Content warning: mental illness, medication
Last Saturday afternoon, I posted a request on Facebook asking for volunteers to share their experiences with psychiatric medication. I was hesitant going into the process. This was research for my first column, and I was terrified that a lack of responses would lead to my article being generalized based on my own personal experiences. This was, frankly, the opposite of what happened.
After posting the request, I began tackling a bowl of fruit yogurt. By the time I was barely halfway through, a small pile of responses had already accumulated. People were chiming in with their own experiences with different kinds of medication, and their thoughts on the subject brought me one step closer to understanding the different ways in which the consumption of psychiatric medication impacts students’ lives here at McGill.
My interest in this particular topic piqued toward the end of my first semester at university. A friend of mine was taking five milligrams of Cipralex (escitalopram), an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medicine, which is a selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor. Her psychiatrist doubled her dosage because of the frequency of her panic attacks, but she reacted poorly to the change in her dose. She did not attend a single lecture or conference in her last week of the semester. She slept through each class because of the medication’s sedative side effects, and her body’s inability to adjust to the change led to panic attacks every morning and evening. Once, while showing me the panicked e-mails she had sent to various professors and TAs, she turned to me and said, “I keep thinking to myself, ‘Nothing I’m feeling right now is real, it’s all just a side effect.’ How strange is that?”
As I researched for and wrote this article, I continuously reminded myself that experiences of mental health and medication vary from individual to individual depending on a myriad of different factors, including an individual’s socioeconomic background, or their cultures or families. I grit my teeth as memories of being a fifteen-year old girl in Lahore, Pakistan rush back to me — I would pretend my anxiety medication as something I took for migraines. There was a world inside me that nobody knew about. I’m going to attempt to explain some of these personal experiences as they were told to me. But even these barely scratch the surface of the millions of different interactions people across the world have with mental health and medication. The reality of prescription medication is that every reality is different, and these are only a small snapshot.
An individual I talked to has been taking forty milligrams of Celexa, an SSRI closely related to Cipralex, for six years to treat her anxiety and depression. She initially experienced worsening depression as she increased her dosage to its current amount and described the way the symptoms of her depression were initially augmented with feelings of irritability, lethargy, and a loss of interest. However, as her body began to adjust to the medication, she began to show more interest in social activities. She also found that she was able to manage her anxiety better. The initial “numbing” effect of the medication led to a to decrease in social activities, but in her words, it helped her come to the realization that her disorders did not define her, and they could be managed with a little help.
Someone who takes Cipralex and Xanax as treatment for borderline personality disorder and depression explained that after she stopped feeling sleepy all the time, she was able to concentrate more on her studies and felt that she had become less dependent in her interpersonal relationships. “It didn’t make me happy, but it made me less sad.”
An individual who takes Zoloft (Sertraline), which is also an SSRI that helps her manage her generalized anxiety disorder, explained that she was unable to sleep before taking this medication. The fact that she was now getting enough sleep meant she was in a better position to commit herself to schoolwork. Something she said particularly stayed with me: “It really sucks having to work so much harder just to feel normal, so I certainly don’t deserve to be told that taking medication for mental health is dangerous or weak. I’m happy that I want to live and I’m happy that I can enjoy life more. Medication isn’t right for everyone, but it’s certainly an option that everyone should have access to, without fear of judgment.”
An individual who takes Prozac for social anxiety, panic attacks and trichotillomania said that when she first began taking this medication, she experienced diminished appetite and had trouble sleeping. It entirely stopped her trichotillomania, although it had no effect on her social anxiety. Still Prozac immensely improved some aspects of her life, and she said that if she had the chance to go back to when she first began taking the medication, she would have started with a sixty milligram dosage instead of ten milligrams, which had proven ineffective for her.
A close friend of mine also takes Celexa (escitalopram), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, for generalized anxiety disorder. He explained that when he initially began taking the medication, he didn’t feel any different, but his family felt the change almost as soon as he began taking it. He explained, “I found that every day just got a little bit easier to a point maybe two months in, when I sat back and thought, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have had a day like this two months ago.’ He also explained that both his academic and social life improved. He said, “You wouldn’t ask a diabetic to stop taking their insulin.” He mentioned to me that after the medication began to help him, he decreased his dosage and in less than a year, he may not be taking it at all. He left me with something that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “Medication can also be a transition, not an absolute thing for the rest of your life.”
One of the individuals I interviewed takes Zoloft, Clonidine, Strattera (Antomoxetine) and Concerta (Methylphenidate) every day to treat his depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as his learning disability. He takes Ativan, a benzodiazepine, and Sublinox (Zolpidem ODT) as well, on a need basis, because they have addictive qualities. He explained that Concerta decreases his desire to eat and he often has to set reminders on his phone to eat and stay healthy. He found that he had developed a Vitamin D deficiency, which was a likely consequence of this medication. He also explained that Concerta and Strattera helped him focus in school, while Zoloft treated his social anxiety. He explained that since Ativan cannot be mixed with alcohol, there were instances where he could not go out drinking with his friends because of the possible repercussions. Despite this, he argued, medication had definitely enabled him to lead a happier and healthier lifestyle. This meant he was able to become more socially and academically involved.
When I was fifteen, I began taking half a tablet of Cipralex everyday to treat my anxiety. When my palpitations became particularly difficult to tolerate, I would take Inderal, a kind of beta blocker that controls my palpitations, or sometimes Lexotanil. The winter I first began taking this medication, I was constantly hungry and sleepy, and I spoke to almost nobody but my immediate family. But I did not mind. If anything, it was a rejuvenating experience. I would nap constantly, which is something I had not been able to do without waking up with a panic attack since I was a little girl. I would indulge my increased appetite without a trace of guilt. As the weather began to change, I noticed that I was also becoming more sociable. I could study for tests and exams without continuously feeling dread, like a ton of bricks sitting on my chest, my heart hammering away. It would be an absolute lie if I were to say that taking this medication has ‘cured’ me. How can I be cured of something that is essentially a part of me?
Personally, I do not think of my anxiety as a defining factor in my life; there are steps I can take to prevent it and lessen its effects. Of course, it is an inconvenience that I sure could live without, but it is not my defining characteristic. I’m lucky that I have access to mental health facilities, medication, a loving family, a caring set of friends, a Netflix account, and of course, so many wonderful people who have the strength to come forward and share their experiences with me, and a column where I can come back and reflect on the journey, enabling me to understand that each experience of mental illness and the medication one takes is entirely unique.