Naming

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Depression. Anxiety. Mental illness.

These weighty words have truly only been part of my psyche for a few years, but the actual symptoms have been present for far longer than that. I was a deeply anxious child, who would probably have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, but then I only called it being afraid. My first bout of depression as an adult hit when I was only nineteen, for all that I had no idea what was wrong and didn’t seek any kind of treatment.When the symptoms faded over the summer after a source of major stress left my life, I assumed I was better. Until the next time.

About five years ago, in the middle of grad school, I finally started to get treatment for depression, and gave this thing that was wrong with me a name. Because my experience, despite being textbook in many ways, wasn’t what I’d expected of depression, I couldn’t name it for a very long time. I spent nearly a year in counseling, still unable to call it by name.

And then one day, shortly before I hit a breaking point and went to the doctor to ask for something to help, sitting in language philosophy class, my instructor started to talk about the importance of giving things a name. I heard, and I listened. And then my notes for class turned into the place where I named what I was experiencing and something changed for the better.

It took a little longer to name the anxiety for what it was, especially since the medication the doctor prescribed helped alleviate both depression and anxiety. After about eighteen months of antidepressants, I suddenly found myself pregnant and went off my meds abruptly. I survived pregnancy and that first year and a half of my daughter’s childhood without the medication (though there are times when life might have been much better with it), but eventually I found myself in the doctor’s office again. I wrote down my symptoms, thinking maybe it wasn’t so bad, and then when I saw the list, I realized it was. So while my daughter wandered around the exam room, I talked with my doctor about my symptoms, he took me through the standard questionnaires for depression and anxiety, and then told me that yes, I had depression and anxiety and he’d start me back on the medication I’d had last time so we could see if it was still a good fit.

That was over a year ago. I’m still on the medication, and there are days when it doesn’t always feel like it’s helping, and days where I am deeply grateful for its existence.

But that moment, five years ago, when I called it by name, I discovered the power of naming.

The old legends tell you knowing someone or something’s true name gives you power over it. There’s something to that. With mental illness, at least in my experience, it exerts far more power over me when I don’t know what it is. When it has a name, when I know that name and call it such, I take back the power it took from me and the sometimes daily struggle to live with it eases (sometimes slightly, sometimes more).

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