The Weakness Myth: why I take antidepressants

Medication mandala

I had all kinds of ideas about prescription drugs back before I got sober, particularly antidepressants. I'd picked up these messages from the tortured artist types I tended to gravitate toward in the bookstore. Writers like Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections who lamented the downfall of an intellectually curious and feeling nation because we so desperately needed to numb. People I deeply admired casually dropped into conversations rants about an emotionally babied generation who didn't get it: life is fucking hard.

Actually, let's be fair. I was only averse to pharmaceuticals that had been prescribed to me.  I was totally willing to try out other people's medication if I thought it would make me feel a little tilt-a-whirl.

The Darkness

In 2012, my therapist was this tiny, highly polished woman in 6-inch heels and clunky turquoise jewelry. She lacked warmth, and I thought her dry, tough-love approach to my emotional state was exactly what I needed. Plus, I wanted to be her. She had a cool aloofness I couldn't fake, and really great clothes.

Our sessions frustrated her. I could tell. After a few months of getting to know each other, she wanted answers to fairly easy questions. My memory is splattered with holes, dark pockets where certain parts of my childhood should be. I can recall the underwater glow of a TV, dusty curtains in a kitchen, hours in back yard telling myself stories, out loud, a comfort in repetition. But when she would ask me why or what happened, I couldn't answer her.

She was delighted to hear I'd kept a journal since I was a child but never went back to read them. For my first assignment from her, I pulled the notebooks from eighth grade to help me identify what had shifted so drastically at that time. We both recognized a distinct line drawn in a few key relationships.

Those notebooks shocked me. Months and months of chaotic, uncontrollable, soul-sucking depressions that I was too young to make sense of. I had recorded from day to day the way everything in my life would be fine -- I'd made the honor roll (which I valued), my mom and I were getting along, I'd made new friends who made me feel loved-- but then the next day a riptide pulled me under. It wasn't that I was sad. It wasn't that my life was difficult. It was that a darkness so dense and suffocating pinned me beneath it. Like a wheel completing its circle, I found this pattern over and over in those notebooks. A mirror of my daily life then.

Still, I returned to her with full refusal of her antidepressants.

A Legacy of Women Lying in the Dark

There's a story about my grandma that persists in our family as a kind of joke. She had five children, almost stair-step, and my mother remembers spending summers home from school and my grandma lying on the couch for what seemed like days with a rag over her eyes. The mother my mom knew sunk beneath an impenetrable silence, unable or unwilling to interact with my mom and her sisters, who weathered these times like any other. They waited them out, and their mother eventually returned to them.

One of the strangest gifts of my sobriety was the ability to recognize the cyclical patterns of my own depression. The two-week upswing, the social expanding and frantic project-making to overhaul my life followed by isolation, despondency, and the belief that no one liked me. It was my mother's cycle (and probably hers too), and we shared it as fully as we shared a particular rounded chin and tendency to pull our elbows to our ribs as we walked. The gift was compassion for her because I could see how we shared almost identical depressions.

Seeing in the Dark

I left my therapist and found my way to a woman I credit for saving my life. She swept the path clear as I searched for ways to figure out what I was feeling in a moment. Together we unknotted the clump of anxiety permanently lodged in my chest. We penned notecards with strategies for coping with stressful situations. Things like rubbing essential oil on my wrists, temples, and neck while breathing deeply. We practiced meditation and eventually, despite my continued skepticism and discomfort, some energy healing. She walked alongside me as I discovered what I felt and feared and loved, and what I did out of obligation to an idea of myself as a certain kind of person. Which turned out to be a lot.

I trusted her to see me clearly when I couldn't. One day after a particularly bad two-week episode, she said, "Hey, I'm really glad you feel better. But you scared me this time." That moment is so clear to me. She kept her office in a renovated portion of an old Garden District mansion, and a watery evening sun poured through her huge windows as we talked. I was slumped on her couch, wrung out from the previous week.

 Of course. We'd done all this work, we'd really attuned me to settle and breathe and take care of what I needed in the moment. And yet, I still ended up on a park bench near the lake thinking how easy it would be to walk into it. Like a bell ringing clear, I got it: I couldn't help it.

I didn't control my depression. There wasn't anything wrong with me. If me and this woman who valued holistic treatment and natural therapies and intuition had found her own limitations in my treatment, it was possible that I could not manage this on my own. It was possible that I might need other kinds of help.

Mental Health & the Weakness Myth

A part of me still believes in the weakness myth that persists around antidepressants. Not a logical part of me that knows my genetics, upbringing, and environment means I struck the mental health lottery, but a deeper, more gut-thinking part of me. An easy out. Like I've popped a pill and will spend the rest of my life zoned and blissed out in front of cartoons.

I'm open about taking medication. When the subject comes up, I freely volunteer my experience because I want other people to see it's not something for shame. I want to put a human face to an abstract idea. But before I can help myself, I preface the statement with some bullshit about my previous skepticism, about how I tried holistic ways. I'm qualifying my statement with an apology because I'm afraid of being perceived as weak or taking the easy way out. As if chronic depression is easy. As if I would ever look at someone else suffering and think they should just suck it up.

Let's Be Curious

I'm not writing this because we should all go out and get on medication. Especially if we're sober. That can lead to some problematic shit that's hard to deal with. But I'm also saying there's nothing wrong if that's the path we choose. Every day I get up and I'm fucking grateful that I get to take this medicine. That I am able to leave the house, go to work, and show up with my full self for my job, my friends, and my creative life. It was a long process of trying different medications at different doses that didn't massacre my creative or sexual life, but it was worth it.

I've tried to be more mindful of how I participate in casual conversations about this. Last night, a woman was talking about trying energy healing, excitedly telling the rest of us about a course she was taking. There was a response that sounded a bit like "to each her own." But I think we needed to say, "That's fucking rad. What's it like? Come back and tell us all about the path you're walking."