What I Learned When I Dropped the Depression Label, Owned the Bipolar One, Took Medication, and Stop
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
When I first told my parents I was depressed, the second thing that followed was "I'm so sorry." When I went to pop my first antidepressant, all I knew was that I should take it in the bathroom, not at the table. It was my last resort, that pill, and one for which I had to unlearn shame. Lucky for me, the shame subsided at the thought of how silly it is to hide something that could just as easily have been a blood pressure medication. I am optimistic about what seems to be a shifting culture around psychiatric medication; hopeful that it will one day be viewed as no different than any other kind of medication. But, as long as we condone the stigma around antidepressants, they will continue to be reflected on as reserved for the weak or violent. We shouldn’t accept this representation in a country where close to twenty percent of adults are on antidepressants. My meds penetrated years of suffering in one dose, re-wiring my brain so that it functioned correctly. Without them, I would suffer, and - as with other medical conditions - in the absence of treatment, there would be lasting physical effects.
When I was 20, I was officially diagnosed with Depression, which seemed far more palatable to people than the diagnoses that came later: Bipolar Disorder II and an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). When I first began writing about my Depression, I was momentarily a hero. When I moved into the Bipolar domain, people responded with awkward hesitation. I lost one of my closest family members. People unfollowed. It irked me a bit, made me feel slightly self conscious for the first time in forever, and then helped me realize I needed to stop seeking and relying on the validation I had become accustomed to for my own sense of security. However you choose to look at it, I am still exactly the same. I am not a 'new me,' but rather the 'same me' carrying a new label; to some, I am now viewed as unpredictable, highly volatile, and delusional, despite exhibiting the same behavior. The loss didn’t bother me too much in the end. The energy I felt distanced me from those who are only in support of an illusion; an illusion that is the sad-but-highly-functioning, so not-that-sad-appearing, girl. My Bipolar diagnosis elevated me to a new place entirely; I finally had a name for both the jitteriest highs and the lowest lows, not just the lows. I finally had a better understanding of why I felt like I was on a pendulum ride from nirvana to hell. The most beautiful part, for me, is that I really don’t care at all what people think about Bipolar me, who is just as fun, creative, and loving as depressed me was.
I am so very lucky to have adopted this viewpoint. Ask me what it is like to battle something so brutal, insidious, unscrupulous, catastrophic, sometimes devastating, and I will respond in detail and with pride. I believe with my whole heart that it is crucial that we begin to normalize this experience, not ostracize those who have it. If we shirk responsibility in addressing the rapidly rising incidence of mental illness in America, if we fail to support one another, we are complicit. In 2012, I sprayed balsamic vinegar on iceberg and called it a meal. I felt guilt over a stick of gum. If I broke 200 calories in a day I punished myself. In 2019, I eat burgers and ice cream with joy. That said, this is a demon that will never leave me entirely and I could not have faced it without access to support. I had the privilege of an excellent treatment center. Most do not. In response to those I have lost over my decision to “go public," I am not embarrassed; objectively, wholeheartedly, and in my entirety, I am courageous and I am proud. Absolutely nothing will change that position. It is so important that we rally around our loved ones at both their best and their worst. In my case, those who affirmed my experience gave me permission to feel again.
When I went on meds, I learned that people think “happy pill” jokes are really funny and that many are interested in how psychiatric medications actually work. My psychiatrists love me because even when breaking down, I can still manufacture a good Prozac pun. I was among the very few who didn’t need to go through a laundry list of medications before finding the right one. I began on 5 milligrams of Pristiq, which became 50, and ultimately the highest dose for my weight, 100 milligrams. Pristiq is an SSNRI - the “N” standing for norepinephrine - which, in addition to serotonin, is targeted by the specific drug type. Pristiq gives me the energy I was once utterly deprived of. You know that can’t-get-out-of-bed feeling where you think you might actually crumble into a pile of bones if you get up? Yeah, that’s what changed. At first, I was nauseous and my heart would race, inducing what felt like either a panic attack or, when I catastrophized, a heart attack. I learned that espresso plus happy pill equals heart palpitations I can hear in my head. I sat across a fellow-intern after taking one of my first morning doses, and shook and babbled like I was on speed. I had to go for a walk around Columbus Circle to convince myself I wasn’t dying. She was a total stranger and I did wonder what she thought was going on with me. Weeks later, I confided in her about my diagnosis as we ate ice cream sundaes with sprinkles on 9th Avenue. The gifts that honesty can bring are innumerable. Slowly, a little square pill began to instill within me a level of courage that would change absolutely everything. My list of “not allowed” foods was conquered by a feeling that maybe my worth was not dependent on my size or “discipline.” I could laugh again and it wasn’t fake.
Unfortunately, in time I found that I was coming down from the elation of the first few months with an entirely new vantage point on life; my mood and newfound hope would diminish most days by late afternoon. And so, my psychiatrist prescribed an anticonvulsant called Lamictal, which, during clinical trials, was inadvertently found to stabilize mood. I was told to look out for any signs of a Stevens-Johnson rash, a side effect which is supposedly about the most unpleasant, life-threatening medical anomaly on the planet. Despite the risk, I popped 5 milligrams, then 10, and ultimately, 200. Once again, I was free.
It is now over four years later. Last year, I drove by an enormous propane-tank-turned-Prozac-pill in upstate New York and it felt like a gift dropped from heaven. I love my medication so passionately that I consider it my best friend. I am proud of the power of a plastic bottle every day and I truly believe that what it contains saved my life. My meds helped me relearn to eat and brought me both up and down to anew and needed baseline.
In my house we are proud of the fight. We celebrate “med-i-versaries” every year. It still occurs to me often that many people are deeply afraid of being seen with a bottle of pills. The level of embarrassment around it makes me sad. I am so proud of my tiny pills for the work they do every day to improve my quality of life. The truth is, everyone should have equal access to resources such as psychotherapy, basic mental health education, and if needed, psychiatric medication. Sadly, they don’t, and I am among the lucky to have the privilege of what is simply a basic human right. On top of fighting for equality and personal acceptance on a micro level, those who are able should also fight for policy change.
Someday, I’ll have to navigate the should-I-take-antidepressants-during-pregnancy debate, the what-now question if my current pills become no longer effective, and the should-I-taper-off-and-live-unmedicated-again deliberation. For now, I will revel in the freedom of being unchained from the horrors of a constant battle with an unrelenting force. After years of beating myself up for being so different, I will do so unapologetically. I will continue to advocate for a medication that saved me, acknowledging that it may not do the same for everyone. I am unbelievably lucky that I am someone who knows I need medication in a world where many need it and don’t realize they do until it’s too late. I usually preach about happiness and why we are all entitled to it, though some of us must fight harder for it. Today, I give a voice to the little pink pill that deserves to be known, and ask that we all fight to make the world a better place for those who haven’t found the light yet.