I have spent the majority of my life so far hiding my thoughts and feelings from myself and everyone around me. I convinced myself that no one would care about the things I struggled with, or that people would simply think I was an attention-seeking fool incapable of handling my responsibilities if I asked for help. I have said things to myself that are infinitely more cruel than anything somebody in real life has ever said to me. And after years of convincing myself that my problems weren’t real or worth caring about, COVID came along and knocked me down further into my mental black hole than I had ever been before. Through a lot of encouragement from my loved ones, my therapist, and eventually myself, I gave myself permission to seek help and got prescribed some antidepressants.
I’ve now been on my SSRI medication (Lexapro) for two full months. In some ways, because we all live inside our own heads, I didn’t think much in my way of moving about the world had changed. But along the way I have heard from several people in my life — whether I asked them directly or they just felt compelled to tell me themselves — that I seem to be on the up and up, and that got me thinking. It’s not that I’m fundamentally different as a person; it’s just that the layers of my personality are able to shine through more easily when they aren’t covered behind many layers of protective anxiety and trepidation.
In sharing this, I hope to bring comfort or some sort of usefulness to people like myself that have hesitated getting on medication for so long, or maybe those just starting their journey on these kinds of medicines. Here are the major differences I’ve noticed:
The Ability to Relax
I’ve always been the kind of person that thinks I’m not stressed, and then I realize my shoulders are raised up with tension or that my fingers/toes are curled up trying to hold on for dear life. When the COVID outbreak began in the US, my anxiety dialed itself up several notches. I started to have some physical symptoms I hadn’t experienced before: frequent abdominal pain, more frequent headaches, waking up in the night with racing thoughts, and suddenly becoming aware that my heart was beating so fast it felt it could break through my chest…even when I thought I was “relaxed.”
Since starting to take Lexapro, I actually am able to detect the tension in my body. At first, the ability to sit on the couch and fully relax into it, for example, made me feel drowsy (more on that later) from the sheer absence of tightness and tension. There have only been maybe two instances I can remember where my heart was beating super fast due to anxiousness. My abdominal pain and headaches still occur from time to time — we are still in 2020 — but it’s much less frequent of a concern, and usually not severe enough to prevent me from carrying on with my day anymore.
I’ve never consistently had any trouble going to sleep at night, which I’m told is a bit strange for someone with severe anxiety during the day, but since starting Lexapro, laying down to sleep feels different. It feels like when I close my eyes and let myself fully relax, I’m melting into our mattress — in a good way, not a “Johnny Depp in Nightmare on Elm Street” kind of way. I truly just didn’t realize exactly how much tension I held onto before, even when sitting down or laying down. It’s wild!
The Ability to Enjoy Things
Depression and anxiety are an evil, conniving duo, and I will never forgive them for stealing away so many hours of my life that I could have spent playing video games, reading books, or watching Netflix. “Free time” as an adult is precious, and yet for years now I haven’t been able to allow myself to spend it in the way I desired because my anxiety would say: “You can’t just sit here for an hour reading; imagine how many lesson plans you could make!” or “Two hours spent watching a movie would be better spent learning a skill.”
When I did ultimately break through that barrier in spite of myself, it was then hard for me to be present and actually enjoy what I was doing. If it wasn’t anxiety that stopped me, it was depression. I would be too tired or fatigued to do anything besides doomscroll on my phone — which, guess what, makes you more depressed— or it would seem too pointless to do anything at all.
Now, I don’t feel such a heavy weight on my shoulders when it comes to how I spent my time outside of work hours. I’ve pursued new things I’ve always been interested in but didn’t have the spoons for previously — bullet journaling, hand lettering, beta reading for self-publishing authors — and brought back old passions that are now much easier to devote my time to: practicing violin, reading for pleasure, and writing again, like I am right now! In fact, sometimes I now am paralyzed when choosing what to do because I want to do so many things and I’m allowing myself to have those options. I had forgotten how that freedom felt.
The Ability to Self-Soothe
It still feels surreal to say this in the past tense, but previously, my “normal” was to go into a spiral of anxiety at least a few times a week. I would take something small that had happened — a slight pain in my side, a text from a friend that seemed a bit too pointed, a terrifying news headline — and fixate on it, filling in the blanks and “what if”s with my own worries and insecurities, gradually making the problem seem bigger and bigger until I had effectively paralyzed myself mentally. Suddenly, I was sure I had a terminal illness, or that all of my friends wanted nothing to do with me, or some other awful fabrication not based in fact.
