Okay, everyone who takes anti-depressants, raise your hand.
If you don’t take meds, do you feel a bit smug? If you do, are you glad no one can see whether you raised your hand or not?
I started anti-depressants more than 10 years ago. It speaks volumes about the effect depression has on memory that I cannot tell you exactly when, let alone the year, I finally gave up my resistance to meds. I just know I reached a point of crazy-thoughts that I knew could not go on. It also speaks volumes about the stigma of depression and treatment to imply I gave up resisting medication once and for all, like being “born again.” No, sadly, that war waged in my brain for years, as I went back and forth with my demon-possessed and impaired brain debating whether or not I really NEEDED medication. Did I really need that much? And, so, unsupervised of course, I would cut my pills in half. And then I would crash and burn and fight – mostly successfully – not to cry my way through work, and wonder what the hell was happening to me before I remembered, sometimes after weeks of misery – O, yeah, maybe I really do need that much. Or I would finally give in and check in with my psychopharmacologist – A brilliant man who has helped me figure out the difference between spiritual crises and a broken brain – and he would convince me I was not weak, or a failure, but I did need to up my dose. Or add another medication. And then up that dose.
None of this was – or is – fun. All of it felt horribly shameful. The stigma was made worse because it was a secret. I didn’t even tell my parents for years – Yes, years. Add to this that I am a professional person of faith – Shouldn’t I just pray my way out of this? What would the people who listen to me preach and pray think if they knew? And the horror of church members thinking they had to take care of me, or protect me – I knew that I wasn’t ready to trust them to trust me to take care of myself. (Every church member reading this now: I’m over that worry!) But during this time I had more than one person confess to me that they were struggling, but they “hadn’t had to resort to medication!” And there I sat, wondering, just how bad does it have to be before we decide we are really ill and need treatment?
Well, it’s a different time, and the stigma is falling away as we discover more and more about how our brains work. There is something very real, very chemical, and a slew of mis-firing funky neurotransmitters happening inside those three pounds of tofu I call my brain. And yet, we struggle with the shame of – What, exactly? Of not managing this life?
There is the shame that comes when “they” – those uninformed anonymous people suggest we are all taking “happy pills.” Let me tell you – If only. Everyone, let’s cut everyone some slack here. This is a hard world we live in. Yes, we live in the richest country in the world. (And if you are like me, as a very comfortably middle class person with health insurance, it adds to your guilt that you struggle to manage.) BUT: there is also something toxic about this place and time. One woman told her doctor she knew if she moved back to her small village in India, she would have less, but she wouldn’t need these meds. Our brains just cannot keep up with the pace of life. My daughter’s fingers fly as she texts; mine are clumsy and slow and make lots of errors. But as a metaphor, without meds, I would not even be able to hold the phone. I would simply not be capable.
Then there’s the internal shaming and chastising that goes on. But here’s the thing: If you broke your arm, you would not chastise yourself for not getting out there and practicing your tennis swing. You would not berate yourself for your imperfect serve. You would go to the doctor and you would NOT question that you needed a cast. And pain management. You would give tennis a rest and give your arm time to heal and you would expect nothing less. Or let’s talk eye glasses – I am so thankful I live in an era when corrective lenses are the norm; otherwise in my legally blind state, I would have starved and been abandoned long ago, a victim to survival of the fittest (and death to the rest of the herd.) But nowadays, if you choose to not have glasses and you bump around clumsily, you are considered a fool.
But when it’s our brains? Well, we forget that they are the problem. My brain insisted I could just will my way through these episodes, I was tough, I could hide it, I could cope, I was not going to let this get the better of me (and I did all that, until I was basically as sick as someone walking around with untreated double pneumonia, strep, and double ear infection, trying to pretend everything was hunky-dory.) And my brain was wrong, and not to be trusted, a definite “frenemy” and I could not tell the difference between when it was my friend and when it was my enemy – BECAUSE MY BRAIN WAS BROKEN. Those brains of ours are desperate to protect us, and we do not want to appear weak because we do not want to be abandoned, or shunned, or shamed. Deep in our wiring, we know our very survival depends on our connections with others, and it feels terrifying to risk that. Even though reaching out and finding support is one of the most important ways we heal from depressive episodes, and protect ourselves from the next.
I promise you – those people who think less of you because you are on anti-depressants? They don’t need to be in your herd; there are plenty of other people out there who know how hard it can be. And you don’t need them adding to your own internal dialogue of shame. Those internal shaming demons are symptoms of a broken brain; they are not telling the truth, and they don’t need a back up choir of other people making you feel bad. If you have just started taking anti-depressants or feel ambivalent about taking them, chances are you feel bad enough all by yourself.
There are plenty of people out there who will see you as courageous, and strong. These people will not judge you or abandon you; instead, you may just find your admission of being on anti-depressants gives you something to bond over. And that bonding through honesty is not only good for the soul; it can provide a protective layer for your brain and your soul the next time around.
And besides, here’s at least one person who knows what living through a bad episode is like – And that there is life on the other side. Drop me a line – I know you are brave, and courageous, and strong.