Personal Essay: Doctor’s Note


Ren Martinez is a mental health professional and writer. You can follow Ren on @renthemusical, read her poetry at ToWriteOnWalls on Tumblr, or check out her website at

I’ve never been diagnosed with mental illness.

I tried to kill myself when I was eleven years old.

It seems like these two statements are in direct contradiction, one of those icebreakers at corporate events in an awkward getting to know you.

Let’s play a game. It’s called One Truth, One Lie.

How can a person who had suicidal thoughts when she was only in fifth grade escape being diagnosed with depression?

Self-diagnosis is often lauded as a cry for attention. In some corners of the internet, citing mental illness without official diagnosis is a symptom of “special snowflake syndrome,” something that seems to affect teenagers, women, people of color, and others on the margins. Those who need a doctor’s note, a majority vote, a permission slip in order to be believed by the doubtful masses.

None of this has been notarized; is it any less true?

When I was eleven years old, I wanted to die. I took a handful of Advil that I’d grabbed from the lowest shelf of my parents’ bathroom closet, crawled into bed, and hoped always to dream.

I woke up the next day and went to school.

When I was twenty-two years old, I saw a counselor for the first time. I had gone in to sort out my feelings of reuniting with my ex-boyfriend. I broke down in tears during the first session when he asked me: “Do you often feel like you don’t deserve things?”

During those six sessions, we talked about my family, my friends, my abortion, my boyfriend. But, mostly, we talked about me. About the days that I could barely get out of bed in the morning, the times when my chest would grow tight when I thought I had done something wrong, the way I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight in order to pay attention in class.

Six sessions later, I walked out lighter than I had ever been, without a diagnosis weighing me down.

It’s been years since I sat down in that counselor’s office. The other day, my boyfriend said something that reminded me of my abusive ex, and he held my hand as I had an anxiety attack on the bedroom floor. I concentrated on my breathing (in-out-in-out), gripping my tether to the world.

I’ve never been diagnosed with mental illness.

I don’t need a doctor’s note to know that I’m sick.


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