While our society has seemingly gotten “over” the mental health stigma and is progressing to a place where mental illnesses aren’t seen as something terribly abnormal, the same cannot be said about our attitudes towards medications for mental illnesses. I first went to therapy in 6th grade, and I don’t really remember being diagnosed with anything. My mom had only taken us (my sister and i) because our family was going through a tough time. I hid that I was going to therapy from anyone who wasn’t my close friend and even my parents told us not to promote the fact that we went therapy. My time in therapy came to its end at one point in either 7th or 8th grade when my therapist left the clinic I went to and told me that she didn’t think I needed it much anymore as I seemed to be doing fine. For the most part, she was right.
But fast-forward to high school and things seemed to go downhill. I had always struggled with self-confidence and self-esteem, but at one point in high school I just didn’t feel right. If you asked any of my teachers, they’d probably tell you it was because I worked too much since I was always falling asleep in class. My junior year of high school was not a walk in the park to say the least. My sister had gone off to college the year before and now I had assumed the role of the eldest sibling in the house. With her gone and I being 16, my mom started relying on me to help her out with my brothers, who were only about 3 and 8 at the time. I also had started working the summer before junior year and became incredibly driven to work and make money to not only save up for college but also to relieve my parents of any of my own expenses.
All of these things took a toll on me. I was sleeping for about 3-5 hours a day, made the horrible decision to take two AP classes, worked about 30-35 hours a week at the domino’s nearby and became a third parent to my siblings. I begged my mom to let me go back to therapy (not knowing that I actually didn’t need her permission) and she, despite being the person who took me there in the first place, refused. She said that I was fine and blamed the boyfriend I had at the time for my dismays. She insisted that if I broke up with him, I would be fine. I ended up breaking up with him later that summer, but the problem didn’t go away.
I ended up having a horrible panic attack one night in October when picking up an incredibly drunk uncle from a restaurant and having him drag us into a mess with an ex of his. I witnessed a pretty bad altercation between the two and I guess I just snapped. I was crying, screaming and couldn’t breathe or move. I felt as if I had no control over my body. I could see how terrified my sister was and as much as I tried to stop what was going on so as not to further worry her, I couldn’t. Thankfully my uncle’s ex’s friend was knowledgeable in deescalating panic attacks, and I was fine. But I realized that wasn’t the first time I had one. Although I had never had a panic attack to that extent before, the feeling of not being able to breathe or control my body was all too familiar thanks to the previously mentioned ex who every time I tried breaking up with, would say “no” and would insist on continuing our relationship.
Although I felt terrible for worrying my sister with my panic attack, it ended up being the only reason my mom let me start going to therapy. After witnessing that event, my sister attested to the fact that this was not “normal” and that if not treated, I could get worse and have these more often. So, with my mother’s blessing this time, I started the search for a new therapist.
This led me to my current therapist actually. I started seeing her late October of my senior year in high school and still see her. After a couple months into therapy and after hearing all about my family, my therapist suggested medications for my depression and anxiety. Although she had never met anyone in my family, based off our sessions and hearing about their characteristics, she hypothesized that my depression and anxiety weren’t purely due to situational circumstances. Considering my parents had a rough life and were immigrants who experienced a lot of trauma, she said it wouldn’t be surprising if there were biological components at play. I had been trying to get better without any meds and at first there seemed to be some progress, but it wasn’t enough honestly. I had changed my eating habits; I was working out 5 times a week and trying to change my own thinking habits, but it wasn’t working. I still didn’t feel okay.
So, per my therapist’s suggestion I set up an appointment with my pediatrician to talk about depression and anxiety meds. I told my mom about this, and she wasn’t pleased to say the least. I tried having a talk with her about going on meds but was always met with anger and her telling me to go to my room. I finally got her to agree to come to the doctors with me to at least talk about the possibility of meds and what that might mean. At the doctor’s, she ended up confessing that her biggest fear was that I would get addicted to antidepressants and need them for the rest of my life. My doctor assured her that the antidepressants in question were not addictive at all and that she herself would like to ween me off them at one point if I were to get them prescribed.
