Today I am joining Julia for her new Mental Health Monday Series. It is so important that we keep the conversation surrounding mental health open and ongoing. It hasn’t always been easy to talk about my own battles with mental health, but I have become increasingly more aware of the importance of doing so.
As I have discussed in many blog posts before, I am recovered from anorexia and depression and have been for a few years. Today I am talking about something I haven’t before- the role of antidepressants in my recovery. Of course, keep in mind that I am not speaking from the point of view of a medical professional, simply from my own experience.
If I had to summarize briefly how I feel about antidepressants I’d say “they saved my life.” Did they make my life perfect? No. Did they take away all my problems? No again. They did, however, make me feel normal again.
I remember clearly the doctor prescribing me Prozac for the first time. I was 15 and staying in the hospital at the time, it was my first anorexia-related stay. I asked him, “will I have to be on this for a long time?” He said sometimes people do, sometimes they do not. I was worried. Taking a mood stabilizing pill of any kind seemed very foreign to my 15-year old self. I was worried the pill would somehow change me. He said something about how the chemical imbalances in my brain had to be corrected. I was too depressed to care or ask questions. Take a pill? Whatever.
Clinical depression is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it… it’s like a cold, dark blanket that covers life and makes everything seem dark. No matter what direction I turned, I was still in the dark, feeling hopeless every time I bumped into something. The blanket stayed over me no matter which way I went. If I was with friends, alone in my room, watching a funny movie, at a football game it didn’t matter. No matter where I was I still felt like I was being blocked off and alone. The feeling of joy was a distant memory. Depression put me in a deep dark hole and anorexia kept me there.
The effects of Prozac worked slowly. Jokes started to seem funny again. I didn’t struggle to look people in the eye or mumble when I spoke. I could speak about my feelings. I had feelings other than sadness and despair. While I wouldn’t say I was happy, I saw happiness as a real possibility.
By 17, my life was much better. I didn’t feel so controlled by the eating disorder and I was hanging out with friends again. I did notice something else that was strange, however. I literally never cried. Never, not even when I felt like I was supposed to. On the other side, I also felt there was a limit to my happiness. It was like I was a soda bottle that was shaken. I fizzed on the inside with emotions, both good and bad, but the cap never came off. I never felt the true heights of what I thought I should. My therapist explained that numbness was a common side effect of Prozac. Prozac could produce zombies. While numbness beat depression, I was relieved to know there were other antidepressants I could try. The doctor switched me to Lexapro, which helped me to feel more, but not so much that I relapsed to depression.
Prozac to Lexapro to Wellbutrin, various dosages with all their own side effects.
Every now and then I would start to question myself. Should I be taking this medication? What if it was making me someone I wasn’t? What if I should actually be overemotional, sad, or mean? What if that was who I truly was?
When I would voice these concerns to my therapist, she would remind me that the purpose of the pills was to normalize me. Not to make me unusually happy, but to level the playing field.
After eight years on the anti-depressants, I started to feel like it might be time to try living without them. Life had been really good. I was completely free from anorexia, in a stable, supportive relationship, almost done with school, and genuinely happy.
Honestly, I was scared to try after a blotched attempt my senior year of college. I had tried to wean off them with the help of a doctor right before the semester ended and I got married. It was a disaster. I couldn’t concentrate, I cared about nothing, and I felt rage like never before. In the end decided it wasn’t worth it. Additionally my therapist explained to me that withdrawal can seem a lot like symptoms of depression. Yikes. How would I know which one it was? Would I want to put Terry through that?
Late in the spring, after several appointments with my therapist discussing the pros and cons of coming off antidepressants, I decided I would try again. If I didn’t have to, I didn’t want to be on them for the rest of my life. I’m happy to report that I am doing quite well. I don’t feel much different at all (thank you God). Would I go back to the medication if I felt myself starting to relapse? With a doctor’s help, absolutely. To me, correcting a chemical imbalance that makes life miserable is worth it. I still struggle with some anxiety, but it is mostly situation orientated, thankfully. My therapist worked with me to find some techniques to help me work through it.
I realize people don’t usually talk about the medications they take, so we can often feel alone taking them. If you take a little white pill everyone morning, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Aren’t we so blessed to live at time where we can have help feeling normal again? We don’t have to live under a blanket of darkness. Also, I don’t think the medication would have been nearly as effective without therapy and prayer alongside it. I think the medication primed me to discover joy again. The medication didn’t give me joy or recovery, but it made them an option.
Let’s talk- let me hear your thoughts!