Growing up in Mexico, there was no discourse on mental health. Rural town, people of (very) limited means, large corn fields and old traditions. Depression was for white people, depression was for rich people, depression was for people idle enough to get depressed. It gave me a big insight into how race and social class interact with mental health. We had no notion of it, particularly within my family. I remember when I was little, one of my aunts went to a psychologist and there was this big hoo-ha about it. She should have gone to the priest. We’ve raised her right. Well, if she wasn’t crazy before. I never knew the reason why, but shortly after that, she packed her bags and I never saw her again. Grandma sometimes tells me of her panic attacks and how she feels suffocated, terrified and tight in her chest, hoping that the budding doctor can provide a good old-fashioned remedy for it. No pills though, that’s for sick people. But it’s never your mind, it’s never in your head. Try to think of mental health without the “mental” bit, and then you can understand where I’m coming from.
So when I began struggling with my mood, I just could never conceptualise it as “depression” or “anxiety”. I had so many words for it. I called it shame, poetic melancholy, existential disease. Depression was out of the question; too alien, something for the white, anglo kids. My culture got nothing of that. Life’s unfair, you learn to laugh it off.
I’ve always had a bit of a crappy mood to begin with. I always wondered how those well-adjusted kids did it. Usually I tend to have a downward episode around once every year. It’s frustrating because you feel like you can’t really do anything – like a viral illness of your soul. You get knocked out; everything becomes just that much of a drag and you sit and wonder why –as a grown-ass man- you’re not a functional human being.
The longest episode happened just before I started medicine. Of course, it began the day I had my interview. I spent 2 hours lying in bed, mustering up the will to go. I’m not entirely sure what triggered it. I was exercising, going out, socialising, I’d just gotten a new job. Then, all of the sudden there were emotions everywhere and I’m this one tiny thing searching for a cosmic connection, wondering what the meaning of it all is. For a while, there was this unrelenting anxiety. I self-medicated a lot. The whole thing lasted about 4 months and gave me a habit of crying in public.
Learning about mental health has really helped me deal with it. It wasn’t until I spoke to this with a friend here in Australia that this notion of “mental health” was introduced. Some people make friendship bracelets; we had mutual breakdowns. We bonded over cheese. Cheese and feelings. And once she put a name to it and described it in those terms, it began to come together.
Before I would sit there and wallow until it passed. But now, as recently as this year, I started to realise that actually there’s stuff you can do about it. It was a strange transition going from “oh geez, my life is simply miserable” to “wait a second I can actually do things to make things better”. Now I’ve given myself a 2 week timeframe. If my mood starts to drop and it doesn’t get better in 2 weeks I got and see a GP or counsellor, whereas before I would just let it sit. I used to think that it would just go away by itself but a month in I’d still find myself miserable.
I exercise a lot. Partly out of vanity (let’s be real) and partly out of headspace. I talk to people. I have a very good system of friends that I can debrief with. My support networks have really been everything to me. That girl from mean girls? I just have a lot of feelings. That is literally me. I seem to purge everything out by talking. And that feeling of not being afraid to be vulnerable in front of someone else. For the longest time I wouldn’t talk about feelings because of this fear I would lose that friendship. But now I’ve lost fear of all that and whenever I need a chat I go up to someone and say “hey, do you mind if we have a coffee and a chat”. That works wonders and I feel very well supported, like I can push through anything. So after all these years of stumbling through it, I finally feel like I have a way of coping with things.