One of the most difficult things to understand about my depression is that there was no trigger.
“No way, something must have happened,” people kept saying over and over.
“Maybe you were stressed at work.”
“I’m used to the stress at work. I relish the stress at work. Those crazy deadlines? I actually like them. If stress at work was the cause, it should have happened long ago.”
“Were you sad about anything?”
“I really wasn’t.”
“So nothing triggered it?”
“Yeah, nothing. It just happened.”
I’ve had variations of that conversation again and again and again.
I get it. People want a reason. People want something to blame it on. My condition will be easier to understand if there was a person, a thing, anything to point at and yell at, “You! You did this!”
But there’s nothing. And to them, it’s alarming.
Because if it hit me seemingly out of nowhere, does that mean it can happen to them? To people they love?
On my very first session with Dr. D, she explained very gently, “Anak, some people get depressed because they’re going through a breakup or they’re mourning the death of someone they loved. But your case isn’t like that. I suspect that it’s genetic. You were predisposed… there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.”
Aunt Marie agrees. She says that sometimes, anxiety or depression can be self-made from habits or habitual ways of thinking. But that’s not my case.
Sometimes, people can be predisposed to anxiety or depression but if they’ve had “a perfect life of sorts,” they may not manifest it at a clinical level.
Aunt Marie also said that other people who are predisposed only need one or two successful trigger events to plunge them into full-blown clinical anxiety and depression. “A break up, a death in the family, not getting a promotion, being unemployed” were some her examples.
And then there’s me. Depressed, anxious trigger-less me.
Aunt Marie wrote, “Sometimes, just like a panic attack coming out of nowhere, a major depressive episode may suddenly be an unwelcome visitor such as you experienced… When one has a pretty satisfying life and lots of support, as you do, and anxiety and depression grow, that’s a different type of anxiety and depression than simple neuroticism; it strongly suggests predisposition and speaks more to neurochemistry.”
And now that I know what I know, I realize that I was like a ticking time bomb depression-wise.
Aunt Marie calls me genetically loaded. “That’s just how the dice roll. It’s nobody’s fault,” she said.
I never blamed anyone for my depression—not myself, not my family, not the people around me. In fact, I don’t think I spent a single second trying to look for someone to blame. I didn’t waste time looking for nonexistent triggers either.
I did, however, dig into my past to look for signs. And there were a handful.
Sign #1: This weird conversation with Lolo Osing
When my depression first hit in November on my way home from the States, I remembered a strange conversation I had with Lolo Osing when I was 18 or 19. I wrote about it during my flight from Korea to Manila.
My grandfather summoned me to his hospital bed.
He wasn’t dying. Yet. I think he died weeks or months after, I’m not really sure. But whenever it was, I fear that he took a part of me with him to the grave.
He didn’t call me to his side for expressions of love and the beginning of goodbyes. Everything else he said faded and only one thing stayed: “You will find it very difficult to make your life happy.”
It wasn’t a warning, it wasn’t advice, I hope it wasn’t a curse. He was stating it, like it was sure, like he was sure, 100%, that his granddaughter, the only one he met, was going to have a miserable existence.
It was strange. And I walked out of that hospital confused, not telling anyone what he said. But I’ve always been stubborn and so his words had one effect on me: I was determined to prove him wrong.
I’d like to think of myself as a happy person. I find pleasure in all kinds of things, big or small, I find thrills and adventures in the everyday.
But sometimes, sadness rears its head. Sometimes, things feel extra hard. Sometimes, my emotions are a mixed bag that I couldn’t explain. Sometimes, it’s like you have to dig and claw to find the happy underneath a mess of crap. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m going crazy.
And during these moments, I am transported to that day, in that hospital, sitting on that white bed, wondering what the hell this old man was telling me.
The scene comes flashing back when I am swimming in misery, when I feel like I’m about to make bad life decisions and would still go ahead with them.
And I thought of that scene again as I walked and walked and walked in the streets of Los Angeles late one night, fighting the urge to cry, letting the cold wash over me because freezing was the only feeling I understood.
It better not have been a curse.
I still wonder what made him say that to me. Did he see something nobody else did? Did he notice depressive symptoms? I will never know. But my grandfather was an architect, not a psychologist. What did he know? And I am still stubborn. I am still determined to prove him wrong. I am unwavering in my belief that I can be happy despite being depressed. In fact, I can honestly say that I’m happy right now. I love my grandpa but screw that conversation and screw that day in the hospital. I refuse to let it kill my joy.
