I’ve been pretty open on this blog about my experience with mental health in the past. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and major depression back in 2017, with its roots going back all the way to the fourth grade. It is safe to say that my mental health (or lack there of) has shaped my experience in the world.
In 2019, I started taking an anti-depressant medication at the recommendation of my doctor. I took them everyday through to Spring of 2021 when a string of bad anxiety episodes made me start to think about whether they were really working for me.
When I Went on Meds
Now before I talk about what my experience was like, I think I should talk about when I went on my meds. I didn’t go into the doctors office with meds in mind. I was getting help with chronic hip pain that I developed over the course of my English degree (remember to stretch regularly). If you struggle with mental health you’re probably acutely aware that anytime you go to see the doctor you will be asked to fill out a mental health questionnaire. And if you struggle with intrusive thoughts, you know that if you check yes for “thoughts of hurting yourself,” you have to fill out a second questionnaire and watch as your doctor’s stance stiffens while she starts to think about how they didn’t go into this to deal with crazy people.
I had been doing much better since my freshman year, when I had a full anxiety meltdown that almost put me in the ER. I’ve developed better coping mechanisms and support networks. It wasn’t 100% taken care of, but I wasn’t a walking disaster. However, that doctor’s visit found me struggling with the death of my grandfather and the ongoing medical issues of a close family member. So when that questionnaire asked if I had any thoughts of self harm in the last two months, it wasn’t exactly a fair survey of my experiences.
It gives the impression…that they are pushing you off to chemical island.
Now I’m suspect if any physician whose first response to hearing that you’re depressed is to recommend meds. It gives the impression (however incorrect it may be) that they think you’re too much to deal with and are pushing you off to chemical island. When you are already struggling to self advocate, having a doctor recommend meds too early can make you less likely to communicate what you need.
But even though I was hesitant to go on meds, I did.
How Meds Work
I should remind the reader that medication is a totally valid avenue for those living with mental illness. For some people it can even be a necessary part of functioning day to day. For those of us who are considered “high functioning” with our mental illness—meaning we can do day to day tasks, but might require some support to feel well—medication may still be helpful.
Many people benefit from taking antidepressants in the short term and the long term. Antidepressants, like all medications can require some finagling to get right. Some people take a few drugs before they find ones that work for them.
The brain is flexible in someways, but inflexible in others. Neurons develop over time and strengthen through repeated use. That’s why expert chess players can see a board and come up with a hundred possible plays in a fraction of a second, because they’ve honed the neuron pathways, over years of practice, to work out chess plays.
If you find yourself repeatedly thinking “why does no one like me?” that pathway strengthens and soon you will be immediately drawn to it through even the slightest push. Over the course of many months or years, you will, like a chess master, become very good at thinking of ways to hate yourself.
For some people (especially young people whose brains are actively developing as many neural pathways as possible) your issues may seem trivial, but if you don’t reach out for help early this thought process can ingrained itself in you. Thinking any other way can be difficult because you’re trying to avoid the easy path your brain has built. It’s like trying to canoe upstream a powerful river. The current works fast and it’s easy to get swept away.
Therapy works by making you recognize when the lake you’ve been paddling in has become the river and forcing yourself to take another path. If hating yourself is a river, not hating yourself is a rocky stream with lots of turns and no clear inlets. Sometimes you’ve gotta pull off on the river and portage your canoe to the right path. Over time you will erode the sands and create a new pathway for the water to go down. Once it starts to form a fork in the river it will be easier to choose the way you want to go.
Thinking any other way can be difficult because you’re trying to avoid the easy path your brain has built.
So meds, in this metaphor, act like a dam or at least a partial dam. By narrowing the entrance to the river, you reduce the chance that you will go down the river, weakening the flow by choking it off. You can still float down a bad stream sometimes or need some help finding a better stream to take, but meds can help with getting out of the loop. If taken with therapy, they can work really well.
That being said, medication can be a struggle in their own right.
Every medication has side effects. Deciding whether a medication works is a balancing act between positive and negative symptoms. When positive outweighs negative we call that medicine. But when negative outweighs positive, you will either adjust when and how much you’re taking or stop the medication all together.
My primary symptoms were tiredness and headaches, but there are other negative side effects. My meds made me so tired I couldn’t make it through the work day. I would sleep for 13 hours a day and struggle to do anything in the remaining 11. The headaches made me moody and while ibuprofen usually knocked it out, it didn’t always and on those days I would struggle to look at any screens (a big part of my job).
I later found out that you’re supposed to take your medication at night if you experience tiredness, something which hadn’t been brought up on any of the other occasions that we discussed my medication and the side effects I had been experiencing.
Side note, but doctor’s should be more aware of the fact that someone on antidepressants for anxiety and depression may not be able to effectively communicate when things aren’t going well. I know that general physicians aren’t necessarily equipped with training for this sort of thing (they’re there to check your heart and body), but it seems obvious in hindsight. People who take antidepressants are likely to mask their emotions and less likely to recognize when they are experiencing something negative. I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have communicated better, but it was what I was taking that medication for. One should expect an anxious person to act anxiously.
Regardless, after a year and a half of struggling threw the side effects with the hopes of being less anxious, I finally stepped back to assess whether I was any less anxious.
Am I Still Anxious?
