My Year on Antidepressants

Happy anniversary to me. The title makes it fairly obvious, but I believe it is also a struggle many of you can relate to and understand. I think communicating openly about mental health is crucial because other people being honest with me about their situation allowed me to recognize it in myself. So, here it goes, this is a reflection on my mental health, one-year after I started seeking help.

 

I started on this path because I felt I’d hit my lowest point around January 2017, and I was scared because I didn’t understand it. There didn’t seem to be a logical “why”. I’ve always been an emotional, passionate person, so I’m no stranger to feeling excessively stressed, sad, and everything in between. A year ago, however, something was different. Alarms started going off when I realized I wasn’t sad about anything. Depression for me, as for many others, feels like a distinct lack of any type of feeling at all.

 

My sleeping habits became even more weird than a normal university student’s. All my food tasted bland, I didn’t care what plans I blew off – I just knew I didn’t have it in me to be social, even with my closest friends or family. Days that I didn’t have class, I just couldn’t get out of bed… and then that became days I did have class, too.

 

Manageable, normal, day-to-day stressors became absolutely unbearable. Like someone flicked a switch in my brain that turned off every stress management skill I’d ever learned. At this point in time, I was having 2-3 panic attacks a week. For me, that meant paranoia, my heart rate spiking, nausea and hyperventilating – often to the point of vomiting - and a whole lot of tears because I was scared and confused as to why this was happening to me, seemingly without cause. I knew something was wrong, I wasn’t myself and none of my efforts in “fixing it” were working.

 

I got up the courage to see my family doctor and tell him all the drastic changes I’d noticed in my behaviour the past few months. I wasn’t sure what he would be able to do for me, but I left that day with a prescription for anti-depressants, medication for my anxiety attacks, and as cheesy as it sounds – a bit of hope. My doctor warned me that a standard, somewhat unavoidable side effect of depression medication for early 20-somethings is the worsening of your depression symptoms for up to 10 weeks while your body figures out what is going on (I am not a science student). That part really sucked, because it did happen. During that time, my marks absolutely tanked. I couldn’t sit down to write a paper without my chest tightening and my hands trembling. The first time I asked a professor for an extension on an assignment I felt like I was admitting defeat. Be it the depression or anxiety, I was almost always in some type of physical discomfort or pain, which only served to make me feel worse about myself. I had no energy to be physically active, which is something that I had always valued before. My body started to change; not drastically, but enough that it further propelled the downward spiral I couldn’t see my way out of. Thankfully, my friends and family were very sympathetic, even if some of them didn’t fully understand. They were patient, and kind through all of my (what I thought to be) “difficult” behaviour during those months… and I am so grateful for them.

 

But, I pushed through and trusted the process, so to speak. In combination with seeing a counselor a few times a month, by summer 2017 I began to feel more myself again. However, mental health is not a race to the finish line, and it’s not a linear fight. Many people may experience “blips” of depression, or heightened anxiety and then might not have to deal with it again for a long time, or ever. Many others experience symptoms differently – more consistently. Just as I was noticeably feeling like myself again, late summer I hit another intense low point. I was so discouraged and frustrated with myself because I didn’t understand why I was back in this anxious, paranoid, easily triggered state that was so far from my usual behaviour.

 

I was accepted to do a fall semester abroad in England with one of my best friends. Partway through the process, I made the decision to forfeit my spot in the program. I knew I wouldn’t be myself on the trip, and I knew it could potentially be dangerous for me to be so far away from my resources and support system – should my situation worsen. It was a heartbreaking choice. I was utterly disappointed in myself. I was upset that I wasn’t healthy, that I was unable to fix the way I was feeling and thinking. I was hopeless and defeated.

 

Back to my doctor I went, we changed the dosage of my medication in order to address my worsened anxiety. After a few weeks, I noticed it was working, and my symptoms were manageable again. I have never felt relief so intensely. With my third year at Guelph starting soon, I was motivated in a way I had not felt in a long time. I didn’t give up my exchange for nothing. I needed to learn to make the best of my situation now that it was somewhat back in my control. My counselor and I focused on self-awareness and self-care. Understanding what my thoughts, feelings and symptoms were before I was about to slip out of control. How to recognize them and what I could do about it. Ways to be proactive about my mental health in my everyday life, so I would feel more stable, and less out of control. I’m an extrovert, but I hadn’t felt like one in a long time. I was out of the loop, but I forced myself back into my social circles and I was met with open arms. I joined Her Campus. Writing has always been one of my favourite outlets and making a hobby of it again has been a really amazing feeling.

 

There is no quick fix for mental illness. Self-care is not a scented candle and a face mask (although those are two things I will always love). Popping a pill is not a blanket solution. One discussion about your health with someone won’t solve anything. I saw my family doctor every three weeks for almost 5 months. We adjusted my medication twice. I saw three different counselors before I found one that I liked and trusted. I ended a three-year relationship, totally screwed up my GPA and passed up an amazing academic opportunity. During the days and weeks I could barely get out of bed, this process was excruciating. In hindsight, I wholeheartedly know it was worth it.

 

I am better now, but that doesn’t mean I’m fixed. I still don’t understand why this is something I have to deal with, but I have learned not to dwell on that. I’m learning that I can’t punish myself for feeling or acting in ways that I might not necessarily like. The depression and anxiety I experience are not me. They are a constant, sometimes at the forefront and sometimes in the background. I still feel the heavy emptiness, and the pain. I still have panic attacks every once and while too. I remind myself now that this is not a reflection on who I am. Admittedly, that only works sometimes; but I’m still learning, and that reminder (effectiveness TBD) has helped me make huge improvements in my self-worth.

 

So, please, make an appointment with your family doctor or a team member on campus about options that could include medication. A cliché list… but talk to your mom, or a cousin, a friend, roommate, Coach, a TA or Professor you like and trust about the ways in which you don’t feel yourself. There are apps now that give you inexpensive access to certified and trained professionals; someone who knows how to help and is there for you when you need them. Hotlines, Telehealth. There are so many people in this world that want you to flourish and succeed. It is not an easy or quick process. But if you’re already struggling every day, why not put purpose behind it? Suffering is not necessary.

 

Around this time last year, I admitted to myself, and others, that I was not okay and made the decision to get the help I needed.

I have depression and anxiety… and a lot of learning still to do, but I’m going to be okay.