It is no secret: I have clinical depression.
I first experienced symptoms of depression at age 12, was officially diagnosed at age 16 and began counseling the same year.
For the next few years, I worked through high school and my freshman year of college, drifting in and out of major depressive episodes. I never came close to fully recovering from any of them. Counseling helped marginally but I managed to get good grades and stay involved in extracurricular activities. I was able to have the life I thought I wanted. My mental illness never hindered my life plan — until I transferred to Georgetown.
In September 2016, I was discussing medication changes with my psychiatrist, a conversation we had monthly since I started taking antidepressants the previous November. None of the combinations of medication he had prescribed thus far had been successful in treating my depression. Counseling became a consistent part of my life but my medical professionals and I agreed that counseling alone would not be enough to keep me afloat. It was time for less conventional treatment options involving medication.
My psychiatrist proposed that I add a stimulant to my daily combination of psychiatric drugs. He said that my brain might be deficient in dopamine — the only way to know for sure would be to see if my mood improved on a stimulant. The pills I had been taking for so long before were not working so turning to a stimulant was the next logical step.
Choosing this treatment option, however, would have put my participation on the women’s rowing team in jeopardy. Stimulants would guarantee future positive results on the drug tests administered by both the university and the NCAA.
This possibility prompted a slew of concerns: I was unsure how I could receive a medical exemption for a positive drug test in my situation. I did not know which stimulant, or how much of it, I would take. Nor did I know if the drug or dosage would change from month to month. The on-label uses for stimulants were for medical conditions that I did not have. I was not sure I had the mental energy to constantly worry about my ability to participate on the team if I did choose to try stimulants.
I had to make a choice: stay on the team or try a treatment plan that might not work.
The team had done so much for me. I had not only grown physically stronger, but also — through my consistent improvement over the year — gained the confidence I desperately needed in times of utter despair. My social circle was largely composed of my teammates when I arrived at Georgetown, and leaving them meant that I would have needed to integrate into the student body yet again.
Still, I was in intense emotional pain. I was doing all of the right things — taking my medication, going to counseling, socializing when I could — and the fact that none of my behavior helped significantly was incredibly frustrating. I was dying inside. Allowing myself to stay miserable to remain on the team was aiding that process. If there was the slightest chance that I could get better, I had to try.
Telling my coaches that it was best for me to leave the team was quite possibly the most raw, heartbreaking conversation I have ever had. My heart still aches thinking about it today.
I wish I could tell you that the stimulants helped alleviate my depression. They did not — at least not the ones I have tried so far. These days, my psychiatrist and I have yet to find a combination of medication that is helpful. My prescription still changes monthly. Deep inside, I think any sense of normalcy may be unattainable.
Still, I don’t regret my decision to step away from the team. Constantly striving for a healthy mind has allowed me to regain parts of myself that I had lost and others that I did not know were there. Today, though my mood has not improved much over my time at Georgetown, I feel the most whole.
We will all face a time when we must choose between something important to us and our own mental health. As crushing as it may be, we must always choose our health. Even if we never become as healthy as we had hoped, we will at least have learned something about ourselves. And maybe, along the way, we will have become a little more whole, too.
To access mental health resources, reach out to the Counseling and Psychiatric Services at (202) 687-6985 or for after-hours emergencies call (202) 444-7243 and ask to speak to the on-call clinician. You can also reach out to Health Education Services at (202) 687-8949. Both of these resources are confidential.
Brittany Rios is a senior in the College. TRANSFERmations appears online every other Monday.