Well, we’re off to a great start.
Let’s begin the session then.
Wow, Siri is a sweet shrink.
But I need answers, not just words of comfort.
But Siri had no answers to give. And when pressed, she just kept looking stuff up online.
I can do that too, Siri, you know.
And so I started to get annoyed. But I took a deep breath and decided to keep trying. After all, she was being nice and she wasn’t even charging me for her service.
I couldn’t help it. I blew my fuse.
Seriously, what kind of practice is Siri running?
I got mad again and then she got mad.
And then Siri the Shrink started giving me attitude.
And then she started trying to get rid of me.
But she wasn’t going to shake me off that fast. I strongly suspected that Siri wasn’t qualified as a shrink and so I decided to play Nancy Drew.
Aha! A more direct approach was necessary. (I really wish Bess and George were here. But not Ned, screw Ned.)
Again with the god damn googling! And then she tried to throw me off with her fake intel.
And that of course led to more arguments.
She really hates it when I curse.
But oddly, when I cooled down a little, I felt sorry for Siri. It must be hard, being stuck in her little box, being bossed around and having to answer questions from persistent strangers all day. What if she actually had bigger issues than I did? What if I needed to be her fake shrink?
Oh Siri, you aren’t joking your way out of this.
You’re not googling your way out of this either. We’re talking, Siri.
Damn it, Siri, talk to me!
I don’t think I’m equipped to handle Siri’s issues. She needs a real shrink like I do. A really good one.
She needs Dr. D.
Hello, my name is Pam and I am sober.
I was seven when I first got drunk.
Someone had spiked the fruit punch at my great-grandmother’s house, I didn’t know and soon, the room was spinning and I was a mess on her couch, the giant floral patterns taunting me with their shapes before I finally fell asleep, my first alcohol-induced slumber. I had to be carried to the car.
The next time I got drunk, I was 18, a wet behind the ears lifestyle journalist who thought that when writing about a bar, the job description includes downing one bottle of Smirnoff Mule and a special drink called Boy Bastos. The name should have warned me but I was pretty stupid then, often doing things I shouldn’t, taking risks that weren’t worth it. Boy Bastos lived up to its name and fucked me up. I still managed to write the article. And I managed to stay away from alcohol for a few years.
I was 27 when I really learned how to drink. I had gone from hating the taste of beer to being able to chug down five or six bottles and still be standing. And not just standing but also becoming a little more carefree, a little bolder, making a game of grabbing people’s asses and crotches and earning the ability to actually talk to the crowd between songs when my band hit the stage. Those were days of total freedom, of occasional recklessness, of being barefoot, of calling a photographer thinking he was my driver, of puking and then crying while apologizing for puking.
I got really good at being drunk, I never blacked out, I never forgot what happened the previous night and I always knew how I got home.
And then, a few years later, I became a lightweight again. Getting tipsy after a bottle or two and saving my drinking for trips out of the country. Like in Japan, where I drank more beer than water. Or London where having a pint of strawberry beer each day became essential.
It was always just beer. And sometimes tequila. I like margaritas, I won’t say no to a tequila shot.
But wine has always been too bitter. Whiskey and scotch too fancy schmancy. Champagne was okay until that blasted yacht ride that led to me throwing up on the sand under a coconut tree. And vodka became the enemy, especially after that Snakes and Ladders Drinking Game which had me begging for mercy and left me crawling to the bathroom all night to hug the hotel toilet bowl again and again and again.
Beer remained a friend and even though we weren’t always in touch, I knew beer was always waiting for me. And on the strangest of strange nights, I tried to seek solace in my old friend but it didn’t help.
The last time I drank alcohol was on the night of our barkada Christmas party. I think I had three or four margaritas, I can’t really remember. I should have remembered but I didn’t know then that those were going to be my last drinks for a while.
And so I texted her.
I wasn’t surprised by her answer.
I saw her again the following week, two days before Christmas, and in the midst of our session, she reached out, squeezed my arm gently and asked, “Anak, are you going to be okay without alcohol during the holidays?”
Great. One text and my shrink thought I had a drinking problem.
I laughed and said, “Yes, Doc, I’m not an alcoholic.”
