When it’s 77 degrees out in March, you can’t help but smile

I’ve been to hell and back in the last two days. My mother, who flew into Chicago a few weeks ago since my hospitalization, mentally broke down. She’s one of the strongest people I know, and has been my partner in crime since we decided to live abroad, which has now been 14 years, moving from city to city- Toronto, New York, Atlanta, Boston and now here. It had been just the two of us all this time- we have no family in North America-  it was us against the world. To see her so broken, pushed me down the abyss even further. I started having a panic attack, and tried to run away as far as I could, not really thinking, or knowing what to do next. I literally could not breathe. When I finally calmed down, my previous thoughts of the knives, the bathtub and other methods of ending it all started creeping back in. I fell asleep, paralyzed and exhausted.

It’s of course, completely understandable why she was acting this way: the tantrums, the screaming and the crying. For the outsider looking in, especially the people closest to you (I imagine) feel the most helpless towards the clinically depressed. They don’t understand the black box that is your brain, inaccessible even to yourself. They don’t know that the depressed is no longer in control of their mind, their thoughts and their emotions. What pushed my mother over the  edge was the topic of me going back to the hospital to get help. We were talking about partial hospitalization, which was a seven days a week kind of commitment, and maybe intensive outpatient care, which was only three days a week, but as someone who is not trusting of the American health care system, which often is characterized as over-testing, over-diagnosing and over-prescribing compared to the system that we have in place in Korea, she didn’t think that being in a facility to treat this disease was going to help, but make me sound sicker than I actually was. Desperate to get better soon, I disagreed. She thought I was naive that I trusted these doctors who profited off of me staying at the hospital longer. The reality was, in my opinion, she didn’t know how to fix this, and I didn’t either. I am also not naive, I do know: in fact, I took a health economics class in college in which we discussed exactly the asymmetry of information between patients and doctors- the doctors take advantage of the patient’s lack of knowledge to maximize their revenue from the patient, and so do hospitals. And there is prevalence of that in the American system, where there is an incredible amount of inefficiency and room for fraud. This is especially true for treating mental health problems because it is just not tangible as diabetes or a broken leg.

The frustration, the anger and the hopelessness that she felt from not knowing what to do to help during my worst episodes did something to my mother. I was so scared that she would do something I would do during what seems like a helpless situation. I was feeling even guiltier than usual that I was making everyone in my life miserable- I felt toxic and useless. I ruminated about how everyone I loved was going to leave when they were fed up with me being this way. I was better if I didn’t exist. If I wasn’t ever born. What if I never get better? What if all this therapy, meds and struggling was for nothing? Why was I not happy yet?


Another thing that happened in the last two days: I went to my outpatient psychiatrist to update my medication, which wasn’t working to put the floor to what I was feeling. I just felt dazed and confused most of the time, like I was stuck in a body someone else controlled. She figured that my anxiety was getting in the way, so from the Wellbutrin, I got switched to Cymbalta, which works on two receptors in your brain, versus just one, and is something used for people with anxiety as well as depression. It was going to be many trial and errors from here, I suppose.


It’s sunny today. My boyfriend is in San Diego, and the weather in Chicago is actually much hotter, strangely. I always liked sunny weather and summer is my favorite season. To take advantage of it, I am planning on going for a run, then maybe yoga later on top of that. Exercise is a natural antidote to depression.

I just read through everything and, man. Do I sound desperate enough to get better or what?

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Part II- I quit my corporate job because of depression

This is the second part of my story

I was led into the psychiatric wing of the ER, and was placed under constant surveillance, because I was a threat to myself. There was a cop standing by the door for any escapees or self-harmers. The room had a bed that was tilted from the waist up so they could see you at all times through the glass windows. I couldn’t concentrate and my mind was foggy- I had to remind myself of where I was every few minutes. A few nurses and doctors came, to check on my vital signs and to ask about my medical history, then finally a psychiatrist came to speak to me. After telling him my story, he left the room and came back with a diagnosis. “Severe depression.”

Severe depression.

Severe. Depression.

Depression, but severe. It hit me hard. But what did I expect? My therapist had told me earlier that my symptoms sounded like depression and anxiety, but hearing it from someone in a white lab coat made it more real, more clinical. Earlier at one of my sessions, my therapist had told me, from the general arc of my life, that it was caused by early childhood PTSD from constant stress. And I thought you had to be a veteran to earn that label for what it was. The doctor added another reason to the list of reasons why I was feeling and thinking this way: moving too often from city to city made me lose my sense of identity and support system in my youth.

