I Am Depressed: A Look into My Mental Health Journey
I remember the exact moment that I uttered the words “I’m depressed” for the first time. It was Independence Day, 2004, the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was watching fireworks at a local neighborhood ball park with my family. I was 14 years old, but, you know, the older version of a 14 year old—the kind that wears off-brand clothes, has frizzy hair with a touch of grease, and has no idea how to apply a fresh face of makeup. My parents, who had recently decided to divorce, were fighting ruthlessly with one another and I copped a teenage attitude about their interaction, getting yelled at myself because of it.
Instantly, tears welled up in my eyes as I got up and stormed to the car, my mom following not too far behind. I slammed the door angerly behind me as I climbed into the passenger seat, catching a glimpse of my mom coming towards the driver’s side.
“What is going on with you?” she asked once she was in the car.
Through anger, guilt, shame, and deep sorrow, I screamed, “I am depressed!”
My parent’s divorce wasn’t a surprise; as a teenager, I was able to see it coming from a mile away. My father was a workaholic with a mood disorder and my mother was a saint, trying to keep our lives as normal as possible; my middle brother, then 12, began to show signs of emotional disturbance at a very young age, and my youngest brother, then almost 9 years old, was just trying to get a grasp on the world around him. I often felt like it was my job, as the oldest sibling, to pick up the pieces when everything started to fall apart.
At this point in my life, I had been to family therapy with my parents and was never impressed. To me now, therapy is a washed out memory of drawing pictures with crayons and listening to my father tell the therapist everything that my mom, my brothers, and I could change about ourselves to make him happier. When the therapist would begin to catch on that my dad was the problem, he would quickly change therapists, and the process would begin again.
I had problems I could have easily talked about in the therapy sessions, but between my dad’s antics and my family’s turmoil, I never got the chance. So, hearing me acknowledge my depression out loud was probably surprising to my mom, who was just trying to stay afloat herself.
Due to the chaos, the process of deciding how to treat my depression took longer than expected. I barely remember discussing potential options with my mom-- doctors, medicine, and therapists all sounded grave to my young mind. When they appeared in conversation I would shut down and clam up; these words felt dirty and made me feel broken. I continued to feel that by acknowledging my depression through treatment I was acknowledging that there was something horribly wrong with me.
My mom continued to be a guiding light through the process; she never told me what to do, but she supported me and directed me along the way. In fact, it was while giving me a piece of motherly advice that she said, “Lindy, medicine is not something to be ashamed of. A typical brain has the perfect balance of chemicals. A depressed mind has a natural imbalance of serotonin, the chemical linked to regulating mood. All medicine is going to do is balance those chemicals out for you.”
She was right. And, when I finally found it in me to talk to the doctor about my feelings of depression, he agreed with her, as well. After answering a series of questions regarding anxiety and depression, my doctor offered me a prescription for an SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, named Celexa. My doctor explained that Celexa, when taken every day, would balance my serotonin so that I could feel a pep in my step again. The plan was to start slow. I would take 20 mg a day, half of the maximum dosage allowed, and see how I felt. We would meet every three months to reevaluate the dose and my mood.
Fast forward 4 years later to my sophomore year in college. I was 5 years into taking Celexa and at the maximum dosage of 40mg. I had transferred schools was settling into a new college where I knew quite a few people—things were finally looking up. After a year of things going completely wrong, I was starting to feel okay about the path I was on; I was starting to feel my happiness creeping back in. But, for the first time in my life, I was also starting to feel the pressure of pill-shaming.
“Why do you take those?” I would be questioned. “My parents only believe in holistic remedies for depression and anxiety,” they would say. “Just change the way you think about things.” “You’re too young to be depressed, just be happy.” “Work out more and eat better.” “What do you have to be depressed about?” Or my favorite, “Pills are for the weak.”
These remarks came from the mouths of best friends, extended family members, peers, and strangers alike. And, unfortunately, all of this questioning caused me to question myself too. I began to feel ashamed for taking my beloved SSRI and felt similar to my 15 year-old self deciding how to handle my depression for the first time. I hadn’t found my voice to stand up for myself, so I gave into peer pressure and began to ween off of my medicine.
Hell, I was finally feeling happy again. Maybe everyone was right—maybe I didn’t need the medicine anymore.
To my slight surprise, everything went pretty well without Celexa; I was lucky to never feel any side effects from going on or off the medicine. For the next two years without it, I was surrounded by friends, busy with school work, and exploring the world of binge drinking and cute boys. My mind was occupied and I felt alive.
But, after the fairytale of undergrad was over, things started to get real. I had to take an extra semester for student teaching, so when I finally graduated in December of 2013, most of my friends already had full-time jobs, reaping the benefits of their college education. As I lay day after day, month after month, on my mom’s couch applying for jobs without a plan, I held them on a pedestal. I began to doubt myself and my worth. I began to think that I was destined for failure. I began to let depression creep back into my life. But this time, instead of letting it get too far, I quickly reverted back to medicine. If it worked once, it would work again, right?
