My new college was everything I had hoped it would be. I was determined to make the most of my time there – to focus on both my intellectual and personal growth. So as I shopped around for fall classes, I also looked for a new therapist.
Jane was at the top of the referral list I’d gotten from Student Health. She was in her early 40’s – much older than me, yet still younger than my parents, which struck me as a happy medium. She was smart. And, most importantly, I really liked her.
We started working together immediately. At last, I was experiencing therapy’s full potential: a cerebral and emotional way of learning about and empowering myself. However, insurmountable obstacles remained. What I term the white noise of my anxiety and depression prevented me from fully feeling the effects of my therapeutic work – and, indeed, from engaging in self-examination as deeply as I could while in session. My happiness and excitement at being at my new school were mitigated by constant racing thoughts, habitually sleepless nights, and periodic bursts of melancholy that would have been as ridiculous were they not so distressing (“It’s windy today,” I bawled one afternoon, when Jane asked me why I was crying).
Jane finally suggested we consult a psychiatrist, and I heartily agreed.
I don’t want to seem blasé about any of the choices I’ve made throughout my therapeutic process. And I want to be very clear in acknowledging that what works for me won’t necessarily work for others, and vice a versa. But unconditionally refusing to take anti-depressants, when they are being recommended by a trusted medical health professional, has never made sense to me. It’s true that medications interact with different people differently, and that sometimes it can take a while to find the right one (or ones). The first anti-depressant my psychiatrist prescribed made me drowsy; the second one, creepily hyper. But then, as if I were some pharmaceutical Goldilocks, the third one was just right.
(Related: How To Save Your Own Life: Part 2)
I will never forget the moment: a cold, sunny afternoon in early November. I was walking back from the library with my roommate, our shadows slanting long across the brick walkway. She was talking about the essay she was writing. I was listening, asking questions. We approached our dorm, and it occurred to me that over the course of our conversation, I had not once worried about making a joke or filling a pause. I hadn’t been simultaneously fretting about my own essay, or whether the laundry machine was still broken, or whether a massive asteroid were suddenly going to hit earth tomorrow. I had simply been present.
My roommate hurried in to drop her books and escape the cold, but I lingered outside our building. I listened to the stillness of my mind; I felt the pleasure of allowing a thought to form, clearly and deliberately, before it shifted and give way to another. I watched the cobalt blue sky bursting into flame, yielding to sunset. And I cried with gratitude and relief, because I was no longer at war with myself.
Some people, unfamiliar with the way psychotropic medications work, believe that antidepressants prevent the user from ever feeling any semblance of an unpleasant feeling (i.e., “You take pills so you’re never sad about anything”). This, in my experience, is entirely false. On the contrary, to me, depression is the opposite of feeling.
When I am depressed, nothing is joyous, and nothing is really sad either. Life unfolds, but at such a great distance that it’s impossible to see or care. Anxiety is the same, except more frenetic: The crisis is coming. The good thing in front of you isn’t really yours, because the bad thing on the horizon will wash it away. So you’re bracing yourself, always bracing yourself, waiting hysterically and with no relief.
Taking antidepressants allows me to show up for my own life. It allows me to think, to feel, to be affected by the world around me instead of by the white noise inside my head. It gives me the space to feel the full gamut of reactions, positive and negative, without allowing any one to control me. It offers me the stability to work, inside and outside therapy, on becoming myself.
Of course, as a garden-variety depressive, I am afflicted with a brand of mental illness that is very well understood and incredibly treatable where both counseling and medication are concerned. By contrast, I do not expect that those with schizophrenic or bipolar disorder necessarily have such great things to say about the meds available to them.
I am also aware that my meds, which I’ve been on for over eight years now, may not work as well for me over time – and that the long-term effects of taking some psychotropic medications are not entirely known. For me, for now, it’s worth the risk. If I decide to have children, I will likely have to weigh being off my antidepressants while pregnant and breastfeeding against carrying my child to term via surrogate, or adopting. But I’ll take that when it comes, and in the context of all the other variables that present themselves.
Medication is not a substitute for therapy, or for proactively working to create one’s own happiness – it’s necessary tool for my health. Responsibly prescribed antidepressants aren’t cheating any more than a diabetic person is cheating by taking insulin, or an asthmatic is cheating by using an inhaler (unless you’re talking about cheating death!). As I see it, the argument that being ‘natural’ is always better is just one more way that mental illness is stigmatized as a personal failing.
Over the course of the school year, my chemically-balanced brain and I grew to work beautifully together. I made choices that made me fulfilled and happy – in my studies, friendships, and a few carefully chosen extracurriculars. I learned how healthfully cope with stressful situations (though I’m still learning that one, and I suspect to some extent will always be).
And then, in the spring, something entirely unexpected happened: For the first time, I felt in love.
Read the rest of Estelle’s story here.
(Photo: Getty Images)