Iris is an actor, writer and volunteer living in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. She migrated from Cebu, Philippines in 2005. Four years after migrating, her struggle with anxiety and depression began.
When and how did you find out you were experiencing depression?
“I have two mental health issues: anxiety and depression. They’re two different issues but they are interrelated. Learning about my anxiety issues led the way to knowing the depression.”
“It all started sometime in 2009. I went to our family doctor complaining of symptoms of chest pains. I was afraid I was having a heart attack. Our doctor is very bright and insightful. It turns out that what I’ve been experiencing panic attacks. He asked me more questions and referred me to a mental health counselor. I was diagnosed to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was referred to and participated in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program at our local hospital. For several weeks, I was with participants who were also experiencing GAD as well as depression. We learned concrete ways to manage our anxiety and mood issues.”
“I also learned that I have low-grade depression or dysthymia. Don’t get the low-grade description fool you. It’s a serious chronic condition. It’s also as common as major depression. Dysthymia has affected my physical health, my professional, personal and social life. It can be really debilitating.”
Do you know what triggered it?
“When I immigrated to Canada, I left a wide network of support from family and friends. Immigrating was not just a physical separation from home. It was also very much an emotional and spiritual separation. It has also been quite difficult to start in a job of the same level as my career back in the Philippines.”
“My life in Canada has been very different from my life in the Philippines. By my first year here, I started feeling more and more isolated and alienated. I had acquaintances but I didn’t really have people I could call friends. Sometimes I felt invisible. My self-esteem just plummeted. I felt I didn’t belong to a community. By this time, I had already met the man who became my husband. He was really trying his best to give me all the emotional support that I needed. But one person can never replace a whole community.”
“It doesn’t help that in Vancouver, it can also be rainy and gloomy for days on end! The absence of sun would sometimes worsen my depression.”
How did you first react to this realization?
“I got even more depressed and anxious! I always regarded myself as this optimistic, cheerful and emotionally strong woman. I always knew what I wanted. In my early 30s, I’ve accomplished many things in my life that not many people have. In my mind, experiencing my depression and anxiety issues meant some kind of failure on my part in adapting to my new home country. On the other hand, I felt relieved that all the things I was experiencing had an explanation; it had a name. Accepting that I had a problem was the beginning of getting better.”
Did you tell people around you?
“My husband knew. He was very supportive. He did a lot of research, encouraged me to seek help, and listened to me when I wanted to talk or just offer me a hug when I needed it. I gradually told some of my friends and family members back in Cebu.”
How did they react?
“It’s interesting because the reactions of friends and family varied a lot. From “You’ll get over it!” to the equally unhelpful “You’re so lucky to have all the things that you have! You shouldn’t be depressed.” Some of the people in Cebu that I confided in seemed to find it very hard to wrap their heads around the fact that someone like me – someone with a cheerful disposition, a person they ran to for advice when they had problems – could be suffering, too.”
“I even got responses from a few people that would contain only a few sentences recognizing my pain but in the next long paragraphs would proceed to tell me their problems. I’m not too fragile that I’ll break if they tell me their problems. I’d feel very honored and special to be trusted with their stories too. But sometimes I feel like I’m not being listened to. Just because others regard me as a strong person doesn’t mean I don’t need or want help.”
“I should say that there were some friends who seemed so understanding and offered their listening ear. For the most part, the idea of depression and anxiety seemed foreign to many I’ve told. This makes me feel sad. Imagine what we could for each other if we were more empathetic and compassionate to those who need it.”
(In a future post, Iris talks about how she manages her anxiety and depression.)