I’m not addicted to my anti-depressants

A response to Benedict Carey and Robert Gebeloff’s New York Times article

Pharmaceutical epidemics are all over the news. From the opioid crisis to antidepressants, no form of prescription is safe from the question of whether or not withdrawing from these drugs, let alone prescribing them in the first place, is safe. With the current trends of aromatherapy through essential oils and diffusers, considering a switch to more homeopathic remedies to ease the burden of mental illness is appealing. But for many, staying away from pharmaceuticals is not a viable option.

Depression is a complex mental illness. There isn’t just one cause and one treatment. Every individual who suffers from depression has their own unique reasons why their depression started and, with that, need their own way to manage their illness. According to Harvard Health, “[r]esearchers believe that — more important than levels of specific brain chemicals — nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression.” Links, reported by the same Harvard Health article, have been discovered between the slow production of new neurons in the hippocampus and low moods associated with depression. This is where antidepressants can help: “These medications immediately boost the concentration of chemical messengers in the brain (neurotransmitters).” But these medications aren’t a magic fix. Research, combined with personal experience, shows that it takes up to a month for a user to start feeling the effects of their antidepressants.

“[Antidepressants] immediately boost the concentration of chemical messengers in the brain (neurotransmitters).”

Waiting to feel better, to even find out if this medication is a good fit for you, is hard. To be made a guinea pig because there are no clear tests covered by insurance companies that help determine what medicines will work for you is hard. What’s even worse is getting to a place where your antidepressant that’s worked for years suddenly stops working and your choice is up your prescription or switch to something else.

I, a young woman of child-bearing age with some inclinations of having kids in the possible near future, came to this crossroads when I was on Paxil. Paxil, while a favorite of many primary care physicians I have come in contact with, is not recommended for people with the intention of getting pregnant. Paxil is, unfortunately, toxic to pregnancies. My psychiatrist recommended being completely Paxil-free for at least three months before trying to get pregnant. So when it came time to up my prescription or change to something else, I decided to try nothing for awhile and see where that got me. After all, I’d been working with a therapist who was helping me find Ayurvedic remedies and firmly believed the best medicine was healthy food.

Three months later, I was back in my doctor’s office with the hope that there was some other drug out there that would help me. Between crying all of the time, pulling out chunks of my hair (I still have some well-hidden bald spots that I get to explain to my hair dresser), and having zero motivation to pack and move, let alone decorate, my newly purchased house I knew I needed some help. Not to mention the pounds I put on in a return to binge-eating my feelings. Being physically alone was so uncomfortable I had to raid the fridge to feel better.

So we started me on Prozac.

Since then things have gotten better. Steady. Prozac hasn’t been a magic pill that makes me feel happy all of the time, or even a good portion of the time. What it does is help me get through the day. To find motivation. To be able to handle being alone and not need to raid the kitchen cupboards to fill a void. What my antidepressant has done is helped curb my worst impulses.

“Prozac hasn’t been a magic pill that makes me feel happy all of the time, or even a good portion of the time. What it does is help me get through the day.”

In their article, Carey and Gebeloff point to the role of antidepressants as something that was supposed to be a temporary solution for a temporary problem. This rules out the idea that genetics come into play in determining mental illness. This also rules out the idea that things like stress and trauma don’t have long-term effects on a person’s ability to cope with life. Harvard Health claims that, “[m]any researchers believe that early trauma causes subtle changes in brain function that account for depression and anxiety.” What we’re learning about antidepressants, and depression itself, is that for many people, mental illness is not a temporary issue. Mental illness — depression, anxiety — is something that can come down to biology.

What the article suggests is that, like with opioids, patients on antidepressants can’t get off of them. If they try, they suffer through terrible withdrawal symptoms. For some people, this is true. Weaning off of Paxil wasn’t a pleasant experience. For those years that Paxil was working for me, however, the withdrawal experience was worth it. Not only did I not have to up my prescription dosage, but I also was able to find something that worked better for me at helping to manage my anxiety and depression. Can I live without my antidepressants? Sure. But what quality of life would I have? What quality of life would others have, who rely on antidepressants and other psychiatric medications to help balance their emotions?

“Can I live without my antidepressants? Sure. But what quality of life would I have?”

To frame those on antidepressants as being addicts, unable to wean off of their drug of choice, furthers the stigma against those with mental illness and those who choose to take medication. In demonizing these people, we’re further alienating them. Beyond alienation, we’re ignoring the disgusting way society looks at those who need help. The idea that anyone can just roll out of bed and keep going, no matter what, stems from this American idea that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But this doesn’t take into account genetics, biology, and life experience. This outlook offers no compassion to those who need it.

We need long-term solutions for managing mental illness. We need changes in society that move away from the idea that we need to be workaholics who fear talk therapy, exercise, and medication that is being prescribed to help us. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are not just going to go away. It’s time to invest in research to help those long-term sufferers instead of belittling them and the doctors trying to help them.