Katherine: Hiding in Plain Sight
When I started medical school, in 1981, people with depression were still viewed as flawed individuals. The attitude towards women with depression was even worse. A male dominated medical profession saw these women as weak, hysterical, psychosomatic creatures with an inability to think straight or act with any intelligence. For example, back then, fibromyalgia, which affects more women than men, was considered a make believe illness, concocted by women who did not want to admit they were depressed. Of course, now we know that it is a very real disease.
I have had dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) since childhood, interspersed with major depressive episodes usually caused by stress. I did not know what it was then but by the time I got to medical school, I was pretty sure of what was going on. However, with the prevailing attitudes, there was no way I could let anyone know this. I could not go for counseling or be prescribed medications without the whole school finding out about it. My father died my fourth year of medical school and my internship was pretty abusive (which was normal at that time). I became so depressed that I did seek out a counselor at the hospital and then switched to an outside therapist. I lied and sneaked around to get to appointments with her during business hours. At one point she insisted I go on medications. I resisted, due to the stigma attached, but finally took a tricyclic antidepressant for 6 months.
I have been in therapy and on medication for the last 30 years. It’s how I deal with everyday life and the big stressors which would otherwise send me into a major depression. But I never told anyone. I felt it would be a death knell for my career and I was still ashamed enough about it that I never talked about it with my family. It has only been in the last one or two years that I have opened up to my immediate family members about it. But with increased knowledge about the causes of mental illness, attitudes have changed dramatically since I was in school. Going public is a huge step for me but I am turning 60 this year and am ready to own this part of who I am.
Throughout my career, I have always done my best to help those with mental illnesses. Word got around that I was very good at treating depression. Well, this was because I have depression, but I could never let anyone, especially my patients know. How would they be able to trust me if they knew I had depression? Now, though , I see that having a mental illness can give me more authority than just my medical training alone. I can see things from both the patient’s and the provider’s point of view. It’s time for me to step out and advocate for those with mental illness on a broader stage than my office.