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Depression is not a sign of weakness, and neither is taking medication for it

A snap of sudden tears often happened in my car, alone. After work, school or moments following brunch with friends, the sadness would well up in my chest like a balloon and I’d drive away before anyone could see me. Without cause, it was like someone flipped a switch on the back of my head that sent me into a shame spiral.

The harsh stigma handed to those people who take depression and anxiety medication kept me from getting proper treatment for years. I attended therapy for the first time in my early 20s, but the inner turmoil continued despite my progress.

Thoughts of suicide greeted me every day. Depression was familiar to me. I had my husband, dogs and self-hatred. It was something I grew accustomed to, yet it broke me open like a cracked egg whenever it would strike. It wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that a therapist seriously suggested antidepressants.

Today, 1 in 10 Americans take antidepressants, a 400 percent increase from 1998. That’s a hell of a lot of people swallowing pills every day, yet the subject is still somewhat taboo. In addition to politics, sex and money, mental illness is not something most Americans generally discuss.

When my therapist first mentioned meds, I laughed out loud. Depression medication was for lonely, Botoxed housewives and people who mumble about alien invasions, not a totally functional journalist. The idea that medication is for “crazy people” was and is constantly culturally reinforced in media and society at large.

Personally, I’ve dealt with the misunderstanding of well-intentioned people who encouraged me to simply try harder and resist the pharmaceutical industry’s secret plan to get the entire population on happy pills to finally achieve world domination. At the very least, I felt weak for thinking I might need medication.

The thing was, I learned to hide my depression and anxiety fairly easily. I smiled my way through dinner parties and could even crack jokes a few minutes after a tornado of dark thoughts twisted through my mind. Because I became an expert at masking my pain, I believed I was above it.

Among those with anxiety and depression, 51 percent have concealed or hidden their mental health problem from others. Sadly, I felt proud that I hid it so well. I knew I was a depressed person, but I wasn’t one of those depressed people — the kind locked away in a tower of self-pity.

But for those of us who have lived with depression and anxiety, we know that it can take many forms. It doesn’t always mean hiding under layers of blankets sobbing uncontrollably (but sometimes it does). Antidepressant commercials often show sallow women unable to move, but the truth is, many of us are quite competent.

While on a trip with friends in the Arizona desert a few years back, I was overcome with the searing pain of a depressive episode. Instead of talking about it, I pulled the sleeping bag over my head at night and cried myself to sleep. During the day, the numbness left me emotionless, but that didn’t keep me from laughing on jet skis and remarking on the beauty of the red sandstone cliffs. By all accounts, I acted normal, but was completely hollow on the inside.

After hearing my laughter at her suggestion for medication, my therapist used a metaphor that still helps me from time to time. She said, “Sometimes, no matter how hard you hold onto your umbrella, the storm is too powerful and you get swept away.” She also mentioned that if you have a broken leg, you take medicine and if you have a broken mind, you take medicine. It was simple.

In that moment it hit me. Maybe depression wasn’t a sign of weakness or lack of trying. My anxiety might actually be something physical, chemical even.

As many people know, the road to medication can be extremely difficult. My experience was filled with pills that didn’t work, that made me sleepy or that swirled through my body like battery acid. It took over a year to find something that soothed my mind and made me feel balanced.

As I adjusted to the medication and its effects, I began wondering, “is this how normal people feel?” Do most people wake up feeling the possibilities of the day instead of the hurdles of each moment? I glared at my friends and family suspiciously, realizing they were not faking happiness like I was, but were instead, actually enjoying their lives.

Soon after, I realized how long I had been suffering needlessly. Instead of getting the treatment that set me free, I allowed the misunderstanding and judgment of others to hinder me. My only regret is that I didn’t seek out medication sooner. To think, I wasted years drowning in despair when a treatment was only a doctor’s appointment away. It’s hard not to wonder about all the things I could have done had my mind been chemically balanced.

Finally, with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I try not to judge myself so harshly for doubting how serious my depression was. My storm was chaotic and painful, making seeking treatment feel like trying to push a train up a mountain. There are days when depression still steamrolls me, but I have more hope than I ever thought possible. I’ve come to learn depression is a disease like any other. As those who have found a way from a sea of hopelessness to shore, I believe it is our duty to share our experiences.

Of course, medication is not a quick fix. Every week, I still sit in my therapist’s office and together, we come up with tools to help manage my depression and anxiety. But instead of falling behind and losing my train of thought to hating every inch of my existance, I have the strength to show a little compassion and care to myself. Plus, all the time I spent in bed can now be used to write more frequently or do other important things like putting flower crowns on my dogs. Life was manageable without medication, but it’s a hell of a lot better with it.

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