I remember seeing commercials for antidepressants when I was in high school. A typical antidepressant commercial featured a middle-aged woman, frolicking through a bright, sunny meadow with a smile from ear to ear as the voiceover described all of the horrific side effects of the medication. These side effects ranged from mild (nausea), peculiar (paresthesia), to severe (suicidal thoughts, sudden death). At my young age, I never understood why anyone would ever subject themselves to a medication that was designed to make them happy, but could potentially have the exact opposite effect, along with some potential weird side effects thrown into the mix. In fact, I never quite understood why anyone would need to take medication to feel happy at all. It wasn’t until college that I finally understood what depression really was, and that antidepressants are not the “happy pills” that I thought they were.
We all have our ups and downs in our everyday lives. It is normal to fall into a prolonged state of despair when we experience painful and taxing events such as death of a loved one, a heart-rending breakup, a lost opportunity, and a plethora of other complicated situations. I always thought that depression was a simple formula: stressful/sad event yields a depressive state. I never knew that depression could just happen for no reason at all.
I experienced my first bout of “no reason” depression in the Summer of 2017. After a great Spring semester, I found myself feeling lifeless, unmotivated, and weighed down during the Summer; my favorite time of year. My anxiety, which I had experienced since I was a child, had spiked to a debilitating level where I could barely leave my house. I was in a loving, happy relationship, had exciting plans with friends and family to look forward to, and rewarding opportunities were awaiting me in the Fall. The world was my oyster, and I was miserable. Things that brought me joy in my everyday life did not matter to me at all. I typically saw the world in a spectrum of beautiful colors; in this new state of despondency, I perceived my world as greyscale. I felt out of touch with my body; I felt as though I was trapped in this vessel of darkness and I could not see my thoughts clearly, and the world around me was desolate. The most disturbing symptom that I was experiencing was having thoughts of wanting to die, which is a serious sign that help is needed.
What reason did I have for being so melancholy? Absolutely none. There was no reason for my sadness that I could identify, and this made the experience even more distressing because there was no foreseeable solution to my problems. After a brief interaction with my new “adult” doctor (I had been visiting the Looney Tunes themed office of my pediatrician for far too long), I was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. I left the office with a prescription for a small dose of Lexapro, a selective seretonin reuptake inhibitor, which my doctor told me would ease my anxiety and depression after a few weeks of taking it.
I remember sitting in my car, looking like a slob with disheveled hair, tear-stained cheeks, wearing a sweatshirt that I wore for days without washing, staring blankly at the small piece of prescription paper. I couldn’t grasp the fact that my new doctor really thought that I was “one of those” people who needed to take medication to feel normal. She had just met me only fourty-five short minutes ago and she already decided that I needed to be on this intense drug. I heard about all of the side effects of these antidepressants, and I was far too cautious to mess with my brain chemistry. I didn’t know anyone (or so I thought at the time) who was taking these kinds of medications, so I had no one to ask about it. I didn’t want to become an emotionless zombie, I didn’t want to become even more suicidal, and I didn’t want to gain weight (clearly my priorities were in order).
My mom had a fit when I showed her the prescription upon returning home. Her reaction scared me quite a bit and turned me off to the idea of taking antidepressants completely. She told me frightening things such as, “antidepressants permanently change your brain chemistry!” and “people go crazy from taking these toxic drugs”. My mom has always been a hippy-dippy, all natural, 100% organic kind of gal. When my brother and I were kids, my mom would utilize natural remedies over conventional western medicine as often as she could when we were sick. I grew up on essential oils (which I still enjoy), homeopathic cough medicine, and hovering my face over a pot of boiled onions to loosen up congestion (this actually worked pretty well, albeit my hair reeked of onion for days afterwards).
I always looked up to my mom, in spite of our complicated relationship. I trusted her judgement because as her child, I felt that she knew everything about the world. Therefore, the piece of prescription paper remained crumpled at the bottom of a random purse that I probably don’t even own anymore. Instead of trying medication, she put me on a regimen of natural vitamins and supplements to combat depression. This regiment of supplements actually did help me ease my depression and anxiety, which was fantastic for me. By the end of the Summer, I was back to myself and ready to take on the new school year with a schedule full of responsibilities and exciting activities.
“If these natural things work for me, then why does anyone really need to take medication for depression?”. This is a thought that popped in my head often throughout the year. I had my days of feeling gloomy here and there, and I had the occasional panic attack. Overall, I was feeling golden with virtually no side effects. I barely made appointments with my therapist anymore, because I wasn’t feeling depressed (I was not aware of how helpful therapy can be even when life is going swell). I felt proud that I didn’t need to take antidepressants. Unfortunately, the human brain is more complicated that we often assume. Not everything works for everyone. The brain is in a constant state of change; building new connections, adapting as a result of experiences, and different neurotransmitters can start traveling through the synapses in different ways. This is called brain plasticity. Simply put, sometimes a certain solution will not work forever, because the brain you had one year ago is not entirely the same brain that is sitting in your cranium at this moment.
And then, good ole’ Mr. Depression barged in for a second visit. He made himself right at home and had no plans of abandoning his Summer vacation in my brain anytime soon. He also brought his girlfriend Ms. anxiety along for the trip. Only a few weeks into Summer 2018, I found myself in the worst mental state that I have experienced in my life. It was overwhelming and affected my ability to work, my relationships with others, and every fiber of my existence. At this point in my life, I had grown close with individuals who had positive experiences with antidepressants. My usual regimen wasn’t cutting it and I had to try something else.
