Taking Anti-Depressants is the Greatest Act of Self-Love I’ve Given Myself
I thought the unceasing self-loathing was normal. I’d grown accustomed to fighting with myself in my own head. Half of my brain said, “You’re no good. You’ll never do it.” Half of my brain said, “Please stop. I’m going to anyway. If you would just be quiet, we could at least try.” None of my brain felt well enough to get angry, to be sad, to feel much of anything at all. But this was normal. Having to convince myself that everyone didn’t hate me was normal. Struggling to do the basic human things like showering, sleeping, going to work, and hanging out with friends outside of my house was normal.
I had been semi-functional for a year this way, but I felt myself, my entire body, becoming tired of my own shit. When the thought of death became a daily source of relief, I had no choice but to start asking myself, “Is this as good as it gets? Is this how it’s going to be now?” Feeling as though life was lived through a glass wall surrounding my body, I did the most radical thing I could think to do: I decided to go see a doctor.
Three years ago, when I left the hospital after slipping into a Bipolar psychosis, I struggled with medication. Having been put on your garden variety cocktail, I was completely unable to function. The lithium I was on made me feel like a dead body being reanimated, made me feel as though my flesh was solid stone. But I successfully weaned off all the medication, completed college, got a good job, and managed to do the whole life thing for multiple years completely pharmaceutical drug-free. Because of my experience with Lithium, I was afraid to go to a doctor. I had seen doctors in Fairfield who seemed to push pills on me even when I said I was doing well. I didn’t trust any of them; I didn’t trust my brain with any of them.
Luckily, around the time I reached my breaking point a couple months ago, one of my best friends, who also struggles with mental illness, finally found a doctor she liked about twenty minutes outside of town. I washed the misplaced pride from my skin and made an appointment. I kept calm; like a sailor on open waters watching the lighthouse off in the distance come closer, I kept calm. But inside my heart, I knew I wouldn’t last much longer if the appointment didn’t go well. I needed help.
“My colleagues call me the hippie doctor because I take a holistic approach to mental health. I’m not going to give you meds just to give you meds.” Twenty minutes into my appointment and I already liked this woman. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could trust my doctor. She listened to my experiences of the medications I’d taken before. She didn’t try to convince me of anything; she gave me recommendations, told me everything I needed to about what she wanted to put me on, and told me there were plenty of alternatives if this medication didn’t work out. Midway through my appointment, I began to cry. She validated my feelings, “It’s hard. But we’re going to help you.”
In the mental health sector, people who haven’t dealt with the system are quick to say, “well, find another doctor.” But when you’ve been to a string of them, the cavalier find-another-doctor response is infuriating. Which is why finding this woman felt like a godsend. Feeling nervous but excited and hopeful, I left her office and got my prescriptions filled. As I left the pharmacy with meds in hand, the world around me seemed to slow down. It felt like the scene in a movie when the action-packed sequence moves at half-time, showing the intricacies of the fight scene. Except I was in a mostly-empty parking lot, watching the last tip of the sun go down. I took a deep breath, and it felt like the first deep breath I’d taken in a long time. Not just a deep breath of the lungs but a breath of my entire soul inhaling and exhaling in relief.
My doctor said it would be a good sign if I felt the effects immediately, calling it the honeymoon phase of the drug. She warned that I would probably revert back after the phase and would then have to wait for the drug to build up and take effect as antidepressants often do. Sure enough, within a week I was feeling like an entirely different person, rather the person I used to be with the knowledge and experience I have now. The first weekend I was on the drug, I wrote more than I had in six months. I could focus, I could think, I could feel. I was also struck by the feelings I had denied amongst my self-loathing and depression. I had a sex drive again. I had a desire to live again. I could see my ambition laid before me like a road to follow step-by-step instead of a mountain to climb over that would risk my life and sanity to surmount.
I started meeting with a friend to work on applications for graduate school. She asked how the meds were working out and I told her what I’ve told you. Then she said something I hadn’t realized, something that struck me as both incredibly profound and stunningly simple, “Mm, it’s an awesome act of self-love that you’ve given yourself.” I stared back at her in disbelief, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but damn, you’re right.”
Despite the unbearable pile of empty space that seemed to sit upon my shoulders, I’d had enough left in me to reach out, to set aside my fear and pride in exchange for a chance at joy, life, love, and appreciation. Despite my feelings of powerlessness, my innate worthiness put her foot down and said, “enough is enough.”
When the honeymoon phase wore off, as I was warned it would, the pile of empty space came crashing down. I laid on my bed, staring up at the ceiling, shaking my head, “how did you do it for so long?” For those two weeks prior, the glass wall laid shattered, and I quickly adapted to that new normal. So when the honeymoon phase left me, I was in awe of my past self’s ability to survive for that long in that way.
Those with depression are far from weak; indeed, we are often too strong for our own good. I knew this slump would disperse with time, but I found myself fighting inside my brain again, quickly becoming exhausted. When the medication began to build up and I returned to stable, I sincerely could not believe how much my own brain had been fucking me over. I thought that was who I had become. I blamed myself for not being able to control the warring halves of my brain. Life is still life, of course. There are ups and downs in the normal range of emotion, but I’m not watching from behind the glass wall anymore. I am here. I am present; I feel alive.
I don’t often talk about this, as a loud proud “ain’t-no-wifey”-beanie-wearing feminist, but I really want to be a mom one day. I had nearly convinced myself that it wasn’t in the cards. Not that I want to have a child anytime soon, but I feared that I would do more harm than good to that beautiful would-be child if I couldn’t even take care of myself. Every day, every task felt like too much to handle; my entire life felt like a tornado sweeping me six feet above the ground. Having grown up with a father who inexplicably flew off the handle without a moment’s notice, I refused to submit my future child to the same behavior.
Accepting a life path that includes medication has given me an unbelievable amount of perspective on both my own behavior and his: I am capable, and there is nothing wrong with asking for help. I could not have found myself again had I not asked for that help. Had I not set aside the fear and pride, I would not have lasted much longer in the fog of my own mind. Yet I was aware enough to realize that.
It’s easy for someone who hasn’t struggled with mental illness to judge one who takes medication. But imagine walking on a broken leg for a year, hating yourself with each step as it hurts, telling yourself the pain is your fault, and that getting a cast would be to admit defeat. Sounds insane, does it not?
*originally published 11/19/16 —the ups and downs continue. It's an ongoing process. Just last week I found myself in the lowest-low I'd seen since starting medications again. I add this 'disclaimer' to say that the journey continues, the stabilization is constantly being tweaked. It's trial and error. It's patience when you have none. But all-in-all, I'm in a better place now than I have ever been. More to come.