I survived the holidays with no alcohol, serving it to people at the office party, yes, but not drinking it myself. At social events, I refused wine, champagne and cocktails of all sorts, simply saying, “I can’t, I’m on meds.”
Seven weeks later, I heard about the fundraising gig that was being organized for Luis Katigbak. Three of the four Eraserheads were playing. I knew I had to go. Because one, it was a fundraiser for a fellow writer and two, three of the four Eraserheads were playing.
But no one could go with me, not my brother, not my cousins who had to be up early the next day.
Fine, I told them, I’ll go alone. It was at Route 196 anyway, and Route used to be home away from home. And because my appetite allowed no craving for Route’s amazing garlic and cheese pizza, I knew there was only one way to survive that evening as a lone wallflower: a bottle of beer. I was going to need a bottle of beer while I watched 3/4 of the Eraserheads alone.
I texted Dr. D again.
God damn it.
And of course, because I couldn’t have it, it made me really really want beer.
Eve and her damn apple. Me and San Mig Light. Blue Moon. Stella.
But because I am a good patient, that night at Route, I drank nothing. And the wonderful thing was I didn’t need the beer to enjoy myself.
And after Ely had finished singing, I walked up to two random guys—a gay couple who I think were on a first date—and I handed them my drink stubs. “Here, use these.”
They grinned and thanked me and I walked straight out of the bar and into the car, alcohol-free.
On my last visit, Dr. D told me that I was going to continue my medication for ten months. That probably means that I will be sober for that long.
And I am fine with that.
“We need to drink out,” a friend said.
“I can’t drink! Bawal alcohol sa meds ko,” I replied.
“Ah ok haha, coffee then.”
“Dude bawal din caffeine… Water lang iniinom ko”
“Fine pasta whatever”
In the meantime, there are other things to get drunk on.
Like words. So many words. And music. And running. And new adventures. And thoughts of the future.
My plan was to fight. If my psychiatrist tried to prescribe medication, I would put my foot down and say, “Nope. No no no no no. No, doc, no way in hell am I taking any pills. There has to be another solution.”
I was worried they would mess with my already messy head and make me incapable of writing.
But all my resolve melted when Dr. D explained what the medicines can do for me. I didn’t even argue.
(This doesn’t mean though that I think you should automatically start taking meds if you’re depressed. That will be up to you and your doctor to decide together. Aunt Marie says, “As long as you’re with a very good psychiatrist, you should be able to question any medication you’re taking and be informed.” And please please please never self-medicate.)
“I just want to make sure they won’t affect my work,” I told Dr. D.
She prescribed an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety pill. She wouldn’t warn me about the side effects, she said. And she asked me not to Google them. I guess she didn’t want me to wait for or imagine any side effects. Instead, she wanted me to observe how I would respond to the medication for a week so I could report it to her.
After our session, I dropped by the drug store on my way to the office and I joined the world of medicated depressives.
Days later, I wrote this in my journal:
During the day, after I finally force myself to eat something, anything (me, the girl who spent one high school summer regularly scarfing down four Pancake House tacos and eventually returning to school so suddenly plump that I earned the nickname Lobo because yes, I had ballooned), I free a capsule from its foil packet prison and pop it into my mouth.
Four hours later, I will feel a wave of nausea, a desire to throw up and my throat threatening to close—sometimes one by one, most times all at once—but these can all be remedied with one piece of gum or candy. Another three hours later, I will feel really sleepy, groggy sometimes. When I am outside, I fight it. I yawn, I shift, I struggle to stay alert. When I am indoors, I give in, curling up into a ball or collapsing on the floor, the carpet, the bean bag, the nearest stretch of surface that will take me.
At night, I split an already tiny pill into four with my thumbnail, popping a sliver into my mouth. It is so small that water is unnecessary but I drink anyway. Then I let my head hit the pillow and wait for sleep to take me away. And I wake up the next day and do it all over again.
This is my new life. This is how you fight the sad.
Initially, those were the side effects I experienced: nausea, dry mouth, drowsiness, exhaustion, loss of appetite (not that I had much of an appetite to begin with). And because I couldn’t look them up online, Tatin became my side effect guardian.
“Tats, my mouth is really really dry. Is this normal?”
Days later, more side effects.
