Antidepressants…where to begin. Antidepressants receive such a bad rap. Yet millions of Americans are on them, whether you like it or not, and they continue to be prescribed to patients at increasingly high rates, for conditions ranging from severe depression to sleep disorders.
I remember when I first found out one of my friends was taking antidepressants. I totally thought of him differently. I felt bad for him and even secretly judged his character. I didn’t know much about antidepressants and instantly associated it with depression/being suicidal. This was before my own mental health problems manifested into something I could no longer cope with on my own. Fast forward to about a year later, when I tried my first bout of antidepressants. I was in such a state of grief that I really didn’t feel any positive effects, only the dreaded side effects.
It was only in August of this year, much stronger than I had been almost 3 years ago after initially trying and quitting them, that I started taking them again. And it wasn’t until a few months ago that I found a combination of psychoactive medications that really worked for me. Currently I take 100mg of Zoloft and 20mg of BuSpar (an anti-anxiety medication) daily.
Here are 8 things I have learned about antidepressants through my experience taking them:
1. They didn’t solve all my problems
My mom is still dead. My family still has problems. My life isn’t perfect. I still deal with anxiety. So what’s the point of even being on meds?
I no longer fear leaving my house on a daily basis. I no longer go into fight, flight, or freeze mode when someone starts a conversation with me. I no longer cry at the smallest disturbance. I am no longer exhausted after doing normal daily activities. I am able to do everything I used to and so much more. I am more myself. I am more loving, not because the medications make me that way, but because since my anxiety has lessened, I have more energy to be. I no longer have to factor my anxiety into the equation when going on trips, planning my future, and even just going out to dinner. Even though to some being on medication might seem artificial, to me, life feels more real than ever. And it’s a wonderful feeling for someone who has struggled with severe anxiety for so long.
2. You don’t have to be suicidal to go on them
When I first went to the doctor and told them about my anxiety symptoms, I was prescribed antidepressants. I didn’t even know antidepressants were used to treat anxiety, but I learned that they are actually the go-to treatment for anxiety disorders. While I have had some rare suicidal thoughts throughout my life (I think most people do), I have never actually been suicidal. However, my anxiety and subsequent depression was bad enough that they significantly reduced the quality of my life to the point where leaving my home was excruciating. Somehow in all that, I never actually wanted to end my life. I always had some glimmer of hope that things would get better. But in the meantime, things weren’t great. Every time I left my house (and often while at my house) I had severe anxiety attacks that left me exhausted, fried my brain, and often sent me into crying fits. That’s just no way to live. I owe a big part of my recovery to psychoactive meds for giving me that extra strength to keep going even when the anxiety was extreme.
3. They take a long time to work
6-8 weeks for a therapeutic effect. That’s a long ass time when you’re feeling like shit. And for me it actually took longer before I found the right combination of meds. But in the meantime, I tried a bunch of other different things to improve my mood and emotional state, including exercise, eating right, journaling, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, reading self-help books, therapy, and more. And in all that I really got to know myself and my body to the point where in combination with my medication, I honestly feel better than ever before.
4. You might have to try a few
All in all I’ve tried 3 antidepressants, an atypical antipsychotic, 2 benzodiazepines, an antihistamine, and one anxiolytic. The antidepressants were all SSRIs (Celexa, Prozac, and Zoloft), the antipsychotic was to be used as a booster to my SSRI (Abilify–had no effect), the benzodiazepines were Ativan and Xanax (Xanax made me feel suicidal), the antihistamine was to be used as a sedative (Hydroxyzine), and the anxiolytic is BuSpar. Currently, I am on 100 mg of Zoloft, 20mg of BuSpar, Hydroxyzine as needed for anxiety, and Ativan as needed for severe anxiety. It took me THREE YEARS– yes, I repeat, THREE YEARS to get to this proper list of medications that works with my unique brain chemistry as well as getting the dosage right. It was a lot of trial and error, getting to know my body, going on and off medications, and side effects–but now it feels right, and I also know more about mental health and medication than my primary care doctor. True story.
5. They are not a sign of weakness
The girl I was before I tried antidepressants and the woman I am now are very different. I used to feel sad for people who “had to” take antidepressants, like they couldn’t suck it up and handle life like the rest of us. Now that I have actually experienced some real shit in my life, I realize that antidepressants are actually a sign of strength. They are admitting you might have a problem and might need some help. So many people in our society are addicted to other things– food, exercise, work, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, sex, relationships, TV, video games, cell phones…. the list goes on and on– in order for them to feel functional or comfortable in daily life. I’m not trying to directly compare using psychoactive drugs to having an addiction, but I am saying that there are several other ways we comfort ourselves in secret using ways that are harmful and distract us from the beautiful pain of life. I think avoidance is actually the weakest choice we have in life, and while some level of distraction is healthy, facing your problems is so strong, even if that means taking psychoactive drugs for a limited or long time while you work on your issues.
6. Side effects are real
The first antidepressant I tried (Celexa) made me feel super drowsy and did absolutely nothing for my anxiety. Next, I tried Prozac. It did absolutely nothing for my anxiety, gave me vivid nightmares, and completely numbed me (sexually and emotionally). I hated it. I decided to go off antidepressants for a while.
Then, almost 2 years later, I tried Zoloft. Initially I was on a high dose (200mg) but due to those same issues with numbing, I decided to lower my dose to 100mg. It wasn’t really helping my anxiety either, but I think it did give me a little extra feeling of motivation. In the meantime, I was also taking Ativan as needed (in my case, multiple times a day). Since Ativan is a serious drug that can become addictive quickly (and in my case it did, but I have since tapered off–yay!), my doctor decided to add in BuSpar, which works on the same receptors as Ativan. At first it didn’t do much, but after a few months I’ve seen a lot of progress and I think it was the real game changer for me. It gives me those same vivid nightmares I had while on Prozac, but no longer having that severe anxiety is totally worth it.
7. I still have my concerns
Even though I, a proponent of doing everything you need to do to take care of your health (including using psychoactive drugs), am publicly discussing my use of medication, I still have my limitations. We don’t know the longterm implications of using all these drugs. We don’t even know the mechanisms of how they work. That isn’t something that hugely concerns me, but it lingers in the back of my mind. Also, I’d be lying if I said I don’t carry some inherent stigma inside me about using them, because it’s been branded into me by cultural messages. However, the longer I’ve been on them, the less I care. These drugs have given me that little boost to help me live the life I’m meant to, and now when I hear about friends taking them, it no longer makes me sad for them, but happy that they feel they can be honest with me about it, and hopeful that as a society we can become more open discussing our mental health with one another!
8. I might be on them for the rest of my life
One of my primary care doctors told me that given my history of anxiety and depression (AKA since my mom died), I’d probably have to be on antidepressants for the rest of my life, and to look at it as having a chronic condition like diabetes. While I disagree with her as I’m only 23 and that’s a bold claim to make, especially considering I went through a huge loss (which she probably wasn’t even aware of), she might be true. And that’s something I have to accept and take one day at a time. I do inherently want to try to go off them because I’m not the type of person who likes to be dependent on a substance. I don’t even drink coffee! *GASP* However, considering I take birth control every day as well, it’s really not that big of a deal, and while it is a goal of mine to be able to go off them, especially if I ever have kids (because there are potential side effects on the developing fetus), for now I’m perfectly okay with being on them, and I don’t think it should be shameful to admit that.