For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sad. Like, really sad. I recall so many school nights spent crying alone in my room listening to Bon Iver. But what millennial woman can’t relate? I never really thought I was sadder than anyone else. Surely I’d grow out of whatever it was.

And then I didn’t.

My freshman year of college was as good in as many ways as it was bad. I was on the dance team, loved the classes I was taking, and planned on joining a sorority. But for every Friday spent dancing the night away and every touchdown I watched from the stands, there was a day full of skipped classes, a day so dim that getting out of bed seemed impossible. I felt the weight of everything, all the time, and it was crippling. I tried to smile and pretend that everything was okay even as I began to withdraw, shutting everyone out.

“I tried to smile and pretend that everything was okay even as I began to withdraw, shutting everyone out.”

Very soon, it became clear to everyone around me that I wasn’t managing well. It was time to get professional help. The following semester, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD).

Mental health treatment is often met with differing opinions and judgments that prevent many from seeking help. What will people think of me if I go to therapy? What will they think if I take medicine? Other barriers to seeking treatment include confusion about the process and lack of resources to afford treatment. And after finding a provider, opening up to a stranger can feel like an impossible hurdle.

Sitting in the doctor’s office lobby that day felt like being on the receiving end of a “We need to talk” text. I didn’t come from a family where mental health was openly talked about. I knew I had “feelings,” but that was about the extent of my emotional intelligence. Not one single part of me wanted to be there admitting I needed help, but it was the first step to understanding my mental health.

“Sitting in the doctor’s office lobby that day felt like being on the receiving end of a ‘We need to talk’ text.”

While being diagnosed with MDD, a mood disorder, I was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and bulimia, an eating disorder. A mood disorder, like MDD, impacts emotions, causing them to be felt in extreme intensities. Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders are some of the most common mental health diagnoses — and I had all three. Other mental health disorders that you might be familiar with are personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A person may deal with multiple conditions simultaneously, and this list is certainly not exhaustive.

Diagnosis allowed me to put words to some of my feelings — and also to begin the next step of figuring out treatment options. Before receiving my diagnosis, I hadn’t ever considered that a structure existed to support my healing. Some common conditions can be treated with medication, others can be treated with therapy, and many can (and should!) be treated with a combination of both. For me, medication helped target the chemical imbalances in my brain that contribute to my symptoms — alleviating some of the more intense aspects — while therapy has taught me coping skills to deal with distress and ways to reframe negative beliefs I held about myself. The two together allowed me to move forward in a way that either alone could not.

While many people receive a single diagnosis — almost 30% of adults in the US have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime — treatment is never exactly the same for any two people. Treatment options will vary based on the nature and severity of a person’s condition as well as how much access they have to treatment facilities, insurance coverage, financial ability, and personal comfort level. Especially for those entering therapy, options for eating disorder treatment were limited in my area so I found a facility after a quick online search, and was luckily able to get in for an intake quickly.

“Treatment is never exactly the same for any two people.”

At this point in my life, my eating disorder was severe enough to warrant a partial hospitalization program (PHP). PHP consisted of me going to the treatment center for 9 hours, eating 3 meals (and 2 snacks) there, being weighed and seen by a doctor daily, and participating in individual and group therapy. It was truly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. 

I took a leave of absence from college and moved back into my childhood home with my parents. It was infuriating and humiliating. Being sucked right out of my life on campus was one thing, but being dropped into a treatment facility was another. Spending 9 painstaking hours sharing my innermost struggles with professionals and peers alike felt antithetical to everything I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be getting ready for a sorority function with my friends. I wanted to be tailgating on Saturday before the football game. Yet, day after day, I got up and made my way to the treatment center. And day after day, it got easier. Fall turned to winter, and I was able to transition to a lower level of care. I went back to school the next semester and ended up graduating on time with my class.

“Day after day, I got up and made my way to the treatment center. And day after day, it got easier.”

What started at the eating disorder treatment center only continued. I went to therapy consistently after I left the treatment center and started to utilize it to recognize patterns in my behavior and adopt new and different coping skills in response to my emotions.

At first, I felt like I was taking in more information than I ever had and I had no idea what to do with it. When I saw my psychiatrist, he rattled off lists of medications I couldn’t even pronounce. In therapy, I felt stuck trying to unlearn patterns I had come to rely on. But, as time passed, I began to feel empowered with the knowledge I gained. I used what I learned to make important shifts for myself. 

I learned that the negative things I turned to were means of dealing with stressors, and replacing them with alternative ways to cope could give me the same benefit. I realized my behaviors weren’t actually helping me in the long run, despite seeming helpful in the moment. 

Receiving a diagnosis was scary at first, but it helped to explain everything I had been feeling for so long. I realized I wasn’t broken. It finally put words to my experience after so many years of feeling like the word “sad” was all I had, even if it simply wasn’t enough. 

Above all, getting a diagnosis was validating. It’s like the moment when all the pieces of the puzzle are together, and at last, you see the full picture. I had been living in such a fog before, a fog that had rendered me almost unable to function. Diagnosis and treatment lifted that fog. I am finally able to recognize harmful behavior patterns that would have previously left me feeling alone. They’re part of me, and they’re part of my diagnosis, too. 

“I had been living in such a fog before, a fog that had rendered me almost unable to function. Diagnosis and treatment lifted that fog.”

Knowing the challenges that come along with my diagnoses allows me to prepare for situations that can be triggering, reducing the stress I feel, and giving me room to feel more joy. 

Seeking answers for your mental health may be completely foreign to you, or it may be something your circle of friends talks about freely. I’m now a therapist, something I could have never imagined before my diagnosis, and it’s so inspiring to see the people I work with being candid about their mental health. 

I feel incredibly grateful to be able to help others in the same way mental health professionals have helped me. Providing patients with a sense of clarity after they receive a diagnosis is more than just rewarding, it’s part of how I continue to heal every day.

Jordan Hemphill is a licensed therapist at a non-profit in South Carolina. Most often, she can be found snuggling with her cats, Julep and Sophie, or reading in her hammock. She is passionate about live music, loves a slow jog, and would spend every fall in NYC if she could. You can keep up with her on Substack.