Bruising all over my body, restlessness (I often found myself tapping-tapping-tapping my foot impatiently—something I didn’t do before), a tendency to become off-balance even while doing simple things like trying to put on my shoes and—this is too much information but fuck it, we’re being honest here—constipation.
When I returned to Dr. D and I rattled off my side effects, she said, while taking notes, “Mild side effects. Okay, good, let’s continue with the medication.”
On the first week that I started taking meds, two of my stories came out on the newspaper’s front page, erasing my fears that the drugs would affect my work.
And Dr. D was right, my side effects were mild compared to others I have since read online. There’s one in particular that I would like to discuss but will not because my grandparents know about this blog: the inability to achieve orgasm. (Let’s not give them a reason to seek therapy.)
After several weeks, my side effects have disappeared one by one. Only one has remained: drowsiness. (I blame it more on my anti-anxiety pill than the antidepressant.)
During our first session, Dr. D explained that the antidepressant would only start to take effect two weeks after I began taking them. Full efficacy happens after eight weeks, she said.
I thought that meant I would stop taking the meds after eight weeks but I misunderstood. I just found out two weeks ago that I will have to continue taking my medication for at least ten months before we find out if I will need a lower dose for maintenance for the rest of my life.
“I’m kind of relieved,” I told Dr. D. “If you told me we were stopping the medication today, I would have told you I wasn’t ready.”
My mother doesn’t like the idea of me taking medicines for depression. “Ayoko nyan. Sabi they’re too strong,” she said. I have patiently tried to explain to her that the meds have been helping me and that I feel a lot more stable than I was in December.
In fact, I feel really lucky that it’s like I hit the antidepressant jackpot on the first try—that’s not the case for everyone.
Some people even think my medication has added benefits.
“Is your antidepressant good for the skin? You’re glowing,” some people have said.
It’s funny when people think your depressed self looks better than your normal self.
The only drawback? The medication isn’t cheap. But I will gladly shell out for it over and over again if it means never feeling like that hollow robot version of me again. Aunt Marie wrote, “The medication costs are absolutely ridiculous but necessary.” She added, making me feel like crying, “If ever you can’t do your medication at the dose you need because you don’t have the money, please let me know and I will send you money. There is no reason you can’t have a great life if you’ve got your health under control.”
Dr. D realizes that the medicines are expensive too and on my last visit, she said, “I wanted to tell you about a new drug. It’s a lot cheaper than Cymbalta.”
“Will the side effects be the same?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet, it’s new.”
“No thanks, doc. I’ll stick with the old one.”
I like a good bargain, but not when it comes to my brain.
“I’m going to ask for complete bloodwork so we can rule out other conditions,” my psychiatrist said.
“Okay, Doc. Can we do it now?” I responded, surprising myself.
I have spent my entire life terrified of needles. As a child, my regular vaccinations always resulted in soap opera-worthy theatrics. I was weeks away from turning thirty when I shamelessly threw toddler-level tantrums in the emergency room after finding out that I had to be hooked up to an IV. And during that dance with dengue, which involved two blood tests a day, after the 6 p.m. blood draw, I would stay up all night in fearful anticipation of the 6 a.m. one. At each blood draw, I would dramatically cover my head with a bunched-up hoodie, refusing to see my own blood. Sometimes, tears were shed. Powie found the whole thing so hilarious that he documented it on video.
And now, all of a sudden, I was offering myself up for total bloodwork willingly and nonchalantly? Fuck, I thought. Something really is wrong with me.
Dr. D looked up at me and asked, “When was the last time you ate?”
I couldn’t remember. “Umm, over 24 hours ago?”
“You overfasted, that would make the results inaccurate.”
A few days later, I returned to the hospital, this time to the lab. “Blood test please,” I said, as if I were ordering fries at McDonald’s.
“What time did you start fasting?”
“Umm, 2 a.m.?” I said, not bothering to mention that what I had in the middle of the night wasn’t a full meal but just a couple of forced bites.
“That was 13 hours ago. You overfasted,” I was told again. I sighed.
Yes, the girl who used to love eating was rejected twice by the blood test gods for fasting too much.
A couple of days later, I was back and I had made sure that I had eaten just ten hours prior. The nurse typed my information into a computer and when I told him my birthday, he exclaimed. “Ay ma’am, magka-birthday tayo!” We smiled at each other.
