A physician doesn’t hide his depression

A colleague said earlier this week, as he bravely disclosed his journey with anxiety and depression that he had “become excellent at hiding [his] depression, especially as an extrovert.”

My colleague brings others along into a wake of happiness he trails but is also able to sit knee-to-knee with the parents of dying patients and empathize in their suffering — to truly let a small part of their pain sit and brew in his heart, to be laid on his shoulders. Depression and a full understanding of one’s own emotions lend themselves to empathy.

I have suffered depression for over a decade. My depression has been, a frantic, disorganized obstacle course paralleling my medical training. Stumbling over rolling, emotional hills has trained me in empathy. I have grown into my full capacity to feel emotion and am learning how to make it work in this parallel calling as a doctor, to take better care of my patients.

And I am not hiding my depression when I display happiness —I’m living the true me, even though the true me equally involves tears and heartache and occasionally uncontrolled, spiraling thoughts of sadness and even wanting to no longer live.

Depression and anxiety are common in our Western culture and laced with stigma. Physicians — even more than other professions — suffer and feel the oppression of the stigma. We are under pressure to perform at our peak, near perfection at every step. Yet, we are burning out at record rates and literally dying to tell the world of our whole selves — the dark thoughts, the self-harm, the fear.

As I think about my own depression and professional stories, I worry my colleagues will think my happy, productive self has been a lie — that I’m simply “putting on a face.” But that happy face is who I am and who I want to be. It’s my healthy self and my best self. And the depression lives just behind that —occasionally uncontrolled and harrowing — but more commonly in check with mindfulness, spiritual care, counseling, medication and a close knit group of family, friends and colleagues.

So when I share with you that I suffer depression, that I see a counselor, that I may need medicine along the way, that I go to dark places, please don’t think all you knew of me was false — it isn’t. And when you start to lay over me the diagnosis of depression, please see it as I do — a calm undercurrent into which I reach to feel real pain, real suffering when I’m knee-to-knee with my sick and dying patients and their parents.

Peter H. Baenziger is a palliative care fellow.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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