I’ve been on antidepressants for months now. At the time, shortly after I was prescribed Lexapro, I wrote about the experience, and especially about the odd and slightly disconcerting feeling of not being able to tell if my general good feeling was a genuine good feeling or whether it was the result of the pills. And while that problem hasn’t gone away, I can say it hasn’t really bothered me in the intervening months. (Of course, that, too, falls into the “is it for real or is it the pills” trap, but that’s sort of the point of all this, so…)
I’m going today for an appointment with my doctor because my prescription’s out, and since we’re dealing with mental illness here, it ain’t the kind of thing they want to give you just for calling on the phone. No, they want to see you face-to-face, ask you questions, make sure you’re not contemplating purchasing guns or rope or Herbalife or converting to Scientology or some such crazy crap. Not that I’m afraid or nervous about speaking to them about what’s going on with me. I haven’t had any of the terrible feelings that sent me to the doctor in the first place at all in the time since then. Which is awesome. Life is good.
And because life is good, I’m bullish on thinking that things in general are good. So when I told my wife that my pills were almost out and I had to schedule an appointment and that I was keen to start tapering off the meds toward a goal of getting off them entirely, she gave me the skeptical eyes. And the skeptical eyes from my wife are usually a sign that I need to pump the brakes and think a little harder about what I’m charging into.
“You’re talking about mental illness,” she told me, “and that’s not a thing you just stop taking medication for.”
Which is absolutely right, of course. Intellectually, I know this. Because mental illness is about chemicals, and more importantly, chemical imbalances, and as a result, medication for mental illness is about rectifying chemical imbalance by creating new balance. Taking meds out of the equation, then, is like taking your thumb off the scales — it throws things out of whack again.
But I was doing the classic “crazy person” thing (and I know that crazy is a term that shouldn’t be bandied about when talking about the mentally ill, I use it here only as shorthand) of thinking, “well, I’m fine, so I don’t need those pills anymore.” Like a true red-blooded ‘Murican, my thinking was:
- I have this malady.
- I took these pills.
- Malady appears to have passed.
- No need to keep taking the pills.
Because that’s how medication tends to work in any other arena. Got a headache? Take a few Tylenol and lay down for a bit. You don’t take Tylenol for the rest of your life. Just came through surgery? Here, take these pills for the pain until the pills run out.
You get sick or injured or otherwise out of whack, you go to the doctor, they straighten you out, end of story. Close the book on that chapter.
Which is very much how my brain wants to view this issue.
Because that’s the insidious nature of pills that mess with brain chemistry: you can’t really feel them working. You feel “better”, but you don’t know why. Put another way: you have a headache, you take Tylenol, the pain tends to evaporate within a few hours. You have a cut on your arm, you put some ointment and a bandage on it, and a few days later, the cut is gone. Empirical signs of the efficacy of your treatment. With anti-depressants you don’t have that, because the symptoms fade out gradually, like an 80s rock ballad that just repeats the chorus again and again until you change the station. There’s no healed cut to behold, no relief of throbbing pain to point to, just general dread and unease that don’t seem to be hanging over every little thing so much anymore. But could that really be the result of the meds you’re taking? Seems hard to believe. And were things really that bad before? Probably not. Do I really need these pills, then? I should be fine without them.
The medication doesn’t make you feel differently, it makes you perceive differently, and when you alter your perception, you alter everything, including your ability to perceive that your perception has been altered.
In short, as is so often the case, I think my wife may be right, and I may be a bit overzealous about getting off the pills.
Here’s the heart of the struggle, though: I don’t want to need the pills. I sort of have this image of myself that’s, while certainly far from perfect, generally pretty solid. Reliable. Not broken, not malfunctioning, outside perhaps of a relatively benign proclivity for swearing and a running addiction. I shouldn’t, in other words, be the sort of person who has to gulp down a cocktail of pills, tablets, and capsules just to get through the day. I very specifically do not want to be that kind of person. Maybe it’s the tree-hugger I try to pretend doesn’t exist, or the anti-healthcare-monolith conspiracy theorist thinking I can’t quite put out of my head. But I don’t want to need these pills. I want to be normal without them. I should be normal without them.