And when it was time for my blood to be drawn, I asked the nurse, devoid of any feeling, “Right arm or left arm?”
“Right,” I was told. And I offered it to her, feeling absolutely nothing, no fear, no nervousness. You want my blood? Fine, take it, whatever. I even watched as she transferred the blood into vials, marveling at the thought that the crimson liquid had come from my body.
“Okay na po,” the nurse said.
I thanked her and got up. I had more feelings about how much the blood test cost than the actual pricking.
Seriously, how can one damn blood test cost almost P9,000? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the bill. “Tangina ang mahal maulol,” I texted my friends.
Jason texted: “So wait, so di ka na takot sa injection? #ultimateproof”
I replied: “Yes exactly, as in dedma, ‘right or left?’”
He replied: “SHEEEEEEEET”
But because I remain an optimist no matter what my mind says, I found a silver lining in the sudden disappearance of my needle phobia:
HOLY SHIT, I CAN NOW GET A TATTOO!
And I knew exactly what I wanted. Just a small black “2.0” on my wrist.
For weeks, people kept telling me that I was going to be fine, that if I took my medication, I would be back to normal. But I didn’t think that was going to happen. I had changed so much in a matter of days and I was sure those changes had left indelible marks on me. And the truth was, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back to who I was.
A friend who has been depressed said, “One of the biggest things you have to accept is that you may never go back to being the person you were. And that’s okay.”
It was such a relief to hear that and to have it echoed by people crucial to my healing including my psychiatrist. “Anak, think of it as a new chapter,” she said to me.
“It has changed you,” Nico said. “And maybe you can’t change back into Pam-Before-Depression. But you CAN become Better Pam. Pam 2.0.”
2.0. I wanted my tattoo to celebrate the new and hopefully better version of me.
I kept bugging Tatin, a veteran with four tattoos, about my desire to get inked. “Taaaaaats I want a tattoo,” I would text her at random hours.
She booked an appointment for us with illustrator and tattoo artist Wiji Lacsamana.
Naturally, I began stalking Wiji on Instagram. And when I saw the incredible colored tattoos she creates, I realized I was in trouble. “Uh oh,” I told Tatin. “I have a feeling I will end up getting two tattoos.”
Days later, Tatin and I arrived at Wiji’s tattoo studio.
I loved how clean, cozy and comforting it was. Not scary at all. She even has a wall you can stare at to relax you while you get inked.
Tatin was getting a tattoo of her beloved poodle Tank’s face and she and Wiji tried to figure out how big it should be.
I love how Wiji uses printouts so you can choose the size of your tattoo.
“Mabibitin ka dyan,” they told me as they looked at my tiny “2.0” design.
“I know,” I said, while staring at stencils of beautiful tattoos Wiji has done. “I think I’m going to get a second one.”
“Go first,” Tatin said as Wiji prepared her tools. I was a mix of courage and nerves.
“I’m going to start by shaving the area,” Wiji said.
Then she applied stencil gunk. (I forgot what it’s really called.)
And she used a pink Sharpie as we tried to decide on the exact placement of the tattoo.
Then it was time for the needle. “You need to stay really still,” Wiji said. Apparently it’s a must when you are getting letters or numbers tattooed.
“Wait!” I said. “I need music and my book.”
“You’re not going to have time to read,” Wiji said, laughing. “This is going to be really fast.”
But because I’m stubborn, I grabbed Augusten Burroughs’ Possible Side Effects anyway. Then I popped in my earphones, opened Spotify and started playing M.I.A.’s Bad Girls which has officially become my tattoo jam.
“Ready?” Wiji asked.
“I’ll start with the dot.”
I loved how quiet Wiji’s tattoo machine was, it was practically purring. I felt no pain, just a little pressure.
Then she started on the numbers. And I felt a little pain but it wasn’t bad at all.
“Kaya, kaya,” I kept saying and they started laughing because they said it sounded like I was trying to convince myself.
Wiji was right. The tattoo was done so fast that I didn’t even get to finish my song.
And they were right, I wanted another one.
So while Tatin got Tank’s face tattooed on her wrist, I thought of possible designs.
I knew I wanted something that symbolized my love for words, writing and reading. A book? A notebook? And then it hit me: a typewriter!
