Revealing personal information about yourself can be a little nerve wracking, even to family and friends, because you don’t know how they’re going to take it. Are they going to be cool about your new tattoo? Are they going to accept that you’re gay? Are they going to get all uptight about the fact that you keep Kevin Smith chained up in your basement? It’s hard to know what people will say until you actually tell them. I’ve found this to be true, except in one case. Sometimes, I say something so horrifying that the reaction is universally negative:
“I’m on antidepressants.”
I think they’d prefer I admitted to keeping Kevin Smith in my basement.
I understand that the United States has an issue with overmedicating people. You know, opioid crisis and whatnot. But the reactions I get from everyone, ranging from strangers on the internet to close friends, leads me to believe that there is just a general misunderstanding of what exactly it is that antidepressants do. They’re not happy pills; I don’t feel joyful or perky when I take them. I do, however, feel less of an urge to kill myself and they help alleviate my depression enough so that I can get out of bed and brush my teeth. Trust me, when you’re dealing with a severe bout of depression, getting out of bed and brushing your teeth can feel like goals that are about as achievable as folding a fitted sheet on the first try.
“Oh my god, stop taking your medication immediately! You don’t need to be drugged up to deal with depression!”
This is the reaction I most often get from strangers on the internet. For the record, never ever ever ever EVER tell someone to stop taking their medication unless you are their doctor. Sure, some people end up over-medicated, but a lot of us don’t. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that needs medication to be corrected so I don’t kill myself. I’m not being hyperbolic—I have a lot of self-destructive urges and medication, combined with regular counseling, keeps these at bay. Taking medication lifts the fog of depression enough so that I can go to therapy and deal with the underlying issues that have caused my mood disorders.
“Are you sure you need medication? Maybe you just need to meditate/do yoga/watch the sun rise/use essential oils/rub coconut oil all over your forehead.”
Asking someone with depression if they really need their meds kind of feels like asking someone with diabetes if they really need insulin. I’m not necessarily opposed to holistic methods and I also recognize the benefits exercise has on depression. However, a severe bout of depression keeps me from being able to do anything. As a result, exercise is often out of the question unless I can bring my depression down to a manageable level with a combination medication and counseling. Meditation has also been a no go for me because when I’m dealing with a severe bout of depression, breathing feels too hard, too heavy, and it takes all of my effort to keep inhaling and exhaling. That isn’t to say that other people don’t find it helpful, because they definitely do; it just hasn’t happened for me, at least not yet. Additionally, while some people find the beauty of nature uplifting and inspiring, depression makes everything go gray and I spend the whole time waiting for the sun to rise and wondering how long I have to sit around before I can go back inside and still get credit for going outside.
“Can’t you just be happy and stop being depressed?”
Nope, that’s why I’m on medication. See above: chemical imbalance.
To a certain extent, I think people are weird about antidepressants because going on medication for a problem somehow validates it and makes it that much more real. If you’re on an antidepressant, you’re not just bummed out—you’re fucked up. You need medical attention and your mood can’t just be written off as having a bad day. Plus, some people are weird about something being wrong with your brain. A broken leg is more external, it has a clear method of repair. When you have a broken brain (also known as a mood disorder), there’s no easy answer of how to fix it. Frankly, some things are unfixable, but they can often be tempered to help a person be functional with medication and counseling.
There’s also this element of perceived subterfuge when it comes to anything involving mental health issues, like I’ve been tricking people for years because they didn’t know I have depression, chronic anxiety, and PTSD.
“But you seem fine!”
I’ll let you in on a secret: I am really good at pretending like I’m fine because I know other people want me to be fine. Even though I recognize that these issues aren’t my fault, I’m constantly worried about being a burden on others (this is where the chronic anxiety comes into play). In fact, I’ve gotten so good at keeping up a facade that I’ve even “impressed” my doctor. One time, I met with her to discuss upping my medication during a time when my depression wasn’t responding to my current dosage, and she asked me to rate my depression on a scale of one to ten. I considered a ten to be the level where I’d be in danger of harming myself, as I had been a few days earlier, but my depression wasn’t quite that bad on that particular day, so I rated myself an eight. I felt like I could barely function, but I wasn’t actively fantasizing about self-harm.
“An eight?” she asked skeptically. “That means you’re depressed.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I’m not in crisis, but I’m having a really bad go of it at the moment.”
“Oh,” she said, with more than a little surprise in her voice. “Well, you hide it really well.”
Thanking her for that comment felt weird, so instead I just agreed that yes, I am good at hiding depression. Depressed people often are. That’s why after a suicide, you sometimes hear family and friends saying things like, “But he was fine an hour ago!” No, he wasn’t; he was just good at maintaining what he thought others wanted to see. Then again, maybe he was fine at that moment—that’s the trouble with mood disorders; they can flip on you without warning.
