Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

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Antidepressants and Strength of Character

You're not a bad person if you take any of these roads. I promise.

Spoiler alert: They have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

There are different levels of stigma surrounding mental illness. There’s the stigma of having a disorder in itself, the stigma of being in treatment for a disorder, and, perhaps most of all, the stigma of that treatment being pharmacological.

People love to hate psychopharmacology, especially antidepressants, the efficacy of which is constantly being questioned (often for good reason). However, I’ve noticed that drugs like antidepressants receive a special type of scorn, one that cannot be based solely on the efficacy mystery.

I’ve found that where mental treatment is concerned, therapy holds some sort of moral superiority over drugs in many people’s eyes. I think many people still feel that mental disorders are spiritual illnesses, not medical ones, and that treating them with a pill is some sort of cop-out. (Imagine the public furor if researchers came up with a pill to, say, erase the feeling of guilt.)

This would explain why, though therapy is still stigmatized–after all, the Ideal Person works out these issues on his or her own–it is considerably less looked down upon than psychotropic medication. Our culture values struggle and hard work so much that even recovering from an illness should be mentally effortful.

What people don’t realize is that there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons why someone might choose medication over therapy, at least in the short term. Consider, for instance, the situation I found myself in a month before I began my sophomore year of college. Having spent my entire freshman year growing progressively more depressed, I’d thought that coming home for the summer would magically fix everything. It didn’t. With a month to go, I realized that I felt like I’d rather die than go back to school.

That was when I was first diagnosed with depression, and I think my psychiatrist realized, as did I, that I just didn’t have time to muck around with my feelings–I had to get better quickly, or else going back to school would be more upsetting and stressful than I could handle. So I started taking antidepressants and quickly improved enough to feel like I could deal with being in school. The mucking around with my feelings came later.

Aside from that, I can think of many other reasons medication can at times make more sense than therapy. For example:

  • Financial concerns. Antidepressants cost me $30 a month, while therapy costs $80 for four weekly sessions. That’s a pretty big difference for many people.
  • Time. Some people are at a point in their lives where they literally can’t spare an hour or more a week for therapy. That might sound ludicrous to you, but if you’re a college student, a new parent, or a low-income worker, it probably doesn’t.
  • Availability. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in an area where good therapists are available and accessible (and bad therapists will do more harm than good). This is especially true for members of marginalized communities, who may have a hard time finding therapists who are sensitive to their issues. Not all therapists are as open and accepting as they should be.
  • Insurance. I’m lucky to have a fantastic insurance policy that covers basically everything I’ve ever needed. However, many policies are very picky with regards to therapy (as opposed to medication, which does require a prescription from a person with an MD). For instance, some policies refuse to cover therapy unless there’s an official diagnosis, and you don’t necessarily need to have a diagnosable mental disorder in order to need help. Besides, you can’t be diagnosed without going to a specialist to begin with.
  • Nature of the disorder. Although most mental illnesses obviously involve a psychological component, some do not. For example, many people in temperate climates get Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months, which is characterized by a low-grade depression as well as various physical symptoms. It’s usually treated with antidepressants or light therapy, which actually has people sit in front of full-spectrum light.
  • Language. Therapy requires people to talk pretty extensively about themselves and their lives, something that would be very difficult for, say, a new immigrant who’s just learning English. Unless such people are able to find a therapist who speaks their native language, it would be pretty hard for them to get anything out of therapy.
  • Comfort. As a future therapist, I obviously wish that everyone were comfortable with the idea of therapy. But not everyone is. That could be because of cultural factors, family attitudes, personality, or negative experiences with therapy in the past. I think that using medication to improve your quality of life while working up the courage to see a therapist is perfectly okay.

I hope that this list shows that making decisions about mental health isn’t that different from making decisions about physical health–it has more to do with personal preferences and practical concerns than with the strength (or lack thereof) of one’s character.

Of course, I do believe that therapy is really important and generally awesome, which is why one of my upcoming posts will be about why I think that everyone (or almost everyone) should see a therapist. Stay tuned.