Lexapro and Klonopin and Effexor, Oh My! How Antidepressants Saved My Life and Why I Will Continue Fighting the Stigma
I’ve been taking antidepressants consistently for over two years now, and I’m finally starting to come to terms with the fact that I will likely be taking them for the rest of my life.
My first stint with antidepressants happened when I was just shy of 17. My mother found me crying on the couch one day, unable to stop. Through heaving sobs, I told her I needed her to take me to a professional. This wasn’t the first time I had suggested it, but this was the first time she agreed. A few phone calls, referrals, and weeks later, I was sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, spilling my darkest secrets.
At this point in my life, due to my slight hypochondria and major obsession with WebMD, I was convinced I had bipolar disorder. I was fraught with mood swings and invasive thoughts, and I had recently started watching the revamp of 90210, where Silver finds out about her disorder. To this day, whenever I see any kind of disorder or illness on TV that I can kind of relate to, I think I have it (I recently watched Girl Boss, and now, whenever I get an ab cramp, I am convinced it’s actually a hernia).
“You don’t have bipolar disorder,” said my psychiatrist (I breathed a sigh of relief), “You do, however, have depression and anxiety.” I stared at her blankly, the wheels in my head turning. I knew I had on-and-off depression, I was diagnosed with it at 12, but this was the first time a doctor had mentioned me having an anxiety disorder. As she explained more about the symptoms and manifestations of generalized anxiety disorder, everything in my past started to click into place. The sleepless nights, the sweaty palms, the nausea, the dizziness, the cold sweats, the uncontrollable shaking, the overwhelming feeling of fear. I finally had a term to describe what I was feeling.
This was both better and worse. On one hand, I felt validated — my suffering was real! However, I now began to anticipate and dread having these feelings. I was anxious about having anxiety.
My psychiatrist recommended I start taking Cipralex, and seeing how that made me feel. Cipralex is a commonly-prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) for antidepressant newbies, as it tends to be very effective for most people, with little to no side effects. I took it for about seven or eight months before my mother convinced me to go off it. For her, medication was a sign of weakness, of failure, and I was feeling better now so did I even need it anymore? This is a common occurrence among first-time antidepressant users. People start to feel better and think they don’t needs the meds anymore, not realizing that it was the medication that was making them feel better.
According to Psychology Today, the same areas of the brain get activated when people feel physical and emotional pain. So why do we treat emotional pain so differently? Why are people far more likely to believe someone who is in chronic physical pain than chronic emotional pain?
Going into university a couple months later, I was bright-eyed and confident. This lasted about a week, until depression hit hard once more. I felt ashamed that I was spiralling again, so I hid my illness from my parents. Living five hours away from home made this easy to do. In Ottawa, I barely went to class and hardly interacted with people, instead opting to lay in bed for hours on end, alternating between Netflix and sleep. I showered maybe every few days, ate crappy food or nothing at all, and rarely changed out of my sweatpants. Whenever I visited Vaughan, I put on a brave face and told my parents everything was just peachy. I wore makeup and nice clothes, saw my friends, and let my grandmother feed me.
My mother’s words were imprinted in my mind, and I wallowed in my depression alone, and without medication, for two years before it finally got better.
In 2014, I changed universities and majors, moved back home, saw my friends more regularly, and was finally feeling optimistic. The next few years, my mental health was highly manageable. I still experienced the occasional depressive and anxious days or moments, but for the most part, life was back to being shiny and full of hope. And other than a brief stint with Klonoplin, which was a failed attempt at curing my insomnia (a story for another time), I continued to avoid antidepressants. I was killing it at school and I started travelling often, making more friends, picking up new hobbies, and flirting with boys. For the first time in my life since I was very young, I felt GOOD. But in the words of Nelly Furtado — all good things come to an end.
After an amazing semester abroad, I finished my bachelor’s degree, spent two months lounging around unemployed, got my first big-girl job, and moved out on my own. However, the novelty and excitement of all these changes eventually began to fade. A conversation with one of my coworkers caused me to question my happiness and really take a look at my life. I was 22, single, and working a job I hated.
I started feeling like I was constantly on the verge of a panic attack, but there was never any climax, no relief from this feeling — like the world’s worst case of blue balls. I would be at work, or at the grocery store, and all of a sudden my head is spinning and I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to pass out or throw up, or both. Many mornings, I would wake up, and the first thing I felt was fear — this sheer, overwhelming, unshakeable terror. After a few weeks of this, I had the worst panic attack of my life.
