My Life of Anxiety & How Antidepressants Saved Me

For a long while now, psych drugs including antidepressants have been thought to work by regulating neurotransmitter deficiencies in the brain. However, this is still a theory. No matter what a doctor tells you, the medical profession still has no idea how these drugs work. Of course, there are countless studies but they do contradict sometimes. Some say antidepressants are beneficial and others show it is no different than a sugar pill. 

I’m good at hiding things. Especially my anxiety. People usually think I’m socially awkward but they don’t understand that deep down I’m analyzing everything I’m doing to make sure I’m “appeasable” to other people and don’t offend or hurt them. I’m scared that every word that comes out of my mouth has to be perfect. I reached a point in my life where my anxiety had gotten so severe that the only option was to go on medication. I had suffered with long-term anxiety and bouts of bad depression, but I was always able to (sort of) manage it. I was used to waking up in the morning before high school with a bad stomach ache and cramps- just another day with anxiety and another day where my body couldn’t control its stress levels. And then one day, when my parents told me they’d be leaving the country and I’d be all alone, this triggered something scary in me. All of a sudden I’d be in class, or on the bus, and feel like I could barely breathe. I’d try tapping my foot to distract myself or take small sips of water, but the breathless, lightheaded feeling would stay. If I was in class I’d have to leave to get some air. On the bus to university, sometimes I’d have to get off before we were even at school. Each and every day was a challenge, and I had almost no help or support besides my family. I didn’t know what was happening to me. But then one day it hit me- I realized I was having panic attacks. Oftentimes, I missed months of classes for a single class as the stress and anxiety of trying to keep up while going through this was too much. 

Things got even worse when I found out I had iron deficiency anemia and couldn’t study (or do anything for that matter) without falling asleep. I had cold hands, cold feet, my hair was falling out, and my lack of energy was seriously disturbing. I think it got progressively worse for about a year until I got a blood test and finally got some help for it. [Later on, I realized there might be a correlation between panic attacks and iron deficiency. Once I started on high strength iron pills and began to eat steak, the panic attacks also subsided (fast forward a year or two)].

I decided I needed to seek help and was prescribed a benzodiazepine called Klonopin. It is basically a tranquilizer and usually used for people with seizures and panic attacks. That stuff worked pretty well, however I was still having panic attacks… so maybe it didn’t work that great. Since antidepressants are used more long-term and klonopin is usually used for short-term bouts of panic attacks, my doctor and I decided that I should be put on an antidepressant as well (so I could wean off the klonopin). 

The first antidepressant/ SSRI I tried was Paxil. My doctor put me on it because my mum takes it, and unsurprisingly, depression/anxiety runs in my family. If my mum and I share the same genes it should work for me too right? WRONG! That stuff was literally the devil. I got nearly every side effect listed and became a crying, panicky mess. It literally kicked in the first few minutes I took it. I felt absolutely amazing for the first few hours. I felt like I could do anything- the world was my oyster. A surge of happiness and excitement came over me. Then it became bad. I started feeling crazy and emotional- all these emotions at once.  My boyfriend at the time came over only to find me on the bed crying hysterically. Unsurprisingly, not long after that we broke up. I guess it makes sense- who wants a girlfriend who can’t leave the house and cries all the time? Anyways, I only lasted about 3-4 days on that drug before I realized it wasn’t going to get better (as they tell you). After that experience I decided I was NOT going to go on an antidepressant because I wasn’t the “drug type”. Lol. So I stayed on Klonopin and long story short, decided I couldn’t live alone without my parents, so I moved with them to Australia and decided to drop out of school for a year. 

In Australia, I was still having panic attacks. The benzodiazepine that was supposedly supposed to help my panic attacks, wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t leave the house. My mum would try and take me to the grocery store just to get me out of the house, but after 5 minutes or so of feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I’d run out of the store crying. Life was horrible. I didn’t know if I’d ever return to Canada alone to finish my degree or if I’d eternally be confined to my bedroom like an invalid, incapable of leaving the house, getting a job, meeting new people, or doing anything at all besides watching Netflix all day and seeing my psychologist once a week. All my psychologist could do was recommend breathing exercises and mindfulness- which was a load of bull for someone who felt like the panic attacks were PHYSICAL and not mental. I felt like my body had control over me- my nervous system took over and my brain couldn’t do anything to help it except “breathe” and “embrace the sensations” which was torture. 

Finally, I decided I wasn’t going to be a victim anymore. I was GOING to finish my degree. I was going to go back to Canada…. alone. I decided to try another antidepressant. This time it was Lexapro, also known as escitalopram. It looked like it had the least side effects and only affected one neurotransmitter- serotonin. Paxil, the one I had taken before, had effected a bunch of neurotransmitters including norepinephrine and dopamine, so it was sloppier. If my problem was serotonin, I wanted to be on the least invasive treatment as possible. I was put on the generic form, which literally did nothing for me for 3 months. I then decided to try the name brand Lexapro, which within the first few days, kicked in and I could actually feel a difference. For the first time ever, I felt calmer, more relaxed, and my panic attacks subsided. It is now 2019 and I am still on Lexapro. I was able to move back to Canada, finish my degree, and come back to Australia. I had accomplished what I set out to do!

