Distraction, Depression, and Getting Diagnosed

There are mornings when I get really, really excited about having breakfast at McDonald’s. I get an egg McMuffin, no bacon, a hashbrown, and coffee.

All this is deliberate because distraction has always been the most effective way to get past boredom. There was a time in high school when the same kind of boredom led to hopelessness, then depression, and before serious desperation could hit, I’d already absented myself from school for an entire week (could have been more). There was lots of vomiting from the dread at going back because it meant keeping regular hours.

My problem was that the only times I actually felt any peace was in the early mornings, when everyone was still asleep and I felt I had the house to myself. For this, I stayed up all night, listened to the radio, read magazines then cut them up, wrote things on a now defunct chickclick blog, and watched movies. I just did things I liked, but I also wondered all the while why there wasn’t any place for these things in the school I attended. One night, my mom came out to find me sticking things on the ceiling, and asked me, “Are you on drugs?”

Come to think of it, all signs pointed to (the stereotype [every parent’s nightmare] of) someone on drugs: I had green hair, a pierced face, I didn’t sleep, and I was cutting things up and getting serious with power tools at 4 in the morning. Eventually, I landed in front of a psychiatrist. I can’t even remember her name, just that I kind of hated her. I was led one morning into what appeared to be an opthalmologist’s office, made to sit in a vinyl chair with a steel frame, next to a sculpture of a giant eyeball (of course I remember the eyeball), and made to tell a stranger “What’s wrong?”

And from there I just kept crying and did not stop for an hour. I can’t even remember what I told her, but when I was through, she asked how I would feel about medication, and I said (or in my head, I screamed), “What the fuck?”

After that, my mom was called in and she spoke to us both about my showing signs of bipolar disorder or borderline something. Later, she told my mom I needed to go on anti-psychotics, which my mom (thankfully) declined, telling her we’d seek out a second opinion before resorting to something so drastic. It was then that I saw how boredom can be a dangerous thing and promised that no matter what the cost , I will never let myself get bored; I will always give myself something to look forward to, whether it’s as costly as a trip abroad, or as simple as a hashbrown in the morning.

The next day I went back to school and pretty much went insane: I joined a band, lobbied hard for an editorial post at the school’s newsletter, and fought with everyone in my way, sometimes for very stupid reasons, even when I was wrong (mostly because we no longer had a debate club and I really liked yelling at things and people). I didn’t care if I sucked at what I was doing or was putting my life in danger, I just wanted to do things.

I had energy to burn so I did things like argue with teachers who wouldn’t let us change the title of the opinion section from “Raging Youth” to “Raging Hormones” then “Tara, Kwentutan Tayo” (which roughly translates to “Gossip-fucking”). I spent one day locked up in the Chem lab for dress code violations, which I spent lying under the table ’til my Math teacher felt bad or embarrassed enough to let me out. Instead of getting picked up from school, I walked home because I just wasn’t tired yet. I was like a 6-year-old off Ritalin and lost in a 15-year-old’s body. And I hadn’t even discovered drugs or drinking.

I also never saw another shrink after that.

It’s a weird mix of luck, sublimation, and discipline that I get to channel whatever illness I was originally diagnosed with this way; because somehow I still get a lot of work tossed in my direction, and by work I mean getting my head to meetings, where my body just kind of vibrates in place, kicking legs and bags under the table and folding every scrap of paper atop it into a crane or a frog or a…thing (I used to doodle, but one of my bosses didn’t like that). Right now, I have several research and writing projects, one of which triangulates between the Fil-Am war, the St. Louis World’s Fair, and Bagobo textiles, which seems like a natural course of action for a fashion major who kept a lot of notes on the holocaust as a kid. I bet if that shrink from high school had found my notes, she would have had me locked up.

I’m writing about this in the wake of two suicides, each one a degree removed; which prompted my sister to write to me and my mother about how denial and distracting herself with the facts of physically surviving have been her best bet, in finding a way out from under whatever cloud of debilitating D’s were hanging over her. For some of us, work is a fact of life, and something we do out of commitment to people who trust us to deliver something good, but also a means to survive. And for that, we are already lucky.

I’ve found I don’t know what to say to people who don’t have anything to work on; who can’t benefit from the pleasures of distracting themselves by doing something they not only love, but are good at. I’ve had students drop out of class and cry over assignments, and come to me for advice and I just don’t know what to say. I do what I do because, 1) I’m on contract, 2) I need to pay the rent and feed myself, and 3) I worked hard to get good enough for it to be enjoyable. That’s where most of my energy has gone.

I try to be careful about getting myself checked, but I know that I’m also wired differently now: as a teacher and a student, I need to perform, literally. I need to be in front of people who can already see or hear if anything is wrong, and even if no one tells me, I can usually see it in their faces.

It’s funny how energy works and how you get what you give. The other day, I interviewed someone for the CCP Encyclopedia, and when he shook my hand to say goodbye, he made this noise like he was being electrocuted. It was the ADD buzzing through. Or some other disorder that didn’t get tempered by whatever drugs I would have been put on as a child (an actual child, not the kind of child I am now).

There are still days though when I feel sad, and even McDonald’s breakfast can’t get me out of bed. My closest friends are familiar with these episodes. These are times when I just don’t talk and don’t even make eye contact because something’s already snapped and I know somewhere in my heart that what my nameless shrink told my mom in that office, thirteen years ago, was probably true.

The hardest part there is telling someone what’s really going on, really saying it out loud for others as well as yourself to hear; but nothing comes easy, and for our own sake we need to speak up.

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

3 thoughts on “Distraction, Depression, and Getting Diagnosed”

  1. Awwww. This made me cry so hard. I haven’t gotten myself into seeking a professional opinion. I’m a psychology graduate so although I may not be an expert, I know I should seek help. I don’t know but maybe somewhere in my heart, I don’t want to put a label to it. Maybe it is a stupid decision. Right now, I am juggling two full time jobs while a steady volunteer on animal rescue org and an org promoting education. I travel at least every month and I always say yes everytime someone asks me out for drinks or for a talk as long as it don’t get in the way of my job. Yes, from time to time I still get the blues. I am managing and hopefully will still manage through everything. Thank you so much for this!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Sometimes, management is really all there is, and it usually works out just fine. You seem to have a pretty full life, so high-five yourself for that.

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