It was a Sunday night, and I had just gotten off the phone with a friend after telling her about the crazy, fun evening I just had. What I failed to mention, was the anxiety that progressively got worse as the day went on. Starting of as a light buzz in the back of my mind, my anxiety became louder and louder until its screams reverberated on the inside of my skull. At dinner, I curled up the closest I could to the fetal position without it being obvious, while simultaneously straining my brain to participate in the conversation. Sometimes I would get distracted enough by the drunk elderly Colombian man who invited himself to our table and proceeded to play Despacito on repeat (also a story for another time), that my anxiety would subside. But as soon as there was the slightest lull in conversation, I retreated further and further into myself.
That night, I thought I was either going to die or kill myself. Waves of panic rippled through me as my symptoms hit again and again and again. I didn’t know what was happening to me. My panic attacks normally subside after 20 minutes, and I am usually left feeling drained and a bit shaken up, but otherwise unscathed. That night, all I felt was seemingly never-ending fear. I considered stabbing myself with a kitchen knife or jumping out the window. Anything to stop that horrible feeling. Thankfully, the central nervous system can’t sustain such a high level of anxiety forever, and eventually, after hours of battling my own mind, and a very helpful phone call with a friend, my anxiety dissipated enough for me to fall asleep.
The next day, after somehow getting through work, I walked over to the nearest walk-in clinic to see a physician. Through quivering lips and glassy, tear-filled eyes, I told her everything I had experienced over the past few weeks. She was empathic and validating and said all the right things — I will be eternally grateful for the kindness and understanding she showed me that day. As I left the clinic, prescription slip in hand, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. I finally had something that would help.
So I began round two of Cipralex. Since I had recently moved and didn’t yet have a regular doctor, we decided it would be best for me to go on something I had already taken before, something I knew wouldn’t cause me a great deal of side effects. After the initial feeling of relief, going back on medication felt like I had failed. Like I wasn’t strong enough to control my own thoughts, emotions, and reactions.
When you have a mental illness, people continuously feel the need to tell you what to do. “You don’t need the medication,” “You seem fine to me,” “I get sad and stressed sometimes too,” “Have you tried ‘insert unsolicited advice here’?” Like mental illness is something we can get over if we just ate the right food, drank enough water, slept enough hours, and exercised three times a week. Don’t get me wrong, all those things definitely do help, but in many cases, it’s not enough. And in many cases, your mental illness makes it incredibly difficult to do any of those things. If just getting out of bed is an everyday battle, going to the gym and eating a salad is the furthest thing from your mind.
Maybe some of the stigma behind taking antidepressants comes from the fact that people don’t understand how they work. It’s not this magic pill that you take and suddenly everything is fine. It just makes it easier to manage your symptoms so you can actually put in the work in therapy and in your life to make things better. SSRIs are currently the most commonly-prescribed group of antidepressants. They work by increasing the levels of serotonin in your brain, as well as blocking the reabsorption of serotonin. Serotonin does a lot of awesome things for your body like helping you sleep better and improving your memory, but most importantly — it regulates your mood.
Without medication, my mood swings are tall mountains and deep valleys; with medication, my mood swings are more like rolling hills. Medication does not eliminate bad days. Medication does not impede good days. Medication does stop me from having panic attacks. Medication does stop me from wanting to die. In its natural state, my brain has low levels of serotonin. There are many possible causes for this, and I’ve spent far too long feeling sorry myself about it.
Mental illness can be so isolating. You often feel broken, misunderstood, and unlovable. But you are not all those terrible things you think in your head. All you are is sick. You have this chronic illness that you’ll probably have to deal with for the rest of your life. And that’s okay. It’s not always hard. Mental illness has given me just as many beautiful things as it has taken away from me. It has made me kind, compassionate, and empathetic. It has given me a greater understand of emotions and human beings. I has given me the ability to be patient and understanding. It has made me a better writer, a better friend, and a better cat mom.
When I first went back on medication, it was with the intention of it being temporary, of going off it as soon as possible, once I was “better.” What does that even mean? Do you ever stop healing? The fact of the matter is, without the combination of medication and therapy, you are far more likely to slip into depression again and again over the course of your lifetime. Going off it will most likely make my life more difficult. And I know I’m not ready for that anytime soon.
My mother continuously asks me if I’m still on medication. Citing how bad the side effects can be for you. Her main concern of course being that it may lower my sex drive or impede me from losing weight (neither of which it has done thus far). I am currently on Effexor, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), because I felt like Cipralex wasn’t working for me anymore. The addition of norepinephrine — another neurotransmitter that helps regulate emotions and thought processes — has greatly helped my stabilize my mood and anxiety. And I no longer feel the need to go off my medication as soon as possible. In any case, I would rather deal with the stigma and side effects — I would rather be fat, libido-less, and misunderstood — than be dead.