"I often have to remind myself that my depression and anxiety are not a choice, they are a part of my life."

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antidepressant save life
Credit: Vanese M, HelloGiggles

When I was younger, I’d often hear in the media about celebrities suffering from mental illnesses or the rise of antidepressant use. Due to this, people around me from amicable classmates to certain family members would often engage in gossip. They would say how antidepressants most likely didn’t help and would only make people addicted. While I chose not to be a part of those conversations, I found it interesting that everyone who did never actually tried antidepressants for themselves.

Little did I know I would have my first taste of depression and anxiety when I turned 18 years old. It began after taking birth control pills for the first time for my PCOS and having a heavy period because of them. In my mind, I started to convince myself that I was going to bleed to death, which resulted in me not being able to breathe.

From that point on, I began to have panic attacks on a regular basis. They would come on randomly or during times when I felt anxious. And already knowing what certain people around me thought about antidepressants, I knew they were unlikely to understand anything else related to mental health issues. But it was hard to mask my emotions from my friends and family when in reality, each day felt worse than the last.

When college came around, my mental health began to reach new levels of difficulty. I was not only still struggling to cope with my panic attacks, but I was also living away from home in a completely new environment, which didn't help. So I began going to my local general practitioner almost on a daily basis to find some answers.

I’d spew every emotion that I’d tried to bottle up for the past few months to my doctor. I told him how I would worry about when my next panic attack would strike and whether the next one would be the one to kill me. But rather than showing sympathy, I was told “Vanese, you’re so young. What could you possibly be so anxious about?”

After beginning to deteriorate for weeks due to the feeling that my struggles weren’t being taken seriously, I was finally given my first option by my doctor: A month of antidepressant medications to try. But I firmly said no. Looking back, I never actually did any research on the pros and cons of antidepressants, but I let my judgment get clouded by what other people might say. So instead, I agreed to consider other treatment options, like counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy. But they only helped for a little bit. After each session was over, I felt like I was back to square one with my mental health.

But then matters got worse when my new general practitioner belittled me upon hearing how badly I was struggling mentally. He said, “You’re too young to be depressed. Go outside. Run up a steep hill and realize you’re alive.” And surprisingly, my depression and anxiety weren’t cured after he’d uttered those words. This experience not only made me feel like a burden to everyone around me but also gave me my first bout of suicidal thoughts. So I went back to my original general practitioner who suggested antidepressants to give Zoloft a try for a month.

After over a year of living in constant fear and panic, it was as if the medication had taken it all away.

I was so numb that I couldn’t tell whether I liked it or not, but I knew it was a feeling that would eventually subside. The hardest part, however, was the sheer disappointment some of my friends and family had expressed to me after I told them I was taking Zoloft, ranging from “Get off them now, you’ll become addicted” to “You don’t even need them.” While the comments were upsetting, I was still somewhat hopeful that Zoloft would make me feel better.

“Many people have preconceived notions about antidepressants some of which are based on the unfortunate stigma with mental health,” Diana Samuel, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center tells HelloGiggles. “They fear that antidepressants will ‘change’ who they are, that they will no longer have an emotional range, or that taking an antidepressant means that somehow they didn’t try hard enough to not be depressed. Remember, depression is not a choice.” The thing was, I took so long to make a decision from my own thoughts and feelings without considering what other people would think. I often have to remind myself that my depression and anxiety are not a choice, they are a part of my life.

antidepressant save life
Credit: Vanese M, HelloGiggles

I eventually decided to take myself off Zoloft after less than a week without any professional help. I didn't like the side effects I experienced or the constant racing thoughts on whether loved ones were secretly judging me.

Over the next two years, I would try other antidepressants like Remeron and Celexa on and off and whenever my body would finally start getting used to my newfound levels of serotonin, I’d abruptly take myself off. However, what I thought would be an easy transition ended up with me having really bad withdrawal effects. After just three days, I was having constant headaches, dizziness, and suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to speak to any friends or family because I was just so irritable. 

Then one evening during my withdrawal phase, I’d expressed to my partner that I needed to head out to clear my head. He knew I wasn’t in the greatest place mentally and said I seemed a bit off.

Feeling annoyed I assured him I’d be fine alone and proceeded to get ready. After some back and forth, he told me he’d have to call the police to do a wellness check if I went out by myself and within seconds, he was talking with the operator. Soon three police officers arrived and I felt caged in. But after trying to outrun the officers, they caught up to me.

Tears started to flow as I expressed that I couldn't deal with life anymore.

I spoke to the officers for what felt like hours. They reassured me that everything was going to be okay and they didn't want me to stop fighting for my life. While it took me a few hours for me to come around, I soon realized that I couldn't carry on denying my possible need for antidepressants any longer.

It’s been well over a year since the police incident and I’m back on Zoloft. I’m currently on a 100mg dosage, which I have found to be just the right amount for now. I have my good, bad, and in-between days and I’m okay with that because I know I’m doing the best that I can. But if there's one thing that no longer remains, it's my guilt for doing what I deem best. During this time, I’ve met a lot of great people who have been through similar experiences with their mental health and happily express how antidepressants were their saving grace.

So I say to anyone in a similar situation, do what you think is best and speak to a professional who can give you evidence-based information and debunk any myths. “There are many options to consider if you’re unsure on whether to try antidepressants, from speaking with a doctor who can answer any specific questions you may have, acknowledging that you’re not alone and weighing up not only the risks but likely benefits before you decide, with the advice of your doctor,” Samuel says.

Remember, many people tolerate antidepressants well and even if one type doesn’t work for you, there are many other brands to consider. Just know that there are always options and you’re never alone.