Guest: Robyn Wheeler
Guest Bio: Robyn Wheeler overcame bouts of anger, depression and pessimism after years of struggling with an undiagnosed mood disorder known as Dysthymic Disorder. Robyn wrote several books about her journey, and courage and determination. She is now dedicated to spreading awareness about Dysthymic Disorder, helping others improve their attitudes and live an anger-free life. Robyn Wheeler has a Bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She has more than 20 years experience in education.
Robyn Wheeler discusses her personal experience with Dysthymic Disorder both as a child and an adult. Also discussed are what practitioners can do in diagnosing and treating the disorder.
Health Professional Radio
Neal: You’re listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host, Neal Howard. Our guest is Robyn Wheeler. She’s an anger management, depression, and dysthymic disorder expert. She’s also an author of two books, one of which being ‘Born Mad,’ and ‘104 Ways to Starve Your Anger and Feed Your Soul’. Robyn has first-hand experience with out-of-control anger and depression. Welcome, Robyn, how are you today?
Robyn Wheeler: I’m good. How are you?
Neal: I’m doing quite well. Glad to have you here with us.
Robyn: Thank you for having me on.
Neal: Well, first of all, what exactly is dysthymic disorder?
Robyn: Dysthymic disorder is a mild, low-grade depression. It’s a chronic depression where you just always feel kind of blah, and a lot of people don’t realise that they have it. I lived with it for many years and I just thought I was normal, I just thought I was having ups and downs like everybody else. Symptoms for dysthymic disorder aren’t necessarily feeling depressed like someone with a major depression would feel. Symptoms can include chronic anger or anxiety, chronic worrying, easily frustrated, poor self-esteem, inability to make a decision, poor concentration, that type of thing.
So a lot of it is normal moods that people would normally feel throughout the day. The problem with having dysthymic disorder is that it can become immobilizing, and if it’s left untreated, it can lead into a major depression, which is what happened to me in 2008 and 2009. So it is classified as mild compared to mental illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia and major depression and things like that, but most people who have it don’t feel that it’s all that mild.
Neal: So this is much more than just feeling blue or down sometimes.
Robyn: I was never taken to a physician or a therapist when I was a child, although it was recommended by one of my neighbors. I took an awful habit of biting when I was a kid. I was four and five years old, and I would just get frustrated, or mad, or somebody would tease me, and I would just bite them and draw blood. And I actually was kicked out of preschool at the age of four [laughs] because I bit too many other kids in preschool.
When I bit the neighbour boy, she called up my mom and she said, “I think you need to take your child for therapy because she needs help,” and of course that was something that, at the time, my mother wasn’t willing to entertain that thought at all. I look back now and I wish somebody had taken me back then, because maybe they could have diagnosed it. It is often misdiagnosed as bipolar or some other type of mental illness. When I was in therapy in my 40s, my therapist asked me if I would be willing to see a psychiatrist and I said yes.
And he was the one that actually diagnosed me within about an hour, sitting in his office and talking to me and asking me questions, he had me diagnosed.
Neal: In one hour. That’s amazing that something could go on like that for so long and not be caught when it is an actual disorder, not so much on the same level as bipolar or major depression or some of the others. But is it possible that maybe some of the things that we’re seeing in youngsters … because you were biting – that’s not just mild aggression, that’s out-and-out violence.
Neal: So with something that is that low on the scale of mental disorders, how can it produce such behavior that seems to mimic the major disorders?
Robyn: That is a really, really good question, and I think dysthymic disorder is similar to autism or ADHD, where they’d fall on a spectrum, and some may have certain symptoms and others may not have those symptoms. They may have something else or they may have one symptom in severity and another symptom not quite so severe. So I think when it falls on a scale like that, it’s even more difficult to diagnose.
Neal: Why exactly did you write your book, ‘Born Mad’?
Robyn: I wrote ‘Born Mad’ because after I was diagnosed, I took to the internet and I wanted to compare my story with someone else’s story who had dysthymic disorder, to see if my symptoms were similar to theirs and if they experienced it the same way I did. And I couldn’t find a story written by someone who had dysthymic disorder. So I sat down and wrote ‘Born Mad,’ number one, to put my story out there, so that it may help somebody else.
