I have been on drugs for about six years, give or take. Prozac and Buspiron. Prozac for depression and Buspiron for its evil twin sister, anxiety. There were others, too. Many others until my doctor "found the right balance." My mother is on antidepressants, as is my sister, as was my brother, as is about one in three friends I have.
I can't remember how I got started on them -- well, we can surmise I was depressed.
But mostly, I think it was because I was living in Los Angeles.
Let me explain.
I am an American by way of a heavy-duty dose of Irish and Scottish blood. You know, the pale, poetic, melancholic types just north of the Olympics? I am also a writer. Given to periods of introspection so intense that I can work up a good cry about the state of the world over bagels and coffee in the morning.
Here's the kicker that my psychiatrist loves to point out. Suicide runs in my family. I lost my brother to it. My cousin tried five times. Both of my great-grandfathers offed themselves -- one by hanging, the other by jumping off a building in Seattle. This makes me, according to the shrink, a bit of a red-flag case.
Something like five or six years back, I signed up and got on the antidepressant train. It seemed to help a lot. I didn't experience the flattening out of emotions that is so often reported. I just felt -- better.
But a few years later, anxiety began to eat away at me. So I got an anti-anxiety medication as well. Booyah. Much better.
I moved to Israel a few months ago. An anxiety-inducing place if ever there was one. After a 17-hour flight and much lugging of luggage to a hotel and then a temporary apartment, I forgot to take my medication. First it was one day, then another. Then a week went by. But I felt -- fine. I was overwhelmed by the cultural shift and the language barrier but these things struck me as natural.
Soon it was two weeks. I panicked -- oh no! Was I going to go into an anxiety-depression death spiral?? Suicide runs in my family!
But something odd happened. Not only did I not spiral into anything -- I felt better. Clearer, cleaner, more awake. No, Julie, I said to myself, summoning the spirit of my very expensive psychiatrist in LA -- no, that's just the depression talking. TAKE your MEDS. So I went back on them. Immediately, my anxiety skyrocketed.
That's just the medication settling back in, give it a couple of weeks, I thought. It takes awhile for the medication to take effect. But they were the most miserable two weeks of my life. So I went renegade. I stopped taking them again.
And I feel fine Great. Better than I have felt in years. Even though Syria is about three hours from where I live in Tel Aviv and there is much chatter of missiles, chemical weapons and such being pointed at Israel. I should be flipped out. But I'm not. Am I fooling myself? Am I having some kind of chemical Roman Holiday that deceives me into thinking I am okay without my mood disorder drugs? Do I have a mood disorder? Who do I trust? My doctor? My medications? Myself?
Back in LA, my friends and I bandied about the various drugs and their names casually and with ease. We see ourselves as warriors fighting the stigma of depression. Effexor, Celexor, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Lexapro. We discussed and debated the relative helpfulness and side effects of these drugs as if we were discussing where to buy the best fruit. Everybody is on something. It's the way it is. Aren't we lucky we have these drugs now?
In the months preceding my brother's suicide, he was on a powerful and revolving cocktail of antidepressants. His doctors combined and recombined his dosages and medications as if they were playing with a Rubiks's Cube -- the pattern and outcome of which was unknown to them. Better. He would feel better.
I am proponent of de-stigmatizing depressing and anxiety -- all mental illness, for that matter. I saw Frances. I know what can happen. There is no doubt in my mind that depression and anxiety are serious and sometimes debilitating conditions. There's no way it should go unaddressed. When you are depressed, the whole world is grayed out with a set of spectacles that cover your vision with a milky haze of futility, pointlessness and melancholy. Before long, this seems normal. You just don't know what it feels like to feel hopeful, inspired or energized. It is a terrible way to live. It is a kind of hell.
Over time, I flipped back and forth between a belief that creatives just deal with depression as some sort of default and a belief that depression is a mental illness, sort of akin to diabetes. My brain just doesn't cook up enough serotonin the way yours does. So I supplement. I do a little chemistry cook up every day so that I can feel bad about something the same way you might -- a disappointment, a failure, a sadness -- but then replace that chemical imbalance with feeling better via my 90 mgs of Prozac and 10 mgs of Buspiron each day.
Somewhat of an autodidact, I read The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon and was fascinated by it. I didn't read Prozac Nation because I felt somehow insulted by it -- is the author saying that my Prozac dosage does not address something significant -- something real? How can the author -- who surely must never have dealt with depression, noonday demon indeed, minimize the impact of it? No. This book I would not read.
Here is what I have gleaned from my experiences on the med train -- nobody really knows how or why antidepressants work. When doctors up this dosage or switch to a different medication, they are simply shooting in the dark. They have theories and ideas but in fact, nobody really knows how anti-depressants work.
As the survivor of a suicide that wrenched my heart and my family in two, I will never be one to minimize depression and its potential impact. Depression is a terrible thing and many suffer needlessly, including the families left behind when someone decides to end it.
But five months clean and feeling just fine -- I am beginning to wonder about the skyrocketing use of antidepressants in America. I know I am late to the party. Call it a first-person expat observation. Distance, perspective and all that.
Because I am my father's daughter and therefore averse to cynical or sweeping generalizations, I hesitate to blame Pharmerica, wholesale, for plying its citizenry with drugs it doesn't need. I hesitate to believe something that evil is happening.
I'm not averse to the idea -- the thought -- that the food additives and sugar intake Americans consume by the metric ton (thank you, Monsantamerica) may be connected as well. But surely, something is wrong. Americans live in the most prosperous, stable and (relatively speaking) safe country in the world. So -- why are we so medicated? Is it the go-go lifestyle of Americans or the normalization of being on meds?
I live in the Middle East, arguably the most contentious, complicated place in the world. Conflict here is ancient, deathless and tangled. Over time, I have come to believe that the solution is a Gordian Knot of simplicity -- who benefits from this conflict?
Who benefits from American's addiction to antidepressants? I'm beginning to think it is not you. Or me.
If you are on medication -- stay on it. Don't go renegade without your doctor's advice. But -- can you trust your doctor? Does he or she really understand what he or she is giving you? Could it be the food that you eat, the chemicals that you breathe, or the sugar in your Coke that is affecting you?
Are we indeed living in Prozac nation? And if so, how can we ease off of it in a way that puts us back in the zone of awareness, self-care and self-empowerment?
When one is told that one cannot trust one's own judgment -- one does wonder who stands to gain from that assertion. Who is in the driver's seat, really? If 1 in 10 Americans takes antidepressants, is it possible that something different is at work here than an increased awareness of depression and easy access to relief in the form of a blue pill?
All I know is that I live in a war zone, I am not on meds and I feel better than I have felt in years. I'm not yet at the point where I trust my own judgment -- perhaps I am fooling myself, I fear. Perhaps I am experiencing some kind of experiential honeymoon period, with too many other things to focus on and absorb and so my foggy depression is simply not front and center in my brain. Or am I?
Tentatively, I explore this brave new world of the unmedicated and I feel naked. Scared. Will it come to seize me, unexpectedly, the depression? Will the anxiety snake around my ankles and pull me back down to hell?
Or is living in another country, where the day-to-day realities are outside of the American bell jar simply giving me a new, fresh view of what it is to live, sans medication? Perhaps I escaped the inadvertent slumber of American life, where medications, food additives and consumerism have captivated millions.
Is America living in the Matrix? Has America taken the blue pill?
For more by Julie Gray, click here.
For more on mental health, click here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.