There was this brief period of time where I was obsessed with the idea of overdosing on Ibuprofen.
I mean, when you’re depressed, what better way is there to go? In theory, it would be quite literally a painless death. And when everyday feels like washing an open wound, the promise of sedation is far more thrilling than promises of happiness in an unseeable future.
But as I found out in the middle of a suicidal crisis, you would throw up the pills long before you could consume lethal levels. Even if you managed to hold some of it down, the worst you could really do to yourself was permanent liver damage (which is far less appealing).
After telling my counselor about this experience with perhaps the same sense of remove and fascination, I was unceremoniously told that it was “highly recommended” that I meet with a psychiatrist to explore the possibility of antidepressants. Despite my counselor’s professional calm, it was clear that he was far more scared than I was about the situation. Before I could even process what my thoughtless “sure, I guess” meant, the phone call had been made and the appointment scheduled.
Even today, I still find it an absolute miracle that I had agreed to start medication.
I had always been absolutely opposed to the idea, morally equating the use of antidepressants with the use alcohol or other substances to sedate oneself. After all, antidepressants were practically made to work like “legalized cocaine” — forcefully inducing a stagnant high that would last throughout the day. Sure, it’d be “the easy way out” of my misery; it’d also do nothing to the virus eating me alive, as useless and as bad for your liver as Ibuprofen.
Thinking back, I now realize this revulsion to the “fakeness” of antidepressants came from a strange conviction that my depression was somehow my fault. I was convinced that I had a serious problem, and that I had a moral responsibility to fix this problem the hard way. It didn’t matter that failure meant suicide, that my life was spiraling out of control, or that my depression could have been simply biological. I was stubborn.
But I was also tired. At this point, I had been unable to do any readings for two whole months; my teachers were becoming increasingly disappointed with my absences; my counselor was threatening not to approve my health clearance form for study abroad if I didn’t comply; and, most importantly, I knew counseling wasn’t working for me. So, with a strength that was not my own, I resisted the urge to “accidentally miss” my appointment, forced myself through the November cold and into the gray of the Smith Center, put on a polite smile, and carefully described the symptoms that were killing me.
I came away from that psychiatrist meeting with a prescription for Bupropion — a bright blue tablet that typically treats nicotine addictions but is sometimes prescribed for seasonal depression as well. According to my psychiatrist, it would be everything I needed: excitement, focus, motivation, even stress-control. Yet, I was repeatedly warned that I was also putting myself at risk for seizures, had to watch my alcohol intake, would experience exacerbated insomnia, and that I would suffer “mild” side effects for the first two weeks.
Those side effects were anything but “mild.” The first few days, my heart raced so fast it felt like a constant anxiety attack. My breathing was so shallow I had to make myself take box-breaths while forcing my way through some Aristotle. Headaches were a constant fixture that made me irate and miserable. I couldn’t stop fidgeting while talking to other people.
But for the first time in months, I could finally get out of bed. Sure, I had trouble falling asleep at night, but at least I didn’t sit up the whole night vainly hoping tomorrow would never come. I looked weirdly nervous around my friends, but at least I had the energy to seek them out. And finally, I found the motivation to actually start on the two 30-page papers I had already lost half a semester to work on.
As these initial side effects subsided, those antidepressants quickly became the best choice I made for myself that entire semester. The pump of energy and enthusiasm was in no way outside of normal bounds. If anything, it was lower than what I would have “normally” felt. My depression and anxiety may not have been fixed, but I finally had agency over my body again. Most importantly, I finally had the strength to solve those “problems” that played a role in causing my depression in the first place.
While I still don’t believe that medication is the end-all-be-all solution to mental illness, I’ve come to realize that you can’t find the light at the end of the tunnel unless you actually have the energy to get up and start looking for it. It is only through the superficial happiness of antidepressants that I was able to achieve the real happiness that I feel today. After all, when we find ourselves with a high fever, we don’t just sit there and let it burn. We take an Ibuprofen.
Elizabeth Y. Sun ’19, a former Associate Editorial Executive, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.