“You’re fine,” she said.
“Yeah. You did some work this week right? So I’d say you’re not clinical.” She put her clipboard away, the one that she’d scribbled intently on as I spoke. I wondered if she missed out the part when I said I only wrote two sentences this week.
What about Anthony Bourdain? I thought. He worked his ass off. So did Hemingway. Since when did work have to do with feelings? Then I felt guilty for even having the thought to compare myself to the greats.
Anyway, that’s what I’d have said had I lived in an alternate universe where I had a little more energy and an extra dollop of gab. But instead I just said: “Okay.”
“I want your opinion on these symptoms,” I’d told her at the start of our session. “I just need to know if I have a problem or if I’m just lazy.”
Well, the session was about to draw to a close and I’d gotten no closer to an answer, except now I was a few hundred bucks short.
I assumed she’d written down all my concerns on her clipboard. Maybe somewhere in her scribbles were the words ‘no interest in anything’ or ‘tendency to spend entire day in bed’. Perhaps they’d even be in bullet points: ‘Feels hopeless’. ‘Insomnia’. ‘Low self-esteem’.
But all that didn’t seem to concern her diagnosis on what I suspected was high-functioning depression. I got it. I functioned. But her telling me I was fine because I worked was like telling a stutterer he could speak because he could pronounce one word.
“Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.”
“You could end up having clinical depression,” she said with an engineered calm in her voice. “I recommend you see me at least once a week to find out more. Would you like to set an appointment now?”
Now, when it comes to seeking professional advice or trying to figure your own shit out through Google, I’m all for the former, but that day marked one of the few times I wished I’d just self-diagnosed and be done with it.
I wondered what it felt like to be on the other end of the chair, to listen to what must sound terribly mundane stories compared to the real nut-jobs that came in through the doors daily.
It seemed like not too long ago that I was my neighbourhood’s unofficial shrink. But instead of giving them mental-health advice, all I needed to do was listen. And give them fabulous hairdos.
Tell me about your problems
“I can’t go back to my country until I’m 40 years old to avoid serving in the military, so I’m stuck here and I feel lost,” one client would tell me during my time as a hairdresser.
“Oh, these holes? I pull my hair when I’m stressed. Maybe you could help me cover them?” another would say.
But sometimes, it was the ones who never spoke that’d leave the deepest impressions.
I remember having one regular client with silky hair that grazed her butt. I’d watch the strands ripple downwards every time she shook her head. It was one of her most prized features, judging from her habit of constantly combing through it with her fingers and carefully placing them on her hips when she was done.
On this day, however, she came in wanting to chop it all off. “And let’s do highlights,” she said. “Something bold. Red, maybe.”
I was just twenty-five years old at the time, but I’d already figured out that drastic makeovers often involved emotional turmoil, followed by huge regret once they had time to process their problems.
“Really?” I asked. “But your hair’s so beautiful! And you’ve worked so hard to—”
“What does it matter that my hair’s beautiful if my husband says I’m not?”
“I, uh… let’s get you a hair wash.”
Coincidentally, there weren’t any junior stylists available, so I personally washed her hair, managing to convince her to delay her plan and to come back next week if she still wanted to go ahead with the makeover.
“And if you come back,” I said, “today’s treatment’s on me. Deal?”
There was a minute’s silence as she continued staring off into space.
“So it’s a deal?” I repeated, and as if interrupted from a session of mental arithmetic, she took a deep breath, looked at me like she was just aware of my existence, and nodded.
I’m not much of a talker, so I welcomed the quiet time throughout the entire treatment, though she had been much more conversational during our previous appointments. I sent her out looking not much different from when she came in, and when she stood at the counter, absentmindedly stroking through her hair, I decided to really check in with her.
“Hey, are you all right? Like really all right?”
“I’ll be fine.”
I never saw her again.
What ifs and should haves
I still wonder how things turned out for her. I’ve had the privilege to meet so many people during my time as a hairdresser, and sometimes I think back of the conversations I’d had and wonder how ignorant I must’ve seemed sometimes.
Like, instead of saying “why do they call real wrestling ‘amateur’ and fake wrestling ‘professional?'” I could instead connect with that wrestler today through the technicalities of a double-leg takedown.
Or maybe I could talk about Louise Erdrich instead of smiling absently when that lady told me her parents named her after Fleur Pillager.
Of course, hindsight’s always twenty-twenty, but that’s never stopped me from wondering if I could’ve helped this customer of mine feel much better than I did then. Because most times, “I’ll be fine” is the exact thing you’d say when you actually won’t.
I wonder if I’d spared her the regret of chopping three years’ worth of hair at least, because I could’ve used someone preventing me from throwing a few hundred bucks down the drain just for an hour’s chat.
Back to the story
“So, would you like to make an appointment for next week?” my therapist asked.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, with what I hoped was a smile.
“All right. Let me just walk you out then.”
It’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you don’t seem to operate on the same wavelength as the rest of the world.
And it’s not something you could just casually talk about, because the moment you bring up that week you spent lying on the couch, or the fact that you can’t remember the last time you felt truly happy, the most common reply is almost always “Try yoga,” or “Get more sun.”
What’s worse is when they pity you, but that doesn’t hold a candle to people thinking you’re a bum. That you just don’t want to deal with your problems like everyone else.
And I totally get that, because I’ve given ‘healthy living’ a fair shot in my efforts of denying my dysthymia.
Ruling things out
For the better part of the year, I’d maintained a healthy diet, worked out five days a week, drastically cut down on alcohol and caffeine, adhered to a stable sleeping routine, and even developed a routine around things like meditation, gratitude practice, and journalling.
A year of this routine soon passed, and I found myself at eight percent body fat with the best cardio I’ve had my entire life. I’ve also garnered a year’s worth of journal entries that’d make for good blog entries, and I’d like to think I’ve come quite far in my meditation practice. But my general outlook had barely budged, and that’s what brought me to the psych’s office.
Who knew that I’d leave with more questions than I had before coming? Maybe it was a wrong match, maybe I should’ve sought a second opinion, but I knew from then on that this hindrance was mine to bear.
Thing is, I know there are many people out there like me, those who can be numb at the death of a loved one but break down upon realising that they’re all out of peanut butter. Those who have no problem taking care of their responsibilities but sometimes forget to take care of themselves. Those who somehow feel like they’re going through life at only fifty percent of what they feel they should be.
The ones who live with it their entire lives suffering in silence, just because they’re not suicidal or catatonic enough to be seen as someone with a real problem.
There are people like me, and I know that you’re out there because I’ve read so many of your stories online.
Despite me following the ‘overcome depression’ articles to the tee, despite me convincing myself that I just have the temporary blues, despite me seeking out professional help, it’s your stories that give me the most relief from the constant doubt and half-assed melancholy that just won’t leave me alone.
So here I am, adding my own narrative to the entire collective, in hopes that I could somehow pass it on and make that one person feel less alone.
Because I’ll be fine. And so will you.