As I mentioned, before I met with my doctor, I’d been in crisis a few days earlier. Things in my life had been stressful, but I was hanging in there. I was on my way to a meeting with my therapist, and I stopped at a convenience store across the street to get something to drink because talking about myself for an hour leaves me parched. When I got back into my car to drive across the street to park at the my therapist’s office, something shifted. There was no easily definable trigger; my car isn’t that depressing. It just happened. Suddenly my hands were shaking, I was having trouble breathing, and I had the overwhelming urge to smash my car into the nearest light pole. I finally convinced myself to take it one tiny direction at a time. I instructed myself to put on my seat belt. Seat belt buckled, so far so good. Then I turned on my car. Success! Step by step, bit by bit, I managed to get myself into the parking lot across the street and into my therapist’s office. But, even then, I almost lied to my therapist and didn’t tell him what was going on. I guess part of me felt like if I was in a crisis, my therapist might feel like he’d somehow failed, and I really liked him and didn’t want him to feel bad. Thankfully, a moment of clarity prevailed and I admitted that I was not doing well, which felt like a massive understatement. My therapist talked me through everything and by the end of therapy, I felt like I’d be able to make the 20 minute drive home without smashing my car.
I’m not sure I really wanted to hurt myself so much as I defaulted to that option as a way to stop everything that I was feeling. Even so, driving home from my appointment was difficult. I made it about halfway before I started thinking about what it would be like to drive off the highway into one of the massive pine trees that lined the road. If I drove fast enough, maybe there would just be a crunch of metal, a burst of the airbag, and then nothing. Everything could go away. I took a deep breath and started to coach myself through the rest of my drive the way I had done to get myself to therapy.
“Drive to that sign. Okay, good job. Now you just have to make it to that curve in the road. Excellent, now just keep the car straight and pass that restaurant on the left.”
I made it home and felt relieved when I turned off my car. I’d done it, I’d made it all the way home.
A couple hours later, I was feeling better and we were out of milk, so I volunteered to run to the store. As soon as I started driving, it occurred to me that this might not be the smartest idea, but everything went fine. On the way home, I kept replaying my therapy session in my head and I was about to turn into my neighborhood when I noticed the car crash that had happened in my absence. My best friend lives in the same neighborhood as me and she and her son were at a neighbor’s house, looking at the accident. I pulled over and joined them, chatting while we waited for the cops to arrive while the neighbors checked on the people who had been involved in the accident. It turned out one of the cars had tried to pass the other while it was turning, resulting in the crash. As I stood there, talking to my friend and our neighbor, I couldn’t stop thinking about how ironic it was that I’d spent a good portion of the afternoon fantasizing about getting into a car wreck only to find one just outside my neighborhood. It was the sort of synchronicity that I’d never include in a work of fiction because it’s too convenient. And yet, this was real. I’m not really a believer of fate or great cosmic plans, but if I was, seeing the crash that day would’ve made a lot of sense to me.
Being on medication for mood disorders is not easy. Sometimes a dosage or medication that has been working well suddenly stops working as well and you need a readjustment. Sometimes it takes a long time to find out the right cocktail for your specific brain chemistry, only to have your brain say, “lol, no,” and then you have to try a new plan. One of the most difficult lessons for me to learn in dealing with my mental health issues is that they’re not my fault. I didn’t fill out a form and check off the boxes for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I didn’t suddenly decide one day that my current medication dosage wasn’t going to work anymore. Shit happens and things change—there really isn’t much more to it than that.
What I do take responsibility for is the fact that I reached out for help and I continually reach out for help, not only from my doctor and my therapist, but also from my family and friends, all of whom I am extremely fortunate to have in my life. Having mental health issues sucks and it’s been a really humbling experience for me to admit that I need help. I’m the kind of person who refuses to take two trips out to the car to carry in all the groceries, so admitting that I couldn’t do this all on my own was hard. However, I’m glad I did it because I needed and continue to need help, and, for me, that help includes medication. Before I started going to therapy and taking antidepressants, I was missing out on my life. My son was growing up and I was missing it because I was drowning inside myself. Now, I can really see my son. I’m experiencing my life with him instead of just watching from behind the veil of a debilitating depression that took everything from me. As he gets older, I want him to understand that there are no prizes for keeping a stiff upper lip and muscling through pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. It’s okay to ask for help. For me, that help includes medication, and I’m not ashamed of that. I can’t make other people be okay with the fact that I take antidepressants, but you know what? Fuck ‘em. I’m the one who has to live with my mood disorders, not them.
Well, me and Kevin Smith in my basement.