It was years before I considered taking medication for my depression. I’d been closeted, terrified of coming out and breaking up my family, terrified of hurting so many people I cared about, especially my children. I assumed my depression stemmed entirely from that. I believed that once I started living my life more authentically, my depression would clear up on its own.
I did find relief in coming out and claiming my queerness. Being in the closet really, really sucks. But living authentically did not “fix” me. My long-distance partner and I have been together for over two years now, and even though I am deliriously happy whenever I’m with them, being with them did not “fix” me. Seeing my children navigate their changed life with astonishing grace, seeing them thrive and find joy in their new normal, did not “fix” me. Finding a cute house and excelling at freelancing, carving out my own little independent financial world, did not “fix” me.
My depression lingered. I was no longer fantasizing about what it would be like to not be here anymore, but my depression showed up in a hundred other small ways every day. It was hard to make myself go to bed at night. I’d stay up scrolling social media until 2:00 a.m. When I’d finally put my phone down, my heart would thump wildly in my chest as my brain spun through painful intrusive thoughts, rehashing everything from a humiliating moment in fourth grade to the time I lost my temper at my teenager and threw an empty cereal box at him. In the morning when my alarm went off, my first thought would be “How soon can I go back to sleep?” I’d plan my day around taking a nap.
Formerly an avid runner and yogi, I no longer cared about exercise. My muscles softened, my joints stiffened, and I stopped feeling at home in my body. I wanted to eat nothing but carbs, all the time. Salty carbs — pasta, chips, buttered bread. Comfort foods. I used to love eating fruits and vegetables. Trying new recipes used to be one of my favorite things to do. That was just gone.
I used to love playing games and planning outings with my kids. We still did those things, but only because I forced myself. The love of it was no longer there. Same for outings with friends. When the pandemic hit, social distancing came as a relief. I shared memes about how I was made for quarantine life. That hadn’t always been true. I used to love being social.
Several times per day, I would burst into tears. It could be about anything, for any reason. Anger, frustration, sadness, or even joy. It was so, so easy to cry. My chest felt tight all the time. Any kind of confrontation, no matter how small, sent me into a panic attack. Occasionally I’d have a panic attack out of nowhere, with no identifiable triggers.
My short-term memory was infuriatingly inconsistent. I would forget entire conversations with people. I would do tasks twice because I would forget I’d already done them. My brain got a new nickname: “Swiss Cheese.” My notes app on my phone is filled with reminders, important details I was afraid I’d forget. One note says only, “Yes, Kristen, you did buy Mari a yearbook.” And my hair was coming out in handfuls.
I still didn’t consider taking an antidepressant though. My depression didn’t seem “bad enough,” because I didn’t want to die. I thought maybe it was a minor chemical imbalance that could be fixed by taking vitamins and sleeping better and exercising more. I didn’t do any of those things though. The will just wasn’t there. I’d go back and forth between trying to motivate myself to take better care of myself and telling myself I literally just did not give a fuck. I did care though — several times per week I’d cry to my partner on our nightly video chats, telling them I didn’t want to be “this way” anymore.
And it was my partner who urged me to seek help. Getting that first appointment took months of baby steps. One week compiling a list of potential doctors via my new insurance company’s web portal. Another week researching each doctor. Another week to muster the will to dial the number. Another week to get records sent over from my old doctor and insurance information settled with the new doctor. Finally, an appointment scheduled.
My new doctor was matter-of-fact. She listened to my description of how I navigated my days, the changes I’d gone through in my life, all the things I’d tried to get out of this “down” state I was in. She suggested we start a low-dose SSRI — an antidepressant. 10mg of fluoxetine, the generic for Prozac. I took my first dose on March 23.
Right away, my sleep improved. It was easier to put my phone down and settle into bed. I started waking up before my alarm, which was previously unheard of. My word recall improved. After a few weeks I realized I had not cried in days. My hair was shedding at a normal rate.
Over time, I noticed other, bigger changes: random urges to do things. To cook a fun meal using a new recipe. To try a new exercise move. I had forgotten I used to enjoy these things. My brain was in such a fog that I had not only stopped doing the things I enjoyed, but I’d forgotten I ever enjoyed them at all. It’s incredible that this tiny blue pill has made it so these random little urges to do things emerge seemingly out of nowhere from my brain. It’s been really strange to recognize myself these last few weeks.
My SSRI hasn’t been without side effects. I was dizzy a lot at first even though I was taking the pill at night before I went to sleep, for the express purpose of avoiding dizziness, a common symptom. And mid-morning as I was drinking coffee I would be overcome with an intense physical panic — no emotions attached, just a tightening of my body, especially in my chest. My hands would tremble, and I’d get a general feeling that something was very wrong with me, like I might pass out. The caffeine seemed to mix badly with the meds. So I switched the timing of the med and started taking it at 10:30 in the morning after I’d finished my coffee. The side effects stopped. I have some mild physical anxiety in the afternoon, but I have made that my exercise time, which all but obliterates any dizziness or shaking. The thing is, now I actually want to exercise. I look forward to it. Three months ago I would have sighed and rolled my eyes at the mere idea of exercise.
Maybe I could have overcome my depression on my own, without meds. Taking vitamins and getting good sleep and exercising regularly can help with depression. The problem with that advice is, when you’re too depressed to find the motivation to force yourself to engage in activities that could help your depression, you get stuck in a cycle of being aware of what you “should” do but not being able to talk yourself into it. Then you feel like a loser and a failure when you’re unable to talk yourself into it, which only adds to your depression.
And when cortisol has had control of your brain for years, you cannot just think your way into better behavior patterns. You also cannot act your way into them. Cortisol literally changes your brain. You cannot simply pull the motivation to act out of thin air. You can’t paste on a smile and “fake it till you make it.” Your brain becomes chemically imbalanced in a way that keeps you stuck exactly where you are.
I’m sharing this story in case other people are experiencing depression similar to mine. I was not suicidal. I wouldn’t even have called myself miserable. It’s only been since medication has helped stabilize my brain chemistry that I’ve been able to recognize that I did not feel like myself. I’ve been able to compare how I feel now to how I felt before I started medication. I was miserable.
Ten little milligrams of fluoxetine. The smallest dose available. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say what would work for anyone else. But if you suspect you’re not feeling quite right, please talk to your doctor. I suffered needlessly for a long time without realizing just how much I was hurting. There is no need for you to do the same.
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