The client in front of me struggles to put to words what she is going through. Her shoulders are slouched, her eyes avert contact with mine, and her breathing is shallow. I read her body language and her expressions; I’m forming a hypothesis in my mind as I take mental notes. She begins listing her issues one by one – she finds it difficult to get out of bed; she doesn’t feel motivated; she has trouble sleeping and rarely feels like eating. And yes, she has been thinking about ending her life, finding it all difficult to cope with. It comes easy to me, the initial diagnosis, with such overt symptoms you’d be hard-pressed to miss the demon of depression staring right at me. And as her psychologist, I know I am supposed to be telling her about the power of therapy, those of exercises, the right diet that can do wonders, how cognitive behaviour therapy can help, and there’s always medication to fall back on.
I do all these with her, my client. But I don’t tell her one thing. I leave that crucial part out. I don’t tell her that I too am depressed.
This is the situation I was in a year ago; I was dealing with patients who came to me with a variety of psychological distresses and problems. And I tackled them all head-on and always tried to be there at the forefront of effective treatments for my patients. I never knew or thought that one day I would fall prey to the silent killer. Psychologists who suffer from the symptoms of depression are rarely talked about.
What happened in my life wasn’t all that different from what happens in the lives of my patients. There were financial difficulties, the pressure of working in a challenging space like mental health and issues with family. It wasn’t overnight or all of a sudden, it was slow, it was silent, and one fine day, there were two depressed people in the therapy room.
Unlike what most people think, depression isn’t an illness that springs out of nowhere. In hindsight, when I looked back, I see now the many small actions I took, the many inconsistent thoughts that I had prior to my big realisation. I would get stressed out over small everyday things, I was constantly in my own head asking and questioning myself, I couldn’t sleep and I would toss and turn as I struggled to sleep in spite of having stressful and tiring days. And even though I was a professional, I took all these signs as mere stresses of everyday life.
Then it happened. My partner knew I wasn’t sleeping well and she was concerned. Then one day on my way to work, I broke down and cried in the bus. Nothing happened, no one said anything to me, I didn’t witness a trauma, but I started crying and it felt like I couldn’t stop. At that moment I realised I was in trouble. That there was something wrong with me. In spite of this, I trudged along to work and tried to function as normal as possible.
Back home, my partner was scared and angry that I didn’t confide in her early. She took me to a general practitioner who prescribed a sleeping pill to me. I slept well that night, but I didn’t feel any different or better.
I took a few days off work and tried to come to terms with what I was feeling. On some days I didn’t want to get out of bed, and on another day I was filled with so much sadness that all I wanted to do was curl up into the foetal position and bawl my eyes out. Whatever it was, I couldn’t see the way out of this.
I tried to do all the mental and physical exercises that I used to prescribe to my patients. I would write down my thoughts in a journal, I would go out for a walk, I would try different combinations of diet, but forget these working, I couldn’t even bring myself to do half of these things. And this was the moment I realised what my patients actually go through in their lives.
My partner, who is also a therapist suggested a different doctor to me. This new doctor and the new pills started helping me. I slowly started doing the things that I had stopped doing. Things that I had always taken for granted, getting out of bed, wanting to take a shower, enjoying a meal. I began talking with my partner in a professional capacity, and even with the ethical tangle involved in it, she helped me through cognitive sessions where I realised that I had been far too alone in my life and that I needed to open up more and share more. The simplest of things, things that I often tell my patients.
After a month more of therapy, I went back to work. I took it slow and paced my sessions better. I paid better attention to the instances of countertransference happening that used to affect me more in the past. Things which possibly contributed to my condition. And this taught me to open up more, especially with my partner. Friends, when they heard about my condition, found it difficult to believe that I was depressed in spite of being a psychologist and even having a partner at home who was one as well.
Has it made me a better psychologist? It’s hard to say, having depression isn’t a superpower. But it taught me a valuable lesson. And it has also helped me empathise with my patients more. Having walked the same path as my patients have, I know exactly how scary and lonely it can get. And knowing this has undoubtedly helped me become a better and in tuned therapist.