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Are Side Effects a ‘Necessary Evil’ in the Search for a Working Antidepressant?

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Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

There was that one time my antidepressant kept making me fall asleep in class. Or that year when I was grinding my teeth so hard at night that I kept breaking through my night guards (which the dentist had never seen in all of his years of practice). Over the years, as I’ve struggled with depression, I’ve also dealt with the stomachaches, nausea, headaches, dizziness, etc. that go along with antidepressants.

I’ve been on pretty much every antidepressant over the years — my psychiatrists have used the term “treatment-resistant depression” when describing my case. This means I’ve willingly tried tons of medications with the hope that they’d give me some relief from the unrelenting symptoms of depression. While I’ve had some minor benefits from antidepressants (never as much as I’d hope), I’ve come to realize that because of a history of underlying trauma, medication will likely never be a cure-all for me. But I keep trying new meds in the hopes that something will help even a little bit. On this journey, I’ve become pretty familiar with the gamut of side effects that come along with every medication. But the one thing I’m still working on mastering is determining when these side effects are actually making my depression worse.

For many years, I would take my antidepressants without fail and just sort of accept the side effects that came along with them. I’ve always been so driven to feel better that the uncomfortable physical symptoms felt like a necessary evil. But lately, I’ve been reevaluating the role of these medications in my life. There are some people who take antidepressants because they are a life-saving treatment — they’re the only thing keeping some people going. I recognize that antidepressants for some individuals can be absolutely essential. However, for me so far, they haven’t drastically changed how I’m feeling, and they certainly don’t completely erase the depression I’m experiencing.

So, when I started a new antidepressant yet again a few months ago and realized it was wreaking havoc on my stomach, I had a choice to make. Should I stick to hoping against hope that the medication would give me some relief? Or do I honor the damage I’m doing to my physical body and quit taking the pills? I had a bit of a lightbulb moment when pondering these questions. When I feel sick physically in any way, I’m instantly more depressed. I feel anxious, worried and not myself. If the antidepressants were extremely effective, I might consider putting up with the stomach issues (which I’m sure a lot of people out there have to do). But as it is, I feel like I need to listen to the distress my body is telling me it’s experiencing. It’s pretty counterproductive to have side effects that end up making me feel more depressed and hopeless anyway!

I’ve put my body through so much over the years, and I want to stop treating it like a thing that doesn’t deserve care. One way I might be able to do that is by only taking medications that don’t make me feel worse (physically or emotionally). I definitely recommend people taking antidepressants or enduring side effects if they’re not impacted negatively by them. But I think for me, I’m going to need to sometimes put my body’s needs before my mind’s. In the future, I will try to thoughtfully evaluate which medications are bringing me benefits and which are ones I’m staying on simply with the hope that they’ll help one day.

It always seems unfair that antidepressants come with side effects — like people with depression aren’t suffering enough, right? But there isn’t much about mental illness that is fair, I suppose. So, I need to be the one who puts care and consideration back into my medical options. I forget sometimes that I have a choice – I’m the one who has final say about what goes into my body. So, from here on out, I’m going to be an advocate for my body. If a medication is creating more problems than it’s helping, it just might be time to skip that prescription for good. Maybe one day they’ll invent antidepressants with no side effects, but until then, I’ll have to carefully consider whether I want to put my body through any more suffering in the name of curing my depression.

Getty Images photo via fizkes

Originally published: December 4, 2020
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