Once reunited with my good friend Celexa, she helped me see the light through the first few years of my young professional life. Through beginning my teaching career, minor heart breaks, falling in love, and major change, Celexa was right by my side.
In August 2015, 2 years after reverting back to medicine, my mom and youngest brother moved from Cleveland to San Diego, California. It felt like my world was crumbling. For the first time in my life, aside from college, I moved out on my own, was completely in charge of my finances, and experiencing the world without the support of my family nearby. I was devastated, but I was learning to cope. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I was learning to be an adult.
Of course, my world didn’t crumble. In fact, it became exciting and full of adventure. I met the love of my life, adopted a few animals, began to cook things other than ramen and grilled cheese, and learned how to navigate crappy landlords and the unforeseen circumstances of renting old houses. I was 24 and thriving, by a 24 year old’s standard, that is.
In August 2016, while visiting my family in California, I decided to go out on a whim and quit taking my SSRI cold turkey (not the best decision on my part, so please consult with your doctor before doing so yourself). I was quiet about my decision, only a few close friends, my family, and my boyfriend knew about it—I wasn’t ready for the “I told you so’s” and “congratulations!” I would receive from the shamers. I just went on with my life and dealt with my decision as I saw fit. I was lucky enough that I did not feel any side effects from quitting cold turkey, but I know that I could have—I know that others are not so lucky.
I remember the first time that my best friend found out that I wasn’t taking my meds anymore. It was quite some time after I had stopped using them. She was astounded and said, “Good for you!” Good for me for what? For all I knew, the depression would eventually creep back in and the cycle would start over again. I was never convinced that the rest of my life would be medicine free.
The winter of 2017 was difficult. I was irritable, negative, exhausted, extremely anxious, and you guessed it, depressed. I was sick of feeling this way, but I wanted to try to come out of the depression on my own. I was ready to test my will and consider alternative routes. So, I went back to my doctor. I let him know about my decision to quit the SSRI but I told him that I would like to try an alternate route. He prescribed me a low dose of Xanax, a powerful benzodiazepine not intended for daily use. I would only be allotted 15 pills a month and in order to get a refill, I would need to come back and see him each time.
Coupled with my new medicine, I began doing things for myself again—things that made me happy. I began to write, I began to explore meeting new people through networking groups and events, I built my blog and brand from the ground up. I was inherently happier doing these things, and on the days that I was uncontrollably anxious or irritable, I would take half of a Xanax and continue on my day.
To my surprise, 15 pills continues to take me 2-3 months. I do not depend on them, so much that when I felt that my anxiety and depression was starting to get to the point of needing an SSRI again, I was finally able to find the strength within me to give therapy another shot—this time for myself, on my own terms.
Therapy opened my eyes to ways that I can work through my anxiety and depression on my own. I was taught breathing techniques, offered homework assignments, and learned ways to dissect my anxious thoughts in order to get to the root of the anxiety I was experiencing. I was able to explore my past, think of experiences in a new light, and understand why my brain works the way that it was naturally wired to work.
I am currently 28 and would be lying if I said that I don’t have to acknowledge my anxiety and depression every single day. By natural selection, genetics, circumstance, what have you, I was gifted a brain with a slight chemical imbalance. It is something that I will have to acknowledge every day for the rest of my life. Whether I am on a prolonged pill treatment, in therapy, or using Xanax as a way to navigate my day without bursting into tears in the middle of the grocery store, my mental illness will always be alive in a small portion of my brain.
So, navigate my life, I will. Without the negativity and weight of pill shamers or know-it-somes in my way. Because, at the end of the day, this is my body, my brain, and I will treat my mental health in the way that I see best for myself and my quality of life. Would I get back on an SSRI if I felt it was necessary? Sure. Am I going to continue to keep Xanax in my back pocket for days when I see thunderstorms outside when everyone else sees rainbows? Absolutely. Will I return to therapy? Someday, of course.
Taking a chemical balancing pill safely and for the right reasons isn’t anything to be ashamed about. In my eyes, it even makes you stronger. Because, you are acknowledging your flaws and deciding to fight for the happier you, the you that can move mountains. People are always going to have an opinion about your decisions, but that shouldn’t matter, because they are probably ignoring their faults as they critique how you are handling yours.
To anyone who is struggling with mental illness: I am here for you. Always know that you can reach out to me if you feel alone. Or, go for a run, meditate, smile more, drink organic herbal tea, go to five or more therapists until you find the right one. I don’t care. We all have stories and ideas of acceptable treatment. We all have ways that we handle our struggles. This merely the story of how I have handled mine.
*The opinions in this article are my own.