My mom reluctantly agreed to let me go on antidepressants and while I was nervous at first, I ended up being incredibly relieved at the possibility of being able to actually function well. So, in January of my senior year, I started my first dose of sertraline (commonly known as Zoloft), a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor; a very common type of antidepressants. I started on a baby dose, about 10mg which is what they start everyone on. While I noticed a slight difference, I didn’t really feel like it helped, and I was nervous that maybe meds (or at least these ones) weren’t gonna cut it.
I had my dosage increased throughout my senior year a couple times and with each increase I felt myself feeling so much better. I no longer felt as tired, my mind seemed clearer and in general it was just easier to get through life than it had ever been before. But, because I was very open about my mental health and being on meds, it wasn’t uncommon to have friends, or guys I had things with, call me unstable. Of course like many others, I used humor as a coping mechanism for my struggles with mental health and would often call myself unstable but I was on track to be the most stable I had ever really been. With the help of my therapist, I ignored comments like these and knew that at the end of the day, I was working to get to a better place for myself and people’s comments on my own journey were usually either their own projections or just came from a bad place anyway.
I’ve been on meds for almost 3 years now and I’ve seen tremendous improvements thanks to both therapy and finding the right dosage, but even though mental health has become a topic people actually talk about, I still get a lot of comments about being on meds. I hear stuff like “yeah that’s good and all but do you really want to rely on a pill for the rest of your life?” or “I like to do things the natural way, without meds.” These are valid points (kind of, considering the meds in question are for me and not the people who are saying these things) but it clearly points out a mentality a lot of people still have: that meds for mental illnesses aren’t that socially okay.
While I know a lot of people are on meds and there’s enough people out there who don’t think this way, I think it shows that our perception of mental illnesses is still wrong. What these people fail to realize is that mental illnesses are usually chronic illnesses that don’t necessarily go away on their own. Mental illness is just like any other physical illness like an infection or bad heart. When people have things like this, the obvious answer is some sort of medication that will either boost their own immunity to fight the infection off or some medication that would stabilize a condition. You wouldn’t suggest these people not take medications to improve their wellbeing, would you? So why do people think that it’s okay to tell others how they should or shouldn’t treat their own illness’?
Well, its probably because a lot of people still think that mental illness is all in a person’s head. That if they don’t pay attention to it, or take care of their body, it’ll just work out. But this isn’t the case for a lot of people. A lot of mental illnesses actually change and damage a person’s entire body. Depression and Anxiety literally change the way a person’s body works. I have developed a mysterious stomach issue because I unfortunately went months without my meds this summer (thank you to my pediatrician who took me off their patient list without telling me and left me without a prescription to meds I’ve had for years). And for a lot of people, mental illness is not just caused by situational factors, but also biological ones. My brain literally doesn’t keep serotonin in my body for the amount of time it should be.
My depression and anxiety are chronic illnesses that I’ll probably have to continue to deal with for a while, and I’ve accepted that. Just like there are people who have diabetes, or some other chronic illness, they have to do something to help their body through it. I can’t just expect my body to start producing and keeping enough serotonin in it if it’s never have before on its own. The types of meds I’m on simply disable my brain from “recapturing” the serotonin it produces too soon.
By telling people who are on meds that they should try to ween off them, or that they should try to do things the natural way, we’re reducing their mental illness to something lesser than what it is: an actual illness. While I’m sure the comments I’ve received from people about it were not ill intentioned, the deeper meaning behind it is what matters. We wouldn’t expect someone with diabetes to just stop taking insulin shots and hope their body produces it on its own, so why should we expect the same from people with a mental illness?
I don’t mind being on a pill for a portion or even the rest of my life, because I don’t see it as something I’m depending on. I see it as something that is helping my body do something it’s not doing on its own. If feeling better and functioning like a normal human being for the first time in my life means that I have to take a pill every day for the rest of my life, then so be it. My mental illness has biological factors and that’s something I can’t change with therapy alone.