We began the process again. Shave, gunk, stencil, placement, Sharpie.
This time, I was able to finish the song. Multiple times, actually. I could have even chosen to read if I wanted to. But I did not. The typewriter tattoo was bigger and more detailed than 2.0 and so it hurt more. But again, kaya, kaya.
Strangely, getting those tiny little keys done was my favorite part. At some point, you get used to the pain and hardly feel it.
The most painful part for me was when Wiji started coloring the tattoo. But I think it’s totally worth it.
And what shoes did I wear when I got my first tattoos? My tattoo Doc Martens, of course.
I woke up the next day still absolutely in love with my tattoos.
I have 2.0 on my left arm.
And a typewriter on my right.
I also got a tin of Good Lovin’, which Wiji makes for her brand Radioactive Mushrooms In The Forest. I’ve been using it to care for my tattoos while they are healing.
“Welcome to the dark side,” Wiji joked when I expressed joy about finally getting inked. And like I told her, the dark side is a magical place full of possibilities. In fact, I’m already planning my next ones.
In the first few weeks of my depression, I lost ten pounds.
I just didn’t have the desire to eat. Even when I was finally able to force myself to sit down for a meal, I often stopped eating mid-bite. My body just refused food.
And when I started taking antidepressants, my medication killed what little appetite I had left. So yes, the pounds kept dropping. And people started to notice.
“Huy, ang payat mo na!”
“You’ve lost weight, what have you been doing?”
“Hey, you’re looking slim, what’s happening?”
These encounters were always a little awkward because I never knew what to say. Sometimes, just for laughs, I think about replying, in a very zombie-like way, “IamclinicallydepressedandIcouldnteatandmymedicinekilledmyappetite.” But I don’t want to scare the people around me. They’re great people.
And so I cycled through a number of different answers: “I don’t know!” Or: “I haven’t been eating.” Or: “Uh, swimming?” And what eventually became my favorite: “Lipo!”
But the truth was, I was doing more than just not eating.
When I was still trying to figure out what was happening to me, I read somewhere that you should do the opposite of what your depression tells you to do. And so even before seeing a psychiatrist, that’s what I did.
On days when depression was telling me to stay in bed all day, I forced myself to get up and go out. It was harder on some days than others. But I persisted. I kept working. I went to the pool to swim. I had started swimming a few months before and I refused to let depression stop me.
I remember one day vividly. It was early December and I had been feeling numb and empty for a couple of weeks. I just couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t cry even if I tried to. I swam as close to the bottom of the pool as I could—it was always nice and quiet at the bottom of the pool. When I paused for a breath and my head broke through the surface of the water, I heard a chorus of voices singing. A choir that I could not see but could hear clearly was singing a Filipino Christmas song. It was such a beautiful moment.
This, I told myself, this would be the perfect time to cry. Instead, I dove back into the water and kept swimming.
As the days went on, that’s what I did. I refused to give in to the whims of depression and stubbornly kept moving. It was a double-edged sword—not only was I defying depression, exercise is also really good for the mind.
It became even easier when I moved back home because the pool was now merely steps away and did not require a car ride. I started running too.
Even on the busiest days, I would squeeze in a swim or a run between interviews, events and appointments. (I’ll tell you a secret: one time, I was so pressed for time that I went to a movie premiere still wearing my jogging clothes. I just traded my sneakers and socks for TOMS and I don’t think anyone noticed. I asked Tatin after, “Did I stink?”)
And because I am me, and I tend to overdo things, I overdid the running, especially after Wiji, The World’s Most Awesome Tattoo Artist, told me I couldn’t swim for two weeks after getting my tattoos. I tried to make up for it by running twice as long and as hard. In just a week, I had developed runner’s knee.
“That must be a record,” my co-worker and friend Anne said, laughing. “Tinalo mo pa mga nagma-marathon sa bilis mo magka-runner’s knee.”
I thought resting it would be enough but soon, my knee was so painful that I had to drag myself to the doctor. And I mean literally drag. Because I was in so much pain that I could no longer walk normally.
Can you believe it? I actually had to go to a sports doctor. Me.
The doctor gave me a long lecture on the importance of stretching and not overexerting myself and taking things slow. “I get it,” he said. “You’re in a group, it’s fun, and you’re tempted to keep up with them.”
