Friday, November 1, 2013

We Need to Talk about Antidepressants


The fall of my senior year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. Until recently, I didn't even know what happened to me could be considered a nervous breakdown. When I hear that term, I think of a padded cell and a 5150 hold. I think of a complete psychotic break -- like running around the streets naked and smearing feces on cars, or something. That didn't happen with me. Instead, I spent a week huddled under my electric blanket, feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, convinced I was dying of Swine Flu, crying and eating cereal and watching Frasier on an endless loop. This was triggered by the PTSD I developed after studying abroad the previous semester.

Accurate. 

A "nervous breakdown," according to MayoClinic, refers to a stressful situation when someone is unable to function in day-to-day life. It's really helpful for me to read that definition out loud to myself. It helps me realize, to this day, that yes, things were that bad. Until recently, I kind of just referred to that time in my head as the week I binged on Lifetime Original movies and drank a lot of wine and missed a lot of class. As it turns out, I wasn't just "having a bad week." I wasn't just "feeling stressed" or "feeling sick." I had completely ceased to function in the world. I had a full-on nervous breakdown. And maybe had I known I was careening toward a breakdown, I wouldn't have been so reluctant to start taking some medicine.


Pretty much verbatim what I told my roommates and coworkers
So after my full-on, hiding-under-the-covers nervous breakdown, I finally admitted that yeah, maybe I wasn't doing so well with just therapy and a bottle of wine. And perhaps -- just perhaps -- I needed to kick it up a notch.

Up until that point, my therapist had been cautiously suggesting that I try an anti-depressant. And for months she had respectfully nodded and hadn't pressed me when I all but laughed in her face. Well, I didn't quite laugh in her face, but I made it clear that the thought of taking medicine was ridiculous. Hello? I thought. Haven't you been paying attention? I freak the fuck out when I have to urinate, and I've been urinating for my entire life. If I start getting weird symptoms because of these pills, I'm going to have a heart attack. I'm going to start obsessing every time I take them. I'm going to start feeling imaginary symptoms. I'll over-think every twinge, every cramp, every unfamiliar ache. It'll make my anxiety worse. So for months we'd do a cat-and-mouse where the subject of meeting a psychiatrist (for medicine) would come up and I'd awkwardly try to side-step. And by side-step I'd be like:




But after that week in October, I felt like it was very literally my last option. Either I could take some medicine and hope that it worked, or I'd cease to function like a normal human. And that kind of panic -- that flu-like feeling of sickness -- is simply unsustainable. I'm not saying I was suicidal. But I really don't know how much more of that I could have taken. So when I went crying to the campus nurse about how I had the Swine Flu and all my "Swine Flu" symptoms turned out to be anxiety induced, that blessed nurse scheduled a therapy session for me immediately. And from there I saw the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist guy gave me two things -- and I feel like it's important for me to tell you what they were, at the risk of sounding like a druggie, because every week or so I'll get an e-mail or an instant message with someone asking me about anti-anxiety drugs and what they're like. There's a definite undercurrent of shame, and fear, and, well, anxiety about what the side effects are going to be -- which was totally my preoccupation before I started trying them. So. Psychiatrist guy (who looked curiously like Tobias Funke) gave me xanax, which has short-term effects and calms you down in the midst of an anxiety attack, and started me on Zoloft, which is an anti-depressant. Basically, untreated anxiety or PTSD feels like you've got your hand on a hot skillet and you can't take it off. You're expected to function as though everything is fine, but inside you're thinking HOLY SHIT THIS HURTS I CANT FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE BURNING IT BURNSSSSSSS!!!! Xanax is like splashing some cold water on the skillet -- a temporary relief, but your hand is still on the skillet, and it'll heat right back up again in a few minutes. Zoloft is like someone coming up behind you and turning off the burner -- gradually, the anxiety goes away, and you start acting and feeling more like your normal self.

Seriously. Can you tell I was an English major? 

So I started the zoloft that day. And I'd be lying if I said I had about a million tiny little anxiety freakouts and IBS flareups wondering what the side-effects would be. And I did get side-effects -- nausea, primarily -- for a few weeks until it started to kick in. And boy, did it kick in.

About a month after I started taking it, sometime in the first week of December -- about ten months after the incident that spurred my PTSD -- I woke up one morning and I felt lighter. Physically lighter. My limbs were looser. And the biggest difference was that I could breathe. It was a totally unparalleled feeling and I'm sure I looked like a complete dumbass, because I would just walk around campus and take deep, long breaths, sucking all the cold air into my lungs that I possibly could. It felt wonderful. I hadn't even noticed until the anxiety went away how completely crushing it was. A weight had literally been lifted, and I felt joyously free. Right in time for finals. And then winter break.

When I went home for winter break, the primary feeling I felt was utter bliss. I'm not kidding. It always really irks me when people refer to anti-depressants as "happy pills," because they make me functional, not happy. But this period was the exception -- I had been living under the crushing weight of PTSD for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to just feel normal. I could take big, deep breaths. I could  hear the doorbell ring or the blender turn on without hiding under my covers. I could wake up and actually feel excited about the day, instead of dreading all the millions of little noises and random events that would trigger an episode. I spent the whole winter vacation in my parents' house, absolutely blissed out, reading books and lying on the couch and just feeling like I had gotten my life back. I could talk about my anxiety triggers without actually feeling triggered. I could think about India without feeling like I was dizzy or short of breath. I could ride in a car or a train without willing myself not to jump out of it. It was heaven.

Oh, it felt so good
I kind of sound like a druggie, don't I? Obviously, anti-depressants aren't for everyone. And Zoloft, specifically, is not for everyone, I'm sure. I wasn't high or anything, but getting your life back after ten months in hell? Oh, it was wonderful. I couldn't breathe deeply enough.


