The first time I was prescribed psychotropic medication I was around 16 years old. I was seeing a therapist at the time and she recommended that I be assessed by a psychiatrist, so that’s what I did. I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Prozac at the end of my first appointment.
I took Prozac for a little less than a year, on and off. I wasn’t the most med compliant person. I ended up getting off of it, suddenly, because I was worried about medication getting in the way of my social life. I wanted to continue partying and doing my thing. I felt like I was being held back. I didn’t notice a change within myself on Prozac and to be honest, I didn’t think anything was “wrong” with me.
I didn’t take medication again until I was 26 years old.
As a teenager, I was a hot mess (like I’ve said before, this part of my life is deserving of its own post). I can’t blame my parents for being concerned. I was angsty and determined to test my perceived invincibility. I just wasn’t concerned with my health…at all.
I’m not saying that I made the right decision when I decided to get off of Prozac. In fact, I often wonder how different my journey would have looked if I stayed on it. I try not to think like that, but it’s hard sometimes. I have depression and I’ve definitely struggled with it throughout my life. It just looked different at that point in time, which I’ve talked about in a previous post.
There were numerous times throughout my life when I thought to myself, “Is this how I’m supposed to feel?” and “Is this just how it is for me?” I eventually convinced myself that I was fine and that eventually, my thoughts and feelings would change just as they had in the past. Well, obviously that didn’t work. The more I ignored and avoided my needs, the worse things got.
Fast forward to being 26 years old. I was struggling. Actually, struggling is an understatement. I was at the end of my rope. I was exhausted. I was crawling out of my skin from anxiety and panic attacks. I was stuck in a pit of hopelessness just going through the motions and trying to survive. Eventually, I was numb and unafraid to die. That’s when I decided enough was enough and I needed professional guidance and support.
Let me back up a bit. Before I decided to get help, I spent many hours in the emergency room. I was having multiple panic attacks a day. I legitimately thought I was dying. That may sound silly to some, but for those of you who have had a genuine panic attack, you know what I’m talking about.
Heart pounding, dizziness, blurred vision, head pain, shaking, shortness of breath, sensitivity to noise and light, fear, intense urge to run. All of it, all the time.
The doctors at the ER would prescribe me anti-anxiety meds and send me home. My last trip to the ER, a doctor put me in a room and sat down with me. She asked me questions and eventually told me that she believed I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. She took time to explain some of the symptoms to me. She guided me in the right direction and connected me to some mental health resources. I could feel how much she empathized with me. I almost felt as though she understood what it was like. There was an unspoken understanding and our interaction had a profound impact on me. I’ll never forget it.
The psychiatrist I ended up seeing diagnosed me with major depression, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder. What. A. Mouthful. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and yet slightly at peace…? It felt nice to have some answers.
The first medication I was prescribed was Lexapro. What a nightmare that was.
I had a horrible reaction and ended up back in the ER. I was shaking, pacing around, and experiencing perpetual panic attacks. I called the nurse hotline through my insurance and was told to go to the hospital. Long story short, I was told to stop taking Lexapro and talk to my psychiatrist.
I felt even more hopeless than I did when this entire ordeal started.
“What am I going to do?”
“Medication isn’t going to work for me”
“I’m going to feel like this forever”
My thoughts about death increased and I was terrified.
My psychiatrist and the people around me continued to remind me about how many meds are on the market and how more often than not, it takes someone multiple tries to find the best match. Even though I understood what they were telling me, I was scared to try again. I didn’t want to feel that awful ever again.
Eventually, I gave Zoloft a try. I started off on a really low dosage, breaking pills in half and hoping for the best. I was so relieved when I realized I wasn’t having the same reaction to Zoloft. I wasn’t feeling better per se, but I wasn’t freaking out either. I continued to take it and work with my psychiatrist on increasing the dosage to a therapeutic level.
About 3-4 weeks in, I started to notice a change. I wasn’t needing my anti-anxiety meds as often and I was waking up without chest pain. I wasn’t staring at myself blankly in the mirror. I didn’t feel as numb and afraid. I was attending weekly therapy sessions at the time and I was doing everything I could think of to raise my baseline level of functioning.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Medication hasn’t cured me. I still struggle, I still have panic attacks, and I still have times when my depression rears its ugly head.