The rest of the 6-8 hours of waiting at the ER felt like days, weeks and months. I was brought some hospital food (grilled cheese with two different kinds of cheeses), water and was watched the whole time. I couldn’t even take out my phone. I was confused and everyone else who cared about me in the real world outside the hospital was confused. My mom got on a plane to Chicago without me knowing at this point, because I had stopped communicating to her and she knew something was off. Before, I was trying to die, but now there were so many strangers trying to save my life- it was a paradox in my head.

I continued to cry because I couldn’t help myself and fell asleep on the flat side of the hospital bed. I was woken up again by the nurse then I was put into a stretcher to get carried off to another hospital where they had capacity to take me. I almost said, I could probably take myself to wherever we’re going on the “L” if you let me. The scariest thing about depression is that it makes you think that you can function normally, when in fact you can’t. What you’re thinking isn’t normal, like if your enemy hijacked your brain and took control over your thoughts. This also applies to self-worth and how you view the world- it’s warped, but you have no idea of knowing that. A disease of the brain, as they say.

Then it was more waiting. More questions about my suicide plan, the causes, what kind of work I did, how it was stressful, why it was stressful, where was my family… A whirlwind of questions for someone who had waited the whole day to get placed somewhere. I was to be placed on the 4th floor, which was the intensive care unit for the actual ‘crazies’ (in my ignorant and uneducated mind, at the time; I thought of the movie, A Beautiful Mind), the schizophrenics, bipolar people with psychosis who couldn’t intelligibly speak and needed help with getting dressed or something. But fortunately, I was placed on the floor with the young adults with mental health issues (think cutters and those who attempted suicide) and, to my surprise, the substance abusers including the alcoholics, heroine addicts and the like. Of course, I only found out about this decision after I was admitted, because I was not able to think clearly and this information never stuck.

That was going to be my home for the next 7 days. I was put into a room with wired windows, no locks on doorknobs with a 19 year-old college student as my roommate. It was like a college dorm, for crazy people. Ironically, she was studying psychology, and she told me this was part of her field experience, as a joke. I thought she was too chipper to be in a psych ward, but it was because she has been there for almost a week. I couldn’t imagine being that happy again. I struggled to sleep that night, as I had been for weeks.

The second day I saw doctor after doctor. The head doctor, the psychiatrist, the head psychiatrist, the interns, the case worker, the social worker, then another doctor… I couldn’t name any one of them because I still didn’t feel like I was thinking my own thoughts. I still felt numb. Nurses came by to check on all the patients every half hour to see that we weren’t up to anything dangerous. I couldn’t even find a pen around because it was relatively sharp, so having my journal was useless. I kept looking at my planner in the future dates to confirm that I was actually a part of this world and that I will be once I got out, because I felt so disconnected from the world from not being able to have my phone with me. I must have looked insane. They rushed me to my first “group” (short for group therapy), which was art therapy. We had to draw a bridge that represented our recovery process. I drew me at the very beginning of the bridge. Some drew themselves in the middle, others drew a treadmill of a bridge- she had been to the hospital a few times already.

Everyone had a story. Most were college students who couldn’t cope with the stress from their/their parents’ high expectation of them, most of them came from the University of Chicago. It was so strange because they all had great things ahead of them. Internships over the summer, competitions they were excited about, international travels… One of them had more than 5 different friends visit them during their time there. I couldn’t understand them at first. They were so young…? There was so much to life after college, they had friends, good grades from what I gathered. But I felt hypocritical to question their motives when I was only a few years older, with so much ahead of me, with a good job, doing not so hot, but still not that badly. I reminisced about how stressed out I was from the math classes I took near the end of my college career, especially those in the graduate level. I knew I wanted to go to grad school some day for statistics or something similar like predictive modeling, and I had to ace them no matter what. Listening to those in the psych ward, there was no specific age, gender, or social class depression targeted. Anyone could be a victim at any given point.

