When I was in the 4th grade, my gym teacher went through a major gymnastics phase which meant I was dangling from some bar multiple times a week. Until one day, I fell off the parallel bars while attempting to walk across them. My skinny little leg got wrapped around one of the bars on my way down, and from it, I hung awkwardly until my teacher helped me get down. He insisted I go to the school nurse. I said I was fine, and went about the rest of my school day. There was pain in my knee, but I ignored it. After school, my mom took me to Tae Kwon Do practice. I was in a crucial stage in my Tae Kwon Do training – preparing for my blue belt test. My group stretched as we always did at the beginning of class, and I struggled. But then came kicking practice, and after one jump-front-kick, I was down on the ground writhing in pain. Master Ji had to carry a tiny, screaming Holly to the car as my mother and brother scurried closely behind. The doctor said I’d sprained my knee. He wrapped it, I stayed off of the parallel bars, and Master Ji postponed my Tae Kwon Do test, so my knee had time to heal.
The Pill-Shaped Elephant in the Room
Though this is a small story from my childhood, I find that several key components within it apply to the way we, from our closest loved ones to the world as a whole, react to the consonants and vowels that make up the word ‘antidepressant.’ The usual routine appears to be:
- Notice there’s a problem or something is “off”
- Ignore the problem
- Resolve to handle “whatever it is” on our own
- Struggle as the problem grows beyond our capabilities
- Collapse, in one way or another, because we’ve waited too long
- Go to a medical professional in a state of untreated health
Heartbreakingly, despite all the difficulties we have prior to that telling doctor’s visit, many of us balk, argue, or leave the moment antidepressant is mentioned. I know I did. A step in treatment is right there in front of us, waiting to help, and for reasons I’ll take us through in a minute, we walk away, likely destined to feel worse and worse and worse.
Though mental health is having a moment more significant than it has in past decades, the antidepressant stigma continues to hold fast. I don’t know what will break it, ultimately, but I do know qualities like empathy and awareness can’t share a room with stigma, which means breaking it begins with you and me. So to make it less awkward, I’ll start.
Before you dive in any further, I recommend reading about my journey with postpartum-anxiety, panic disorder, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder. That’ll catch you up to speed.
Holly Learns About SSRIs
So — when I was diagnosed with this colorful combo of disorders, I did not want to take medicine. Absolutely not. But my doctor, who looked exactly like Zoe Deschanel’s Jessica Day from New Girl, asked me to listen to her for a second, and internally I replied, “Literally anything for you Zoe Deschanel.” She introduced me to the initials, SSRI.
SSRI stands for ‘Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor’ and is one of the more common antidepressants prescribed to people with illnesses like anxiety and depression. Rather than using this post to delve into the science of SSRIs and brain function (though I am a Professor Doctor if you recall), I encourage you to educate yourself via the above link and watch the episode on Anxiety featured in the new docuseries, The Mind, Explained.
After Zoe’s fake twin and I thoroughly discussed SSRIs and addressed all of my questions and hesitations, I decided to listen and let her prescribe me an antidepressant called Sertraline (Zoloft). And good grief, the amount of shame I felt after that first dose — suffocating. Will knew, and my in-laws knew but only because we were living with them at the time. But other than those individuals, I didn’t want another living soul to find out. I was terrified of being called weak, faithless, thrown out of my church, fired, or shunned by everyone I knew. To avoid those outcomes, I gulped down my secret with my daily milligrams.
Over the next several weeks, I felt the onset of Sertraline’s side effects which for me meant daytime drowsiness. That lasted about two weeks. Around week three, I felt more awake, and my mind felt… peaceful. At ease. Quiet. For the first time in months, I could hear myself think, and those thoughts weren’t soul-crushingly dark and paralyzing. The medication led to clarity which led me to counseling. Counseling led me to physical and mental exercises I could do in step with my medication.
Five years later, I still take Sertraline, and I have no plans to stop because it’s helpful for my body, just like your —
Fish Oil supplement
Anti dandruff shampoo
Acknowledging the Disconnect, and Cats
Yet interestingly, no matter how many Instagram posts go viral featuring an illustration of a person demanding that someone in a wheelchair just ‘stand up already’; no matter how well filmmakers attempt to explain the science behind antidepressants and brain functioning; no matter how many people, young and old, are added to the ever-growing statistic of mental illness —
We remain stubborn as ever, unrelenting in our opinion that the issues of our minds can be altered solely through situational changes or the perfect prayer.
As someone who’s been on both sides of this topic, I hear you, though as someone who takes an antidepressant, I admittedly feel flushed in the face when yet another person, friend or stranger, approaches me to whisper, “My doctor recommended an antidepressant but ______________ said I should fix myself without it.”
To which I reply, “What’s that been like for you?”
“A nightmare,” they say.
It’s my feeling the only way we’ll stop hurting and shaming each other for thinking one way or another is through listening. I mean, honestly, when it comes to listening to another person, are we any better than a cat listening when its name is called? Or do we slowly blink once and walk the other direction, and maybe knock a glass over if the mood strikes.
You guys. We are cats. May we face-palm in unison and ask each other for forgiveness and a mulligan.
Part 2, which will feature testimonies from a variety of men and women, will be posted later. In the meantime,
don’t be a cat.