Although I still experience my fair share of symptoms, I can honestly say that my current medication regimen has saved my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to pick myself up when I fall. I wouldn’t have the energy, cognitive ability, or self-esteem to wake up in the morning and face everyday life. I wouldn’t be able to work through my past traumas and experiences with grief and loss. I would be dead.
At this point in my life, I’m able to work through a panic attack and utilize grounding techniques to keep my head above water. I’m able to identify when I’m suffering from a depressive episode and act accordingly. I’m able to confide in those closest to me about what’s going on. I’m able to think clearly. I’m not in a complete fog that I can’t find my way out of. I feel something other than hopelessness. I feel alive. I face challenges and go through the ups and downs just like anyone else, but I’m doing so with my imbalances, balanced. I have a new appreciation for life, pain, and desperation.
I’m also at a point where I have zero shame about being on medication. Let me tell you, it feels damn good. If I was on blood pressure medication, I wouldn’t think twice about telling people. Why should I be ashamed about medication for my brain? I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t either.
I’m a strong, more compassionate human after this experience. I have a lot to learn about myself, but I’m taking it one day at a time. I’ve been humbled to my core, that’s for sure. I hope you read this and find yourself filled with hope because I mean it when I say, it can get so much better. It takes work, but it’s possible. I had to put my ego and people’s opinions to the side and follow my gut. I’m doing what’s right for me and putting myself first.
I’ve taken a personal pledge to help end the stigma surrounding mental health and medication. Part of that means that I choose to live as transparently as possible. I’m done hiding behind a façade that depicts a life full of happiness and stability. Sometimes, I’m still a hot mess and that’s okay. I’m human, you’re human, and we’re just trying to figure this all out. I’m choosing to talk about things that people may find taboo. I don’t find any of it taboo anymore. Instead, I call it real fucking life.
Anyways, now I’m ranting. Thanks for reading this particular post, it sits really close to my heart. As always, your support doesn’t go unnoticed.
Wishing you all love and light.
The first time I got on psychotropic medication was sophomore year of college. I can’t remember what prompted it (which sucks, but that’s the way it goes), but I’m sure it was some cold, sterile psychiatrist whom I didn’t know longer than 15 minutes who prescribed them to me. The medications were called Celexa and Ativan.
Celexa (aka Citalopram) is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) that’s used to treat depression. Ativan (aka Lorazepam) is a sedative often used for anxiety and epilepsy. It was my first time owning prescribed medication for non-“physical” reasons (even though I know now that mental is physical), so I remember feeling a little awkward and unsure about having them. All I knew was that I was excited for them to start working like clockwork so that everything would be "okay".
At that point, I was skipping classes because I would get such bad social anxiety and have crying spells on my top bunk in my dorm room. I would just sob and listen to a lot of sappy playlists I’d made for Twilight (no shame!). What I didn’t know was that medication doesn’t usually work “like clockwork”, nor that it usually takes time to find the right kind of medication that works for you. I just wanted to feel better, and so I accepted the written prescription paper that the strange, cold psychiatrist gave me. Side note: we really need more warm, person-centered, trauma-informed psychiatrists, so if that’s your calling, cheers to you!
The Ativan was “as needed” and to be used prior to having an anxiety or panic attack. It actually worked for me. I remember driving seven hours to visit my friend out of town for the first time, and I only needed to take one pill to come down from an almost-panic attack, which was a miracle! I didn’t know if it was a placebo effect or if it was the medication, but I was sold either way.
For those of you not as familiar with psych meds or mental health, people with anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and depression have a deficiency in specific kinds of brain chemicals, in this case: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. What SSRIs, sedatives, and other medications can help do is to increase these levels so that they’re at a stable level, thereby decreasing the effects of deficiency. It can be genetic, causal, or both. In my case, it’s both, but primarily genetic.
