Something as small as going to the movies can be overwhelming when it feels like doing so is nothing more than an act. After Caitlin’s college graduation, the anxiety and depression she had long been aware of became more severe. Her therapist at school told her she could benefit from seeing someone with a more medical background.

Caitlin didn’t want to act out her life anymore. So, she gave Northwestern Medicine a call.

Caitlin moved to Chicago to study theater at Northwestern University. She’s been involved in the performing arts all her life. After watching her father, she made her own debut in the children’s theater as Roo in Winnie the Pooh. “It was such a natural thing to do, to try my hand at that,” Caitlin explained. “And I really, really loved it.”

These days, she’s interested in plays and contemporary theater with thought-provoking themes. She loves movies and takes Oscar season very seriously. She still dances, a holdover from her musical days, and has, in the last year or so, discovered the gym.

brain scan

None of this, really, would feel possible without the help of her team at Northwestern Medicine.

“I got very overwhelmed by basic tasks that one has to do as an adult. The idea of adulthood was awful, I was intimidated by all manner of things I had to do on my own,” Caitlin recalled. “I felt really, really alone and so thoughts about my future, about what I’m doing with my life, choked at me.”

Caitlin is an excited person, hopeful. She’s feisty. But her depression turned that hope into fear — a certainty that everything would go wrong — and feistiness into anger. A part of her character was missing, and in its place was a helpless rage.

Emotional health can have as much of an impact on the everyday as other medical disorders, and can benefit from breakthroughs in research, care and therapy just as significantly. Comprehensive care for depression and anxiety often includes a multifaceted approach, drawing on not only the expertise of therapists and psychiatrists, but the research of neurologists and scientists.

Still, it’s not unusual to put off therapy. Community, culture or any number of factors can often deter people from seeking help.

Caitlin can identify that she experienced depression and anxiety since high school, but it wasn’t until she went to college that she sought counseling. The resources she found at school helped her to become more comfortable with the process, yet she still felt a complicated reaction to her therapist’s referral to someone more medical.

“I had never been to any kind of doctor by the time I went to college,” Caitlin explained. “Getting help to begin with was already a big step and then to hear that I needed not just to sit and talk about my feelings, but very real medical help was surprising.”

When he said that, it lifted a lot of that responsibility off my shoulders.”

But learning she could benefit from medication also provided a certain sense of relief. “In a way, it very much took a lot of the onus off of me as somebody who could be at fault for the way I was feeling,” Caitlin said. “I was feeling like I wasn’t trying hard enough and that’s why I wasn’t getting better. When my therapist at school referred me to a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine, Stone Institute of Psychiatry, it lifted a lot of that responsibility off my shoulders.”

Therapy is well known for offering an outside perspective, but it also offers catharsis through a third party. Family and friends often feel too close. It’s easy to convince yourself they’re frustrated, easy to feel like they’re forced to live through the pain with you.

A therapist, on the other hand, is a professional relationship. It’s her job to listen, to be invested, and to help. And at the same time, it is still very much a relationship — she is engaging with a very personal part of your self. It’s important to find a good match.

Still, there can be a learning curve to feeling comfortable confiding in someone who starts out as a stranger. More than anything else, the success of your first session with a therapist is about how you feel. You will go through the motions of explaining why you came, what you’ve been through. You try to make them understand you right off the bat. You may mess up what you’re trying to say, and that’s okay. You won’t get through everything on that first day, but establishing a comfortable space to share is the first step.

“I could tell,” Caitlin said of her first visit at Northwestern Medicine, over a year and a half ago. “I got such good feelings from my therapist. I was already a lot more comfortable. She seemed very compassionate and nonjudgmental and all the things you want out of a therapist. I walked out more hopeful than I walked in.”

Caitlin and friend

“The progress that I’ve made is clear,” Caitlin continued. Through Northwestern Medicine, she met with a therapist who helped her form healthy emotional health habits and a psychiatrist who worked with her to find the right balance of medication. “My team helped me develop my own ways of coping with anxiety attacks, of lifting myself out of depressive episodes. I feel much more capable of handling the things that come at me.”

Caitlin loves movies and she takes awards season very seriously. Reading blogs, seeing the nominees, predicting winners and picking favorites — it’s nothing less than a passion.

As a result, she and her boyfriend will end up going to the movies a lot, once a week, even. That kind of commitment, that level of interest was once overwhelming to her.

But now, Caitlin feels stronger, more confident in herself. She’s even considering a move cross-country. And no matter the distance — to the theater or California — Caitlin knows she can do it. 

Making an #ImpactEveryDay