Hello, my name is Erica Berman and I take an antidepressant.
Shocked? Do you think I’m crazy to admit it? Or just plain crazy? Well think what you want.
I have been taking a low dose of a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) for almost four years, not for depression, but for anxiety. Yes, in case you were unaware, some antidepressants are very helpful for controlling anxiety.
I have always been a worrier/anxious/perfectionistic…you know the type! But things spun out of control shortly after my youngest daughter was born. I found handling a newborn and a toddler (my older daughter was three at the time) very difficult, and my little one was a terrible sleeper during the night. I don’t handle sleep deprivation well and have always been prone to insomnia, and this, as you can imagine, is not a good combination.
By the time she was four-months-old, and still waking repeatedly at night, I had developed severe insomnia, sleeping no more than three-four hours a night, even when she was sleeping. I would wake up anywhere between 12 and 4 a.m. and my mind would start spinning. My brain felt like a VCR set to fast forward on a never-ending tape. I could not get thoughts or worries out of my head, even if they were completely insignificant. I couldn’t listen to any music with lyrics or the songs would repeat in my head over-and-over for hours or even days (I never liked Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” but now I despise it!).
I would also obsess about something happening to one of my girls or to my husband. I wouldn’t let them leave the house without me first telling them to be careful. My husband would roll his eyes and say to me, “As if I would be reckless if you didn’t tell me that!” I would have images go through my mind of terrible accidents happening to them that would be so vivid I would almost be brought to tears. And then there was the whole hand washing thing. What had started as a ‘concern’ with hygiene during my pregnancies to protect my unborn children, became a full-blown phobia of contamination. I couldn’t go to a public place without obsessing about every surface or door handle I couldn’t avoid touching. I had Purell in every bag and pocket. I spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about what I might have to touch. In short, I was a complete mess.
Ironically, when my youngest daughter was six months old I began studying to obtain my Masters of Counselling Psychology. I knew that I was struggling with anxiety and that I needed help. I got a referral to a clinical psychologist in my area who specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), one of the gold-standard treatments for anxiety and insomnia.
After the initial assessment, the psychologist informed me that I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and possibly, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I was relieved to finally understand what was going on with me, but frightened, given that I was just reading for school about how difficult GAD can be to treat. He recommended 12 sessions of CBT but he also said he thought I might benefit from trying Venlafaxine.
Frankly, I would have been willing to eat live scorpions at that point, if someone told me it would help. So I got a prescription. On my first try, I found the side-effects so bothersome (loss of appetite, dizziness), that I quit after four-five days, even though I knew they usually dissipate. But I was struggling so much, that a few weeks later I gave them another try. After two weeks I had no more side-effects, I was sleeping for the first time in months and many of the other symptoms had disappeared. I felt like a new woman and I was ecstatic.
Given the positive experience I had, I find it interesting that now in my experience as a counsellor so many of the clients I see fear antidepressants. Now I know that I am not speaking to a representative sample, we only hear the opposite in the media: reports about the enormous and increasing numbers of North Americans who take antidepressants. In fact, most commentators worry that these drugs are being overused and overprescribed, that they are potentially dangerous, and unnecessarily driving up health care costs. I am not disputing any of that.
I would never claim that antidepressants or any other psychiatric drugs are right for everyone or for every mental health issue. But what I find strange is the assumption that many people who are unwilling to take them have about them: they believe they fundamentally alter who you are the same way brain-washing or an implanted computer microchip might.
But when used appropriately, these drugs are no different than medications you might take to treat diabetes, thyroid disorders, or high blood pressure. They are not meant to change who you are but to bring you back to a place of optimum functioning. Your brain, after all, is just another organ, like your heart, pancreas or liver. There is not really a dichotomy between mind and body. Neuroplasticity research, after all, has demonstrated that experience can alter your brain just like exercise can alter your muscles.
In contrast to what many of my clients believe, I feel like I was able to get back to the person I really am: Someone who sleeps through the night, is happy, full of energy and loves going out and socializing; Someone who loves listening to music with lyrics; Someone who doesn’t spend all of her time and energy worrying and obsessing about insignificant things; Someone who doesn’t have to carry Purell with her everywhere she goes; Someone who worries about her kids, but in a normal mom-concern-sort-of-way.
So it seems odd to me that many individuals who are seriously struggling with anxiety or depression have no problem drinking alcohol (which alters brain function!) and, even after trying every single naturopathic, homeopathic, Traditional Chinese Medicine remedy, acupuncture, massage, or other alternative therapy, and not found anything that helps, will still refuse to even consider taking any psychiatric medications.
Perhaps too many North Americans who should not be taking antidepressants, are. But I also have to wonder if perhaps many people who are not taking them, should be?