What My Anxiety Feels Like--And How Medication Helps
Chemical makeup of sertraline, known more commonly by the brand name Zoloft.
Most of you know I have the TV habits of an 85-year-old. That means my go-to morning news show is “CBS This Morning.” (It’s really good, guys.)
Some mornings, I’m still getting ready past the end of “CBS This Morning” at 9 a.m. Because I’m lazy, I often don’t change the channel, which means I end up watching the next show on the local CBS affiliate, which means I end up watching “The 700 Club."
For those of you who may be behind on your right-wing Christian paid programs, "The 700 Club” is the flagship show of the Christian Broadcasting Network, founded by Pat Roberston. It’s ostensibly a “news” program that begins with a rundown of current events, followed by featured pieces about people who have received miracles, Christians who have overcome persecution, or upcoming faith-based movies (which can be yours on DVD with a gift to CBN).
These are all preceded by a short commentary from Robertson, or occasionally by his son Gordon, about the events of the day. His perspectives are predictably pro-Trump, anti-liberal, and I typically roll my eyes and dismiss most of what he says without further thought. Then he started talking about the Las Vegas shooting.
The headlines focused on Robertson’s suggestion that disrespect for authority, for Trump, and for our flag had caused people to “run amok.” But what hit home for me was a different episode, when Robertson mentioned that reports showed the Vegas shooter was taking antidepressants. He said these drugs were known to have dangerous side effects, and that doctors who prescribed them might be “drugging people into a state whereby they go out and kill people.” He added, “It’s not so much about gun control…but this pharmacopia that’s coming out and drugging people. And if this is the case, then it’s a shocking revelation."
Thinking like this is not only off-base, it’s dangerous. It’s impossible to calculate the violence that has not happened because of antidepressant drugs. For the people who benefit from medications for mental health–or, more importantly, those who would benefit from it–the suggestion that these drugs actually cause mental illness is beyond irresponsible.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have anxiety and depression. The two have often been inextricably connected, as my anxiety would drive me to reach for impossible goals, then I’d fall into depression when I didn’t achieve them. The cycle would continue as I’d tell myself I wouldn’t be sad anymore if I could just do XYZ, not realizing XYZ was a false ideal.
It came to a head after Archie was born, and I went through postpartum depression and anxiety. I decided the problem was our choice to give Archie breast milk. He never latched, which meant I was "exclusively pumping,” at one point up to 5 or 6 times a day. I felt chained to this machine while my husband got to spend time with our new baby. I decided I needed to stop pumping, then I’d be happy.
The conversation about this idea did not go well. I started sobbing. It came up that this had become my standard mode. “I have a right to be sad!” I shouted. After all, I had been through a lot that previous year, right? My mom had just died! How could I be expected to be happy right now?!
“It’s just that…it seems like it’s always something."
He was right. I didn’t admit it at first, but I realized he was right. And I realized it takes an incredible amount of love and courage to tell someone what they need to hear.
In that moment, I realized that even if I did have a right to be sad, I didn’t have a right to let the sadness overtake me or, just as importantly, the people around me. I had thought taking medication meant I had failed, that I was not strong enough to handle these challenges or that I was caving to what people wanted me to be, instead of forcing them to accept me for who I am.
But then my perspective shifted. Yes, I had been through a lot, so why wouldn’t I take something to help cope with that stress? Because I had already been going to a grief counselor, I brought up the topic with her and she said, "I think that’d be a good idea.” She referred me to a psychiatrist she works with often.
I had decided I still wanted to keep pumping, and one drug that would allow me to do that was sertraline, known by the brand name Zoloft. We would start with a low dose, and he advised that it would take a few weeks to notice any effects. I told him I didn’t want to feel falsely happy or in a “haze.” As someone who depends on creativity, I didn’t want those senses dulled. He assured me they wouldn’t be.
Three years later, I can confirm he was right. In many ways, I’m more creative now because I can focus on what I’m working on without staring off for 15 minutes of rumination about everything wrong in my life. I have more energy because I’m sleeping well. I don’t lose half a day because someone said something I can’t stop thinking about.
In the past, my anxiety would manifest itself as a constant spiral of catastrophic thinking. It would usually go something like this:
Oh, those two are going to lunch together.
They’ve never invited me to lunch.
They must not like me.
I always get left out.
Why are people so mean?
Maybe there’s something about me people don’t like.
That’s why I don’t have any friends.
I don’t need friends anyway.
What is it about me they don’t like?
Maybe I should dress better.
None of my clothes look good on me.
I’d be more confident if I lost weight.
If I’m going to lose weight, I need to exercise more.
I don’t have anywhere in my house to exercise.
My house is too small.
I should join a gym.
How much does a gym cost?
I need to organize my budget.
Maybe I should try Mint.com.
I should research Mint.com first.
I can’t do anything until my desk is clean.
This whole house is a mess.
I could think straight once the house is clean.
Once I have my act together, I’ll feel better.
Maybe then people will like me.
Then I’ll be happy.
Now, as I’ve told my doctor, I feel like I have mental emergency brakes. If something goes wrong or I start feeling sad, that sadness now feels more temporary. My grief hasn’t gone away–a certain memory can still make me cry unexpectedly–but it’s not all-consuming. And I’m certainly prone to making a to-do list or two, but I no longer feel consistently compelled to check everything off of it.
It’s been said many times that mental illness should not carry a stigma, and that’s absolutely true. But that also can’t be an excuse for denial if you feel you’d benefit from treatment, whether it’s talk therapy, medication or something else. In other words, living with the unchecked symptoms of anxiety or depression is not just “being who you are.” Instead, it’s letting the illness control who you are.
Each case is different, obviously, but in my experience, I’ve benefited from trusting the responses and guidance of people I love, and who I know love me. Despite what my anxiety tries to tell me, they are out there, and thanks to treatment I can be fully aware of that fact, and grateful for it.
For many people, faith in a higher power provides a foundation for mental calm. And I respect that. But that doesn’t mean it’s a cure-all. The believer side of me doesn’t see medical treatments (for any condition) as an affront to faith. Rather, I see a miracle: that we humans have the capacity for such intricate knowledge, and the moral compulsion to seek cures for human suffering. I see spirituality in the fact that a pill as small as a grain of rice can so profoundly improve my daily experience. I see ministry in how those positive effects ripple out to my husband, my son, my friends, and my coworkers.
I think too often the stigma comes from within, drowning out the voices of people who genuinely want to help. Find the people you trust, who you feel sincerely understand who you are when you’re at your best, then, as one of Archie’s teachers says, “Open your ears and listen.”
The circle of people around you represent your most significant area of impact on this world. Take care of yourself to make sure you’re taking care of them, and you’ll find yourself happier than you could have ever imagined