I have a parent, as you might have seen in our last post, who also has bipolar disorder, so I grew up seeing their medications (sneakily, I might add, without my parent knowing about it). What I didn’t know growing up was what they were or what they were for; I was just accustomed to seeing our whole bottom pantry shelf stocked full of pill bottles.
Going back to trying meds for the first time, it was...okay. The Ativan helped, but the Celexa seemed to make my depression worse. I became more fatigued and felt more hopeless. Ironically, I was taking a psychotropic medication class in college at the time, which is why it’s so frustrating now to think back on the fact that it was during this time that I decided to go off my meds. Cold turkey.
Boy, did that backfire.
I was impatient in asking for a different antidepressant, and instead of asking my psychiatrist for one, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had been to a handful of mental health professionals, none of whom I liked very much. I’d had it with “the system”. So I just stopped taking them.
I regret that decision to this day.
If you don't already know, it is a HUGE no-no to go off your meds cold turkey. Your system integrates the chemicals into its biological make-up and needs time to ween off of them if you decide to go off of them or switch to a different kind of medication, otherwise known as "titrating". If you don't titrate your meds, your body will go into shock; it can cause psychosis and even permanent damage, which is why you always consult with your psychiatrist.
Sometime after ceasing both medications at once, I began having hallucinations of “shadow people”, which was terrifying, not to mention extremely dangerous, while driving at night back to my apartment. I felt like I was literally going crazy. And because of my medication class, in hindsight, I knew exactly what the risks were in not titrating out a medication, nor consulting with a psychiatrist first. I knew exactly what I was doing. But like many of us, I thought I was above the system, I was different. This grandiose way of thinking is a large contributor to many unsafe decisions and experiences I have had in the past and, now I know, due to mania.
The hallucinations finally stopped after a few days, and at that point, I was having the strongest mixed episodes I’d ever had in my life; I would go from being terrified and anxious, to being impulsive and manic, to sobbing. Thank god I had a friend to turn to who also had mental health disorders, but she had moved out of state, so it was all via text. I was so grateful for her understanding and non-judgment, but it was difficult not having her physical presence around.
Ultimately, the long-term impact of this decision was long-term memory loss. There are years of my life that I can’t fully account for, or that are, at least, extremely vague. Imagine when you’re deep underwater looking up at the sky: you know it’s a different place, but it’s blurry and you can’t make out the details, only the big blobs of color. That’s what most of my childhood memories look like to me. Sometimes when I’m referencing something from my childhood, I wonder if it’s real or if my brain has just made something up to make up for it. I’ve never had it tested, mostly because I’m too scared to know, but also because I'm ashamed for doing it. Even though I know the circumstances, the symptomology, blah blah...I'm a stubborn ass (again, like most of us in this field), and I pull the "I'm the exception" card when it comes to self-blame. What can I say? I'm a work in progress.
Bottom line, if you’re on meds and you don’t wanna be anymore, CONSULT FIRST. The short-term discomfort is better than the long-term regret.
Nine years later, last October to be exact, I decided that I needed medication again. I was going through a very unhealthy, impulsive relationship, and my anxiety had skyrocketed. Luckily, I had a supportive therapist and a lovely doctor who listened. I had a trusting relationship with both of these providers, as they had been with me for about one year. My therapist had pushed me through recovery, and, in doing so, we both learned about my multiple diagnoses. My doctor and physician's assistant had both helped me heal from an unwanted sexual experience, which had coincidentally led to discovering (and thankfully removing) a large ovarian cyst. It’s weird how life happens sometimes.
My doctor prescribed me Paxil (Paroxetine), another SSRI, that she thought would be a better fit for me and my history. And low and behold, she was right! There were some minor, temporary side effects for the first few months, including some esophageal spasms and dry mouth, but the anxiety actually went away. I initially thought, Well, how do I know it’s the meds? It could just be that I broke up with the asshole, and that’s why the anxiety went away. I didn’t know what to think for a while, except that in the first week, I felt results. Now, a whole year later, I know that I do not think or feel the way I used to, in terms of anxiety-based symptoms that had been present my entire life. This has been what’s confirmed my acceptance of my medication.
