The Right Diagnosis

When I bring my car into the shop and my headlights broken, my side view mirror swivels a cool 180 degrees on its own, the tires need rotating, and my oil needs changing, I don’t need my technician to sit me down and say, “well your headlights need replacing.”

Correct, I can’t see at night.

“Looks like your oil needs changing and your tires need to be rotated.”

Correct, that’s what my dashboard says.

“And your side view mirror is loose.”

Correct, it won’t work correctly when I’m on the highway.

Picture me, with a stone-cold expression, right hand 1 inch away from my face, tilted at 45 degrees spanning across my forehead to my right cheek. Yes, the redundancy slowly grating away at the rich cheese that is life.

When I first sought out psychological help, I was desperate to know what I had. The sense of comfort and understanding that came with a diagnosis, a label, seemed inviting. “Here you go, a place for you.”

After my first psychiatrist diagnosed me with MDD (major depressive disorder) and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), I started taking a passive approach towards my mental health. I took what I got and never asked for a second opinion.

Take your meds, get sunshine, exercise, and eat right. Voila! Your depression and anxiety under control.

But wait, there’s more!

My situation didn’t improve. In fact, it continued to barrel downhill, even though I was trying to keep up with all of my “standard” upkeep. Why wasn’t anything working for me?

After visiting another psychiatrist as referred by a fraternity brother, I tacked on a suite of NEW and EXCITING DSM-V excerpts to go and look up later on Google. A lot of three- to four-letter acronyms for horrible diseases nobody should have.

At the time, I thought, “well that explains a lot.”

But now, having lived with those diagnoses, embracing them, fusing them with my identity, and then finally letting them go, I’ve realized these labels have no merit to them unless they’re used correctly.

Treating Symptoms

Just like how throwing ibuprofen at a fever isn’t going to do much if there’s an underlying condition, throwing pills and therapy at my diagnoses was no more effective than the placebo effect.

I became complacent. I was convinced these two treatments were the cure.

I’ve never been good at writing “call to action” type posts, but if you’re constantly struggling with keeping afloat or encounter the same kinds of setbacks, dig deeper. For me, I dropped out of college. I had relationships in constant turmoil because of my mood. I got close to losing or quitting my job.

Patching leaks as they spring up in a ship is a great way to die at the bottom of the ocean.

Mood stabilizers might be good if you’re wanting to have less manic episodes and antidepressants might be good if you’re wanting to feel more energetic.

But what if you can’t effectively communicate with those around you? What if you don’t have the habits in place to keep the world around you running like a well oiled machine? What if you’re unknowingly sabotaging yourself?

Those three flaws might be symptoms, but they’re definitely something I couldn’t approach with therapy or psychiatry alone. Not unless I asked myself the right questions or failed enough to narrow down on the issue.

Communication

In Chinese, the phrase “吃苦 (Chi Ku)” quite literally means to eat bitterness.

The ability to endure hardships, bite the bullet, and keep going is a virtue. Add that to society expecting you to have your stuff together and for men to lack any outward display of turbulence, and we have a recipe for a brand new emotional bottling company.

I definitely took these concepts to the next level and had to learn “moderation is key” the hard way.

I thought all these problems were my own to figure out. Asking people for help would not only be a waste of their time, but they could never understand the specifics of my situation.

I can’t tell you how many assignments I could have completed, how many projects polished, how many classes I could have done better in only had I emailed a teacher or professor, “hey, things are rough, can I get an extra day or two to turn this in?”

And things were rough. Combining the lack of support (because I didn’t ask for it) and an inability to cope with the stress, my boat sank over and over again.

School wasn’t the only place where the lack of communication hit hard. Not asking for time off, taking too many hours because I had to say “yes” led to burnout and general exhaustion for months on end.

In my relationships, I would take the small and big problems that ticked me off and keep everything all in until something big enough came along to make the pressure overflow. Unintentionally or not, it wasn’t a healthy way to handle the rocky situations inadvertently coming out of having two people so deeply involved.

You might be thinking: “what kind of lazy, workaholic, toxic man are you?”

Yeah, I know. But communication isn’t only a commonly made fun of major in college; rather, it’s never taught, along with the actually useful skills in school. I’m looking at you, calculus I and history of jazz.

If I have ADHD, is it simply good enough to take Ritalin once every morning? Or should I be setting up good study routines and be able to double-check all the small details?

If I have anxiety, is it only because of my genetics, or might it be because I have low-self esteem and a lack of intrinsic validation?

If I have depression, is it because of aspects in my life I’m deficient in (neurotransmitters, nutrients, socialization, etc.), or is it because I’m not proactive in my approach towards my life, thus leading to a build-up of stressors?

Both. But it goes to show a doctor’s diagnosis is not the only thing we should be worrying about.

Working remotely has especially taught me communication is essential to any human endeavor. What am I working on? How long will that take? Are there any difficulties I’m running into? Will I need more time?

I often had the problem of assuming other people knew the thoughts running through my head — a side effect of never asking others for help. Being asked to improve my communication at work actually jump-started my proactivity even when it came to friendships, hobbies, and therapy.

Catching up is far more work than doing everything beforehand. Why couldn’t I have understood this earlier in life?! I’ve never been disappointed knowing I had free time coming up because projects were completed already. And I definitely didn’t want to lose my job.

Digging Deeper

Asking hard questions such as “what are my greatest insecurities?” and “why do I care so much about what other people think?” didn’t come to me overnight. There was a lot of falling flat on my face, only to get up and ignore the ice under my feet.

After too many metaphorical broken noses, I eventually had to look myself in the mirror and say, “WHY?”

Although I hope none of you have to suffer over and over again to get to the important questions and, hopefully, their answers, the stubborn ones might have to do some trial and error before reaching a meaningful conclusion.

Nobody wants to ruminate every afternoon thinking, “what are the worst parts about me?” But sometimes, that’s the way life has to be, looking for the ideal versions of us in order to be operational in this dysfunctional world of ours. If it involves sanding away some rough edges, so be it.

Having recently turned 22, I can finally realize why people say that I’m still a child. Physically, maybe not, but emotionally, I’m just now learning to walk.

2 thoughts on “The Right Diagnosis”

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