This blog challenges me to find the delicate balance between being my authentic self (writing honestly about where I’m at in life), and not over-sharing. This is especially challenging given that our lives are a series of interactions with the world around us. To tell my story is, inevitably, to tell my version of others’ stories as well. I aim to be sensitive about what I write when it concerns someone else. There have even been cases where I’ve asked permission from people before writing about them in a post, just to be safe. I would never want anyone unpleasantly caught off guard if they happen to be referenced in a blog post. That being said, it’s tough to find that balance sometimes.
Especially in those instances when the only person I need to ask permission from is myself. When I’m choosing to share things about myself on my blog, there’s often that nagging fear wondering “Is this too much information?” I’m afraid that what I share about myself won’t be well-received. The more vulnerable I am with what I write, the greater the fear of rejection. The problem is, I don’t always have the best filter. Hence my concern about inadvertently over-sharing. In light of that, I’ve had it in mind to write this post for awhile now. Since I’ve been getting a little more up close and personal on this blog anyway, I figure I might as well take the risk. Especially because I feel very strongly about this issue, as it hits very close to home for me. So, this post is part expository, part defense, and part… something else. I don’t know what. TMI, probably.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time – at least since I was ten years old, if not before then. Up until recently, my struggle was largely unidentified and untreated. The general message that I received was that my moods were unfair to other people and that I just needed to make an effort and try harder to be happier. Sometimes I would think that I was doing a pretty good job, only to be completely discouraged by the recurring observation, “You just don’t seem very happy…”
I think my depression and anxiety were probably aggravated by a lot of social factors from my childhood. It’s only been in the past month or so that I’ve really started to understand (via therapy) how certain patterns growing up continually reinforced my fears of being forgettable, disliked, and unwelcome. People joke a lot about the stigmas and stereotypes associated with what you learn about yourself in therapy, so I realize that I’m basically just setting myself up to be mocked. But even though I was aware that I, like every other person, had experienced my share of painful social experiences growing up, I hadn’t fully comprehended the depth or significance of how those had affected my perception of who I am now, or how those had influenced my beliefs about what I need in order to be happy. In other words, there were patterns of thought ingrained so deeply that in order to deal with my emotional issues and really begin healing, I needed to address the broader dilemma of the lies that I had bought into about myself.
Of course, like I said, it wasn’t until the past month or so that I really hit upon that realization. And prior to that, it is only in the past couple of years that I’ve really started to acknowledge my depression and anxiety for what it is, and to actively pursue treatment.
The turning point came in March 2012. I was living in L.A. at the time, it was my first year out of college, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life. Long story short, I had something that resembled an emotional and almost mental breakdown and felt completely out of control. When I tried to hurt myself, in a desperately misguided attempt to feel some sort of control, I realized that I needed help. For the first time, I sought out professional medical help and reported the growing list of symptoms that I had been convinced would go away on their own if I just tried hard enough. The doctor offered to prescribe an antidepressant, but I declined. I felt that there was a stigma associated with antidepressants, and I didn’t want to go on medication. I was afraid that I would lose myself if I did – that I would become a different person. Taking antidepressants seemed akin to admitting defeat – admitting that I wasn’t strong enough as a person to handle this on my own.
The doctor also referred me to the mental health department to pursue psychological or psychiatric services. I made a few attempts to contact them, but ran into the bureaucratic run-around of automated voice messages, and eventually gave up. I started to feel better and decided that maybe I wasn’t as bad off as I had thought.
It wasn’t until a year later, in March 2013, after moving back home, starting a new job, failing at several attempts to restart a relationship that meant everything to me, and basically hitting a wall with the whole “moving forward” part of my life, that I decided to actively pursue counseling. I was skeptical, because I had only had one previous experience with counseling: when I attended counseling through the university counseling center during my junior year of college. The experience had not been particularly great or beneficial, primarily because I don’t think my counselor and I were a good match. But in March 2013, when I couldn’t seem to move forward on my own and I was at the end of my rope, I decided to give it another shot.
I have been with my counselor for a year and three months now. Last month, she relocated further away and I’ve begun commuting over an hour to our sessions, just so I can continue to work with her. It is so worth it. Going to counseling has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for myself, and I am so grateful for the ways that my counselor has worked with me over the past year.
It was actually my counselor who finally persuaded me to try an antidepressant.
In October 2013, I went through a really rough time. All of the progress that I had made thus far was somehow not enough to get me over the emotional hurdles that I was facing at the time. Again, I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I felt like I had tried everything. I had a supportive family, a good community of friends, I was involved in my church, I had plenty of routine and structure in my life, I had a healthy diet, I was taking B vitamins and multivitamins, I was exercising 4-5 times a week, I was going to counseling. I was doing everything I could think of to manage my depression and anxiety, and yet it wasn’t enough. My counselor suggested trying an antidepressant. Her take on the situation was that I was going through an unusually difficult time and that an antidepressant could be a useful buoy during this time and help moderate my emotions enough so that I wouldn’t go under completely.