I still have qualms from time to time about medications, and that’s okay. It’s not that I don’t believe they work, because I 100% do. It’s that small part of me (which continues to get smaller and smaller) that wishes I could be like people who don’t need meds, who don’t have chemical imbalances...who haven’t experienced trauma. But I need medication to function in a way that allows me my best chance at living fairly, with my fullest capacity. And that’s okay.
My next step is potentially trying a mood stabilizer. Something I learned later on is that as much as SSRIs help with depressive and anxious symptoms, they can actually bring out mania in people who have bipolar disorder. And I’ll be the first to admit- my mania has definitely been a problem the last few months. Impulsivity, substance misuse, debilitating financial recklessness...it’s been a thing, to say the least.
I’ll be honest- my fear is that it will alter “who I am”, like many people who are in the same or similar situation. I’ve seen how being on medication has already altered me. I don’t feel anxious anymore, but it’s also difficult for me to feel at all anymore. Numbness is a common feeling. It’s kind of like the idea of chemo- it kills the bad stuff, but also the good stuff. Now I’m not saying that SSRI’s kill. I can only speak to my own experience- no one else’s. Yes, my libido is significantly lower, and it’s near damn impossible for me to cry (for the good and bad feels). But living in a constant state of terror, feeling judged and ostracized by everyone around me, and thinking that the people I love the most are going to DIE all the time? Nah, #sorrynotsorry. I can’t put a price on that. And for this price- I’ll take it.
I remembered the first time I realized I wasn’t living the way I used to. That time, I did cry. I cried out of utter happiness, relief, and of grief- mourning how much I’d fought to get to that point. It was surreal.
I’m getting new insurance soon, so it’ll be a minute until I can get assessed for a mood stabilizer, and, in the end, it’ll be my decision. I know that the mania has become a hindrance in my life- I can own that. I know that it’s time. And it will still be my choice in what I do to address this. I’m so grateful to have the support I do, not to mention health insurance. It makes me think of how many people are uninsured who need medication too, and it breaks my heart how difficult it is to get access to basic care. I guess that’s why I’m a social worker.
Getting assessed for medication is absolutely your choice. And there is ZERO shame in needing it. Just like there is no difference and no actual magical line between being 17 and turning 18, there is no difference and no magical line between your head and the rest of your body. You would never judge someone who wears glasses to see. For those of us with mental health conditions, we may need medication “to see”.
Your neck is not a wall. Your head IS part of your body. Your brain IS part of your system. Denying that is denying who and what you are, not to mention a result of centuries-old fear, misinformation, and historical ignorance (Salem Witch Trials, anyone?). The truth is that you consume more “man-made” chemicals in a bag of chips and the beer you chase it with, than in a psychotropic medication that is composed of chemicals you already naturally make in your brain; I just don’t make a stable amount.
And no one’s mental health is the same; all of our experiences vary. For instance, just because someone can manage their anxiety with weed doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I recently found out that weed triggers panic attacks and surges of anxiety for me; it’s not for everyone, and it's certainly not about "being in right headspace", as some people might retort. 'Cause lemme tell you: it's chemical and ain't got nada to do with voluntarily shifting your cellular structure into a "better" one. Some substances (and activities for that matter) are not strong enough and other things are not meant to interact with the chemicals we already have. AND THAT’S OKAY.
Yeah, I hate needing help. I always have. And my parents raised me with the mindset to do things for yourself, but you know what? This is me doing that. I’m making things happen that could not happen if I didn’t ask for help. That’s me taking care of business. For me.
I don’t judge you if you don’t want to go on meds or if you’re not ready to go on meds. No one can tell you what to do but yourself. I’m as stubborn as they get, so I get it. Trust me. If medication is something you think you may need, but are scared and/or resistant to, I just want you to know three things:
Let’s tackle the stigma. Let’s not pill-shame. Let’s not compare. It’s been a journey with going on medication for me, and it’s been chalk-full of learning experiences for sure. Talking with other people who are either also on meds or have questions about them has been the best part. I will always remember one of my good friends coming up to me and asking me about medication because they were thinking about it after a lifetime of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Those are the moments I live for. Because in those moments, people don’t feel alone anymore. And neither do I.
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