatrists and psychologists they knew. When some of them asked why I was looking for one, my replies were shady.
“For a friend,” I told one, feeling guilty for lying. But I wasn’t ready to be open yet.
I looked up “best psychiatrists in the Philippines.” I searched for “psychiatrists in Manila.” And I started jotting names down.
I noticed that some names kept appearing over and over again. I put those who were recommended by multiple people on top of my list. One name in particular stood out because she had been recommended by both strangers and people I knew.
The next day, I called her clinic, eager to make an appointment.
“New patient?” her secretary asked.
“Yes,” I said. I could hear her flipping through pages of what I guessed was the doctor’s appointment book.
“Her earliest slot available is on January 6, 2 p.m.,” she said.
January 6? That was over a month away! I didn’t think I could make it through an entire month without knowing what was wrong with me. But I booked the appointment anyway.
Some people have compared trying to find the right psychiatrist to dating. You shouldn’t expect to find your match on the first try. And so I kept looking.
The second psychiatrist on my list was also highly recommended. And to my surprise, when I called her clinic, I was told by the person who answered, “She books her own appointments. This is her cell number.”
A psychiatrist who books her own appointments and gives out her cell number? I was intrigued.
I texted to ask if I could book an appointment. She replied on Monday morning, telling me to call her in an hour.
The first time I heard her voice, I instantly liked her. Even over the phone, she was very comforting. She was apologetic when she told me that her schedule that week was full.
“Is it an emergency, anak?” she asked.
“No naman, Doc,” I said.
And so we set my appointment for the following week. December 16. Nine days before Christmas.
“Oh no, I think I’m going to cry.”
It was my first session with my psychiatrist Dr. D, otherwise known as The Best Shrink In The World.
In the week before our appointment, I started wondering if what I was going through was a fluke. It had been over three weeks since that strange night in LA. I still wasn’t myself but I thought I was on the road to feeling better. It helped that I heard good news after good news from friends—Ruthie was pregnant! Giff was dating someone we liked!
But two days before I was set to see Dr. D, I woke up having a panic attack. It felt like someone was sitting on my chest, my heart was beating so fast and I couldn’t breathe. I sobbed quietly, trying to remember the breathing exercises Tita Marie taught me over a decade before. It was a while before I calmed down. And when I did, the darkness was back and I had shut down again.
The morning of the appointment was just as bad. There was no anxiety attack but I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking up every thirty minutes and eventually, I got so frustrated that I started to cry. Trying to sleep was pointless so I got up and headed to the bathroom.
Later, I wrote in my journal: “You know you have reached a new low when you’re crying while you’re showering and your dog is watching you and Hotline Bling is playing in the background.”
In front of Dr. D, the tears were threatening to come out again.
She pushed a box of tissues towards me. “It’s okay to cry,” she said, her voice soft and her eyes kind.
I grabbed a tissue and started talking, my voice cracking. “I’ve always been a happy person but a few weeks ago…”
My tears stopped almost as quickly as they started.
In late November, I began using my phone to keep a list of the changes I noticed in myself. But that afternoon, in front of Dr. D, I didn’t need to bring it out. I could rattle them off because they were all still happening.
“I have no appetite and when I am able to force myself to eat, I usually stop eating in the middle of my meal. I’m always tired. I have lost interest in the things I used to like. I was obsessed with nail polish but I did not paint my nails for fourteen days. I feel guilty about amassing so many material things. I don’t want to go out. I have a constant feeling of doom. I feel numb, empty and hollow. Like I just don’t care about anything. I’ve lost my enthusiasm. I can’t cry. When I start, it’s like a faucet that someone switches off instantly. The tears just stop. I can’t recognize myself. I forget things. I can’t concentrate. I don’t know how to communicate.”
Dr. D described what I was going through as a major depressive episode. And because there was no trigger and I couldn’t identify a reason for feeling the way I feel, she suspected that my condition was genetic and caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain.
Dr. D diagnosed me with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. But to rule out other underlying conditions that might be causing depressive symptoms, she ordered a thorough blood test and a urinalysis.
The following week, I was back with my test results and they were all clear (well, except for my cholesterol level which was slightly—only slightly—high). My thyroid was functioning properly so we couldn’t blame it for my symptoms. It was official: I was clinically depressed.
She prescribed an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication, explaining how they worked. “The effects wouldn’t be instant. You will start feeling them in two weeks and they should take full effect after eight weeks.”
And because it was just days before Christmas, that meant I was going to go through the holidays still feeling all the strange things I was feeling.
Dr. D reached out and squeezed my arm gently. “I’m so sorry, anak. I feel for you. The timing is unfortunate.”
She told me to text or call her anytime I needed her which I appreciated.
Our sessions have light moments too. Dr. D often talks about my clothes and how much she likes them. The first time we met, she said, “I’m happy to see you taking good care of yourself. Some depressed people start neglecting personal hygiene.”
“Oh no no no,” I said. “I’m still bathing every day.”
And the following week, after a long wait outside, when I walked into her office, she said, “You smell so good even after sitting in humidity! You made my office smell so good!”
“Yes, Doc, I’m still showering regularly,” I said, smiling.
I liked Dr. D so much that after just one visit, I knew I wasn’t going to the other doctor anymore.
I guess this is the mental health equivalent of marrying your high school sweetheart. I got lucky. I didn’t even need Tinder for shrinks. I found The Best Shrink In The World on my first try.