Most people who know me, whether we’ve just met or we go back 20 years, find me to be a lovable person to be around (I say this humbly). I enjoy being happy. I love having fun and most of the time I’m looking for the next thing that will make me laugh. I care for others greatly, and I’m often the one people talk to when they are going through a hard time. You would never know that over the last month and a half I have been taking anti-depressants, because I have been living with crippling anxiety and depression for the last 7 years of my life.
The last year and a half have probably been the hardest out of the 27 – it felt as if it was all bursting at the seams.
Like I said, I had been living with anxiety for a while now but it started getting worse and worse, until I was no longer in control of it. Now, to be clear, my anxiety, like all cases, is fear based – irrational thoughts that seemed mildly controllable, until just recently.
Last summer I was asked to work in Paris. A friend was going to fly me out there, and pay me to go. I was excited about the idea but, the moment it became a reality I shut down completely. I didn’t eat, didn’t sleep. Both of which are weird because I’ve been there, but this time I would be going alone. I was instantly overcome with fear, so much so I made up an excuse so that I wouldn’t have to go.
Just recently, about a month and a half ago, I had the most severe panic episode of my anxiety career. I was on my way to visit my sister, headed to a concert to see of one of my favorite bands growing up, and I had just spent $100 on a ticket. I left my house sweating profusely because I knew that a panic attack was on the horizon. It was only a matter of time. My sister lives about 3 and a half hours from me in San Francisco, 200 miles away to be exact. So when I reached mile 100 of my trip, my breathing quickened, my heart rate increased, blood pressure spiked, and my palms began dripping with sweat. I was having a panic attack.
If you have never had a panic attack, kiss the ground you walk on and thank your lucky stars because you have been blessed. For me, every time panic sets in I feel as if I’m dying. My brain goes into fight or flight mode and for the longest time I fought it, but now I was resorting to flight. I turned my car around and drove straight home. That drive home was probably the longest drive I’ve ever had. Depression sank deeper in my stomach than ever before, because I felt weak. I was not in control of my own thoughts and body.
After making a giant U-turn on the freeway I arrived home around 3pm and turned my phone off. I spent the rest of the day in my room, blocking out all sunlight, and sleeping till 11am the next morning. My heart was shattered. I felt broken, un-fixable, and quite frankly out of steam. One of the hardest parts of all of this was watching the look on my parents face, knowing they didn’t know how to help me. Throughout my life they have always come to my rescue, and now they had no idea how to solve this puzzle.
One of my closest friends suffered from similar symptoms and sought medical attention and they encouraged me to do so as well. About 3 years prior to all of this, I did just that. I went to the doctor with my anxiety questions, he told me about anti-depressants, and prescribed them to me. Of course I didn’t take them. I remember paying for the medication and throwing them into my nightstand drawer (where basically all things go to die and never be seen again). This time around I was willing to do whatever it took to get better. I was treading water and praying for a life raft.
So a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a priest walk into this bar… That joke seemed to be my reality. I saw a counselor, and we began to talk about where the root of all of this came from which helped for the most part but still felt like I wasn’t getting better. Then I went to the doctor and asked him about possible chemical imbalance that I might have. He prescribed me an SSRI (anti depressant) commonly known as Zoloft. I was pretty on the fence about taking medication for something I felt was possible to fix myself, and when the doc sat me down and told me all the side-effects I freaked sideways. Especially the suicidal thoughts. Who in their right mind would ever put themselves in a place where they could potentially hurt themselves or take their own life? Certainly not me! I walked out of the pharmacy with my prescription in hand and again felt like throwing the pills in my nightstand, but my close friend really encouraged me to try them considering how much they had improved their life.
I remember the day I swallowed the first pill. I called all of my closest friends and confessed what I had been going through. I was just waiting for one of them to tell me not to get on medication but none of them did. Everyone was supportive and loving. Reassuring me that this was going to be a good thing. Lastly, I called my mom. She works as a therapist in the medical field where medication is often overprescribed and used unnecessarily. Her experience has lead her to believe that medication is generally prescribed as a quick fix to combat the symptoms, instead of dealing with the root cause. She has not always been a proponent of medication, so when I told her I had made up my mind about taking this antidepressant, to my surprise, she told me something I did not know. She had been taking a similar medication to help with her current situation in life. She has been separated from her husband for little over a year now, and was feeling down to the point where the future looked grim and not promising. Even though things are on their way up she still felt too heavy and had been feeling that way for some time. That was all the reassurance I needed.
