I started experiencing debilitating panic attacks when I was 10.
During these attacks, I would experience a slew of symptoms. Usually, I felt like I was choking and couldn't get air to my lungs. My chest felt like it was being stabbed with knives. My hands had pins-and-needle sensations. My stomach ached. The attacks were interfering with my daily life. I was missing days and days of school, and almost every week, I ended up in the doctor's office, scared that I was dying.
It got to the point where my pediatrician suggested (strongly) that I go "see someone" to get my life back on track.
I figured the prescription for Xanax the shrink was writing was like amoxicillin.
Believe it or not, anxiety disorders affect one in eight kids. So, although I had no idea at the time, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to believe there were two other kids in my sixth-grade class who were suffering too. Of the kids that have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, approximately 25% will continue to deal with the disorder in some capacity for the rest of their lifetime.
As a scared 12-year-old in a psychiatrist's office, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I figured the prescription for Xanax the shrink was writing (without much explanation) was like amoxicillin: I'd take it for a week and be healed.
I was wrong, but thankfully, as an adult, I'm no longer (so) young and clueless. While I'm not a doctor, and there are millions of people who have found pharmaceutical options immensely helpful in mental health treatment, there are a few things I wish I knew when I was first medicated.
Drugs don't work the same way for every person
I've been prescribed almost every psychiatric drug on the market, from tried-and-true Zoloft to the still-new Viibryd. I feel a bit like a Rubik's cube that's one or two squares away from being solved, and my body doesn't seem to respond well to drugs. Which happens quite frequently when treating anxiety disorders.
But I wasn't told that every drug doesn't work for every person. This led to a lot of confusion, and ultimately, new doctors and prescriptions.
I lost weight. I couldn't eat. I couldn't leave my room.
My first long-term drug was Zoloft, which worked a bit… until I developed a tolerance. After starting at a base dose of 50mg per day, by the time I was in college and weighed 100lbs, I was on 300mg. The usual maximum dosage is 200mg, to put that into perspective. I was switched to Lexapro for a year, but I only got worse.
Feeling worse despite the treatment made me decide to see another doctor, resulting in a whirlwind of new drugs. BuSpar. Viibryd. Brintellix. Prozac. Paxil. None worked for me. I lost weight. I couldn't eat. I couldn't leave my room. I ended up in the hospital.
Nobody warned me this could happen, and as a result, I felt defective and unfixable. New doctors I'd meet would prescribe something and promise, "This is the drug for you. You'll feel better soon." I learned that this isn't something a doctor can promise.
Patience is as important as the drug itself
Some drugs can take six to eight weeks to start taking effect, so each time I switched medication, I had to wait to assess if the drug was right for me. It may sound obvious, but it's SUPER frustrating, especially because when you're in the throes of an illness, you want to see positive changes as quickly as possible. That's true of any condition.
Finding the right therapist is harder than dating.
As if being patient with inanimate pills weren't enough, you also have to be patient with human beings. Finding the right therapist and psychiatrist is harder than dating. You meet with these people and tell them all about yourself. Sometimes, you decide you didn't vibe with them, and you never see them again.
It's extremely difficult to find a therapist with whom you're able to share EVERYTHING comfortably. Since doctors are authority figures, it can be easy to defer to their judgment, but that can trap you in an unhelpful cycle of treatment. Like the drugs themselves, what works for one person may not work for another. Your friend's therapist may weird you out, which is OK, but I wish someone I trusted had made that more explicitly clear from the beginning.
Many people won't understand, but will still try to offer an opinion
The reactions people had after I'd muster up the courage to tell them I was being medicated surprised me, in both good and bad ways. Sometimes they'd dismiss me, saying, "You don't need meds! You're not crazy!" Other times people said the meds would make me fat and suicidal. I told them I had a fast metabolism and was already suicidal.
Most of these people hadn't experienced mental illness firsthand, yet they still had very strong opinions on whether I should be popping pills. Opinions will be forced upon you, but ultimately, you and your doctor are the only ones who truly know what's best for you. No two brains and bodies are exactly alike, which means different people need different treatments.
I was TERRIFIED to tell my friends that I took meds.
That said, it's also important to remember that you're never totally alone. I was TERRIFIED to tell my friends that I took meds. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I often made up lies about why I had to leave school early or couldn't hang out after school on Tuesdays, when I was actually going to therapy. I'd never heard of anyone in my school or anyone my age in general taking medications for their brain. I thought I was the only one.
Later on in high school, I began to "come out" to my friends, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they still wanted to be my friend, and some even admitted they, too, had been going to therapy. From that moment on, I was much more open about my mental illness and my treatment to anyone who'd ask. When you open up, even though it's scary, you may find that others will do the same.
Every drug has side effects
I used to think side effects were a myth, but my experience has told me otherwise. The warning pamphlet that comes with your meds will scare the shit out of you -- sometimes literally, since diarrhea can be a side effect.
For example, it's fairly normal to experience nausea when first starting an SSRI. This I was told... but I was not informed of any sexual side effects, probably because I was 12 and the psychiatrist could tell I wasn't getting any ass. SSRIs are notorious for causing impotence in men and anorgasmia in women, which for some people could be its own cause of depression.
With these side effects, and other less common but still debilitating ones, you and your doctor are faced with a decision. You must decide if the pros of the drugs outweigh the cons. Basically, it comes down to this: how much are you willing to put up with physically in order to feel better mentally?
Treating mental illness can get expensive
Something that I didn't take into consideration as a preteen was how I was going to pay for all of this once I was older, not relying on my parents for money. Plus, the thought of taking these meds for more than a couple years didn't even cross my mind for a second.
For some people, therapy and breathing techniques aren't enough to keep anxiety or depression at bay.
Depending on my insurance, my meds can range from $3 to $30 each. Currently, for my three prescriptions, I pay about $35 each month, so around $420 each year. This is not including copays for therapy or psychiatric visits. Unfortunately, a lot of mental health professionals don't accept major insurances, forcing patients to pay out of pocket. We're talking, like, $150 and up. I often think about all the pizza and shoes I could have bought with the money spent on treatment, and get very sad. But at least I can tell my therapist about it!
I wish I'd known all of this before I embarked on my journey as a medicated young adult, but I didn't. I don't even remember the name of my first psychiatrist, but I'll never forget the sound of the white-noise machine outside her office, and the way she handed me prescription sheets as if they were sheets of toilet paper.
I've become a skeptic. I've developed a general distrust in humans. I don't promise anyone anything. I can wish and dream all I want about a life where I wasn't born this way, or where doctors didn't see prescriptions as a first resort.
Or I can build a bridge and get over it, because I can't turn back time. And you know what? I might not have been able to graduate high school, let alone college, or get through my first jobs if I hadn't been on medications. Hell, I might've killed myself! For some people, therapy and breathing techniques aren't enough to keep anxiety or depression at bay. Some people need medications to alter brain chemicals and neurotransmitters. These people are more common than you think.
This is my life. I function properly. I don't hate myself like I used to. I've become empathetic and understanding and able to help others. I can now joke about things that probably never happened to "normal people," like the time I almost puked on a guy I was hooking up with a couple days after I first started taking Prozac, or when I pooped my pants in a college class. It's been a weird journey, but it's mine. And yours is yours.
If you or someone you know needs help, reach out for the appropriate contact.
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