In college, I had a mental breakdown and a psychiatrist saved my life. She prescribed me an antidepressant (Prozac), mood stabilizer (Lamictal), and sedative (Ativan). Off and on, I took sleeping pills (Ambien) and an anti-psychotic prescribed off-label for depression (Abilify). It was a relief to be given a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, and I rewrote my rocky history in medical terms. The loneliness in the company of loved ones and strangers alike, the lack of color or sound unless it was painful, the inability to sleep or get out of bed or feel connected or feel anything, the desire to slit huge, gaping lines down my wrists … This was depression which could be treated. The intense fear of everything, the inability to act even if it was something I wanted to do, this was anxiety and it could be treated.
My doctor and I didn’t talk about the string of weeks that I’d spent in front of the computer in high school, typing until my wrists hurt and pain ran down to my elbows, pumping out a novel-length manuscript as a manic episode which would end as a side effect of treatment. We didn’t talk about the flight of ideas, the bliss and bursts of creative energy for days or weeks at a time as hypomania which would end as a side effect of treatment. What mattered, then, was saving my life.
For years, I was a mental health advocate and prescription pill junkie. Then I decided to get off of medication. I wanted to do it because I couldn’t stop thinking about how life on medication felt inauthentic, as if I were a different version of myself while the true me was tied down somewhere in a back room. I understood that I had chemical imbalances that medication kept in check, but on a more spiritual and personal level, I had to find out what life was like without pills.
When I got off of medication, unsurprisingly, I was launched into a hypomanic state. Hypomania is like mania-lite. Here’s how I described it in my journal as it was happening:
I am so happy I feel like I’m dancing in bliss with an intensified vividity of sensual experience, energy, and creative flow. Imagine, how happy a feeling like that is, the feeling that you could spend your entire life doing what you love, what makes you happiest. It is the highest ecstasy I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience. I want this feeling and I welcome this feeling. I don’t think I want to ever give up this feeling again.
I don’t know how many hours, days or even months of hypomania I lost to the medication that kept me from descending into depression and suicidality. Looking back, I know the pills saved my life, but I’m concerned about how much they took away from me and how much they could be taking away from other people.
In truth, I became addicted to Ativan and at my worst took eight times the dose that would cause most people to pass out cold. I was lucky not to be one of over 9,000 people who died of a benzo overdose in 2015.
Way back in 1976, Dr. David Knott warned against benzodiazepines like Ativan, saying, “I have seen damage to the cerebral cortex that I believe is due to the use of these drugs, and I am beginning to wonder if the damage is permanent.” I can speak from personal experience: My memory is total shit.
Antidepressants save lives, but Prozac dulled the life it saved and prevented me from experiencing more vibrant, meaningful and transformative mind states. In clinical terms, it kept me stable. In basic English, it made me really boring. As my sister put it, she didn’t recognize me anymore, and she was scared. For many others, specifically teens and young adults, antidepressants can double suicidality. We have proof of this, yet we shovel them out like candy.
The list of side effects and harms goes on, and the issues with corruption in prescription drug companies are too horrifying and undeniable for one article.
Someday, I figure my depression will come back, and I’ll have to decide how to deal with it: to get back on pills, return to therapy, or do something else. I know that by being off of medication, I’m taking that risk. Until that time comes, though, I’m going to enjoy living the life I’d lost for years. I’m going to dive into deeper experiences of bliss, excitement, anxiety and sadness alike. I want the full spectrum of human experience. I didn’t have this on medication.
This isn’t a purely anti-prescription drugs article. I believe prescription drugs may have saved my life. This is, though, a warning from someone who lost a lot from taking them. Be careful. Do your research. And don’t feel like they’re a life sentence if you’re questioning your decision to take them.
The place people like me need to be is where mental illness doesn’t win yet medication doesn’t kill more than the depression. Psychiatry isn’t there yet, hasn’t quite found how to do this, at least not for everyone. But I want to keep discovering myself, and I’m going to try to find that balance the best I can.