Anyone who has been treated for mental illness has heard a doctor say something along the lines of, “Take these pills, every day, even when you start to feel better.”
When I was younger, the pills had worked; in fact, they’d transformed me. I’d gone from a shy, brooding, suicidal young woman to an outgoing party girl. I was still a bookworm, but shyness? Social anxiety? They’d gone away with the depression. But the transformation left my doctors stumped. They started thinking I’d gone manic. But I was sleeping fine, not emptying my bank account or making impulsive decisions, just enjoying the life I had been so far away from before. Then they wanted me to go on mood stabilizers. I’d wandered too far to the other side, they said. But I wondered if something else had happened — if the SSRI had changed my personality. I wondered if I had a depressive temperament — sure, the clinical depression hadn’t always been there, but what had been there was brooding and sullen. These pills had taken away the depression, but had they also taken away part of me? As much as I tried over the next ten years, I could not go off them, but I also was different than I used to be. I was more outgoing. I made friends more easily. I was happy-go-lucky, more like my mother and brother, less like my father, and less like the person I had always thought of myself as.
Many years later, I tried a new pill, one that wasn’t supposed to make me gain so much weight. I was on a cocktail combination now — something for the psychosis, something for the anxiety, another for the mood. I did notice that after I’d gone on the new med my panic attacks had worsened. I was always on edge, nervous, sweating, and the attacks themselves lasted longer and were more intense, but I didn’t attribute them to the new med. My doctor reassured me the new drug was helping my anxiety. It was New Year’s Day when I had the first panic attack where I pooped my pants. Even then, my doctor (not from the Mental Health Center of Denver) was not worried. He nodded sympathetically as I told him. I spent all of my money on workbooks and CDs that promised to help with uncontrollable anxiety, but none of it helped. I sought out a panic specialist who had me breathe through coffee straws to induce hyperventilation. It was only much later that I made the connection that I thought the pills might be hurting more than helping, actually worsening my horrific panic attacks that were like nothing I had read about. In the end, the only thing that helped was going off the med. It was a year of my life I wouldn’t get back.
Now I trade pills that help somewhat for side effects I tolerate. This one so I have less breast milk, even though I’ve never been pregnant. That one so maybe I won’t have to buy new pants again. This one to get rid of a side effect from that one. Another so I can have any sex life at all with my husband. I take, however reluctantly, whatever pill will do the least damage and yet keep the sickness at bay. I imagine sunbathing at the local pool and not being embarrassed about my weight, opening the medicine cabinet and having it not full of labeled bottles, all for me. But I don’t know if it will be in this life.
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