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How clinical depression changed my life

Diagnosed with Clinical Depression

Depression is the most prevalent mental health issue in the general population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 million people in the world were suffering from depression in 2015. WHO anticipates that depression will be the second-most significant disease in terms of socio-economic burden in 2020. As such, I too have battled with depression. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) approximately ten years ago.

I was depressed, nervous, hypervigilant, and pessimistic all at the same time. My blood pressure was over 160/100 due to ongoing anxiety. My heartbeat was irregular, I was always overwhelmed by my feelings, and I had extreme insomnia. Sometimes suicidal thoughts would whisper to me like a devil on my shoulder, “Hey, there is no reason for you to live”. I feared meeting people because of my struggles, which prevented me from seeking social support. My life was hell. It felt like I was alone, with no hope and no future. Like the devil said, there was no reason for me to be alive.

I began taking medication (SSRIs) as prescribed by my psychiatrist. A couple of weeks later, the medicine began to take effect. My depressive, anxious, and paranoid feelings were alleviated. I could almost return to my normal life. One day, I asked my psychiatrist, “Why did I become depressed?” and “How can I avoid this condition?”. She did not answer the question directly but instead advised me to keep taking the medication. I felt I was suffocating; I did not want to rely on the medicine for the rest of my life.

The book that changed everything

I began looking for information about what depression is, what the cause of it is, and how to overcome it. I happened to read a book titled ‘Abnormal Psychology,’ written by a couple of professors of psychology. The mood disorder section of it made me feel hopeful. It was amazing to me that the authors knew almost all the symptoms of depression. How did they examine and collect data on the causes and effects of depression? I was awed by all the contents on depression in the mood disorder chapter, which led me to a new life path.

I contemplated my future again and again, and finally decided to prepare for the exam to enter graduate school in the Department of Psychology at Duksung University in my country, South Korea. I hoped to specialize in Clinical Psychology. My aims were to better understand the harmful disease of depression, how to handle and overcome it, and ways to help others who suffer from the same disease all over the world. I wished that my personal vivid experience battling depression would give me a unique perspective for helping others. With this earnest wish, I was admitted into graduate school, majoring in Clinical Health Psychology.

Relapse and Recovery

Occasionally my depression would recur even though I kept taking medicine. The levels of my depressive symptoms went up and down. At that time, I was taking a class dealing with ‘mindfulness meditation’ as well as ‘cognitive distortion’. One day, during class, I recognized that my cognition, my way of thinking, was distorted. I realized that I thought of myself as having a lower capacity to do anything compared to others. I believed that the world was out to get me and that things were often not right or fair. Moreover, if something bad happened, I would assume ownership for the blame.

The techniques I was learning in my classes were very helpful. They allowed me to break out of my distorted thoughts and I could see myself detached. Finally, I felt like I was finally understanding the cause of my problem.

This new insight helped me for a while. To be honest, however, it was not much help for me in terms of dealing with depression in the long term. I realized that knowing what the cause is does not guarantee successfully managing and overcoming the disease. By that time, another psychiatrist suggested that I take an additional medicine, called ‘Lithium’, which is used to deal with ‘bipolar disorder’. As I had already studied bipolar disorder and its medicine, I desperately said to myself that “This is not supposed to happen to me!”. I knew that my depression was a type of ‘neurosis,’ but that I could handle it on my own and with some help from a milder medication. Bipolar disorder, however, is more likely to be categorized as a ‘psychosis,’ which is definitely much more serious. With this news, I felt the pressure of an impending “manic” episode.

To escape from further deterioration of my condition, I participated in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a psychiatry resident. I learned how to cope with my unhealthy ways of thinking, to relieve the symptoms of my depression for about a month, but the effect was something I could not maintain over time. I realized that the effect of the CBT was not necessarily compatible with treatment. Rather, it interfered with treatment. This was such a conundrum for me.

Conquering Depression with a Sense of Achievement

As I mentioned, I was a master’s student majoring in clinical health psychology at the time. I had fought depression ceaselessly. Despite trying many different treatments, I could not overcome my dark feelings. It seemed that I was at a dead end.

I clearly remember that it was in late April 2014 when I abruptly wanted to do something meaningful as a master’s student for the sake of eschewing my bad feelings. I embarked on my first research study with the support of my academic advisor. With immense effort, I managed to finish my first project, successfully conducting my first oral presentation at a conference. Due to this great experience, I felt more confident than before. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could achieve whatever I wanted.

As this successful experience acted as a type of reinforcement for my research, I could keep doing my research into other issues during the rest of my degree. Finally, I completed seven poster presentations, two oral presentations in a variety of psychology conferences, and two papers published in addition to my thesis. Moreover, I was honored with two academic awards, including best poster from division 12 of the American Psychological Association and best paper from my graduate school. This series of great experiences motivated my desire to achieve more and increased my sense of efficacy; all of which gave me optimism for beating my depression.

Second Life

During the 3rd term of my master’s degree, I recognized that despite the enormous advances in the treatment of depression, there was no panacea. This is due, in part, to individual differences that result in significant variation. In my case, there were a few different therapies that worked for a while, but they did not have any lasting effects. This may be due to the fact that my treatment plan was not tailored to my specific needs. Since people are inherently different, the treatment must reflect those differences. I believe that my experiences have helped me recognize the importance of person-specific therapy. For me, the ability to achieve something meaningful imbued me with a sense of self-efficacy. Major depressive disorder can be a very broad concept, but my struggles have helped me to understand the specific nature of my own depression.

It has been a long road, but it has brought me to this point and I am confident in my direction. I have been given the good fortune of being able to pursue my Ph.D. at a prestigious research university in Canada. It is here that I will continue to develop my understanding of resilience, self-efficacy, and the dynamics of depression. During my personal struggles, my inherent resilience may have acted as a driving force in my recuperation from depression. I intend to further explore this hypothesis and conduct more research stemming from my experiences. I hope that my work will help people foster their resilience and thereby discover their latent potential to overcome many kinds of mental illnesses. This story, however, would not be possible without depression. Crisis can be an opportunity for a better life when it compels you to combat your personal devils. I believe that mental illness should not have to be a stigmatized disease. If it is properly understood, we may be that much closer to realizing who we truly are.