When I first went to Dr. D, one of the first things she asked was, “Do you have space for healing?”
It was only a couple of weeks later, after I had moved back home, that I understood what she meant.
Although to call it home would be a stretch because I had never actually lived there. I had a room there, yes, but I wasn’t even sure what it looked like.
It was the house my mother moved into after our family building was sold. It was just steps away from my grandparents’ house.
On the night I arrived, I was so exhausted from moving that I didn’t even get the chance to look at my room.
I collapsed on my mother’s bed (she was still in the States then) and was soon greeted by my brother who was being really really nice. He had called me earlier that afternoon to ask if I wanted a burger and he bought me one.
“Do you want me to heat up your burger?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” I said. “And can you please give me water for my medicine?”
He appeared minutes later with the burger and glass of cold water on a tray. That’s another side effect of depression: it turns your brother into a willing butler.
I dismissed Butler Powie and he went off to play video games, leaving me alone in my mother’s room.
I saw photos of myself that my mother stuck on a lamp and I thought, “This girl doesn’t know what’s about to hit her.”
I ate the burger, drank my medicines and then got ready for bed. You know you’re in a strange bathroom when you almost brush your teeth with anti-itch cream.
The next day, I went up to the third floor to see what I had to contend with.
A bedroom that looked more like a storage area.
But it was a challenge I was ready for. I had a feeling that creating the space for my healing was going to be therapeutic and I was right.
Step one, sort through all the crap and decide which ones to keep, give away, throw out or toss into a garage sale pile.
To decide what to keep, decluttering queen Marie Kondo and her followers like to ask themselves, “Does it spark joy?”
I do no such thing. I just ask myself, “Do I like this shit? Yes? Okay, I’ll keep it.”
I made a Spotify playlist I called Nesting and I played it the whole time I was cleaning.
I started digging through the boxes and found some interesting things.
An old book from my days as a Political Science major.
And inside the book, proof that instead of paying attention in class, I was always thinking about work.
Proof of my hoarding tendencies.
A face that always makes me stop in my tracks.
This hilarious tag on someone’s blouse. I have no idea whose. (And Fu Kiu Too.)
My newspaper articles that my grandma had clipped along with a bunch of dusty documents.
Her clippings included love stories I wrote for Inquirer Libre. Oh yes, I used to secretly write romantic tales in Tagalog for the free paper. And when I was in a bad mood, the couple in the story didn’t end up together. (Shh.)
A lot of rubber ducks. Sadly, I am missing quite a few, including my favorite enormous devil duck.
A ton of notebooks.
A shitload of negatives. There’s a joke in there somewhere but my brain is refusing to make an effort.
A book from my father’s fifth grade class.
My high school P.E. shirt. (Yes, we had to sew our names on our shirts. Like we’d forget them or something.)
There were notebooks after notebooks and diaries after diaries covered with my messy scrawling, letters and scrapbooks from exes, birthday and holiday cards from friends and colleagues, plane tickets and boarding passes and a million and one stickers.
It was like my life was flashing before my eyes as I went through the boxes.
On weekends, I worked nonstop from morning to the wee hours, with Lola Lydia just sending over trays of food to make sure I was eating.
I was constantly dirty and dusty but I didn’t mind. It was good to keep moving and to keep doing things. One day, I didn’t stop cleaning from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. I don’t think I sat down once. I asked Dr. D if that was a cause for concern. “How many times did that happen?” she asked.
“Just once,” I said.
“Watch out for signs of mania,” she told me. That could mean I was bipolar instead of depressed. But I didn’t have any more manic episodes.
On weekdays, heading home meant heading straight to the third floor for more digging and dumping.
It took days and days before I was left with these: the things from the boxes that I actually wanted to keep. (Yes, Marie Kondo, they spark goddamn joy. Happy now?)
But I had more stuff to deal with: everything I brought home with me. And there were so many things that Yaya Delta had to take three car trips.
I knew from the start that I didn’t want bookshelves, I wanted to build a book wall. And so I started.
My original plan was to have it beside my bed but I soon realized that I wanted to wake up and see a wall of books instead of a wall of shoe boxes.
