Why I Still Take Antidepressants Even Though I'm Not Depressed
I have had depression for as long as I can remember, but I had no idea until my mid-20s. My childhood was very good: full of love, encouragement and plenty of opportunities. I wasn’t necessarily sad or troubled in a way that impacted my development. But I was a very deep thinker, and often acutely aware of the emotional temperature of those around me, even if I didn’t understand the cause. I had dark thoughts that I was afraid to talk about, and was frequently confused about my emotions and frustrated with feeling misunderstood. This often resulted in an angry temper tantrum or flood of tears.
During adolescence, I became defiant, restless and “moody.” I left home and headed for the downtown streets in search of “adventure.” I toted along with me a growing melancholy and slight self-loathing that continued to grow and flourish as I explored various forms what turned out to be self-harm behaviors (drinking, drugs, promiscuity, etc). After enduring a two and a half-year abusive relationship, giving birth and giving my child to another family, spending time in prison and often earning money in unsavory ways, I finally returned home, physically unharmed but mentally and emotionally battered.
As I became an adult, I put on a brave face and tried to become responsible, despite the deep sadness and lack of respect I felt for myself. To me, the world was a dark place filled with suffering, and I was adrift in it with little hope. I discovered the power that alcohol had in numbing the hurt and turning the dial down on the world, so I began to drink regularly. I had learned long ago how anger was often very effective in handling overwhelming feelings, so I leaned into it as “being alive” became less tolerable. I didn’t understand my feelings and behaviors, and knew they weren’t “normal,” but I simply assumed they were a part of my personality, my identity. Little did I know that they were behaviors attributed the chemical balance within my brain, and not shameful personality quirks reserved just for me.
In my first year at university, while visiting the medical services department for a birth control prescription renewal, a doctor took note of my responses to some routine questions, and began asking about my mental health. She sent me to the department’s psychiatrist, and after much discussion and some testing, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I was relieved to learn that I was not intrinsically bad or evil, and that these horrible feelings were treatable. We spent the next couple of months finding the right antidepressant for me and adjusting the dose. Life got better after that. I still had moments of melancholy and apathy, and a sense of angst permeated my life regularly, but the fog seemed to lift and the dark wave of self-harm and suicidal ideation all but disappeared. Coupled with therapy and a renewed interest in creativity, the medication and therapy changed my trajectory.
Over the next 25 years, I would realize just how essential that medication is to my continued survival, mental health and emotional well-being. I haven’t stayed on the medication during this whole period. There have been several times throughout my life when I stopped taking it. Occasionally, it was because I had forgotten or was too bust to renew the prescription, but usually it was because I felt so much better that I didn’t think I needed it anymore. Each time, the sticky grey fog would slowly descend and cling to the edges of life, coating my experiences in bleakness, and eventually compelling me to permanently end the pain. And each time, a climax to the crisis would land me in a hospital bed or a psychiatrist’s office receiving a revised diagnosis (major depressive disorder, rapid-cycling depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder) and another prescription for antidepressants.
Since my last diagnosis and round of therapy about eight years ago (after I became disabled and wheelchair dependent), I have stayed on the meds, periodically checking in with my doctors and adjusting the dose according to season and quality of life. Over the last two years, I have not been depressed. I have had my share of traumas, crises and days when I can’t shake “the blues.” For the most part, however, I am the happiest and most content I can ever remember being. Although I cannot work, I busy myself with advocacy, creative projects and learning. My relationships are peaceful and mutually respectful. I regularly practice self-care, and I am aware of fluctuations in my mental health. I can honestly and proudly say I am not at all depressed.
So, why do I stay on the medication? Because I know I still have depression. Experience, research and professional help tells me so. Yes, it is possible to have depression and not be depressed. I continue to take my antidepressants for the same reason some people continue to take medication for other illnesses. Antidepressants are not a cure for depression or a happiness pill. They are a valuable tool amongst many in my mental health toolbox. They are a mood-stabilizing and suicide prevention measure. They help lift the fog of hopelessness and blunt the sharp edges of despair, so that I can reason more clearly and focus my energy on healing what hurts and pursuing what brings joy.
Swallowing one and a half small pills each night is a simple, physically harmless task, and compared to the alternative I know all too well, I can tolerate the side effects which I barely notice anymore. Along with the joyful moments in life, I will probably experience more moments of crisis, trauma and grief in the future. When those moments arrive, the antidepressants I have onboard will not eliminate the pain or prevent the sorrow, but they may help to prevent those moments from overwhelming and destroying me. So, I am happy to continue taking my antidepressants and enjoying the peace and joy I’m experiencing, knowing that I’m doing what is best for me, and that it’s working. Because that’s all that really matters.
Getty Images photo via fizkes