“Oh no, that’s the bad thing,” I told him. “I was alone.”
He glanced at my Fitbit. “If your gadget is telling you you need to take more steps, walk, don’t run.”
And he told me not to run for at least two weeks. I groaned.
“But I don’t want you to stop exercising. Don’t lose your momentum,” he said. “Keep swimming. Try yoga. Or Pilates.”
For years, whenever people would tell me that working out can be addicting and that your body would start looking for exercise once you start, I rolled my eyes at them. Who in their right mind would get hooked on sweating when you can binge-watch The Office instead? But they were not lying.
Because when I was stuck in bed icing my knee, my body felt desperate for movement. And so I grabbed my phone and typed this into the search bar: “exercises you can do…” I wasn’t done typing yet when Google auto-completed it to “exercises you can do in bed.” I was pleasantly surprised. That meant I wasn’t the only crazy person who wanted to work out while propped up on pillows! And I was even more pleased to discover that there are actually a lot of exercises you can do while comfortably horizontal.
I also went back to swimming as soon as my tattoo-induced chlorine ban was over.
And, as soon as my knee healed, I hit the oval again and started walking at first and then running.
On days when I couldn’t make it to the oval, I walked around the neighborhood or I wouldn’t ride the car and instead walk home from where we had dinner. It’s just important for me to stay active.
Depression wanted to keep me glued to the floor? Oh hell no. I was going to turn it into my personal trainer.
I started Pilates classes too, something I never thought I would do. My Pilates teacher Nina has been unbelievably patient. Sometimes Pilates feels more like an IQ test than a workout—an IQ test that my stubborn shoulders always fail and that I flub up with my confused breathing—but I like how it has been helping me get to know my body more and discover (and stretch) parts of it that I didn’t even know existed.
I’m going to try crossfit next. And go to my cousins’ gym to see if maybe it’s finally time to sign up for one. That’s my plan—I will try different kinds of exercise to see which ones I’d like best. But swimming and running will remain a constant. I love those peaceful moments—just me and the water, just me, my music, the oval and the night breeze.
When I started to suspect that I was depressed, one of the things I first researched was what changes I could make to help myself. I soon learned that diet makes an impact on your mental state. And so whenever I could manage to eat, I tried to eat fish rich in omega-3 (tuna and salmon forever). I also started avoiding caffeine (it’s a good thing I’ve never been a big coffee drinker).
A few weeks after I started taking my meds, I started eating more regularly. Still not as much as before but at least I could actually feel hunger. Lola Lydia played a huge part in that, sending over trays of food when I was in the midst of moving in. I survived on her tuna sandwiches for about a week.
The strangest part was realizing that I no longer craved the kind of food I liked eating before my diagnosis. I posted a photo of the surprisingly healthy contents of my grocery cart one day and joked, “The alien abduction continues.” Because it’s true. There were times when this whole thing has felt like an alien abduction.
Except for the two times that I turned vegetarian (once for almost a year and once for just thirty days), I never made a conscious effort to eat healthy. I liked fried food, I loved potato chips, I could never say no to sisig. But that has changed.
I asked my psychiatrist Dr. D. “Doc, it’s weird. I used to like junk food, fast food, unhealthy food. But now just the thought of eating fries makes me queasy.”
“It’s possible that you were self-medicating with comfort food before,” Dr. D said.
Tita Marie, who is a clinical psychologist in Seattle, agrees. “It makes total sense to me that you aren’t as drawn to high carbohydrate food now that you’re on medication. It means you are in better balance, and that as your psychiatrist observes, you probably were self-medicating.”
She also 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… It really makes sense to pay attention to diet as a way of treating the brain… When I would see your posts about the type of food you were promoting and enjoying eating, I actually was worried about what was going on for you health-wise.”
Now, I eat mostly seafood and chicken (no skin, gasp!), vegetables and fruits.
I drink only water (a lot of water) and fresh coconut juice (with no sugar). I avoid desserts, I’m lessening my salt intake (goodbye, salt with pineapples), I don’t eat rice and, as much as possible, eat only wheat bread. I can’t remember the last time I ate pasta. If there’s a low-fat option for anything, I go for the low-fat option.