Sign #2: My addictions
Those who know me well know my tendency to get… obsessed with things. Trolls. Penguins. Havaianas. Nail polish. Lipstick. A collector, if you want to be kind about it. An addict, if you wish to be blunt.
I wrote to Aunt Marie: “Looking back, I believe that I did develop addictions and obsessions with things because of the condition that I didn’t know existed yet. When the depression set in, I felt really bad about amassing so many material things. I even had the urge to start giving things away and I kind of did.”
My brother and I both believe we have the addictive gene. This is why I’ve never tried smoking or, with the exception of pot brownies that brought me to Super Mario’s warp zone and caused me to have really profound thoughts about sour cream and onion potato chips, doing drugs. After those pot brownies which I ate at a party, I said, “Never again.” And I have stayed true to my word.
Aunt Marie wrote: “A lot of my work was with people with eating disorders and addictions. Often, people predisposed to binge-eating or drinking or drugging or gambling or sexcapades to excess are really responding to the body’s craving for something to straighten out the chemistry. In the case of gambling and sex, they are the purest form of addiction as no external chemicals are ingested. Thus, it’s really important to treat the anxiety or depression or people become predisposed to the addictive behaviors.”
I believe her because since my diagnosis and being on medication, I haven’t bought any of those things I collect. (I still use my nail polish and lipstick and flip flops, yes, but I haven’t been itching to buy new ones like I used to.) And I’ve been eating healthier food. I still buy a lot of books though. But an addiction to reading is the best addiction there is. And Dr. Martens. Dr. Martens are not a symptom of my strangeness, they are awesome.
Sign #3: My 365 Days Project
In 2009, like many other people on Flickr, I made several attempts to complete the challenge of shooting creative self-portraits for 365 days. My longest run lasted 183 days. And it was only years after that I realized how sad most of my photos were. I mean, look at these pictures:
I look at them and wonder: what was going on with this girl?
I showed them to Dr. D and asked, “Could I have been depressed then without knowing it?”
“You could have been, on a subclinical level.”
Sign #4: My numerous fears
That’s what we have. No triggers but several signs.
But while I spent some time looking back for explanations, I have really dedicated most of my attention to the present and the future. What can I do? What can I change? How do I deal with this? What will I do next?
And Aunt Marie thinks that’s a good thing. “Clearly, you’re doing much better as you’ve got motivation back to think of the future…”
She’s right. And the future looks bright. Bright and hopefully free of obsessions, irrational fears, sad photos and strange conversations in hospitals.
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.
Powie refused to believe I was getting a tattoo. I think his reaction when I told him was, “Ulol! Seryoso?”
His needle-hating sister willingly paying to be pricked not just once but multiple times? That was never going to happen. That was as likely as the Care Bears coming to life.
So when the tattoos were done, I texted him.
And when his shock wore off, he gleefully waited for shit to hit the fan.
And by shit to hit the fan, I meant he was waiting for my mother and grandmother to react to my tattoos.
For you to fully understand, we need to rewind to October 2002, when a then-17-year-old Powie got his first tattoo: a tribal tramp stamp. I repeat: my innocent 17-year-old brother got a tramp stamp. A tribal one.
But he wasn’t really that innocent, not when it came to doing crazy things to his body. He was 15 when he got his eyebrow and nipple pierced, 16 when he got his tongue pierced and 17 when he stretched his ears so he could wear tunnel earrings.
And just like getting his first tattoo, he did those things without warning.
When his school’s assistant vice principal found out about his eyebrow piercing, Powie was summoned. “Patrick, alam mo ba ginagawa mo sa sarili mo? Pinapatay mo ang sarili mo!”
And if you think that the assistant vice principal was dramatic, you need to hear how my mother reacted when she found out about the tattoo.
I remember that morning clearly. My mother found a tub of petroleum jelly in the bathroom and was trying to figure out whose it was. I was in her room when she walked in, waving the tub, looking both disgusted and amused. “This is your brother’s! Do you think he’s masturbating?”
I rolled my eyes. “Ew, Ma,” I said. But I knew the real reason Powie had been lugging petroleum jelly around. He was using it on his secret tattoo.
I left for work and later that afternoon, my mother called me at the office. She was hysterical. “Your brother has a tattoo! He’s killing me! Talagang papatayin ako nito!” She kept sobbing on the phone.
“Oh my god, Ma. Stop. Your tears aren’t going to erase his tattoo,” I said, eager to get back to work.
