By Kjersti McDonald
If there’s one thing I’m grateful for in this Age of Information where anyone can say anything on any number of social media platforms, it’s that mental health and mental illness are being talked about more than ever before. People are challenging the stigmas surrounding treatment of mental illness and empowering others to get the help they need. Not to mention the abundance of information, tips, techniques, and support one can find on the internet.
Yet, there is still this persisting grudge against medicine used to treat mental disorders that are seen as “just in your head” like depression and anxiety.
As I’ve gotten older, my mental health has seemed to follow the inevitable path of so many other family members before me, forcing me to come to terms with my very real anxiety and depression. At the beginning of this year, I started the incredibly annoying, frustrating and emotionally-exhausting process of finding the right medicine to help manage my anxiety and depression.
My mom says I’ve always been anxious. I’d chalked it up to being an overachiever, but I’ve always felt an internal pressure to succeed – which works hand-in-hand with my phobia of failure. Combine my naturally self-critical tendencies with a genetic pre-disposition for imbalanced brain chemicals and – voila! – you get 27-year-old me, starting a new and difficult job; losing three pets over the course of one year; planning and having a wedding; and struggling to find a health care provider who knows what the hell to do with me.
I’ve had my fair share of panic attacks this past year.
By January, I was breaking down three or more times a week in the middle of my work day. Crying. Hyperventilating. The feeling of dark matter on my chest, making breathing impossible. Poor sleep. Low energy. The works. I decided it was time to talk to my doctor.
First we tried Cymbalta, an SNRI. That first week, I felt very weird, as my serotonin and norepinephrine receptors got used to the drug. By week two, I was feeling ok. But guess what? I had sexual side effects.
As in, I could not orgasm. Got to the precipice, then there was just a wall.
My doctor added a small dose of Wellbutrin on top. “It can sometimes cancel out the sexual side effects,” he said. Nope. And I felt totally tweaked out.
I hated how I felt, so we switched to Effexor, another SNRI. That first week, I had suicidal thoughts for the first time. It’s a common side-effect of these types of drugs, especially in younger people. I had no intention of causing harm to myself, but still, I told my closest friends and family. On top of this, my already borderline-high blood pressure had been increasing with every doctor’s appointment. I visited my doctor to check on my blood pressure and shared with the nurse practitioner that I had been having concerning thoughts. Was this normal? Should I switch to something different? Could the drugs be increasing my blood pressure?
“No. You are just too stressed. Increased blood pressure isn’t a side effect of these drugs (spoiler: it is). You need to talk to someone from the crisis center or go to the ER to have your suicidal thoughts addressed.”
I cried, and I pushed back. I would have been fine talking to someone, but I didn’t want to pay a $250 copay to go to the ER. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to hurt myself. I just wanted to feel normal.
On top of that, this NP wanted me to take an ambulance 200 FEET to the ER. He couldn’t trust me to drive and didn’t trust my then-fiancé to take me there.
I was so upset. I called my mom, my best friend, my fiancé, and asked what I should do. “Walk out,” they all said. But I was too scared.
Next thing I know, THREE police officers walk into the room. The NP had decided to sign an affidavit to have me put on a 96-hour hold. For telling him I had passing suicidal thoughts that I had no intention of acting on.
So much for being honest with my doctor.
I was eventually cuffed and taken in a police cruiser to the ER. I was stripped, all jewelry removed, and put in an over-sized two-piece number. My purse and everything in it was searched by security.
Luckily, after talking with the police and explaining to them what a misunderstanding this whole thing was, then speaking with two counselors and a doctor, they all agreed that I did not belong there, that I wasn’t a danger to myself, and I could be released.
It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.
But guess what? The crazy thoughts went away and the Effexor started to really help me. But guess what again?? It was definitely causing my blood pressure to increase. Even though this side-effect subsided a bit over time, my new primary care physician didn’t want to keep me on blood pressure meds, so she recommended I taper off of the Effexor.
And just as it was starting to help. Damn.
Just a few months later, I came to terms with the fact that I needed to be back on meds. I started by going to a therapist. He’s been a great help, but I was still having a hard time implementing the skills he was teaching me to manage my anxiety. He agreed that there seemed to be a biological component, and suggested Lexapro, an SSRI.
Seems like I’m just a lucky duck, because that shit ALSO came with sexual side effects.
So I switched to Zoloft, another SSRI. Been on it for 2 ½ months and it took about 7 weeks for me to see any kind of positive effects. The sexual side effects are still there, but not as bad as with the Cymbalta and Lexapro. I’ve gained weight. I feel more like me, and less like me at the same time. It’s a weird feeling. But I’ve finally leveled out to the point that I can look at my anxiety with a bit of impartiality. I can control my panic attacks much better, and don’t have them as often. I’m starting to really learn how to be gentler with myself. Therapy has been much more effective since starting Zoloft.
I have an appointment with a psychiatrist next week to talk about all of this and see if there is a better option out there for me. Part of me wants to see if there is something better; part of me just wants to stay at the level I’m at and not risk things getting worse again.
All this is to say: taking meds for one’s mental health is not an “easy” or “quick” fix, as so many like to claim. There has been absolutely nothing quick or easy about this journey that I’ve had to drag myself through this past year. It’s been the hardest year of my life. Finding the right medicine is HARD.
People like to say: “Go outside.” M’fer, I do. “Work out.” Well, I try, but it’s hard when I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack on the elliptical because my anxiety is so bad. “Just be happy!” Oh golly! Why didn’t I think of that?!?
The truth is, some of us need medicine. Some of our brains are sick and don’t regulate the happy chemicals like they should. Some of us are trying really, really hard to be kind to ourselves, to change our thinking patterns and habits, but are coming up against a biological wall.
So I want you to check your pre-conceived notions about psychiatric drugs. I want you to stop telling people, “It’s just in their head,” or assuming that someone is crazy or lazy because they have to take medicine for their sick brain. Support people and their attempts to treat their illnesses. That alone can help more than you know.