Soon, my room transformed from this storage area…
Not bad, huh?
This is my bed and instead of a real bedside table, I stacked a couple of storage boxes—one that’s full of my old notebooks and diaries and another that’s full of fresh ones that are waiting to be used.
Beside my bed is my tower of Doc Martens. I love Doc Martens boots, especially the eight-hole ones. Often, when I travel, I don’t buy any souvenirs, I just pick up a pair to remind me of that trip. My friends have joked that the boxes might fall on me as I sleep. I’ll take that chance.
Beside the shoe tower is a stack of lunch boxes. It’s funny how the pile has grown. I only remember buying the green Buy More lunch box from the NBC store and the red one from Kate’s Paperie in New York. But I got more as gifts. The two on the bottom are my washi tape keepers, I have crafting and beading supplies in the black one, the red one is practically empty, the green one hides a ton of elastics for my hair along with Konad stamping supplies and the blue one has all my depression-related documents including test results, prescriptions and medicine foil packs.
In the midst of my attempt to organize everything, Yaya Delta told me that he found an old shelf that I might want. It was discarded after the move from the family building, he said. I looked at it. It was brown but yes, it looked like something I could use, so he painted it white.
And it has now become one of my favorite parts of my room. It stores my trolls, my Polly Pockets, my Smurfs, artwork created by friends (I would never commission an artwork with my face on it but these were all presents and I love them), my magnetic poetry collection, my pile of Lucky Peach, Frankie and Cherry Bombe magazines and my watches, bracelets and accessories.
Those of you who are familiar with my nail polish obsession would already have seen my Helmers. These little metal cabinets from Ikea are the perfect size for storing nail polish bottles. I also use them now as my vanity table. This is usually my last stop before leaving the house, where I grab my lipstick (although I’ve been using YSL’s glossy stain more these days) and my cheek tint and I spritz on perfume before exiting.
I hung the bags I use most often on a hook on my door. Clearly, I’m a backpack kind of girl.
This was the second version of the book wall. (And that’s Jason’s painting of me cradling a Doc Martens boot. It now hangs over my Helmers.)
I was happy with my wall but then I decided to pick up my books from Lola Charit’s house. And I realized that there were a lot of them.
There were so many books that I realized I was going to have to redo the book wall.
And that’s what I did. And I decided to make it the craziest book wall ever.
I consider it a victory that it toppled over only three times while I was working on it.
I was pleased with how it turned out.
I love my book wall a lot. But I realized it was missing something.
This. One of my most treasured possessions as a reader: an inflatable brain Chuck Palahniuk gave me at his event at Cooper Union in New York. I got the very last brain by asking Chuck a question that made the people in the packed auditorium laugh. He threw it my way and I caught it. The fact that it is a brain holds so much more meaning now.
My bedroom was done but my bathroom wasn’t. It needed quite a bit of work so we brought in a plumber. I felt like an adult when I went to a store to buy adult things like a shower heater, a toilet seat, faucets and other random bathroom stuff.
And then I stopped feeling like an adult because I chose a shower heater based on its model name: Olaf. It was so hard choosing between that and Katniss. And Peeta.
And also, I don’t think adult bathrooms are supposed to have a ton of rubber ducks. But I don’t care. I like them.
The last thing I worked on was organizing my closet. It involved hunting down wooden hangers at various branches of Japan Home (4 for P88, what a deal!).
Clearly, I need more black clothes.
And this has been my space for healing.
It’s a little (okay, a lot) messier now than the pictures show but it’s still my sanctuary.
In such a short amount of time, I have made a lot of memories here. It’s where I rest after a long day at work, it’s where I collapse after a really long run, it’s my place for creating and for writing, it’s where I curl up on bad days, it’s where I take phone calls that leave me smiling, it’s where I nurse the pain, it’s where I try to cry even when the tears still won’t come, it’s where I cured my fear of the dark, it’s where I listen to music that makes my soul come alive, it’s where I’ve learned to accept the changes and the challenges, it’s where I’ve started to build new dreams and cling to new hopes.
I created my space for healing. It isn’t perfect but it’s mine.
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.