The first week was the hardest. I was still wrestling with the fact that I needed to take something to help me feel better. It was such a crazy thing to wrap my mind around, it almost felt out of body. I over analyzed it so much that a majority of that week I stayed in bed. After 10 days in I began coping with the fact that this was going to help me and started going about my everyday life. Sure enough, it was no longer a big deal. I began to feel better. The things that normally stressed me out didn’t, my irrational thoughts had all but ceased to exist in my brain. Sometimes they would come, but I had the power to push them out and think rationally.
Earlier, I talked about bailing on the trip to San Francisco. One of the fears leading up to the panic attack on that trip was that I would’ve had to drive over a bridge to get there. I know what you’re thinking. Really? Bridges? Yes, I kid you not. Driving over bridges stressed me out. They never used to, nothing really stressed me out, but as my anxiety got stronger I would build up these crazy scenarios in my mind. For instance, I was expecting an intense earthquake to happen while I was driving over the bridge, it’d collapse and I’d be swimming with the fishes. These crazy scenarios would come when I was about to do something awesome and fun. I love camping, hiking, and being outdoors – to me there is nothing better. When I began to have this crazy fear that I’d have a heart attack in the middle of the woods and nobody could save me, I avoided it completely. I tell you all of this, because this is common with most cases of anxiety. One of my closest friends, the one who encouraged me to seek medication, shared that they had these fears too. They would be afraid every time they took their son to the grocery store, afraid that some estranged person was going to steal their son. If they didn’t see them moving in the baby monitor while they were sleeping, they would think he wasn’t breathing and they’d race in to go check on him to make sure he was still alive. People with anxiety struggle with a wild/scary imagination.
Last week I noticed the medication had taken an affect when I drove over both bridges in San Francisco. Something that bothered me so significantly was now a distant thought in my mind. 40 days into the medication I’m able to control my wild imagination and take hold of this mental illness.
I’ve wanted to be open about my whole process to shed light on this common stigma of mental illness and medical attention for it. I myself used to look down upon medication, something that is truly a gift from God. My well being and quality of life has changed drastically for the better and it feels as though my life has made a complete 180. When I say there is a stigma around taking medication for mental illness, I’m talking about the fact that I wrote it off as “I’m crazy”. I felt I would be seen as a person who people couldn’t trust because they obviously couldn’t handle things on their own. This belief is so false. Recently I watched an interview with Kristen Bell and Sam Jones called “Off Camera”. It’s one of my favorite podcasts, if you haven’t heard it go subscribe. Kristen shared that she struggles with severe anxiety and depression and has been taking anti-depressants for a long time to help her because she is overly emotional. This helps her as an actress to relate to characters but affects her in her day to day life, causing her to live anxiously. Kristen says in her interview “In the medical community, you would never deny a diabetic his insulin. Ever. But for some reason, when someone needs a serotonin [reuptake] inhibitor, they’re immediately crazy.” I was blown away by this, because there was this thing attached to something that could have saved me several years of heartache and stress, and because of it I wrote them off. I fed into the stigma and thought only crazy people needed to be on medication.
To quote the Huffington post, “nearly one in five American adults will experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Despite how common it is, it’s still highly stigmatized — and that’s a huge problem. Research shows negative perceptions can hold people back from seeking treatment and sometimes prevents individuals from revealing issues to their doctors.”
Since I have been open about my condition people have opened up to me about theirs. This is what we need. Honesty, vulnerability, and trust that the world will not judge you. You yourself hold the key to unlocking someone who is trapped in their own mind. All it takes is saying, “I’m with you on this, I struggle with the same thing, this has helped me find a breakthrough”, like my friend who encouraged me. I listened because I trusted them.
I want this to become an open conversation that is as common as the common cold. We need to be willing to say “I’m not ok!”, “I need help!”, “I can’t do this alone!” We get through life together and community is our saving grace. I pray that you find healing in whatever illness you are walking in. Just know that healing may come in many forms. Sometimes in the form of therapy, a friend saying how are you?, or a tiny pill once a day. You will get through this. You are never alone.