**trigger warning: death by suicide, depression, anxiety
For years I’ve felt reticent to talk or write about my struggles with mental health. I remember sharing some of my symptoms with friends when I was a teenager, and I will never forget the look of concern and consternation in their eyes. That, plus many other reinforcing events like that, was when I learned to shut up about mental health. There’s still a huge stigma around mental health and the drugs we take to alleviate our symptoms. In an effort to de-stigmatize this subject, I’m sharing my experience with depression, suicidal ideation, therapy, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety prescriptions. Though I’m scared as hell to share this here. But as Glennon Doyle states “we can do hard things”. Let’s jump in.
My experience with depression started when I was a young teenager, maybe even a tween. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but I knew I had so much anger. I went to therapy but it was short lived. I then went again at 17, also short lived. When I moved from my hometown when at 18, I was hopelessly melancholic in a crescendo of depression and anxiety.
I went to my PCP and relayed my symptoms. She prescribed me with Cymbalta and a low dose of Xanax. As has happened many times, the anti-depressant ameliorated my life almost instantly. Rumination, those circular thoughts that never end, stopped almost immediately (one of my friends who also takes mental health meds calls these thoughts “monkey chatter”). Hope came rushing back, which felt illusive to me preceding meds. It improved my life so much that I got to a point when my brain said “We are so much better, we can stop taking the meds now!” Which is a DIRTY LIE every time. Our brains and our bodies body are misleading us in that way. It’s a very human experience. So I stopped taking my prescriptions cold turkey and did not share this information with my doctor. She would have told me that I must wean off slowly so my mental health didn’t crash. And boy, did it crash in the winter of my college freshmen year. With the help of my family, I pulled myself out of my what I considered to be emotional rock bottom at the time. I stitched my heart back together with no medication to assist.
Not much time passed before I began self-medicating with alcohol. I thought because it was social and my other friends were drinking that I was just having fun. However, when I look back now, it wasn’t always for fun. Alcohol made me forget and let me hide from my overwhelming emotions in a hazy stupor. Memories couldn’t catch up with me when I was hungover and sleeping all day or trying not to vomit every time I moved. I remember getting into a fight with a loved one and then going to the bar and getting the drunkest I’d ever been. My roommate suggested we go to the hospital to get my stomach pumped. I wouldn’t hear of it. But I was totally fine, right? That’s what I kept telling myself. I was in my early 20s and thought that was what I was supposed to do in those years. My friends and I went to the bar weekly at least, but they did not engage in self destruction with alcohol quite as heavily as I did.
Several years after that, alcohol could no longer conceal my again breaking heart. I chose the same unhealthy relationship time after time, which made me feel like nothing would ever change for me. I felt so alone — the most alone I had ever felt in my life. Childhood trauma bubbled up in my mind, and suddenly I remembered hard things that I hadn’t thought about since they happened. It felt like it was too much, everything was too much: too bright, too loud, too raw. I survived ovarian cancer, but I silently obsessed about it coming back. Tuning out my emotions, my hurt — like one turns the dial of a radio to get clearer signal — was the only way I felt safe. I strayed further and further away from a connection with my body. I checked out for quite some time, disassociated. Once I felt so activated following a berating from my girlfriend that I went to my local crisis stabilization unit. I had an assessment, and the therapists determined I wasn’t a danger to myself or others. They kindly let me sit in a room by myself with a yellow note pad to express all my thoughts. An intern brought me a paper cup full of steaming comforting generic peppermint tea. It was there I decided I was going to be okay. And I was… for a while.
After one particularly difficult alcohol-fueled night a few years later, I just wanted it to stop. The buzzing in my head, me choosing wrong again and again, the all consuming loneliness felt like it would never end. The pain felt like it would never go away. I had suicidal ideations. Not like the fleeting thoughts of “what if I just pulled the steering wheel one day?” (which as a trained social worker, I know that pondering taking our death into our own hands is a condition of being human. It is not necessarily alarming in and of itself.) Thoughts of how to die and what I had at my disposal drowned out everything else. A scene from Forest Gump played over and over in my head — the one in which Jenny, Forest’s childhood friend, stands on the ledge of a hotel after years of hard drug use and abusive relationships. I somehow talked myself into going to sleep before making any lasting decisions like Jenny does in that scene.
That night shocked me back into seeking mental health treatment. I felt desperate for medication and therapy. I booked an appointment with my PCP and got on medication again, this time, Prozac, the classic anti-depressant that many doctors start with. I went to therapy for a hot second, but I didn’t have a great relationship with my therapist. I picked up some judgmental behavior from her, and I quickly quit when the work got difficult.
Years later, I am on Fluoxetine, which is a generic for Prozac. I also take Wellbutrin to bolster the effectiveness of the Fluoxetine. I’ve gone to therapy almost every week for two years and have done the work. The hard, grueling emotional work because I just wanted peace in my mind in my heart. I’m almost done processing my childhood trauma. My therapist and I talk about discharging me from therapy soon because I’ve come so far. I understand I will be on some anti-depressant for my entire life. I accept that it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain, not a personal or moral failure.
I finally found my peace, my self-esteem, my identity, my heart. There is so much space in my chest and brain. I no longer carry all the shit I unknowingly hauled until my early 30s. I no longer have to live with huge, all consuming emotions. I no longer doubt myself and my journey. I have found what I’ve been seeking since I was 14. It really does get better, friends. I know seasons of my life will be hard, but I have the tools and knowledge to seek help if I ever feel myself backsliding. Therapy and medication have been life-changing — I would highly recommend it! Especially mental health meds in conjunction with seeing a trusted therapist. I wasn’t successful with just meds or just therapy, it had to be both for me. And if you are feeling alone, know that you have one supporter who respects you here 🙂
In solidarity with others who struggle with mental health,