There were also those who were both alcoholics with depression, a double whammy. One man who was struggling with both told me about his partner who was a teetotaler, and couldn’t understand what he was going through. The pains of his withdrawals and the shame he felt when he couldn’t get out of it by himself was impossible to explain. He had a dog, traveled around the world with his husband, but like me, was stressed from his job. As a coping mechanism, he drank to numb the pain. With him, I could especially relate to having a significant other who did not have the same issues and was making an effort to understand my experience. Sometimes, words fail to describe these feelings. There was another man who had gotten into drugs that I, or some of the doctors, have never heard of because it was so underground in the club scene of the LGBT community he was involved in. He was using it to help his creativity as an artist, but he went too far with the drug. His battle was addiction, but in a strange way I could see the parallel with what I’ve been fighting off- which was my addiction to being busy, which was to cover up my problems I refused to face. Being busy was how I thought you got there. Everyone was so compassionate, and understanding of each other’s struggle- however different the struggle was.

My mother visited. I was afraid to face her at first because I felt guilty that I cut off contact with her. I just didn’t want to sound depressed on the phone. She had been worried, and was apologetic for all the pressure she put on me. I told her, it wasn’t you mom, it was mostly me. She took back all those requests she placed on me like me getting married someday and buying her nice things when I had made my wealth. She said she no longer cared what kind of job I had or what I achieved. She said nothing else mattered now, and that I was enough. It’s possible that she had told me this before, but it sounded so alien- my existence being enough, after having identified myself and my self worth based on my career. My other guest was my boyfriend. He was so worried, and was unable to tell me anything at first because he didn’t want to hurt me in case it came out the wrong way. It was difficult telling him everything that I tried to do because some of it didn’t make sense to me either. I was partly afraid he wouldn’t understand and it would just hurt him in the end, and partly feared that he would judge me or see me differently. If he did, I wouldn’t have blamed him. It is a lot for anybody, even for me experiencing it. He has been my best friend and my rock through everything and I couldn’t have asked for more.

The hospital had a strict regimen for the patients. We all woke up at the same time everyday and lights were turned off at the same time. Medication was distributed in the morning before group. Everyone was led to group, and was encouraged to speak. For me, the most helpful was not the drugs, but the group therapy they mandated. I knew that I wasn’t alone, and I felt quite normal, even more normal than some. I was allowing myself to feel what I felt and there was no judgment, no repercussions, just nods.

I got started on a low dose of Wellbutrin after my diagnosis was discussed. They also gave me Mirtazapine one night to help me sleep, and when that proved to be too strong for me (I walked around the halls and I couldn’t recognize anyone or speak coherently the next day), they tried Trazadone. Trazadone gave me night terrors and in my dream, there was a man with a knife, similar to the one I was planning to stab myself with, with a black bugler mask on, who tried to kill my family. I woke up sweating and ran out of my room because I thought he was still there. I stumbled out to a nurse who was on night duty and I was given Ativan for anxiety that night. After none of the drugs put me to sleep or helped in any way, they prescribed good ol’ Melatonin, which worked well as we expected.


After a few days of struggling to stay awake, I was starting to slowly regain consciousness, not that I was close to feeling like myself yet. I was talking to people and doctors saw the progress. I was released exactly a week later.

I stayed home for another week from work, wondering if I should actually quit my job or not. No matter how many times I wrote my pros and cons of staying or leaving, I could not escape this fact: my (mental) health was the most important thing to me. If I’m not alive after all this, how much is this job really worth at the end of the day? What I had gone through was traumatic for everyone involved, but it was truly a wake up call for me to do something differently with my life, and take care of myself before it’s too late. I read about people who have midlife crises, and random health problems on several depression related forums. Most were a lot older than me with a spouse and kids, and I could only be so grateful that the universe taught me this lesson a lot earlier than them when I still don’t have dependents. You really don’t know what life has in store for you, good or bad, and sometimes it’s really shitty. Other times, it’s not. There is a story, originally Chinese, perhaps told by Confucius that teaches us about the unpredictability of life. The story goes, there was a man who fell from his horse and broke his leg. His neighbors pitied him and said “it was just bad luck!” to which his wise father said, “no one knows if this is a misfortune or a good thing.” The neighbors did not agree because it was clearly a misfortune in their eyes. In the following days, the country goes into war and starts recruiting the able men in the village. All the healthy men are taken from their homes by force except the one who broke his leg from falling off the horse.