But then I think about what normal was for the months before I admitted something was amiss and went to the doctor, and here I go into a spin cycle again. Because I don’t want to be that either — going to tears while heading to work in the morning, fighting just to get out of bed in the morning, drifting away from the activities that I once enjoyed (and have been enjoying again since!).
And the choice between becoming that again or popping a tiny little pill every night? That’s not a choice at all. “Wants” and “shoulds” are generally useless — we have to deal with the world we’re presented with, not the world we wish we lived in.
So I’m heading to the doctor in a few hours. I’m going to ask about scaling back on my dosage, because I want to see if I can be okay with less pills before I try to jump back to having no pills at all. But if they think I need to stay where I am, I guess I need to be okay with that, too.
To do otherwise would be, well, crazy.
3 thoughts on “The Pill Problem, Revisited”
Mental illness is such a weird beast. When I was in the height of my anxiety (I had to drop everything to deal with it, including university because while the NHS in England is awesome, they’re painfully slow in dealing with mental illness), I had days when the world was caving in on me. Then some random good days would happen, and I would literally forget how bad I had been until the next round came on. And then when I was drowning in brain chemicals I would literally forget the world could be anything different than the giant invisible wave crushing me repeatedly.
I’m still not on medication, though again, thats because I have to jump through the hoops. I’m still waiting on therapy slots from the NHS (been waiting since last summer), but quitting school and getting myself to the bare minimum of responsibility has been really helpful. It means I can spend time working on myself, meditating, getting to the root of the problem, and when I get bad, I don’t have external pressures telling me I have to pull myself up. I can ride it out and ride out the recovery after.
I know other people don’t necessarily have that option, and depression and anxiety are different, but seeing where you can reduce external demands and replacing those with things that resonate with you and your passions is really helpful.
Your wife is right though, stick to the meds. I have friends who got themselves off but it was after a lot of work to know themselves and stabilise. No one wants to be on meds, but no one wants the alternative either.
I’m sorry youre going through this, and I’m glad the meds are helping.
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Sounds like you have it a lot tougher than me, which is another reason I feel at best silly and at worst really down on myself, because i know my issues are minor compared to what others go thru.
Meditation works for you huh? It’s never caught fire with me. I always feel silly.
There’s no such thing as tougher or worse when it comes to this. Everyone has different situations and experiences and tolerances. Don’t feel silly. I said the same thing when I went to get help.I felt silly for going into the doctor’s office with this problem, thinking of some friends of mine who are literally debilitated with their anxiety, yet they get through the day. I felt silly too. But you can’t. I can’t. We’re all different.
As far as meditation goes, it works differently for different people. For me, I meditate before I go to sleep because then I have an excuse to be lying in bed seemingly doing nothing. Sometimes my meditation includes just focusing on a question, and then I’ll journal. Sometimes meditation is just being still and trying to focus your mind on one thing. At the center of all of it, it’s about quieting your mind, and letting it rest.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sit there for half an hour completely still. Usually it’s for five minutes, ten if I’m lucky. But just concentrating on my breathing gives me something for my mind to focus on. Once I have the hang of that, then I focus on a line ‘drawing’ straight up and down my ‘vision’ (you know, the blackness behind my closed eyes lol) and that’s really helpful. When I can do that then I focus on a dot in the center of that line. Sometimes I’m awesome at it, sometimes I can’t get my brain to shut up.
So yeah, it helps and it doesn’t. But journaling definitely helps as long as I can be honest with myself. I tend to not write when I have really bad days, but now I’m forcing myself to do it, and it makes it easier, oddly enough. It makes me confront the bad day.
Different things work for different people. But never feel silly for what you experience. Its yours and yours alone, and it’s not comparable to anybody else’s experience, just like no one can compare their experiences to yours. I think that’s the difficulty of mental illness. It’s so personal and individual, which makes it seem lonely. But it’s kind of like marbles in a jar. Each marble contains its marbleness, and each one has a different color ribbon in it. The ribbons are all different, but they’re the same in that they’re a ribbon. And the marbles are all individual marbles experiencing their own ribbons, but they’re all in the same jar together…I have no idea if that made sense or not ha ha
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