I struggled with the typical feelings that most experience when contemplating starting antidepressants. The feelings of shame for needing to take something to feel normal, the fears of side effects, and a general fear of the unknown. After much deliberation and encouragement from people who were close to me, I started taking the 5mg of Lexapro that my doctor had re-prescribed to me. I didn’t tell my mom at first. I was terrified of what she would think and say. Ultimately, I decided that although I respect my mothers’ right to her opinions, I am the one who is experiencing life in this body and mind and I need to make my own decisions for myself. After seeing me in the most desperate and frail mental state, she quickly turned her opinion around and supported me taking medication with caution and close monitoring.
My experience with Lexapro was one of those short-term flings where you chicken out and run away from the relationship before things start get serious. I took Lexapro for a week before quitting the drug because I was experiencing nausea and paresthesia, which was a strange tingling sensation throughout my body. As you can imagine, this freaked me out and turned me off to medication even more. Lexapro may have worked for me in the long-run, but I didn’t give it a substantial opportunity to work its potential magic.
The next drug on my doctor’s list was Effexor XR. At the beginning of my trial run with Effexor XR, I was feeling a bit more comfortable with taking medication after learning that most side effects subside after a few weeks. Effexor XR was fine for the ten days I took it, except for the fact that I was experiencing frequent “brain zaps”. Brain zaps are a strange, frightening, yet seemingly safe occurrence that typically happens during antidepressant withdrawl. A brain zap feels like a strong electric shock in your head that lasts a little less than a second. My doctor told me to stop taking Effexor XR when I informed her of this bizarre effect.
I had relatives who had great success with Zoloft, so I asked my doctor if she could prescribe it to me and she thought it was a great idea. Four weeks into taking Zoloft, I began to feel worse than I did before I started taking the drug. My doctor increased the dose to ease my depression, and instead of raising my emotional baseline, all of my emotions ceased. I did not experience a single emotion for two weeks. I have never felt more strange, and less like myself, than I did in those few weeks. Nothing made me sad, but absolutely nothing evoked any sense of pleasure in my mind or body. Any sense of motivation that I had to do simple tasks, such as moving my arm to scratch my head, was nonexistent. Zoloft completely chopped off both ends of my emotional spectrum and left me stuck right in the middle. I felt as though there was a weight on my brain and I could not process thoughts properly. I have ADHD, which makes it difficult to focus on tasks and maintain interest. In this new drug-induced apathetic state, I felt as though my ADHD had completely taken over my brain.
Zoloft was soon stopped. Out of curiosity, I found through research that sometimes SSRIs can offset the amount of dopamine circulating in the synapses of your brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. Based on how I was feeling, it seemed likely that I was lacking some good ole’ dopamine. This led to my interest in Wellbutrin, an atypical antidepressant that acts on dopamine and norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter responsible for attention, concentration, and energy.
Wellbutrin is the only antidepressant of its kind. It is considered effective for treating depression, and it is often prescribed in conjunction with other antidepressants to increase the individual’s sex drive. Wellbutrin is also prescribed for weight loss in obese individuals and is often used off-label to treat ADHD. Wellbutrin sounded like a dream drug to me. Motivation, better focus, potential weight loss? Nothing could have been better in my eyes. Wellbutrin is not helpful for anxiety, however. It is a stimulating antidepressant, and can increase anxiety and sensory overload in individuals who are sensitive to stimulating environments. I decided that I would be willing to deal with some anxiety at the cost of an increased mood, better sense of focus, and potential assistance in getting fit.
I’ve been taking Wellbutrin XL for two months and so far, my experience has been positive. My depression has certainly ceased to a great degree, I feel motivated and energized most of the time, and I have noticed a stronger ability to focus and carry out tasks. I have, however, noted an increase in my anxiety levels and have experienced sensory overload on multiple occasions in environments that usually do not disturb me. I have also noted that I have developed a bit of a temper, which I have never had. Overall, I am pleased with my experience on Wellbutrin and am grateful for the people who helped me feel comfortable with the notion of taking antidepressants. Wellbutrin has helped me gain control of my mind and my mood, and it has cleared the dark grey storm clouds that have clouded my mind and judgement since the beginning of the Summer. I am now able to clearly examine my thoughts, my past, and most aspects of my life. I have been able to experience and continue to pursue personal growth through my own motivation, introspection, and therapy.
Unfortunately, Wellbutrin is like one of those relationships that albeit its minor flaws, seems perfect and ideal, until a serious issue arises abruptly.
Apparently, I am allergic to Wellbutrin. I had a delayed allergic reaction to the medication and now I have to try taking something else. I am disappointed that Wellbutrin is not the medication for me, and I am frightened to see how I react to this new antidepressant; however, after all of my experiences with antidepressants, I know that I will be okay. I am in a stronger state of mind and I plan to fight through whatever awaits me.
I feel that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Some opinions are easily changed, and some are not. My hope for anyone who reads this is to show them the transformation in my opinion of antidepressants. As you can see, my stance has changed drastically. I am not discrediting other solutions; however, I encourage everyone to do their research and understand that these medications are designed to help us. Not every medication will work for you, as you can see through my experience. It is unfortunate that a trial-and-error approach is often required to find the right antidepressant, but I know that the outcome will be worth it.