The most helpful thing a friend told me was that I have come a long way. A long way from battling it all alone all these years, without a diagnosis, or medication, or psychotherapy. It made me feel powerful and capable of going at it again. That I don’t have to be perfect. Because I think I was striving for perfection all this time.

I quit the following week when I returned to work. I did not disclose the health reasons to my employer of course, just the fact that I’m no longer interested in working there any longer. And to those who asked, I only said that I was going back to school to pursue a different field which was the truth. I was not completely myself the week I gave my formal resignation and struggled to sound normal while doing so. I have been out of work since then, not because I can’t find something else, I think I could, but because I have not fully recovered. I can’t say I’m happy yet- there is still a lot of sadness, confusion and fear. I am still in denial sometimes of what happened. When I remember, I start to blame myself for everything, which isn’t really all my fault. Being myself again, let alone being successful, seems like a stretch from where I stand. I would like to go back to school, but my diminished confidence doesn’t allow me to imagine that I might do well on the things I used to think I was good at. I try to imagine me at a different career, but the nagging feeling of inadequacy has me thinking, “if I didn’t do well on the other job, how do I dare believe that I will be good at another job?” There is a lot of uncertainty about my relationship because nothing is set in stone now, not that anything really is, it’s really an illusion that we like to believe in order to feel safe. I’ve never felt so scared in my life, to be honest,  and I still don’t think I have my senses back. I still have a long way to go until I figure out my meds and my treatment plan. When things start to suck these days I think of the man who fell off the horse.

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I quit my corporate job because of depression

Note: The following could be potentially triggering if you are having suicidal thoughts.

The Uber driver dropped me off without making a comment. I walked towards the entrance of the ER. I had never been to an ER before, as a health nut, I was usually physically healthy. I had tears streaming down my face and I felt numb- it had been weeks since I felt something. Sadness or joy. I remembered this then because my therapist only a few days ago had asked me “when did you last feel joy?” An innocuous question, most likely asked during Christmastime or some kind of holiday. I couldn’t answer.

I walked towards the receptionist who asked something along the lines of what are you here for? I felt silly that such a question was necessary at the ER. There were people with limbs that were shatter to pieces and, I remember, an alcoholic who had a bucket in front of his face, who went too hard last night. The struggles were so visible and I felt so out of place.

“I’m having suicidal thoughts- please help me, I don’t feel safe by myself.”

This was not completely true- I had attempted to kill myself earlier that day, as well as the day before. I had a plan- which now sounds rather medieval- I was going to push a kitchen knife through my stomach which would make me bleed to death. I held it in place as practice. If that didn’t work I could slice my arms and submerge myself in the bathtub until I died. There was also bleach. I had emailed my boss that I would not be coming into work because I was “sick.” I had started writing my will to my family, my best friends and my boyfriend. I only stopped because I realized how many lives I was ruining by taking my own. I wanted me dead.


I was living the dream of any graduate coming out of college close to post-recession, fresh-faced and ready to take on the world. I had three job offers by the end of the first semester of my final year in college, with many more interviews which I declined, and I chose the one that was the most challenging (the most exams, and the most competition) from the Fortune 100 company, because I felt like I could do anything. My life felt so set. I was starting with a high income job with no debt and oh boy, I was going to make it big: I was going to buy my own place with my savings within the first two years and I was going to climb the corporate ladder and become a role model for minority women in STEM jobs. My parents were so proud of me, and I felt that underclassmen looked up to me- look at what you can do with a math degree! I could get an MBA, a masters in whatever I wanted in a few years, I had plans. I checked off all the boxes I wanted to check off at this point in my life- my dream job, my own place in the city, and a boyfriend who had the same things checked off. Naturally I thought I had a straightforward future I could waltz into. I had it all wrong.

