Success Story: A Personal Story of Mental Illness

The onset of the disease was insidious, but even today, I still vividly remember the painful episode in my life. I completed high school, college, and medical school with great success. Everything seemed set, and I was about to start a residency program at a prestigious institution. It seemed as if my hard work had paid off and my dreams were realized. However, six weeks into my residency, I was in trouble. I was repeatedly unable to complete my work in a timely fashion. In fact, I did almost everything, including walking down the hall and going to the bathroom, at a very slow pace. In addition, I had trouble concentrating on even the simplest of tasks. Having always been blessed with an excellent memory, I noted with dismay that I was often unable to recall basic facts I had read. It was a frustrating time, since it had always been very important to me to do my work in a conscientious manner. Despite the demoralizing effect the ensuing negative feedback had on me, I resolved to overcome the hurdle. It was a very frustrating struggle, because no matter how hard I tried, I could not improve. I remained slow, inefficient, disorganized, and was almost always late — very late. It seemed as if my mind was paralyzed and I was condemned to play the role of the worst resident in the program. Slowly I began to wonder if I was contracting some sort of dementia.

Eventually I decided to schedule a medical workup to rule out any disease that could possibly be causing my symptoms. I desperately almost hoped that I would be vindicated by the diagnosis of some physical ailment. Instead, I was diagnosed with depression. Curiously, the diagnosis did not come as much of a relief. My condition proved to be a very isolating experience, and the isolation only intensified the disease and its accompanying shame and loneliness. I knew that many people — even some in the health profession — regarded depression as a character flaw rather than a true illness. Depression would not exculpate me for my dismal performance as a resident in the same way, for example, a brain tumor would. Depression would not relieve me of the guilt about having failed at my job in the same way a diagnosis of hypothyroidism would. Most importantly, I could not talk to my peers about the pain of depression as I could if I suffered from migraine headaches or a bleeding stomach ulcer. However, the diagnosis did allow me to finally receive proper treatment with medication and psychotherapy. It was at this time that I found out about Physician Health Services (PHS) in Massachusetts.

My participation in the weekly meetings at PHS as well as my sessions with my counselor played a very important role in my road to recovery. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who understood what it was like to go through life with depression. Though I am shy by nature, I was able to share my experiences with fellow physicians and find comfort and empathy instead of judgment. In turn, their inspiring stories gave me hope and strength, and I began forming friendships. The kind, helpful, and understanding individuals at PHS gave me the chance to see myself as a person with depression rather than a worthless resident, and allowed me to trade in the sentiment of shame for a sense of accomplishment and pride in battling the pain of depression. The PHS contract was another valuable element of my professional rehabilitation, because it provided me with a structured program through which I could formally document my recovery under the guidance of my PHS associate director and designated monitors at work. The contract validated my illness, and I considered the successful completion of the contract a major milestone in my recovery.

It was at about this time, two years after my initial diagnosis of depression, that I was diagnosed with colon cancer. While cancer provided me with another very unexpected hurdle in life, I also got the chance to experience, in juxtaposition, society’s starkly different reactions to mental and physical disease. The same individuals who regarded my depression somewhat skeptically reacted with shock and ensuing full-hearted support in response to my cancer diagnosis, and I never had to explain to anyone that I was in pain. I finally had a reason to be sad. Interestingly enough, so far, my depression brought me far worse pain and suffering than the colon cancer has, yet, unlike the latter, the former leaves no visible scars on the body for others to see. The wonderful people at PHS provided me with a lot of help and support, promoting my recovery at no cost to me. To the many health professionals who face illnesses that leave them impaired at work, organizations such as PHS represent one of the few avenues in our society through which they can achieve recovery and themselves promote the healing of others.

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