Amy, a 68 year-old retired clinical social worker living in Virginia, has struggled with depression for more than 40 years. Twenty-four years passed before she received a diagnosis. Her mood disorder was treated as a chemical imbalance, and she was given medications to alleviate her symptoms.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
When I experienced my first episode in 1960, far less was known about depression. I had all the symptoms of clinical depression, but the doctors never called it that. I was sad, crying a lot. I didn’t enjoy anything anymore, not reading a book in front of the fire or going out to dinner. I lost my appetite and weight. I had no energy. Ordinary tasks seemed monumental. I felt guilty because I thought I should be doing better. I thought about suicide. I had difficulty concentrating. When I had trouble adding up simple figures, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I saw a physician to determine if something was medically wrong. A blood test indicated I was anemic, and he started treating me for that. While in the doctor’s office, I had difficulty remembering things, like how long I had been married and my address. The doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, who recommended psychoanalysis but never mentioned depression.
The thought that someone was treating me gave me hope to stay alive. I began to feel better. I thought the sky was the limit and that the sad feelings would never happen again. I obtained a doctorate degree and was a medical school faculty member. I held office in professional organizations.
But a few years later, the black beast of depression began to return. Despite my accomplishments, I felt inadequate and incompetent. Depression can wreak havoc with self-esteem. I contacted a research psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health. At the end of the first interview, he said I had depression and medication would help. I was hesitant to take medication, wanting to control things myself. But I tried it. The medication helped, and I continued to see the psychiatrist for psychotherapy and support. It took nine more years to find a medication that worked really well for me.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?