My experience with anxiety medication, and addressing the stigmas

‘Meds’ can be a daunting thing to bring up, especially when it comes to medicating for a mental health issue. Many won’t understand the necessity, as your reason for taking drugs isn’t something that they can see or even really observe. They might not understand the distinction between ‘a bad day’ and an actual mental health issue, and think you weak for having to take drugs to function through your illness. It’s easy to get caught up in all of this stigma.

I think, personally, that nobody is weak for needing drugs such as anti depressants and anti psychotics to get by. No more weak than a diabetic needing insulin, or a sick person needing antibiotics. Mental illnesses are real illnesses, often caused by a hormonal imbalance within the brain, and treating them with drugs that remedy this imbalance should really be as guilt-free as taking any other prescribed drug. Sure, it’s possible to just keep walking on a sprained ankle through the pain, but why bother when you could take a painkiller, and find your days significantly easier and more productive?

It took me a long time to realise all of this, though. There is a lot of stigma and – ironically, anxiety – surrounding taking medication for mental health reasons.

I first encountered anti depressants knowingly when I was in high school, and a friend started to take them. Truthfully, taking them myself never crossed my mind at that point, although I struggled every single day with crippling anxiety, which impacted my ability to do basic daily tasks like getting on a bus or saying my name during the attendance register. I had severe heart pain, sleep loss, lost significant weight from nausea, and endured severe panic attacks. I’d suffered with diagnosed anxiety in fact from the age of 11, and now I was 15, the symptoms had only escalated. I recall my friend discussing the meds with me before going to collect her prescription, and saying ‘what if they change who I am?’ I was more than happy to dismiss that fear. I told her that anti depressants don’t change your character. I told her to think of her illness as a parasite leaching on her and her quality of life. The pills would only be a problem for the parasite. They would in-fact make her more herself than ever before.

Despite seeing the improvement in my friends life soon after, I still never contemplated taking medication. I told myself I didn’t need pills, that she was just worse off than me, that I could deal with my problems using natural remedies. I started to try a number of treatments. Some helped in part, but only because they helped other aspects of my life, therefore lessening some stress triggers. I changed my diet, exercised, drank more water, went to counselling and even tried calming oils. These things weren’t useless, but none were directly acting upon the chemical imbalance in my brain, which seemed to be the unchanging root of the problem.

The counselling that had previously been a good outlet and made life sufficiently tolerable became useless when I went to college, as my anxiety escalated into the border-lands of paranoia, neuroticism and even mild hallucinations, becoming much more severe. Lots of studies have shown that patients undergoing therapy are much more receptive when they are also taking medication, and I can certainly understand why. It’s one thing to tell a mentally stable person that their thought processes are wrong and need changing, but it’s another to make that claim to someone in the mindset I was in. I was in such a tumultuous headspace that introspection was impossible. Being anxious and depressed can truly distort your perception of your problems and daily challenges, and sap you of your energy to address these issues and try to alter your thinking.

The turning point for me – when I started to seriously consider medication – was when I started experiencing these brief visual hallucinations. For example, thinking there was something behind me, turning my head and seeing a glimpse of something that was not there, just for a moment, yet long enough to put me constantly on edge, doubting my own mind. I knew I’d let my disorder grow for too long. I felt like I was going ‘crazy,’ and mortified by how this was starting to impact my daily work and college life. I was having to put huge thought into my social interactions, to cover up all of the ‘crazy’ I felt was just projecting out of me. But I knew I had to tell somebody. I went to my mum, and in the very first GP appointment that followed, they assessed that I’d trialled every alternative treatment, and put me on Lexaprol; a selective Seratonin reuptake inhibitor taken daily.

The first day on Lexaprol was something of a wild ride. I took my pill at night, slept dreamlessly (a rare occurrence, as I’d suffered for a long time with night terrors) then woke feeling extremely slow and heavy, like everything around me was suddenly paced differently. This sudden shift made me realise the exact effect that anxiety had on my mind. I was always thinking about something, usually something profoundly negative, that just wasn’t relevant to the present moment, derailing each chain to move quickly to another fear, all the while moving, never stopping, picking my thumbs and bouncing my leg and always needing to do something. I was on fast forward, and suddenly I was grounded in reality, and it was surreal. On the bus to college, my focus wasn’t whether I looked stupid walking to my seat and then suddenly whether I’d get to class to class in time. My mind was streamlined on what truly mattered at this exact moment.

Although it was a relief, it was also overwhelming at first, adjusting to this new speed. Usually, stress gave me an intense, unhealthy motivation that made me hyper-focus in class and study like a robot, but now it became difficult. That wasn’t my default setting anymore. Mid way through the college year and approaching exam season, I had to re-educate myself on how to be an efficient student. I had to teach myself healthy work patterns, and stick to them somehow, without so much anxiety bubbling over in my brain and forcing me to do so. Ultimately, it was a more than positive change, which made exam season much less triggering than it otherwise would have been. I could actually focus during exams, and aside from a regular, healthy dose of stress and perhaps one unavoidable panic attack after a particularly bad paper, my anxiety wasn’t ruling me. My physical anxiety symptoms – such as shortness of breath, nausea and chest pains – almost completely stopped, as well as a lot of my jitteriness. I became more confident to approach people at work after time, too, because I wasn’t so paralysed with negative thoughts and fears. I also experienced far less panic attacks than I used to, although medication is certainly no ‘cure’. Even mentally stable people experience panic.

The transition onto meds was strange and scary, and I did need to inform teachers at college and close friends to cut me some slack while I adjusted, but it was definitely worth it. I don’t feel like I’m ‘dependant’ on a drug and that that’s a bad thing, any more than I think a diabetic is, for needing insulin. Lexaprol corrects a chemical imbalance in my brain, and after the initial adjustment period I became a more productive, confident person, and truthfully more myself. Anxiety is a part of my life and something that will likely never just ‘go away,’ but it isn’t a part of me, which is something that this experience has helped me realise.

I don’t intend this post to be an advert for anti-depressants. Although my experience was positive, some people don’t respond so well, prefer ‘natural’ treatments, or have to trial several medications before finding the one that clicks with them. All I mean to do is try to destigmatise these kinds of medications, and present them not as something drastic and embarrassing or a sign of weakness. If you get a cut, you put a plaster on it. If you catch an illness, you go to the doctors. So why neglect the most important part of your body, your brain, when it’s sick?

I ignored my sickness for a long time, believing all the scary stigmas about meds. But sometimes, your level of suffering isn’t just a normal part of life, and it doesn’t have to feel hopeless, like it’s not going to get any better. My advice from personal experience is to talk to a loved one, or a doctor, about the vast array of treatments that are out there addressing mental health issues; whether it’s counselling, lifestyle changes, or a prescription for pills. These three things shouldn’t have to be viewed so differently to seeking help for any other medical problem, nor should meds be perceived as something tabboo, while therapy is normalised by society.

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