May is Mental Health Month. Throughout the month, the National Alliance on Mental Illness features personal stories from real people experiencing mental health conditions. (You can submit your story at nami.org/yourstory.) By reading about lived experience, they want to make people feel less alone in their mental health journeys.
But it’s alienating, especially now, in this disconcerting, curated virtual reality when everyone seems to be posting photos of blissful hikes and homemade dinners (guilty) despite the fact that we’re living through the most depression- and anxiety-inducing period in modern history.
I’m open about my issues with panic and anxiety because I want to put a face to it. I want to show people that you can have a successful career, a stable home life, a happy and functional existence and, yes, still struggle. You don’t have to be a falling-apart mess to warrant help. For many of us, that’s just not how it looks. It’s a quiet battle. We all contain multitudes!
In fact, I know I’m not alone: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Major depressive disorder affects more than 16.1 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year.
That’s a lot of people for sure, yet it’s not the majority of people, not by a long shot. So it’s easy to feel different, alone, flawed or somehow weaker than the general population. With this in mind, off and on, I’ll sometimes stop taking my Lexapro (and Zoloft before that, and Paxil before that, and Prozac before that), because I believed I should be able to just power through. Somehow, still, mental health seems like something you can muscle your way through.
Stigma aside, it’s also a drag to take medication. It would make me sluggish. It would make me gain weight. I can identify every photo in which I was on Zoloft because my face looks like an overstuffed sofa. Cheekbones aside, it’s unsettling to wonder whether my sense of inner peace comes, at least in part, from a bottle. Plus, weaning off can be extremely difficult, if ever you need to. There are crippling brain-zap headaches and fatigue. It’s not fun (although some people don’t have any side effects at all; mine have never been too bad).
But for me, it really is a choice about quality of life. I honestly wouldn’t be able to live the life I lead without chemical enhancement. I know that most drugs have side effects, and I need to weigh the risks versus the benefits. For me, the benefits far outweigh the risks. I have learned that the hard way.
Picture an anxious brain like a pot of boiling water. In my case, meds turn it down to a simmer, allowing me to do things that could improve my health long-term, like go for walks and go to therapy. When I’m flaring, I’m afraid to walk up stairs. Stairs. Because I wouldn’t want to raise my heart rate, get winded and die of a heart attack. My therapist’s office is only accessible via, you guessed it, two sets of stairs.
Before meds, I’d have to give myself a pep talk between every step. Sometimes my husband would come with me and literally hold my hand. Taking medicine quite simply allowed me to walk up the stairs and go to the doctor. It allowed me to breathe. Now I carry a bottle of Klonopin, a fast-acting benzodiazapine that can thwart panic attacks. I don’t usually take it, but I know it’s there. Combined with a daily dose of 10 milligrams of Lexapro, I can see clearly. It’s like I Swiffered my brain and wiped out the dust.
The other day, though, I got a message that broke my heart. Someone emailed me saying she felt ashamed to get on medication, as if somehow she had failed. Maybe she hadn’t done enough to get help, or slept enough or exercised enough or tried hard enough. She had a good job, a supportive family and enjoyed perfect physical health. How dare she feel awful! But: Have people who need insulin, or contact lenses, or an inhaler failed? No. Physical illnesses aren’t entwined with emotional blame the way mental illness is.
I found this quote on a forum and it resonated with me, so I shared it on Facebook and with her, and I’m sharing it here: “I only wish I had taken SSRIs sooner. Unless you have real, genetic, hardwired anxiety, you just don’t know the difference an SSRI makes. It was like putting glasses on for the first time and seeing the world clearly.”
That’s exactly how it feels! You can go to therapy, or meditate, or do a dozen other things that are good for you. But if you have a chemical imbalance that can be corrected by medication, there is just no substitute, in my opinion. You can’t run a marathon if you’re afraid to put on your sneakers.
I don’t want to say that medication cured all my ills and gave me a replacement brain. It didn’t. It’s not a crutch, not at all. And, look, I’m not a doctor or a medication evangelist or someone who has a stake in a drug company. I’m simply someone who has gone to a dark place and wants to be honest about what worked for me, and who wants to tell you that if you feel bad, it’s truly not your fault. Please don’t deprive yourself of potential help as punishment or as a misguided test of willpower.
Finding the right medication takes time. I went through several before I landed on Lexapro. And even when I went on Lexapro, I had to get on the right dosage. I initially took too much and shook so much that it was like I’d plugged myself into an electric socket. I even went to a movement disorder specialist to see if I had a neurological disorder because my hands wouldn’t stop trembling. It’s not a quick and rosy fix; it’s not a vitamin. Fighting mental illness takes work, the way anything takes work. But the work pays off. It really does. And you deserve to feel well, even if you already have all the supposed trappings of a happy life and don’t think you earned a pill. None of it matters if you’re too anxious or sad to walk out the door.
The bottom line: Mental illness shouldn’t be stigmatized as a personality flaw. It’s a medical issue. Don’t be ashamed to get help. You don’t need to earn it; you just need to want it.
Learn more at NAMI.