Joke Books are Not Anti-Depressants
During my summer internship two summers ago, I was editing a book and read something that made me wonder how this book was in its second printing. I won’t say who the author is, and I don’t have the exact words, but the author essentially said this: people with depression should stop taking medication and pick up a joke book.
I could feel my blood pulsing in frustration as I read this. I know this author was not trying to make a scientific claim here, but it spoke a lot about the misconceptions people have about mental illness.
For our grandparents–and for some even today–mental illness was something you pushed away. It was a spiritual rather than physical or psychological ailment. It was weakness worthy of shame.
These stigmas are being broken down, but we still have some room to grow. Today, I’m sharing why I take anti-depressants because I believe openness is essential for changing the stigma.
I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should take medication. Everyone should consult a doctor or psychiatrist to see what is best for them.
I take medication
I take sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. I have been taking it on and off for over ten years. Last week, I met with my doctor to discuss how my current dose was going. I told her I was doing great. I have had some anxiety lately, but it is not as powerful as it used to be. Sometimes panic even sweeps over my body, but then it stills. It quiets down. I can take on the rest of the day.
Even though I had concerns about taking the medication for so long, my doctor assured me, as she always does, that I could be on this my whole life without any problems.
Is taking medication a failure?
My husband and I have been working out lately, and we are getting to a point where we are doing exercises that I can’t do on my own. Whenever we do push-ups, Jon has to spot me in case I need a boost (I usually do). Last night, I was frustrated that I still needed help. But Jon looked at me and told me I was strong. “Everybody needs help at first,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It just means you need a little help to lift yourself, and that makes you stronger.” Without that extra lift, I would have fallen on the floor. With it, I had just enough help to get up.
In the past, I have reduced my dose, or removed it completely, because I felt that I shouldn’t have it–that I didn’t need it, or shouldn’t need it, or that it changed me too much. Most of all, I felt that I was a failure for needing help.
But when I was off of them, or taking a small dose, it was more difficult to stop mild anxiety from turning into panic. I always ended up taking it again, until I finally realized that it did make me feel better. I was being unfair to myself by avoiding it. I was giving into the stigma that I should be ashamed.
But taking medication is not a failure. For me, it is choosing to feel better. It is accepting help so that I can lift myself up. Because of the boost of medication, I have been able to try new things that I might not have tried before, like taking long hikes, kayaking, visiting friends, and more things that I love.
I now have no shame in taking it, just as I now have no shame in being spotted for a push-up.
Will medication change me?
Some people are afraid that medication will change them. This was one of the reasons I stopped taking medication in the past. I felt numb, as though I couldn’t be happy or sad but only “okay.” But that wasn’t okay. I wanted to feel what I felt.
After getting back on medication, however, I have not found that to be true anymore. I can experience a full range of emotions. It may be different for everyone, and this is something you can talk to your doctor about. While I have no scientific understanding of what was happening to me, I have wondered if I had actually unintentionally suppressed my emotions in the past. Now, I have a healthier view of my emotions and let myself cry if I need to.
Some people are also afraid of change in general, even if it means getting better. I think we sometimes find our identity in our own pain, and the idea of not having that pain anymore is terrifying because it means losing a huge part of who we are. But our identity should not be attached to our pain. You can love yourself in your pain, yes, but imagine how much more beautiful you would be in joy. Imagine how much more joy you could bring to others when you are made well. That pain may always be a part of you, and when you are well, you can use that pain to help others without the fear of it hurting you.
(Artists, I highly recommend the essay “Fear of Happiness” by Louise Gluck, in which she describes how she feared healing would make her art worse, but how she learned that it made it better)
Medication was not the cure for my anxiety and depression
Medication alone did not heal me. For some who are already healthy in mind and body, medication may be all they need. For me, many, many other things helped me, including cognitive behavioral therapy and years of exposure. And I’m still not “healed.” I still have panic. But I have learned how to handle it, and medication is often the extra boost I need.
If you are afraid of medication, I encourage you to talk with a psychiatrist, who can help you find what works best for you.
It’s possible that one day I won’t need medication. But right now, my main hope is that you don’t feel like you are broken if you take medication.
I hope you don’t feel that you are alone or weird or messed up.
I hope you tell others the same thing.
I hope that, one day, there will no longer be a stigma about mental health and medication so that people who need help can get it.