And then -- I got depressed.

Stay tuned.

13 comments:

  1. Oh I love this. Pretty much sums up the feeling of my second bout of post-partum depression finally drawing to a close with a blessedly accurate dose of Celexa. Hell yes to modern medicine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Totally on board with this approach. Zoloft didn't work for me, but Prozac did. (Those were the old days.) I take different meds now. What. A. Friggin'. Difference. They saved my life. I didn't even know I was losing it. I try not to think about the wasted years... God has used this experience to let me help others. I have to believe that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have the same perspective Cynthia! I really want to blog more about it so I can encourage other people. I mean...that's gotta be why I went through all that horrible crap, right? lol. I tried prozac after my zoloft gave me depression (yeah, you can get depression from antidepressants...who knew???).

      Delete
  3. So true. Not every drug is right for every person. I have been on various psychotropic meds (and in therapy on and off) for 27 years. I still get depressed sometimes and I still get anxious, but meds and therapy have helped me finish a BA, finish a Masters degree, survive a home foreclosure and the death of my husband under some very traumatic circumstances. The only way to fight the stigma is to come out about it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just got caught up on your posts, i am so glad you are writing more frequently again! I love hearing your story because after my 5th baby, I had a couple panic attacks, and had so many of the same triggers and feelings as you describe. I am now halfway through my 6th baby's pregnancy, and I don't know if it's hormonal or what, but my anxiety (and the tight chested breathing) seems to be gone. I'm really hoping I have moved past all this, but surprise surprise, I'm anxious for what will happen after I give birth. And for the actual labor. Blech.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel your pain! I was unmedicated for most of my daughter's pregnancy...not fun. My poor OB. I cried every single time I went in for an exam and all during labor. I strongly suspect it was hormones...you can pretty much blame anything on hormones. Hah!

      Delete
  5. Sarah, I've been a little off...sometimes a lot...all my life. In my darkest hours, I was very depressed...enough to cause a minor stroke. That was over 30 years ago. There were other instances in my life when I have been deeply depressed, but that was the worst. At that time, I didn't seek any help...I just kind of sucked it up and moved forward. Several years after that, I had a myocardial infarction that was due to stress. I'm an only child and learned to hold my feelings inside, not seeking help, even from my loving mother (my dad died when I was nine and a half). About 13 years ago, I had congestive heart failure, which required quadruple bypass. I left this earth for a short time while in the emergency room, but they brought me back. Since then, I don't let anything bother me. I don't abide ignorant people nor anyone who may try to hurt my family (of which you are a part), but I try to keep a positive light on everything else. Back in the day, there wasn't much info available about PTSD (which apparently didn't exist then) nor effective treatment of depression. The standard treatments were abhorrent and stigmatizing. Things have changed drastically since then, and I'm happy to see you writing about it and sharing your own experiences. In fact, I think you need an agent. With your ability, you should write about it in a media that can get this info out to others who may not have the pleasure of reading you blog. At any rate, you have MANY people who love and support you, Sarah. Keep up this great writing. Thank you, from the bottom (and the top) of my heart, for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Awesome (not the depressed part, but the rest). I am also a zoloft user, and I even used it through both pregnancies. The possible risks outweighed the huge benefit I received. I would love to go off of it one day, but my doc recommended I wait until I am not pregnant or nursing in order to give my hormones a chance to balance out and see what is going on.

    Anyway, mad props for speaking about this :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Love the honesty. And I for one had no idea antidepressants could make you depressed. Yikes. I'm looking forward to part two.

    ReplyDelete
  8. i commend you ability to speak openly about your struggles. i am currently in the phase of trying to figure out a correct medication regimin due to my dr's saying i have stress/medically induces anxiety and depression (from all my recent health issues with my colon disorder). everyone thinks that its funny that a psych major and mental health counselor would be so against going on medications but for the longest time i was. i dont really know why. i fight with my clients everyday about the importance and benefits of good mental health care and quality medications. but its so different when its you and your own problems. i cant wait to read more. and hopefully sometime soon ill have the right concoction to help me because at this point im tired of the random bouts of chest pain, difficulty breathing and thoughts that staying in bed is the best option for the day.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for writing about this so openly. It can't be easy. My daughter (who is only 8) struggles with anxiety. I waited for a couple years before agreeing to try a low dose of Celexa. I admit I felt like there was a stigma in being on an anti-anxiety medication and that people would view me, as her mother, with just wanting to medicate her rather than deal with her. Plus I was (and still am) afraid that once we go down the medication road, there's no going back. After unsuccessfully trying different behavioral techniques, I finally realized I was doing my daughter a huge disservice to not give her the help she needs. It was interfering with her life (one of her triggers is fire alarms and she couldn't enter a room, especially in a public place, without first locating the alarm and then constantly watch it and obsess about whether it would go off). So now she is on Celexa and it has made a world of difference. I am a little sad that my 8-year old has to deal with this at such a young age and I wonder what the future will be like with anxiety. So thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you so much for sharing your story about PTSD, depression and anxiety. I live with all 3 and Zoloft literally saved my life. I too became depressed after being on Zoloft for some time. My doctor upped the dosage and I've been find and dandy (about two years now) since. You're right- they're not 'happy pills'. They don't make me feel high. They make me feel......like Michelle. It's nice. :) I still experience sadness, anxiety and stress just like anyone else, but now it doesn't blow out of control where I can't function.
    Again, thank you thank you thank you for sharing. The stigma attached to mental illness has to end. Today. Your blog is helping end that stigma.
    P.S. You're kind of pretty hilarious and love how you write. Such a fun blog to read.

    ReplyDelete