And number two, because – I think because it’s considered a mild disorder, it’s kind of swept underneath the rug. And if you talk to people on the street and you ask them, “Have you heard of bipolar disorder,” they’ll probably say yes. Or “Have you heard of schizophrenia,” they’ll probably say yes. But in the past two-and-a-half years that I’ve been diagnosed, most people say, “Well, what is dysthymic disorder?” So I wanted to bring awareness to this disorder, that even though it’s relatively mild, compared to some of the major mental illnesses, it can still do damage, and it can damage your relationships and your mental well-being.
More people with dysthymic disorder are on welfare and disability than people with major depression.
Neal: So some of the disorders, the major depressions, the severe bipolar that are actually listed as disabilities in some cases – you consider dysthymic disorder to be right up there with them as far as debilitating relationships, coping skills, feelings of isolation and things of that nature that are just like the symptoms and problems associated with those other disorders, yeah?
Robyn: Yes, yes, I do, and a lot of the symptoms kind of create a circle, a pattern, because a lot of people who are depressed, they want to be left alone. And then that creates anger, and the anger creates more wanting to be left alone. Or not being good enough and then you say … you start comparing yourself to somebody else and saying, “Oh, I don’t do this,” so then your self-esteem goes down, and it’s just a vicious cycle. So it really can take somebody to a really rock-bottom place if it’s left untreated.
And I don’t think there’s a good number of people in America or around the world who are familiar with the mild form of depression and the damage it could do.
Neal: What is the measuring stick for having this disorder, as opposed to just feeling blue. What type of a history must a person have in order for the next step of diagnosis to be taken?
Robyn: Well, there are several symptoms, and if you’re an adult, you have to have those symptoms for two years or more. Now for children, I believe they’ve taken children down to one year or more.
Neal: You said that you’ve been diagnosed within the last two years?
Robyn: October of 2010.
Neal: Are you currently being treated for it and what exactly is the treatment for dysthymic disorder and what should psychological practitioners look for, and how do they treat dysthymic disorder once they identify it?
Robyn: Dysthymic disorder, if you believe, like I do, that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, can be treated with medication, which is called … I would treat it with Prozac, which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. The theory being that my brain was absorbing the serotonin before it could actually disperse throughout the rest of my body. So they put you on a reuptake inhibitor, which allows that chemical to travel to the proper neurotransmitters in your brain.
So everything is firing and probably everything is connecting. I was on that for about two-and-a-half years, and in May of this year, I felt depressed again. I felt myself feeling blah and not wanting to do things and wanted to retreat away from other people and being kind of grumpy, and so I went back to my psychiatrist, and he took me off the Prozac and put me on another SSRI called Pristiq, which is a fairly new medication that’s out, it’s not even in generic form right now.
And it took about nine days for it to kick in, and believe it or not, I actually felt … I was sitting here working on the computer, and I stopped working and I thought, “Wow, I think I just felt my medication kick in!” And I’ve been fine, I’ve been doing great ever since then, so it was actually a physical feeling for me, that I felt my depression lift.
Neal: It sounds as though treatment for dysthymic disorder is long-term. It’s just like any other effective treatment for any other mental or mood disorder. You’re still on it, and even though you’ve changed medication, that seems to me the norm when talking about other ailments such as bipolar and major depression.
Robyn: Right. I think the hope is … when I was put on Prozac for the first time, the very beginning … I think the hope is that your brain will eventually, automatically change, and it will stay that way, even without the medication, and mine was not doing that. So most likely, it is likely that this will be something that I will need to treat for the rest of my life. Just as with bipolar and schizophrenia. The key for me was I could feel myself coming down.
It was almost like you have a fully inflated balloon, and slowly, and slowly, and slowly, and slowly, it just kind of deflates, and one day, you realise it’s just completely deflated. So that’s when I called back and said, to my psychiatrist and said, “Look, I think this isn’t working anymore.” And then I felt the new medication kick in. So yeah, it is probably going to be a lifetime thing.
Neal: You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host, Neal Howard. Our guest has been Robyn Wheeler, anger management, depression, dysthymic disorder expert, and the founder of the Inspiration Foundation. You can find more information about Robyn Wheeler at robynwheeler.com. Her book, ‘Born Mad,’ and another, ‘104 Ways to Starve Your Anger and Feed Your Soul’. It’s been a pleasure having you with us here today, Robyn.
Robyn: Thank you for having me on.
Neal: Thank you, and we will have an opportunity to talk with you again.
Robyn: Alright, sounds great.
Neal: Transcripts of this program are available at www.healthprofessionalradio.com.au.