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When You Think Antidepressants Will Cause ‘Artificial Happiness'

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Before I got diagnosed with a mood disorder, I was guilty of stigmatizing. I was afraid of pills. “Only ‘crazy’ people take pills,” I thought. “I’m not ‘crazy.’” I worried it would induce what I called an “artificial happiness.” I thought it would render me a fake version of myself.

Would I feel all “Happy Happy Joy Joy” like that infamous “Ren and Stimpy” cartoon? Would I become a “zombie,” whose feelings were zilch? Would I feel “drugged” all the time, disconnected from my true feelings? These were my fears. Seriously. 

It scared the bejesus out of me that I might need to rely on pills to feel normal for the rest of my life. I didn’t have a problem, so I didn’t need to be on antidepressants, I thought. 

My journey with antidepressants started in December of 2007 in snowy Manchester, NH. I had a major panic attack while on a business trip.

I used to be a producer for MTV News in New York and during the 2008 campaign for president, we did live town hall Q&As with college students and the candidates, including Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. I worked on the McCain one.

The idea of producing live TV invoked extreme anxiety in me. Like none I had ever experienced.  If you make a mistake on live TV, you can’t fix it. I had worked live red carpets before at the MTV VMAs and I was fine, but something about this serious live television show was different. 

My role was to floor-produce MTV News anchor Gideon Yago, meaning I was on headset — the conduit between Gideon and the control room. I was supposed to make sure he was in the right spot at the right time and that everything ran smoothly. 

The previous day we had spent a couple hours at Southern New Hampshire University, our host, meeting students and selecting ones who were particularly articulate to ask questions during the forum. I was totally fine with that. No worries.

The next day, in a hotel room just a few hours before the big show, I was freaking out, pacing the room with perpetually sweaty palms. For me, the most uncomfortable symptom of anxiety is clammy hands. It’s the ultimate annoyance.

I would sit in a chair, stand up, sit down, stand up. I could not stop moving. I was scared to death. I even tried to take a nap to no avail; I just tossed and turned violently. I was chain smoking and went outside every half-hour to smoke a cigarette.

As it turned out, our “Presidential Dialogue with John McCain” went off without incident, a success by any measure. I had survived. But I knew I needed to see a doc as soon as I got home to New York. I saw a psychiatrist who also does therapy on the Upper East Side, and I told her about everything that happened in New Hampshire. I also told her that I had been feeling low in recent times.

She diagnosed me with depression and prescribed an SSRI. It was my choice, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the pills. I knew I was unwell, but the stigma was so high, I was afraid to step into what I perceived as that “Alice-in-Wonderland” world of psychotropic drugs.

I could’ve just toughed it out and not taken the pills. But I felt so desperate. I pondered it for a few days. I never wanted to feel the terror of another panic attack ever again. So I took the plunge.

As it turns out, my true diagnosis was bipolar disorder. If you give an antidepressant to someone who is bipolar without a mood stabilizer in tandem, their mood will skyrocket. In the winter of 2008, I did in fact skyrocket. In a gradual ramp-up, I became more and more manic with each day, feeling like a zillion bucks. I stayed up all night writing, drinking beer, smoking pot, blasting music and dancing with myself. I would go to work sometimes on zero hours sleep.

However, my full-fledged manic saga is for another day. Or, if you’re curious about my wild bout with major mania, please pick up a copy of my memoir “The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium & Why Sober Is the New Cool.”

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this and are afraid of going on psychiatric meds, there is nothing to fear. With little tweaking, I have been on the same steady regimen of medication since 2008, and the happiness I feel is real. Some of us need meds. 

And that’s OK.

Getty image via Алексей Филатов

Originally published: August 9, 2021
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