Four years ago, I lay on a gurney in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, my arm extended as a nurse plunged a needle into my arm for the IV through which the doctor would administer anesthesia. I was waiting for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) because I had “treatment resistant” depression, meaning none of the medications I’d tried had helped me.
I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall. Each morning as I went in for one of these treatments, they always had the Kelly Ripa and Michael show on the TV. How do they do that? How can they talk in front of so many people? I will never be able to do that.
Then, my depression felt insurmountable. It prevented me from being able to participate in even simple daily social interactions, let alone being able to project social competence in front of a nation-wide audience.
Recently, I appeared on the Dr. Oz TV show and shared my story of recovery with millions, and I have written articles about my experience that have been read by thousands on social media. This is a testament to the effectiveness of Genomind’s Genecept Assay®, a genetic test designed to help clinicians optimize treatment decisions for their patients with mental illness. I believe the use of this test by my clinician saved my life.
Shortly after my second round of ECT, my psychiatrist at the time informed me of the results of my genetic testing. As I told Dr. Oz, the test indicated that my brain may not be able to recycle an adequate amount of serotonin on its own. The doctor felt that the baseline in my brain without medication may actually be a depressed state. My doctor prescribed me medication that specifically targets my genetic variants, and I felt better within a matter of weeks. My suicidal ideations faded, and I could interact with people again. Of course, all my problems were not immediately solved, but I had the mental stability I needed to rebuild my life.
The information genetic testing provided has empowered me to speak out about the reality of mental illness because I feel I have objective proof that this depression is not my “fault”, or the result of any sort of mental weakness. I firmly believe that this information can save lives and revolutionize how we as a culture think about people who have mental illness.
I have been receiving emails, Facebook messages, and Tweets from people all over the world with similar stories—a longtime struggle with depression either in themselves or a close family member, experience with lack of help from the medical establishment, and giving up hope for any sort of effective treatment. They tell me that they have been on medications that have not worked and have resigned themselves to being depressed for the rest of their lives. They have never heard of genetic testing to help guide treatment for mental illness before, and after hearing my story they are hopeful for the first time in years that perhaps there is something that can help them.
One woman has been self-medicating with alcohol for years. She lost her marriage of 20 years to her alcoholism and she’d been on the verge of suicide when she read my article on PsychCentral. Since then, she’s worked with her clinician to utilize Genomind’s genetic test, and is waiting for her new medications to kick in.
Another woman described to me the generations of her family who have suffered from debilitating depression. Her mother was institutionalized when she was 12 years old and treated horribly by her “caretakers.” She, too, has been depressed since she was a child and has sought help from therapists who she feels have not truly cared for her. She has tried numerous medications, but none of them have worked—they make her sick or more anxious. When she had her own daughter, she hoped that things would be different for her. But while in her early 20s, her daughter fell into a deep depression that was accompanied by hallucinations. She was treated for bipolar disorder, but the medication made her worse. She began drinking because she felt that was the only thing that gave her some relief. She died in a car crash due to drunk driving and has left behind her seven-year-old daughter. The woman who messaged me says watching my story on Dr. Oz brought tears to her eyes because she finally feels that someone who understands is speaking out about a real solution.
A woman from Ohio messaged me because she fears for her son’s life. He has been suicidal for years. He tried some medications but felt that they were not helping him, so he stopped taking them without telling his doctor. They have run out of doctors to see in their small town, so she contacted me to find out how she could find a doctor who does the genetic testing.
I could not be more honored to be the arbiter of this information. I launched a website (www.kristenruthdavis.com) to which I can refer people. The “Get Help” page lays out some steps people can take to get the genetic testing from a provider.
The site also contains my story, links to my articles, and FAQs that I typically get from people about depression in general and my experience specifically.
The primary lesson I have learned as I have opened up about my depression is that no one is immune to the effects of mental illness, and almost everyone is searching for answers. Every time I bring up my story in conversation, the other person always tells me that either he or she or a close loved one has suffered from mental illness and has not been totally satisfied with the treatment options.
Opening up to others about my story has been a gradual process over the past couple years. When I first entered graduate school for speech-language pathology, I was anxious that my illness would prevent me from being able to handle the workload. I had not told many people outside of my family about my past.
About the same time, I began dating a wonderful, understanding man who made it easy for me to open up quickly. He had experience being close to people who had mental illness, so he was not shocked or put off by my journey but rather admired my strength and persistence in helping myself and being receptive to treatment. This relationship instilled me with confidence to begin opening up to some of my classmates in my graduate program. I began writing poetry about my journey and recited these poems at open mic nights in DC. To my amazement, all of my classmates were nothing but supportive and shared with me their own histories of anxiety or depression.
By now, I am engaged to that wonderful, understanding man, and we have knitted together a supportive network of family and friends who know what I’ve been through, and this has been the most healing factor in my recovery and continued stability on top of remaining on my prescribed medication.
I believe that those of us with mental illness should be able to be honest about our experiences with those we love and with society at large, without being scorned for a medical condition that can be treated and managed. We all deserve to tell our truth and be heard, and be respected and understood.
Kristen Davis Schwandes is a guest blogger who lives in Washington, D.C.