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.