Four years later, Powie got another tattoo, one on his arm that was so big it took two sessions to complete. My mother did not want to see it so for years, Powie couldn’t wear sleeveless shirts at home.
Lola Lydia kept quoting Biblical passages, telling Powie that in the Bible, only the bodies of slaves were marked.
Now you understand why Powie was expecting theatrics after my tattoo session.
My mother had come home from the States the day I got my tattoos and when I greeted her, I flashed my right arm, showing her the typewriter one.
“Bullshit!” she said loudly and I laughed.
And then, probably thinking her cowardly daughter would never get a tattoo, she said, “Is that fake?”
“Nope, it’s real.”
She glared at me. And that was that.
Powie missed that exchange and really wanted to see some action. So the next time he saw us together, he tried to get her riled up. “Ma, what did you think of Pam’s tattoo? Are you going to jump out of the window?”
She just glared at him.
Powie continued, “Aren’t her tattoos worse? At least if I wear a shirt, you couldn’t see mine.”
My mom said, “Pam’s tattoos are small.”
And I chimed in, “Yes, they’re small because I want a lot of small tattoos. I’m going to keep adding to them.”
It was my turn to get the glare.
Truth be told, I was more nervous about Lola Lydia’s reaction. So when I had lunch at her house, I used only my left hand to eat. She didn’t notice the tattoo.
But later that night, as I was on my way home, I realized that she had liked the photo of the typewriter tattoo that I had posted on Facebook. I was waiting for the inevitable comment. “In Jesus’ name,” I thought I would read. Or “Terrible!” (I could almost hear her voice saying it the Spanish way.) But there was no comment. The silence was terrifying.
I called Powie. “Holy shit, Lola liked my tattoo photo. What the fuck does that mean?”
Powie started laughing. I kept talking. “I feel like she marked it to remind her to scold me.”
Powie and I arrived at Lola Lyd’s house almost at the same time. And again, he really wanted to see tattoo-caused theatrics. So while I tried hiding my tattoo, he kept trying to get Lola to notice it.
“Pam, why are you wearing your watch on your right wrist? Don’t you usually wear it on the left?” Powie asked loudly.
I gave him my powerful evil stare. I noticed Lolo Bojie looking at my typewriter tattoo and I put my fingers to my lips.
“She’s already seen it,” he said.
But Powie wasn’t done.
“Yelo?” Lola Lyd asked me, adding ice to my glass of water.
Powie said, “Lola, hindi yellow. Green!”
Again, I widened my eyes at him. He kept snickering. But Lola said nothing about my tattoos.
Instead, as I washed the dishes, she started talking about how Jesus had already healed all our diseases when he was nailed to the cross. All diseases, she said, “including migraine, depression, hilo.”
And all of a sudden, her silence about the tattoos made sense.
As we walked out of my grandparents’ house, I nudged my mom. “Lola knows about the depression, huh?”
“I told her,” my mom said.
“I knew it!”
So apparently, in my family, depression gives you a tattoo pass.
It took a couple of days before Lola Lyd finally brought up the tattoos.
“Why did you get tattoos?” she asked me.
“Because the only thing stopping me was my fear of needles and it has disappeared.”
“And what does two-zero mean?”
“A new version of me,” I said.
A version of me who can get tattoos without shit hitting the fan.
“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.
New Year’s Day 2016.
Lunch had just ended and we were in Lola Charit’s living room, surrounded by relatives who were all talking about my father’s problematic heart valve.
I nudged Powie and whispered, “I kinda wanna tell them.”
He nodded once, encouragingly.
I spoke, my voice loud and clear, like it sometimes has to be in order to be heard in our family. “Guys, speaking of medical problems, I have one!” I said, almost cheerfully, as if I was announcing that I bought a new TV.
“I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder.”
In hindsight, there were signs that I ignored.
In the months before my diagnosis, my PMS had transformed from just a day or two of irritability or sensitivity (and sometimes neither of the two) to lengthier, darker periods of gloom. I chalked it up to hormones, to getting older. “Maybe I’m approaching menopause?” I thought a few times, which is laughable since the red fairy and I will keep meeting for about two more decades before she says goodbye.
And then there was the bigger sign.
The day after the launch of my second book “Planet Panic,” I woke up feeling… nothing. It was so different from the way I felt after “Paper Cuts” came out—I was elated for days. This time, even though I had a lot of fun at the event, the next day, I felt no joy.
“Shouldn’t I be happy? Why don’t I feel happy?” I asked myself. But I told no one and I tried to explain it away. “Maybe I’m just tired. Yeah, I’m probably just tired.”