Through going to therapy for about a year prior to adding medication to the mix, I had of course gained some skills in this area and was able to identify when the spiral was happening, but I was not always able to stop it from consuming me. As I’m naturally inclined to not want to share my personal feelings with people, this also meant I would suffer in silence and/or had a hard time divulging to someone why I was upset about a scenario I had heavily manufactured in my own head.
Medication has changed the game for me on this topic. In general, sometimes I just…feel ok! I just don’t feel anxious! I think to myself on those days, “Is this how neurotypical people feel all the time?” But even on days when the anxiety is present, I’m way better at detecting the incoming anxienado (not quite as catchy as sharknado…it’s a working title) and stopping it before it gets to the point of no return.
One day recently, my mom called me in the morning and started asking me why I hadn’t sent her a document she needed, and although I had sent it to her, I felt the worry setting in: Did I not hit ‘send’ on the email? Did I forget to attach it? Is the file unreadable? How did I mess this up? But another part of my brain was able to quiet the dozens of questions that always crop up questioning my proficiency at basic tasks and seemed to say, “You’re okay. You did it properly. Just wait.” My heart rate slowed, and sure enough, my mom found the document a minute later and apologized for the mix up. Being able to avoid a mental meltdown that could stick with me for the rest of the day like a cloud of miasma is a huge quality of life improvement for me.
The Ability to Sleep
As I stated before, I have never had any issue falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. Sleeping is one of my true talents in life! However, Lexapro is known to affect sleep as part of its side effects — I’m not sure if every SSRI is like that. It has taken a lot of tinkering with what time I take the medicine to ensure I can still get a good night’s sleep.
At first, I took the medicine at night as per my doctor’s recommendation. He recommended this because it can often help people calm their racing thoughts before bed, allowing them to fall asleep better. I tried this, but found that I got a “wake up call” of sorts each night around 3 or 4 a.m. consistently, waking up wide awake and unable to go back to sleep. Sure enough, I found forum posts of other people on Lexapro complaining about the same thing.
I switched, then, to taking it in the morning when I woke up. This, for some reason, made me so tired and lethargic through the day that it was difficult to actually stay awake or accomplish much! Next, I tried taking it around 6 p.m. with dinner. This seemed to work for a while, but I was gradually having more racing thoughts at bedtime after a while and would wake up several times during the night. In general, I have also been a much lighter sleeper than normal, to my dismay.
Now, I take the medicine in the early afternoon. This seems to do the job of keeping me awake as long as I need to be and then allowing me to go to sleep easily. I’m crossing my fingers it continues to work, but definitely be ready to see a change in your sleeping patterns if you start a medication like this.
Also, DREAMS. I have much more vivid dreams than I used to. I remember the dreams more often than I used to. This isn’t bad, but…I used to like simply disappearing into the void during my sleep.
The Ability to Function
The stigma around mental health issues is pervasive in our culture, and I think the stigma around taking medication for it is worse. Although I know many friends that take medication, it isn’t something that is talked about openly most of the time. Only after I started talking about my own journey with friends and family did I discover that so many of my own family members take antidepressants, too! (This shit can be genetic — we should be talking about mental health in our families!)
In sharing what I’ve learned about myself and my mental health, I hope to reduce that stigma even the tiniest bit. There is no shame in seeking out something to help us function as humans when our brains are not feeling their best, just like there is no shame in taking cold medicine when you have a cold. It’s okay to want to feel okay. Take it from me: it’s okay to ask for help, and you’re worth investing that effort into yourself!
Not everyone’s experience with antidepressants will be like mine; I think I am lucky in that the first medicine I tried has helped me so far, and that I haven’t had many negative side effects. I highly recommend keeping a journal of how you are feeling each day and what side effects you have, as this will help you work with your doctor to figure out what works best for you. It hasn’t all been rainbows and butterflies, but I wouldn’t change this experience for anything; for once, I feel like I can focus on living my life without the opaque filter of anxiety/depression over it…it’s more translucent now.
If you’re feeling nervous to start that journey, know that this random stranger on the internet is in your corner. ❤