Let me start off this post by stating that I am NOT a doctor, nor am I a mental health care professional. I’m not offering medical advice, treatment or cures for depression or any other mental health issue. I am simply sharing my own experiences and what has worked for me. Never go off medications without consulting a professional and if you are in crisis, call 911 immediately.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in my early 20s, but looking back I realize I’ve been dealing with it since at least my early teens. But I think my 20s was the first time I heard about being able to take medications for depression, and so I went to see my doctor. The first medication I tried was Prozac, which helped a little but it also made me so tired I could hardly function. That simply wouldn’t work for me, given that I had two small children at home. Next came Effexor. It helped a bit, too and I wasn’t exhausted all the time. I was also referred to a counselor who I was able to see a total of 4 times as that’s all our insurance would cover. And since we couldn’t afford an extra $400 a month for weekly appointments, that’s as far as I got with therapy then. I found out I was pregnant again after having been on Effexor for several years and had to discontinue the meds. That’s when things really got fun. Withdrawal was pure hell. I was dealing with nausea and exhaustion from the pregnancy and then had dizzy spells, mental fog, and anxiety attacks from the meds.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was back on meds, but not really feeling I was getting any help from them, so I finally went to see a psychiatrist. After filling out the medical forms and spending 15 minutes talking to the doctor, he diagnosed me as bipolar. That was a bit shocking, but I thought maybe that was why nothing seemed to help me. The next 12-13 years were a blur of anti-psychotics, anti-convulsants, antidepressants, lithium, and benzodiazepines. I’ve lost count of the number of times my medications were switched and I have no idea how many I tried. Most meds didn’t help my depressive symptoms, just made me numb and sedated and the side effects were horrific. I lost my hair, gained a lot of weight, had tremors, confusion, nausea, fatigue. The lithium was the only drug I tolerated reasonably well, but even that required blood tests to make sure I didn’t overdose on it. Somewhere in there I had a nervous breakdown, which just seemed to confirm the diagnosis as well as my need for meds. Newer meds and stronger meds. I also saw several different counselors, but just wasn’t getting the help I needed.
My husband always questioned the bipolar diagnosis, and honestly, I did, too. It wasn’t that I was in denial – it’s just that it didn’t seem to fit me. We both read extensively about the disorder, and while I definitely had depression and some mood swings, they weren’t anything like what we were reading about. I tried discussing my concerns with my doctors and therapists and they were mostly dismissive. One even told me that the “label” (diagnosis) didn’t really matter; we just needed to treat the symptoms. I pointed out that a lot of medical conditions share the same symptoms, but you wouldn’t give someone chemotherapy if they only had a headache and not a brain tumor. I don’t think he liked my attitude. He just let out an exasperated sigh and gave me the prescriptions. Eventually, I got tired of no one listening to me, so my husband I talked to my family doctor. We told him we thought the bipolar diagnosis was wrong and that I wouldn’t be taking any more medications for it. I told him I was willing to stay on the antidepressant I was on (bupropion), and that I would be sure to watch for side effects and track my symptoms. And so I did. And he monitored me for several months to make sure I was safe.
I also started reading more about self care and alternative ways to treat depression. And that’s when building a positive life for myself started to take on a deeper importance for me. The medication helps, but it only goes so far. I would never advocate someone going off medication, but I think that the medical community is using medications as a cure-all, when there’s so much more to the story. People suffering depression sometimes have more than just a chemical imbalance to treat. And depression can do one helluva job on your self-esteem and self-worth. When you’ve suffered abuse or trauma, or when your self image has taken a beating for any reason, you need help learning coping skills and self care. Treatment shouldn’t be medications and nothing else.
So what works for me?
1.Well, I still take bupropion twice a day because it’s one of the few medications I tolerate well. I take the lowest therapeutic dose because I’m extremely sensitive to side effects.
2. I exercise. Yeah, I know, everyone’s telling you to exercise, but believe me when I say this: moving and doing some cardio and a little bit of strength training has helped me more than just about anything else. It’s so hard to get yourself motivated when depression is telling you that nothing’s going to get better, nothing matters, you’re worthless so why even try…on and on. But study after study have proven that exercise helps. So find a way to work some activity into your day. Your body and your mind will thank you for it, I promise.
3. I avoid depressants. I do drink occasionally, but I try not to overdo it. (It doesn’t mix well with most meds anyway.) In addition to limiting my alcohol, I don’t do things that will depress me. I don’t watch depressing movies, I don’t listen to depressing music and if I find that the news or social media are bumming me out, I avoid them.
4. I avoid toxic people like the plague. It sometimes pisses people off and it might make people accuse you of being unsupportive or abandoning them, but this is your sanity and your quality of life and it is sacrosanct. MY health and well-being will not be compromised by people who are not healthy for me – whether they’re family or friends.
5. I don’t push myself when I’m having a rough time. I know we’re Americans and our society seems to think suffering is somehow noble, but I think that’s kind of crazy. I don’t try to push myself to act like nothing’s wrong. If I need a day of staying in, focusing on myself and my needs and some intensive self care, then I do it.
6. I work really hard to maintain a positive attitude. It makes it so much easier to ignore that voice in my head telling me that it’s always going to be this bad, that everything is awful, that life is meaningless…you know what I’m talking about. I work my ass off to inject as much positivity into my life as I can.
7. I use the techniques I learned in therapy to cope with tough situations and stressors. I’d definitely suggest finding a good therapist, support group or if you can’t afford it, finding a good friend or loved one who can listen to you objectively and help guide you in positive, healthy ways to deal with issues you may be having. A good support system is crucial.
8. And I try to eat right, although this is the hardest one for me. Processed foods and junk food definitely don’t help anyone dealing with any type of health issue.
So, while I’m not advocating for anyone to quit medications, I’m definitely suggesting everyone get a good self care program going for themselves. You can tailor it to fit your individual needs, but definitely do it. I’ll be offering more information in the coming posts about self-care methods. No one should have to spend decades of their life suffering. A better life is out there – it just requires some work and creative thinking. You deserve it.
Please comment with your own self care strategies or any insight or feedback about this post.
– Mama Bear