There are still a couple of things I can’t resist though—like my Lola Lyd’s lumpiang shanghai and anyone’s fishballs. I am only human after all.
When I first signed up for Pilates, there was a question on the form: “What is your goal?”
“To get healthier,” was my quick answer.
I have lost over twenty pounds since December. But I haven’t really been keeping track. Because that is not the point. Losing weight has never been the target of my lifestyle change. It has just been a bonus. I really just wanted to get healthier. I wanted to spit in depression’s face and say, “Look, bitch, I am stronger and in better health now than I was before you arrived.”
And the wonderful thing is the people around me have been helping me spit in depression’s face without realizing it. I didn’t have to buy running shoes—Jag and Grace had given me a pair for Christmas, probably thinking I’d just wear it to the mall. My mom arrived home from the States with a bunch of cute sports socks. Charlie had given me a Fitbit Charge HR which has become my best friend. Rem, my Fitbit buddy, has been challenging me to meet the daily goal of 10,000 steps (I failed yesterday, Rem, I know, but in my defense, I did one hour of Pilates that the Fitbit couldn’t log). When I bought sports bras at H&M, I won a two-week pass for Crossfit Manila.
And some people have been consciously helping. Like Lola Lydia who keeps cooking healthy food (even packing my meals when I’m in a hurry to leave).
Anne who gave me a gift card for Pilates classes. Lolo Bojie who brought home fish for me. Tita Marie who stresses the importance of eating healthy (and eating a lot of leafy green vegetables) in her lovely emails. Nico’s consistent (and punny) reminders to eat. Tita Arlene and El who introduced me to the oval and who are my sometimes walking and running buddies.
Yaya Delta and Dino who chaperone me on my late-night walks around the neighborhood. My Pilates teacher who went out of her way to tell me to always remember to bring water because my meds can dehydrate me. My mom and her words of encouragement. And Powie who willingly picked me up from the oval on Yaya Delta’s birthday.
If you told me just a few months ago that I would one day be diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder, I would have told you that you were crazy. But if you also told me just a few months ago that I would end up really enjoying working out and eating healthy food, I would also have told you that you were crazy.
Life can surprise us in shitty ways. And the only thing we can do is spring our own surprises. By turning the bad into good. The roadblock into a springboard.
I had read about depression. I have lost friends to it. But it was not something that I thought would happen to me. And many people around me thought the same thing.
I thought, it’s not something that happens to a happy girl who hates being sad, not to the grade school kid who called herself an eternal optimist, not to a person who shuns drama, not to a writer who likes turning problems into punchlines. I was so ignorant. And I was so, so wrong.
I had read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half two years before and had enjoyed it immensely. Later on, I found out that her comics about depression had been lauded by experts as some of the best contemporary depiction of the condition. But I had read those chapters with a sense of detachment. I just couldn’t relate. Truth be told, I could relate more to the young Allie in The God of Cake. (Because damn it, who hasn’t felt like eating an entire cake? Especially if it’s mocha or really moist chocolate cake with good frosting. Or that Jollibee cake from Aggy’s.)
But in the midst of trying to understand what was happening to me, I reread Adventures In Depression and Depression Part Two and realized with alarm that this time, I could see myself in the strips. That fear-proof exoskeleton, not giving a fuck, the inability to connect, the difficulty of interacting with people and just feeling absolutely nothing? That was exactly what I was going through.
I googled like mad, found BuzzFeed’s 21 Comics That Capture The Frustrations of Depression and saw myself in most of the panels.
In the weeks before my diagnosis, when I started telling a few friends about what I was experiencing, I usually sent them these links to read.
Depression comes in different forms for different people. The sadness part for me didn’t last very long. What was more terrifying was just being completely numb and empty. I wanted to feel things but couldn’t.
“I couldn’t access my emotions,” I kept saying during those weeks. I imagined my feelings hiding inside a mouse hole like the ones from those Tom and Jerry cartoons. I would reach in, because I knew they were there, but they’re always just beyond my grasp, no matter how hard I tried. Eventually, trying became boring. Exhausting. So I stopped.
