With a little help from antidepressants

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This month, The American Recall Center is encouraging conversations online and offline about medication safety (check out their post on the newly-discovered side effects of Xarelto). Judy, their Outreach Coordinator, got in touch recently asking if I’d be willing to write about my own experience with medication. I realized I’ve hardly (publicly) talked about the role of antidepressants in my road to recovery, and so I thought this could be a good place to start.

For 3 months or so, I’ve been getting by with a little help from Lexapro (or escitalopram). Owing to my own stubbornness, compounded by my ignorance about the nature and effects of antidepressants, I waited almost 6 months into this current cycle of depression before agreeing to be medicated. There are a few things I wish I’d known earlier, which I hope could be helpful to you or someone you know:

Antidepressants are not magic pills that will “make us forget all our pains” a la Helen’s drug in The Odyssey, as many people might assume. People looking for a “quick fix” would be disappointed, and it is unfortunate and irresponsible that antidepressants are overprescribed to people who don’t necessarily need them. On the flip side, they are underprescribed to those who actually need them, but are wary and skeptical of antidepressants. I belonged to the second camp.

I was under the impression that antidepressants were mood-altering drugs that would do no more that make me numb to my problems. So to me, to take antidepressants would be to live in denial. And since living with integrity is of paramount importance, this was a huge no-no. For half a year I resisted my parents’ and then-boyfriend’s persistent efforts to get me to see a psychiatrist, until eventually caving in only because I felt guilty for making them so anxious. “Oh, you’re definitely depressed,” the doctor told me as I tried to argue incoherently that I was simply seeing the true terribleness of my existence. She prescribed Lexapro. I brazenly told her, “This is not what I need. What use would it be to feel better and still be this despicable person that I am?” She asked matter-of-factly if I had anything to lose. I guess I didn’t. Perhaps at the very least I would stop embarrassing myself by sitting on road curbs or hugging lamp posts while sobbing about being alive.

Most antidepressants take about 4-6 weeks before they start taking effect. (There’s also a very real possibility that a particular antidepressant may have no effect, or none that is substantial, even after that period. In that case, your doctor would put you on a different antidepressant.) I first noticed it when I began moving around a lot more than usual while in the shower. Considering that I’d recently found myself curled up in a fetal position under running water, that was a big deal. On the same day, I also found myself having enough energy and motivation to finally clean up my bedroom from corner to corner. Overall, I began feeling generally “lighter”, while remaining acutely aware that I was still struggling with negative thoughts and a low self-esteem.

That leads me to the next point: the first symptoms to improve will be energy level, concentration, and motivation. And the last to improve will be your low mood and feelings of hopelessness. I was experiencing improvements in my ability to think, read, articulate myself, and perform basic, everyday tasks. And yet I continued to hate myself and have a bleak outlook on life. I mistakenly thought this was a confirmation of my initial understanding of antidepressants.

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That period before your mood begins to improve can be dangerous. While my suicidal thoughts used to be purely fantastical, during this period, I began to think they were actually quite reasonable and doable (it scares me to admit this now). This is a very real danger for anyone starting out on antidepressants: you might begin to have energy and cognitive ability to actually execute suicide plans. If a loved one is relatively new on antidepressants, please be more attentive and vigilant than usual. It is also important that they are taking these antidepressants under regular consultation with their doctor. He/she will be able to assess how well the patient is reacting to it, if there’s a need to adjust the dosage or switch to a different kind, etc.

I have come to a point where my mood has improved remarkably, and where I’m starting to have much healthier and more realistic thoughts. There is still one more thing I or anyone in my position should remember: do not stop taking your antidepressants at this point. During this cycle of depression, I was informed by my doctor that at whichever point I start feeling “fine”, I will actually need to stay on my medication, and at that optimal dosage, for an additional 9 months to maintain the balance within my body.

I’m also seeing a counselor regularly, even though I didn’t think I needed it anymore. When I found out what a long wait list there was, I told her, “You know, you should just give my slot to someone who needs it more than I do. I’m honestly quite okay nowadays.” However, she told me that given my history of recurrent major depression, it’s important that I continued to see someone to process what’s happened, and also so that the symptoms can be caught much earlier when depression returns. Experience with previous episodes confirm this: inadequate treatment can lead to relapse and recurrence. We should also note that it’s been well documented that the risk of recurrence increases with each subsequent episode. It’s not something we want to gamble with.

Lexapro is an SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, one of the main classes of newer antidepressants. SSRIs act on a chemical in the brain called serotonin (a neurotransmitter), which helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Its many functions in the brain include the regulation of our moods, and many researchers believe that a serotonin deficit leads to depression. SSRIs elevate the level of serotonin in the brain by inhibiting its reuptake. They do not alter our personalities. I also strongly recommend talking to a counselor to complement the medication, and your doctor will most likely say the same. The medication will help us be better receptive to adjustments to our thought processes achieved through counseling, so these go hand in hand!

While depression distorts our perceptions, there are very real hurts in our lives that need to be healed, and real problems to be solved. We need to be in the right frame of mind and have adequate energy to be able to deal with them, and that’s where antidepressants come in. We are “dependent” on them only in the sense that someone with a broken foot has to depend on crutches until he recovers.

My final concern, and this will be pertinent to fellow Christians, is where psychiatric medication falls in our theological framework. We recognize the limitations (and dangers) of psychiatry when taken to reductionist, materialistic directions. It is preposterous to oversimplify mental illness as “chemical imbalance in the brain”, though I have definitely been guilty of that. The Church teaches that the human being is a union of body and soul — what affects physically will also affect us spiritually. We need a physician for our body, and we most certainly and desperately need a physician for our soul, and that is Christ. Seeking medical treatment is not to turn our backs on God — all truth is one; the wisdom amassed in the field of psychiatry, when rightly applied, is part of God’s gift to us. (Highly recommended reading: The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty, MD with Fr. John Cihak.) At the same time, we also don’t want to come to view antidepressants as a guarantor against suffering, for we know that in this lifetime there will always be suffering. But we take comfort in that with God we can offer our suffering for something greater than ourselves (I will save this another time — I know it’s not an easy thought to swallow — I will admit it is also rather difficult for me at this moment and I have much to learn from the saints who so lovingly carried their crosses).

I’ll end here for now. Unsure about anything? Talk to a medical professional. All I can share is based on my own experiences, plus some information from trusted sources — I am in no way qualified to dole out expert advice!

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“As we turn to …

“As we turn to the fundamental principles of physics, we discover that order does not really emerge from chaos, as we might naively assume; it always emerges from greater and more impressive order already present at a deeper level. . . . The simplicity to which scientific reductionism leads us, then, is of a very paradoxical kind. It is a simplicity that is by no means simpleminded.”

–Stephen M. Barr in Fearful Symmetries