Being on an antidepressant saved my life and has honestly been a miracle for me. I don’t know how it worked but it worked for me, and for that I am grateful to God. I am no longer that girl who gets sick in the morning and is scared to start the day. I am no longer that girl who is scared to talk to strangers or talk to the checkout lady at the grocery store. I am more comfortable in my skin. I was able to finally build the courage to go on job interviews (I even did a 3 hour group interview and got the job!!) and get a job. I am beyond proud of myself… and reflecting on it as I write this, I don’t think it was ever easy to be proud of myself when I was an anxiety-ridden mess. Throughout this whole challenge, I’ve learnt a lot about myself- that I’m stronger than I think, and to trust my intuition. When I was cold all the time and my hair was falling out, a little voice inside me said “you might have iron deficiency”.. so I went to the doctor, and sure enough, it was iron deficiency. I also learnt that it’s ok to ask for help, and when you are in dire straits, people are kind and help you. Unexpected people like professors and other family members and friends around me offered help and I just couldn’t believe the outpouring of support for me. This love and support, coupled with a good drug, combined allowing me to graduate and move on with my life.

So, for anyone who is contemplating going on psych meds I say- if it is your last and only option- please go on it. The right drug could save your life! I also want to stress the importance of a good psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist. I didn’t really have a good one, but I’m looking for one now and I think the right behavioural therapy can really help! 

My life hasn’t been easy, but I’m growing and want to use my experiences to help others and turn something negative into a positive. This is why I want to be a psychologist. And I think, having lived experiences, I am empathetic and understanding of what others are going through. I think that any bad experience can be turned for the good. And so whoever is reading this, please just know there is always hope and help for you.

Thank you for reading and take care of yourself!

-TWP

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Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

I’ve finished my university courses and have graduated… which means I have a lot of time on my hands. I’m giving myself a 2-week break to relax and look for a job. In the meantime, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the internet researching conspiracy theories (WTF are you thinking!- I know) Of course, this isn’t a conspiracy blog and I won’t be getting into specifics… I’m not here to tell you what to believe. But what I’d like to talk about today is the way we deal with challenging ideas.

The further and further I went down the rabbit hole (so to speak), the more my beliefs and ideas were called into question. I started to panic. Ideas that I had held so dear and thought were true were being challenged… and the evidence was quite substantial. What if everything you thought was true was a lie? How would you act? In my case, I’ve been researching and following so-called “conspiracy theories” for quite some time… so I’m used to this. When faced with such horrific ideas about reality, I can’t sleep for a few days, I ruminate and I think to myself, “how am I going to change my life according to this new information?”. Of course, I don’t believe everything I read. But it’s only after much investigation that I submit to the fact that maybe- just maybe- my ideas about the world might be wrong. Maybe everyone isn’t like me- maybe everyone isn’t so good. Maybe there IS an evil cabal that controls the world and wants to destroy you (lol we’re all laughing- it’s funny.. but what if it’s true?!). After a while of crying, ruminating, not being able to sleep, and thinking, comes the last part- acceptance. I get back to my normal life, accept the evil truths, and go back to normalcy. But life can never be the same when your ideas are challenged. You act and think differently.. maybe you choose to listen to different music and watch different programs, hang out with different people, and perhaps, eat differently. When faced with challenging beliefs, we can often face a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is something everyone does. When faced with ideas that challenge our own beliefs and preconceived notions, it is extremely uncomfortable (like, REALLY uncomfortable). Our brains hate that. The brain needs a consistent and stable state to function properly (much like homeostasis). Our beliefs and ideas determine our lives and what actions we take, so if we were to constantly change opinions, our lives would be chaotic. The brain protects us from that with mechanisms like cognitive dissonance. I think this is an evolutionary adaptation- you can’t be constantly changing your ideas and beliefs, especially after you have internalized them and live according to them. But rarely, when some ESPECIALLY convincing evidence comes into view- we are faced with a decision. When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours, something must be done to eliminate the dissonance. We can discount the dissonant beliefs, avoid them and lessen them in our mind, or, the hardest part, we can change OUR beliefs to align with the dissonant ones. When you make a decision to avoid cognitive dissonance, accept the new information, and change your beliefs accordingly, your brain faces a traumatic situation. It is hard to do that but I think it is important. The goal of cognitive dissonance is self-preservation. But using cognitive dissonance as a means of self-preservation can actually accomplish the opposite- keeping one in an echo chamber of sorts, unable to adapt to new information, and in a state of denial about the world. At what point does self-preservation become self-harm? When should we confront hard truths and face them head on?

Why is it that people who confront their beliefs head on are seen as “conspiracy theorists” and crazy? Why is someone labelled “crazy” for believing we never went to the moon, or the Illuminati is real, or there is an evil cabal of Satanists at the top that control the banks and the whole world? What if those things were true? Are we in denial?  Just because the information isn’t made popular in media, does that mean it isn’t real? We see people who believe in such things as lunatics… but we have no evidence to contradict them. What if we listened to them, researched their information, and came to find out they were right? Of course, we could also find out they were wrong- which would be a welcome relief.

In life, there will always be information that challenges our beliefs. Instead of going into cognitive dissonance as a protective mechanism, I think all of us should take some time to face those uncomfortable truths and perhaps examine our beliefs and opinions and change them if they need to be changed. It may be uncomfortable in the short term, but in the long run, it allows you to adapt to a changing world and grow as a person- and that is truly a better way of self-preservation.

Anyways, I think I’ve had enough of conspiracy theories for now. Time to relax and watch some movies in my PJ’s.

Take care of yourselves,

-The Wild Psychologist