Besides, I didn’t have time to think too much about how I was feeling. I had a trip to the U.S. I needed to prepare for.
I spent a few extra days in the States because I didn’t want to worry about being rerouted when Manila was declared a no-fly zone during the APEC summit.
I met up with friends and relatives but I was alone most of the time, having adventures around Los Angeles, finding stories to write about. It had been an amazing week—I interviewed Lucky Blue Smith and Sean O’Pry about their Penshoppe campaigns, I had a blast seeing Lala, Chloe and Tito Ringgo, I loved hanging out with Tita Becky, I had dinner with Edzel, I had Chipotle twice (way essential), I somehow (magically) ended up at the Mockingjay premiere, I watched a taping of 2 Broke Girls, I went to Rainn Wilson’s book launch. Thanks to Uber as my wingman, I had finally fallen in love with LA.
It was almost time to go home and I had one last adventure planned. I went to the Grammy Museum to listen to Conan O’Brien and Peter Guralnick talk about Sam Phillips.
I wasn’t there for Sam Phillips or Peter Guralnick. I was just there to stare at Conan who had been my strange celebrity crush for many years.
And so it was a big surprise that when I walked out of the museum, my delight at spending a good couple of hours watching Conan play with his hair and my excitement at seeing his assistant Sona suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced by something I had never felt before.
“Have a good night,” the museum’s security guard had said to me.
“You too!” I had called out to him happily.
But the minute I stepped onto the sidewalk, I felt like I had been sucker punched.
This is the way I have explained it to friends: It was like my insides had been scraped out, leaving me hollow and empty. I felt like a human Jack O’Lantern.
I was supposed to head back to Tito Boy and Tita Becky’s house so I could start packing but my body refused.
“I need to walk this off,” I thought. And so I did. I walked block after block in Downtown LA but did not feel better.
“Walking isn’t making a difference. I think I need a drink,” I thought. I whipped out my phone, looked up bars on Google Maps and started walking towards Hank’s. I entered the dark dive bar, grabbed a seat and told the bartender, who looked like an older version of Kristen Stewart, “Can I get a beer please?”
“Sure, hon, but I will need to see an ID.”
I looked at the sign on the wall: “If you look under 25, be prepared to show ID.”
“Lady, I am 35,” I wanted to argue but I had no strength. I dug around in my bag for my passport and waited as she squinted at it.
Soon, a cold beer was in front of me and I drank in silence.
Kristen Stewart Sr. made small talk with every single customer in the bar, asking them about the basketball game, teasing them about the sports teams they rooted for, talking about how much she fucking loves Abba, but to me, she said nothing except ask, “Do you want another one?”
It was like she could see the dark haze around me and knew that even her edgy zeal couldn’t penetrate it.
I was draining my second bottle of beer when my phone went off. “You on your way back?” Tita Becky texted. It was time to go.
I arrived at their place to discover that Tito Boy had cooked a beautiful plate of Chilean sea bass for me. It was absolutely delicious and I ate every last bit of it. I didn’t know it then but that was going to be my last full meal for a while.
I spent the rest of the night packing and watching videos of Jennifer Lawrence on YouTube, finding comfort in the fact that I could still laugh.
The next morning, I watched a clip of Adele surprising her impersonators and I started crying at the airport. I spent the almost-fourteen-hour flight from LA to Korea just sleeping. Then I landed in Manila feeling like an alien who had been plucked from my home planet and dropped somewhere really really strange.
I was in my head for days, trying to understand the odd feeling that just wouldn’t go away. On the outside, I pretended everything was normal. I was working, I was productive, I was interviewing people, I was meeting deadlines, I was replying to messages and comments on Facebook and Instagram. But on the inside, I was everything but. Outside of work, I couldn’t relate to the people around me. I was constantly exhausted. I was barely eating. I spent nights crashing on the carpet and watching stand-up comics on YouTube. I slept too much. I remember being in a mall to meet with Jill and Giff for dinner and when they told me they were going to be an hour late, I felt completely helpless, like I wanted to go home. And when they finally arrived, I didn’t know how to talk to them. I was an alien, an alien pretending to be Pam. I felt like the person that I was had left, leaving her empty shell still standing.
I was maybe more quiet than usual but I thought I had been doing a good job at hiding the strangeness. But after about ten days, Jill asked, “Is everything okay?”
And after days of silence, I finally spoke. “No, I’m not okay. I think I’m depressed. I need to see someone about it.”