It’s hard to judge if a medication is working or not at the best of times, but I upped my dosage at the start of a global pandemic, just out of college, with no hopes for getting a job, and missing my friends. I felt miserable, and reasonably so.
With generalized anxiety and major depression, you expect to be anxious most of the time with episodes of depression lasting a week or more sprinkled throughout the month (which can also be spikes in anxiety). On medication you should see longer periods of calm between episodes, shorter spurts of depression, and a generally improved mental state. But what does that feel like?
What does it feel like to be generally better off? Am I just in an episode or are my meds just not working? Am I less anxious, or do I just have better coping mechanisms? It’s hard to tell.
So after thinking it over, I decided to tell my doctor I wanted to stop.
Going Off Meds
My medication requires two to three weeks to ween off of properly. I was given a half dosage to take once a day for one week, and later every other day until I eventually stopped taking it.
It sucks to detox from your antidepressants. I found myself unable to sleep, staying up for two at a time and eating at the weird hours of the morning. I had headaches that left me bedridden, fever, hot flashes, diarrhea at one point. Everyday was a new symptom. I once spilled hot tea on myself three times before I realized that coordination difficulties was one of the symptoms. I cut off part of my thumb trying to cut bread and spent five minutes trying to spread butter on my toast. I got a second degree burn on my tits after spilling another cup of tea on myself, which left a tan-line down my chest.
But after all that, the day I took my last pill, I sat awake in front of my computer and I wrote for the first time in almost a year.
Creativity, Brain Chemistry, and Drugs
I’ve talked about my writer’s block on this blog before, but I had always thought it was because my final thesis had burnt me out. I had written nearly three hundred pages the summer before senior year, working on the same project I used for my final thesis. I wrote hundreds of versions of this story, and wrote dozens of scenes for my classes all fall semester. But when I came back from winter break I found myself completely unable to write.
I’m not a quick writer by any means. A friend of mine once challenged me to a writing sprint and I believe my words per minute was 60. I am meticulous about sentence structure and getting every paragraph looking at least halfway decent before I can move on. So when my writing slowed down, I figured that it was my perfectionism acting up.
It was a big project. I didn’t want to give my professor bad pages. It was understandable that I was feeling blocked. So I powered through the year and handed in a novella that I’m not altogether proud of.
And when my thesis was done, and the last half of my second semester resumed with online classes, I decided I needed a break from writing. And though I started writing this blog and editing I didn’t return to creative writing. It wasn’t until now that I realized that my writers block coincided with me starting my medication.
It wasn’t until now that I realized that my writers block coincided with me starting my medication.
When the drugs finally left my system, I felt the urge to write again. And it felt good. I had written a little over the last year, in small spurts, but it always felt off. It’s hard to explain. I’ve been reticent to write before, but once I get into it I can usually get into a groove that feels natural. Once I get writing, I start to get that excitement. It’s like runners high; that feeling when you’ve finished a good jog and you feel like you can do anything.
When I say that I felt different writing on my medication, you have to understand that it’s difficult to explain how it felt different. On drugs I felt numb. I felt more mechanical, more rigid. Not bad, per se, but different.
I’m reminded of a video by a YouTube artist where she looks back at the pieces she made while addicted to heroine. She talks about how when you’re on a drug that affects your brain chemistry it can alter the way you create. Your perception of the world changes when you’re medicated and that can make you create like a different person. For her, she sees aggression in the way she applies color to the page and a difficulty rendering emotions in the faces of her subjects.
In my own experience, the meds made me cynical, unwilling to explore. My writing (the small bits that there were) were usually written in the time just before I had a depressive episode, when I was feeling my most numb. It’s a lot of emotional confrontations, monologues about how the characters feel. I was obviously using my work as an outlet for my own feelings, which I felt unable to reach. It was like I was trying to remind myself what feeling was through rendering it on the page. There wasn’t a lot of world building pieces, which are usually my favorite thing to create. No monsters, little magic.
I’m not writing a lot yet, because I’ve been busy, but I feel myself reaching out to it more often. I want to write again.
So what am I going to do now that I’m off my meds? Well I’m in therapy for one. My doctor recommended I talk to someone at least while I transition off my drugs (if not for a few years). I’ve been to a few sessions, and we’ll see how it goes with her.
I don’t think I want to take meds again. Taking medication was an important step for me, and I don’t regret doing it, but don’t think it was as valuable as gaining coping skills and working on my support network was.
I’m going back to school next year; Emerson College, working on getting an M.A. in Publishing. I’m thinking about the future and what kind of career I want in editing. I’m struggling with anxiety because of it, but I know my patterns a little better now.
Thank you everyone who read this far. This has been a cathartic post for me to write and I hope that some of you can find value in it for yourself. Sometimes my mental health can feel like a Sisyphean task, but talking about these sorts of things helps me put into perspective how far I’ve come in understanding why I am the way I am.
I think it’s important for people to hear about stories like mine, not because they are exceptionally serious, but because they are not. I’ve talked to a lot of people who say that they don’t want to go to therapy or talk about their troubles with mental health because they don’t think it’s anything special. “I can handle it,” they say. I was one of those people too. I was waiting for the time when everything became so serious that it couldn’t be ignored. And it is precisely that mentality that has made my anxiety so much harder to overcome.
Please remember not to be too hard on yourself. While we can always do better, we can’t get there unless we start. So please, relax and remember that the past is just a draft.