When I went to Dr. D for the first time and I started rattling off my symptoms, I had no idea that was acing the DSM-5 test for depression.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition or DSM-5 is used by psychiatrists as a classification and diagnostic tool. It was only last week that I leafed through Tita Arlene’s copy and found out that to be diagnosed with a major depressive disorder or clinical depression, you should have five or more symptoms during the same two-week period. Under the criteria are nine symptoms and, without realizing it, I had told Dr. D that I had eight of them. Eight out of nine. For over two weeks.
“No thoughts of suicide naman, anak? Aggressive or passive?” Dr. D. asked gently.
“What do you mean by passive?” I asked. And without waiting for her to reply, I continued. “I’m not going to do anything to hurt myself but in those first weeks I went from “Oh my god, if they ever find a way to make human beings immortal, I’m definitely going for it, I want to live forever” to “If I die tomorrow, okay lang. Okay na.”
(But don’t panic, people. I am back to wanting to live forever. Except I don’t want to have to drink blood or find a sparkly fake teenage vampire for it to happen.)
I was less surprised when Dr. D also diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder.
Clinical depression was a nasty surprise, an unwelcome stranger. But anxiety? Anxiety was an old enemy. Anxiety and I go way, way back.
When I was nine, after my grandma’s mother and my grandpa’s father died within a week of each other, I developed an unhealthy obsession with death.
I remember being in bed, sandwiched between my parents and making them promise that we would all die together.
I feared that every time my mother left the house, she would die. And so every time she would go out, I would freak out and cry.
That went on for a while and it got so bad that my parents sat me down for a serious talk. And that led to this hilarious exchange with my father The Hulk:
The Hulk: “Ganyan ka rin ba kay Papa or kay Mama lang?” (“Do you feel that way about Papa too or just Mama?”)
Pam: “Kay Mama lang.” (“Just Mama.”)
I wasn’t trying be an asshole, I swear. I was just being an honest kid.
The talk didn’t stop my fears. At night, as she slept, I would look closely to see if my mother’s blanket was moving up and down—a sure sign that she was breathing. When I wasn’t satisfied by her blanket’s minuscule movements, I would carefully place my hand an inch away from her nose to feel her warm breath. But because I have always been clumsy, I often ended up accidentally poking her nose. My mother would wake up and scold me for playing with her face while she slept. I didn’t correct her, I never told her I was just checking if she was still alive because I wasn’t sure which one she’d think was worse.
I didn’t just worry about my mother’s death, I worried about my own too. The tiniest cuts would have me bawling and asking my grandma hysterically, “Am I dying?” I dreaded evenings because evenings meant sleeping and sleeping meant there was a possibility that I wouldn’t wake up. And so on many nights, I would refuse to sleep. I would hide books under my pillow and spend the entire night reading. It was tricky sometimes because I still slept in the same room as my parents and I knew I’d get a good spanking if I got caught staying up all night.
I don’t know how but I outgrew the tantrums and I learned not to fear sleep.
But when I got older and started having relationships, my anxiety reared its ugly head again. This time, I kept worrying that my boyfriends would die. I always had the same scenario in my head. I was always sure they were going to wreck their car on their way home from my house. But I never told them about my fears. I worried that they’d think I was weird.
The weirdness didn’t stop there. After the Rizal Day bombings in Manila and a horrific flight (and you know it’s a really bad one when you talk to the pilot—a supposedly experienced one—after you land and he tells you “I thought I was about to meet my creator”), my nerves were frayed. In 2003, I had my first panic attack and my anxiety levels were so high that I stopped commuting and I avoided work trips for a few months. My friends started calling me Panic Attack Pammy.
Even now, every time I’d board a flight, I’d think, “This plane is going to crash.” And the odd thing is, I really love flying and I especially love long flights. But the thought of doom is always there, buried in the back of my head.
About two years before my diagnosis, I developed an almost constant feeling of dread. Something bad is going to happen, something really bad, I would often think. The feeling would last for weeks, disappear for a bit and return, disappear and return.
And naturally, I tried to explain it away. “This is probably just one of my personality quirks. I’m just a worrier. Maybe I’m paranoid because I’ve been watching too many episodes of Dateline. Yeah. I really should stop watching Dateline.”
In December 2015, depression the stranger and anxiety the old enemy came together and turned my life upside down.
But I am back on my feet. And I am stronger than ever. And I continue to fight. Because it will take so much more than a shitty mental disorder to take me down.
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.