My Beautiful Life On And Off Meds

By Ijeoma Oluo

flickr/Corey Holms (image has been altered)

I’m watching a British murder mystery and I’m crying. I love British murder mysteries — they’re pretty much the only TV shows I watch — but the entire time I’ve been watching this show on this day, I’ve been crying. As I blink back tears, my anxiety starts to rise. This isn’t normal. People aren’t supposed to cry during every episode of this show. Something’s wrong with you. But then I take a few deep breaths and say to myself:

You’re just someone who cries at British murder mysteries now.

I cry not only during British murder mysteries, but also during any and all commercials, every feel-good viral video, every baby I see, every puppy I encounter, every poignant sentence I read in a novel. I also spend the entire week before my period convinced that I have no real friends, that I am likely dying of every disease, that I will never find love, that if I don’t find love I’ll explode, that I’m the most hideous-looking monster ever born, that I’m the worst writer to ever mangle the English language, that I’m a horrible mother.

When my teenager is home late from school, it takes about 20 minutes for me to decide that he’s run away or worse. Every headache I get is cancer. Every cough I get is cancer. That tingling sensation in my toes is definitely cancer. When my ears start ringing loudly, I can’t go to any social events. If I do, the anxiety hangover will leave me bedridden the next day. Still activities, like reading or listening to music, always threaten to send me spiraling into my own anxious and judgemental thoughts. I avoid quiet like the plague.

This is me. Or rather, this is my life unmedicated, which I currently am. I went off my depression and anxiety meds a few months ago. I had a feeling that with the medications, I was doing better, but I missed things that my medication had denied me. I missed wanting friends. I missed wanting sex. I missed feeling really happy or excited. I missed crying. I wanted to be able to feel sun on my face and feel it warm my soul instead of just my skin. I had spent a month or two romanticizing my unmedicated life before I decided to wean myself off the meds again.

At first, it was everything I’d fantasized about. Food tasted delicious, jokes were funnier, sad movies were sadder, my pillow was softer, my friends were lovelier. I watched porn for the first time in months, I made out with people on dates. I was robust and alive.

But then, a few months after stopping meds, the reality of my life and my condition set in. All of the positives stayed — sex is still better, books are still better, my writing is better, so much is better. But a night dressed up on the town, full of compliments, is now almost guaranteed to be followed by a day of depression and self-loathing, rooted in the belief that the night before was a fluke — a lie that could never happen again. My need and excitement for companionship is now met with fear and anticipation of crushing rejection — real or imagined. My love of friends is matched by my absolute confidence that there is no way they could actually love somebody as fucked up as me. My improved writing is measured by my inability to keep a deadline and the unwavering belief that I will lose my house, my kids, and die penniless and alone.

This is what my anxiety looks like. I’ve struggled with it my entire life, and often, I do quite well. When I do well, it is not purely because of my effort — in fact, it’s mostly due to environment and luck. When the weather is nice, when nobody in my family is sick or in crisis, when I can pay my bills, when my physical health is good, I can manage my lifelong anxiety with exercise, meditation, and engaging hobbies. For me, “managing” means a few pretty bad days a month and a few pretty bad moments a day, but I’m out of bed and moving and able to get some joy from the world. But when Seattle returns to its famous cold and gray weather, and money gets tight, and my kids struggle in school, my anxiety turns into a depression that renders me immobile — trapped in my bed for days at a time. When things are bad, I cease to be anything but my anxiety and depression. When things are bad, I go back on medication.

It took me a while to understand that those times when I need to go back on medication are not indicative of failure. In fact, recognizing when I need more help and taking action allows me to exert the sort of control I’d been waiting for my entire life.

Now, my life is no longer a series of victories and defeats regarding my mental health, but the sustained victory of me doing what I need to do for myself. Sometimes that means holding tight through the wave of depression that I know will only last a few days. Sometimes it means calling my doctor for help with the lake of depression that I just can’t seem to swim out of. My life is the beautiful and ugly highs and lows of creativity and anxiety and sometimes depression, and it’s also the welcome, numbing respite of pharmaceutical-induced calm that allows me to survive winters, put some money in savings, and finish book proposals.

Right now, unmedicated, I’m okay. Right now, the anxiety and the tears are all worth it. I’m going outside more, I’m seeing friends I haven’t seen in months, I’m laughing a lot. I know that this is unlikely to last through the year, so I hope to make the best of it. I hope to get some really great shit done.

That may sound like a chaotic and frantic life, but it’s not. Chaotic and frantic was before, when I couldn’t understand why I acted the way I did, when I would let waves of depression pull me into months of self-loathing, when I was at the complete mercy of my brain’s chemicals with no idea when my brain would turn on me or for how long. Anxiety and depression can be chronic illnesses. And just like any chronic illness, they are improved greatly by regimen. For some, that regimen is running and yoga; for others, it’s therapy and meds. For me, sometimes it’s therapy, sometimes it’s meds, sometimes it’s long walks on the trail by my house. And like with many chronic illnesses, sometimes no interventions work, and those are some pretty dark times. But even then, I have the comfort of knowing why.

I’m getting used to my unmedicated life again. Last night, I canceled plans to hang out with friends after a speaking engagement, because the ringing in my ears told me that I’d taxed myself enough. But because I rested, I may have enough energy to get the social interaction I need over coffee today. Right now, I’m typing this essay while telling myself that I do not actually have to check my phone every five minutes to ensure that my kids are okay and that some unnamed disaster hasn’t befallen somebody I love.

Even though I’m only able to talk so honestly and clearly about my anxiety and depression in this essay is because I’m currently unmedicated, it’s also a day late — as many of my essays are likely to be until winter meds reduce these distractions.

And that’s okay, it’s who I am. It’s beautiful, and it’s enough.

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