Anxiety and Zoloft: A Personal Story of Recovery

The Start 

The first anxiety attack I remember having was junior year of high school. In hindsight, I recognize that I had anxiety my entire life, but it makes sense that it would peak during junior year, one of the most stressful years for high school students. It was at an SAT prep class. I remember feeling like I needed to catch my breath, but it just never happened. It freaked me out, causing my hands to shake, my heart to pound, and my thoughts to run wild. I didn't know what was happening. I figured it would go away, so I didn't tell anyone. I am a more reserved person. I deal with things myself before I turn to other people. That's what I did here. 

But it didn't go away. For almost two weeks, the breathlessness followed me everywhere. It started the moment I woke up, followed me throughout the school day, to and from my extracurriculars, and back home, where it peaked at night when I was trying to fall asleep. It started to really affect me. I became paranoid, conjuring up all sorts of reasons as to why I suddenly couldn't breathe. I decided that it was because my lungs were filling up with water, or just simply starting to fail. I laid up awake at night, trying to get enough air in my lungs to where I felt okay again. I only fell asleep once I wore myself out enough. 

Photo Courtesy of Pexels

 

Finally, I told my mom. She immediately took me to doctor after doctor, trying to find the source of this problem. Over the next two weeks, I had an asthma test, an EKG to check my heart, an x-ray to check my lungs and chest, and a CAT scan to check my throat. Everything came up clear. I remember one doctor actually mentioning anxiety, though she wasn't very helpful about it. She just said that I should focus on breathing and calming down, as if that wasn't what I was already doing. I didn't really care too much though. My lungs were fine. My chest was fine. My throat was fine. Physically, I was fine. I could rest a little easier by reminding myself that everytime it got a little harder to breathe. 

The Pre-Treatment 

The anxiety got a little better as the pressures of junior year started to wind down. AP tests and SOLs passed, finals passed, school was over, and I could focus on relaxing for the summer. But it was still there, impeding on my daily life, just as it had been before it spiked junior year. Techincally, it had always been there. I was just used to it. I didn't understand that most people didn't shake the way I did when giving a presentation or when talking in class. I didn't understand that neurotypical people could just do things without worrying about them before, during, and after they happened. 

Here is a (short) list of things I couldn't do because of my anxiety: 

  1. Make phone calls
  2. Talk in class 
  3. Go to the grocery store (or any store or mall) by myself 
  4. Learn how to do my own makeup 
  5. Make new friends 
  6. Voice my opinion 
  7. Ask questions 
  8. Go to the gym
  9. Sing in church 
  10. Enjoy things in general, since those anxiety-induced fears were always present in the back of my mind 

Getting Help 

At the end of my freshman year of college, I decided that I was done with feeling anxious all of the time. Something in me just recognized how much it was holding me back, both academically and socially. So I texted my mom and told her that I wanted help. I didn't suggest it either. I commanded it. I was taking charge of my mental health. 

The first step I took was getting a therapist. Personally, my end goal was medication, just because I believed that that was the best method of recovery for me. But my mom didn't feel comfortably just putting me on medication, and she wanted someone who could monitor me first, so we set up an appointment with a local therapist. 

I actually was very hesitant towards my therapist at first. I didn't think that she could actually help me. I also didn't trust that she would keep everything I told her between us. But I gave it a shot, and it was nothing like I expected. Each week, I sat down on her couch, and I told her about my week, sometimes ready with a problem to work on, sometimes her pulling them out of my stories where I didn't even recognize that they existed. Then she would lead me through coping techniques and breathing exercizes.

Often, she would leave me with homework: something to work on over the week until the next visit. Usually, these were things like "go to the store once by yourself" or "write down all of the times that you felt anxious, and try to pinpoint what makes you anxious in those situations." Sometimes, I would do it, and that would help us move forward. Sometimes, I wouldn't because I felt that I couldn't, but we could also move from there. She never made me feel bad for what I did or didn't do. She just helped me through it all. 

However, since I live three hours from school, I had to find a new therapist close to school. All therapists are different, as noted by this one. While my last therapist didn't think that she could refer me to a psychiatrist yet because she hadn't spent enough time with me, this therapist recommended that I get on medication right away. In her ideology, medication helped with the underlying anxiety that was always present and unsubsiding; therapy then worked on behavioral and habitual symptoms that lingered after starting medication. She also believed that it wasn't fair to myself that I keep suffering when I could be getting better quicker. "When you get a cold," she explained. "You take medication. Same thing when you are mentally ill." 

