By: Katy Haslar, Breaking Through Task Force Member
I’ve been seeing mental health providers since I was 23 (I just turned 39 for the 8th time this year.) I began seeing a therapist regularly a few months after I lost my father to a long, painful and debilitating illness. I was living in California at the time, miles away from my family in the Midwest. After the funeral, I returned to the West Coast, and I found the grief too much for me to handle on my own. Both depression and anxiety plagued me daily. I had a corporate job and was on my own in supporting myself in a very expensive city. I had to figure out how to function amidst the mental health challenges that had intensified since my father’s passing.
On my therapist’s recommendation, I saw a psychiatrist for the first time and was prescribed an antidepressant to help with the symptoms. The medication, along with talk therapy, helped me get my balance, and I was able to return to a mostly productive life. The doctor diagnosed me as having basic grief coupled with a depressive disorder. She came to this diagnosis because I shared with her that I had struggled with moderate to severe depression off and on throughout my adolescent and teen years. I just didn’t know there was a name for it.
A few years later, the symptoms started coming back with intensity. I revisited the doctor. We did some medication changes. Still, weeks later—no improvement. We tried a different medication. Because these chemicals take a good amount of time in the body to determine whether or not they’re effective, this was a long and drawn out process. My diagnosis never changed, but the merry-go-round of finding the right medication was grueling. Eventually, we found a combination that allowed me to feel somewhat “OK,” but still, I knew something was off.
Fast forward to five years ago.
At this point in my life, I had relocated within the US many times. I held several jobs with success. I put myself through grad school. I had been on medication combinations and had seen mental health providers regularly. But the honest and painful truth is that I still suffered all of those years. I never felt “OK.” I had moments of wondering if I was completely crazy, because I couldn’t stay focused through some of my depressive episodes, and some days, it took every ounce of energy I had to get out of bed. Anxiety and agitation also crept in regularly.
I read books. I saw different providers. I tried several different diets said to provide relief from these symptoms. I tried supplements, herbs, acupuncture, yoga. You name it—if someone out there on the internet had used it with success—I tried it.
Many of these natural remedies did help. But still—something was wrong. My search for answers was exhaustive as I tried to continue functioning in my everyday life, sometimes not very gracefully. I was at times dogged in chasing recovery, and other times discouraged, finding myself turning to self-medicating as a means of coping. Even though I had seen many different providers, their answers regarding my condition never strayed much from the diagnosis I received at the age of 25, with a “co-occurring” label tacked on in light of my self-medicating practices: substance abuse disorder.
But I wondered—why the draw to self-medicate if I was being treated for the correct diagnosis? Could there be something these providers were missing? I felt intuitively there was an issue not being addressed.
Then I found a new doctor—a neurologist who had recently shifted her practice to psychiatry and medication management. It was pure luck. I happened to be looking for a new provider while resources were scarce. She was the first person with an opening in her practice who accepted my insurance.
This woman was incredibly thorough in her appointments with me, more so than anyone I’d ever seen. She asked me question after question about my history, making sure I was sharing every detail—details that no other provider had asked. After our second appointment, she made some suggestions of different medication combinations. And she mentioned a diagnosis that had never occurred to me, or to any of my other providers: adult ADHD.
At first, I balked at this diagnosis. Surely, someone would have caught this earlier. And—I didn’t have the symptoms that we commonly associate with ADHD in our society. I didn’t have trouble sitting still as a child or an adult. I didn’t have any notable behavioral problems in school. I always made good grades. Someone with ADHD would have struggled with these things far more than I did, right?
She asked me to read an article recently published about how females have gone undiagnosed with this disorder for years because medical professionals were mostly diagnosing males with it. The symptoms present much differently in females, often times making it undetectable to psychiatrists looking for key markers for diagnosing. That research hadn’t come out in those early years. And it was true. You mostly heard of young boys and men being diagnosed ADHD.
Again, I poured over books, articles and blog posts. I listened to podcasts. I found every source I could on women with ADHD. The research was there—it presented as depression, anxiety and agitation in women (along with other symptoms), not usually hyperactivity. And a knowing came over me. This, I thought. This is what we’d all been missing.
My new doctor added a regiment to treat me for the disorder, taking into account my past history with substance abuse. And within the first few weeks, it was clear she had gotten it right. I was feeling so much better. The clouds that never fully went away in the past began to part, and my mental health became more and more stable.
Several years later, I’m feeling the most grounded and mentally healthy I’ve maybe ever felt in my life. Knowing and understanding the challenge I’m up against has made all the difference in keeping myself healthy. I’m so grateful to that doctor, and to all of those men and women who’ve addressed the topic in books, articles, blogs and podcasts, sharing their experiences with patients, family members, and most importantly--themselves. This points to the value of us sharing our experiences bravely and openly, not only for support, but to help others find answers in their search for recovery.