I considered her advice. I talked to my sister, who is a nurse, about her opinion of antidepressants. She gave me this helpful insight: mental and emotional illnesses are just that – an illness. Just as one does not choose to come down with strep throat, or diabetes, or cancer, so one does not choose to be mentally or emotionally ill. Telling a person who is dealing with a mental or emotional illness to “just try harder” is like telling a sick person to “just get better”.
There are physical and chemical processes that contribute to mental and emotional illness: parts of the brain that are overactive, thus preventing certain processes from operating as normal. The manifestations of this are the symptoms we associate with anxiety and depression. A person dealing with these is literally trapped in their head. They are, in a sense, incapable of stabilizing by their own efforts because the brain processes that produce feelings of happiness, peace, contentment, satisfaction, etc. simply aren’t working.
So, on the recommendation of my counselor, I contacted my doctor, who prescribed Prozac for me. I hesitated and cringed internally. Getting to the point of being willing to try an antidepressant had been difficult enough for me. My doctor had just put me on the most stereotypical antidepressant available. I felt like I was becoming just another statistic. I guess it’s a testimony to how bad things were at the time that I decided to go for it anyway.
I was afraid that the Prozac would cause me to flat-line emotionally – that it would dull my emotions so that I would be neither happy nor sad but just… neutral. Instead, I discovered that I did not feel neutralized at all. In fact, I actually felt stabilized. I still experienced a full range of emotions, but I felt like I was experiencing them in more healthy doses, rather than extreme highs and lows. My emotional baseline felt more stable. In a way, it was a very subtle change. I didn’t feel like I had suddenly turned into a different person. Instead, I felt like I had regained the capacity to be myself again. I was no longer a shell of a person, controlled by unpredictable emotions. My emotions were under control: I felt calmer, more clear-headed, and stronger.
An antidepressant doesn’t create false or fake feelings of happiness. Rather, it sends signals to the brain that enable the brain processes that aren’t working correctly to start working the way they are supposed to. When those processes start to operate normally, a person can then become responsive to all of the other treatment that wasn’t quite working before.
That was my experience. And for awhile, it really did make a difference. I saw improvement not only in my personal well-being, but also in my relationships with other people. I decided that Prozac was a good thing, in spite of all the cliches and stereotypes and stigmas that pop culture often attached to it. It has become just one of many components in the way that I manage my depression and anxiety. It is not fool-proof. I’ve already run into issues with the medication losing effectiveness during times of high stress and needing to adjust my dosage. It is also not something that I want to stay on forever. My counselor has told me that it is sometimes possible to train one’s brain through using an antidepressant. The antidepressant “models” to the brain how its processes are supposed to be working, and the brain is eventually able to keep imitating those processes on its own, without the help of the antidepressant.
I’m hopeful that someday I will be able to stop relying on Prozac to stabilize my emotional baseline. But regardless of what happens down the road, I am thankful for the effects that it has had in managing my depression and anxiety right now. Depression and anxiety are no joke. If untreated, they can severely impede one’s ability to function. I know this because I have experienced it first-hand, and I experienced it for too many years without really understanding it or doing anything about it.
If you know someone who is dealing with depression and anxiety, please be sensitive to their struggle and don’t dismiss it as them just needing to “try harder.” And if you know someone who is actively seeking to manage their depression and anxiety through counseling and/or medication, please do not make them feel ashamed for doing what they need to do. Shaming (not to mention rejecting) someone for trying to deal with their emotional issues is perhaps worse than shaming them for the issues themselves. It’s not kind. It’s not fair. It’s not right.
On behalf of everyone out there struggling to bring their symptoms under control and trying everything they can to get better and truly heal: we are strong. Strength is not defined by not having issues, because the truth is that everyone has issues. Strength is defined by choosing to deal with your issues. It is defined by taking steps toward healing, even when those around you are trivializing your experiences, or judging you, or even rejecting you for what you’re going through.
I am strong because I got out of bed this morning. I am strong because I got ready for work, and sat in traffic, and got to my desk, and started working. I am strong because I took my medication this morning, even though every time I take that bottle out of my purse, it reminds me that I am broken. I am strong because I keep trying to smile, even when I don’t feel like smiling. I am strong because I tell people that I feel “alright” when they ask how I’m doing, instead of pretending that I feel better than that. I am strong because, in my weakness, I pray, “God, help me. I can’t do this today,” and God is my strength.
Don’t give in, don’t give up.