Medicating 

After meeting with my new therapist, my mom and I started working on finding a psychiatrist right away so that I could meet with them while I was home for fall break. Meeting with her that first time, not only did she diagnose me with anxiety, but she also said that I displayed multiple symptoms of depression. This wasn't that much of a shock to me. I had recognized it before, especially after researching and talking with friends, but since junior year, the anxiety had been the overpowering issue that bothered me. 

Because of the diagnosis, she prescribed me Zoloft, an anti-depression and anti-anxiety that could treat both of my mental illnesses at the same time. I remember feeling so excited that day when I got to pick it up. Even though I knew it wouldn't start working for another three weeks, just having the medication physcially in my hands represented the start of the recovery that I worked so hard to get. 

Still, it wasn't any easier than the therapy. At first, the dose was too high, causing me to feel restless and on-edge. After reaching out to my psychiatrist, we decided to build up to higher doses a little slower than we originally intended. Other than that, the first couple of weeks weren't that rough. It was the same as I had always felt, just with the added hope that the medication would help once it set in. 

Photo Courtesy of Pexels 

Improving 

And it did! I didn't even really notice the changes at first because they crept in so subtly. It is hard to articulate, but I felt like I had thoughts again. While before, I felt numb, anxious, and tired all of the time, it suddenly felt like my brain had been turned on. I felt more creative and present in my work, being able to thing outside the box more and make the connections in my studies to really be able to succeed academically. I also felt more motivated to work. I got working on my final essays and projects long before they were due so that I could really develop my work and work with my professors to improve the final product. I was also sleeping better, since I stopped waking up in the middle of the night. 

As I continued on the medication, other things became prevalent. I talked more in class, and I wasn't just piggy-backing off someone else's ideas, but coming up with my own. I no longer ruminated over the things that I said and did during the say; I let them go, like I was meant to. When I gave presentations, I didn't have to over-prepare and outline every word and movement that I was going to say; I just planned an idea of what I needed to say in my head, I gave the presentation, and I sat back down. No more shaking. No more dizziness. No more blushing. No more worrying. 

Set Back 

Even though I had improved so much, there were still some bumps in the road. After a little while of being on the medication, it started to not work as well, allowing for the anxiety and depression to seep back in. The depression especially hit me hard during this period, causing me to go weeks without doing laundry, days without showering, and just prolonged periods of emptiness and numbness. At night, I wouldn't fall asleep until three or four in the morning, even though I was exhausted. I would just stare at the ceiling and hope that my eyes would eventually close. 

I talked to my therapist and psychiatrist to find the source of this relapse. At first, we tried increasing my dosage, and when that didn't help, my psychiatrist suggested switching me to name-brand Zoloft, rather than the generic, since she found that that often helped her patients. But I also had to go through the whole adjustment period for the medication again, waiting for it to take effect like it did the first time around. But also like the first time, I wanted more than anything to get better, so I took that chance. 

Back on the Rise 

Since starting the brand-name Zoloft, I have started feeling the way that I did before: happy, motivated, and energetic. I remember knowing that it was working when I finally cleaned my room after resorting to dumping my clothing on the floor for weeks. But it was good to know that the bad parts were just temporary, and that I didn't have to go back to feeling horrible all of the time. I am ready to continue feeling better as I work with this new version of the same medication. 

I still see my therapist, and we talk about the little things that I do to help further improve my life. In general, it is just nice having someone to talk to and who can help guide me through all of this. 

But I am also going to keep in mind as I move forward that there are going to be bad periods every now and then, but those are just apart of the recovery period. This bad period helped me understand that what I was doing wasn't working anymore, and that I needed a change. It helped me learn to use the support system to help me work through everything until I feel good again. It has been a whole year since I first expressed that I wanted to get medicated. It has been three years since I had that first memorable anxiety attack. At 20 years old, I am finally getting better. 

An incomplete list of things that I can do now with the help of therapy and medication: 

  1. Make phone calls 
  2. Talk in class 
  3. Go to the grocery store (or any store or mall) by myself 
  4. Do a decent eyeshadow, basic liquid eyeliner, and mascara 
  5. Make new friends and join new organizations (i.e. Her Campus!) 
  6. Voice my opinion 
  7. Play music while I'm in the shower (even when other people are in the common room and can hear it) 
  8. Study abroad 
  9. Get my picture taken 
  10. Feel hungry and sleep 
  11. Try new things 
  12. Take public transportation and go into cities 
  13. Talk in class without blushing or stuttering 
  14. Give presentations 
  15. Have fun! 
  16. So many other things that I can't remember and that are still to come 

If you are feeling anxious or depressed, please reach out to someone that you trust and/or look into receiving treatment. 

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255