I turned out not to be the superstar performer that everyone expected me to be, and in the first few months on the job, I struggled. I struggled, not because it was difficult and something I couldn’t do, but because I was so desperately lonely in a city I’ve never even visited before my final round of my interview with the company. I was used to living in a different place every few years, so I was not scared to pave my own way in another one, this time, without my mother. My boyfriend at the time was kind to me, but I feel like I had no friends at work, or anywhere else because I was working all the time. I either worked or studied at work, and I felt like I barely had my head above the water. I felt like drowning. My parents blamed me for not doing as well, not knowing the real cause. As an avid runner and fitness freak, I signed up crossfit with my then boyfriend and went to 5am classes because otherwise we didn’t have the time. I ran when I didn’t train. I thought if I trained away, my problems at work would go away because I would be more refreshed, I could stay up until later, and I would have interesting things to say to people. It was exhausting. My bosses changed and time went on. My workload increased and with it, the expectations did too. I was starting to make friends, and people were starting to like me. I finally had friends. But at the same time, I was working more than ever. I was working weekends,  and if I wasn’t working, I was studying. When I wasn’t doing either, I was sleeping, but I was dreaming about work. This should have been a red flag- it was clearly unsustainable.

Hearing how negative I was being over text message, one of my best friends from college who had better knowledge of depression begged me to get a therapist. I listened only because after my boyfriend at the time broke up with me. I was devastated and heartbroken. I only went three or four times because I thought I felt better. Then I met someone new. My life was back on track, I thought. Work kept piling up and I was running out of time to study.

Fast forward to 1.5 years later, I was tired, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat (because I had no appetite), and my life looked so bleak. The only speckle of joy I could find in my life was the time I got to spend with my friends and my boyfriend who worked and studied with me. Without him, I think I would have collapsed months before. It became so difficult to muster up a smile, because I was so sad, but I had to keep pretending to survive. The number of digits in my pay check didn’t do much to ease the pain. My mask, which I have perfected over the years of achievements and smiles, started to crack. At work, it took me everything to not break down and cry. Because the new office, dubbed, “the innovation hub” did not have cubicals, but was an open desk setting, I couldn’t hide behind walls. My manager was not happy with the level of my productivity, and asked for an hourly task log every week of everything I have done. My work, while sometimes praised, was mostly splattered with criticism, and not constructive ones that I could work with. I asked for more help, but it didn’t help. I felt broken, stupid and most of all, I felt like an impostor.

At this point, I was crying every single day when I got home. I couldn’t study because the tears got in the way. I couldn’t taste the food, so I stopped eating, and I was having nightmares about what I could be doing wrong at work. I woke up every few hours and could not fall back asleep. I felt so alone during those hours. I purchased a bottle Melatonin and took more than prescribed to get any sleep. I hid this from my family because I knew what they would say over the phone, “can you please sound happier?” or “snap out of it, you’re making yourself depressed.” I didn’t tell my friends because, who likes a depressed person? Nobody.

When things got so bad, I finally had the courage to tell my boyfriend that I wasn’t feeling well. I was so scared that he would run. Because everyone does, and have done so, to emotional girls who can’t keep it together, I thought. I told him I might have depression because my state was described, in textbook style, in various medical websites. Feeling sadness, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, insomnia, restless sleep, crying, loss of appetite, ruminations…

But wait, I’m a resilient person, aren’t I? I did well in school, I lived in three countries, and could always manage whatever curve ball was thrown at me, whether it was poverty, my parent’s turbulent marriage, language barriers, bullying, emotional abuse, racism, sexism, loss of identity, et cetera, I managed. I can do this on my own. I just need a few more therapy sessions and I was going to go back to work and gain confidence from my boss and my peers for my work. That was what I wanted. But my mind gave up. I felt crazy. I felt worthless and undeserving of anyone’s love. I was weak from not eating for days, and I thought about death over and over and soon it became my reality, my “logical” next step.

The week before I went to the ER, I was coming in and out of consciousness, and I felt like I was trapped in someone else’s body. I had no control over my thoughts, and my thoughts consisted of my inadequacy and incompetence. I was never good at self-love and having compassion because I thought that was for the weak. Unnecessary indulgences that bougie people do. I called the hospital to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist, as my therapist recommended. The woman on the other line, I suppose as a precautionary measure asked me, “are you feeling suicidal at this moment, or have thoughts of suicide?” After a brief pause, I said “yes.”Alarmed, she put me on hold, and came back with, “you need to go to the emergency room.”I was so ignorant about mental illness and my depression that I scoffed. But when I got my earliest possible appointment time, it was in three weeks. That wasn’t soon enough, I needed the medication now. I needed to feel happier now. Because, if not, I was going to die in my own hands.

I reluctantly rang up an Uber.

To be continued…


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