A few weeks ago, my assignment for my Abnormal Psychology class – choosing a disorder and writing about it from a specific therapeutic perspective – gave me a reason to look through the DSM-V, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I went to the local library, sat down with their reference copy, and flipped through the pages. I skimmed the criteria of different disorders, searching for one that might seem intriguing, but not too triggering or something that I have directly experienced.
Major Depressive Disorder did not meet my second requirement; nonetheless, I stopped skimming and read through the criteria. And as I read, I recognized that two and a half to three years ago, I met nearly every point of the criteria, line by line. Part of me suspected this, but I hadn’t looked it up, not even in my old copy of the DSM-IV that I’ve had for years. If the page had been a checklist, it would have been full of check marks.
On one hand, the realization was sobering: I was severely depressed. That’s scary and serious.
On the other hand, I can also say that it’s factual, it’s true, and that reading the criteria simply confirmed what I already knew. I had a depressive episode, the worst I’d ever had. I acknowledge that before I experienced that episode, I likely struggled with mild depression, or dysthymia, on and off for years, perhaps since I was a teenager.
Alternately, I can also look at it like this: I was severely depressed. I went back to my hometown. There, I got the help and support I needed. I don’t know if I can say that I am necessarily better off because of my depression, but the support I got helped me get to where I am today. I like and appreciate my life now.
There is also something validating in seeing what I experienced written in words on a page. It tells me that other people have experienced this, that people have researched it, that treatment continues to be looked at and further developed.
I do recognize that a diagnosis is primarily a measurement used for medical, prescriptive, and insurance reasons. It isn’t consistently a defining factor in my life; at this point, the main thing is that I take two pills each morning. I also keep better track of my moods and I regularly use skills to deal with challenging situations and emotions.
I remind myself that I don’t have to make too much meaning out of the pages of the DSM; it’s a reference manual used in certain contexts. I know that if I experience and recognize the symptoms of depression again, I am more equipped to deal with it. I am therefore less likely to experience another major depressive episode. And that’s what really matters to me.