Take your pills

We Need to Talk

Mug of Olivia Rhee

Content warning: discussion of mental health

“What medication are you on?”

As someone who has experienced depression since childhood, it’s a question I get all the time. The answer is this: I’m not on any ingestible form of antidepressants.

To be clear, my current lack of medication isn’t for a lack of trying. I spent years testing different medications, only to stop taking antidepressants altogether just before my sixteenth birthday.

Antidepressants and I have a complicated relationship. I was prescribed medication for the first time at fourteen, trying out a low dose of Zoloft; similar to a classmate who I saw and spoke to occasionally but wasn’t particularly close to, it didn’t leave much of an impression, in either a positive or negative manner.

In the two years that followed, I flirted with a handful of antidepressants. Lexapro was the acquaintance I met once and never spoke to again, its impact so insignificant that I often forget I was on it at all. Taking Wellbutrin was akin to casually dating someone; we weren’t compatible, but our brief affair ended on friendly terms. 

And then there was my personal nemesis: Effexor.

Most teenagers diagnosed with depression take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, a class of relatively low-risk medications. For me, the pills and various dosages provided limited results. During my freshman year of high school, after exhausting other treatments, my psychiatrist prescribed me Effexor, a stronger medication notorious for heavy side effects. I hadn’t experienced side effects, or really any effects, from the antidepressants I’d taken in the past, so I assumed I’d be fine.

I couldn’t have been more off base.

Being on Effexor was like being in a relationship so toxic that, upon ending it, I quickly retreated, dodging any diagnosis, and permanently parted with the pills. While the other medications I’d been on had done virtually nothing to affect my mental health, Effexor undeniably left an impact.

My memories of Effexor are limited, but they mostly consist of staring at my ceiling for hours, floating through the school day, only vaguely aware of my surroundings. While Effexor did remove my feelings of depression, it removed every other emotion I felt along with it. I lived in a constant state of numbing dissociation for a month-long period.

When I think about my current lack of medication, my mind immediately jumps to my experience with Effexor. Though I was hastily taken off of the medication after calling my psychiatrist in a panic, it taught me how severe the consequences of poorly prescribed medication could be.

The question that generally follows after revealing that I’m not on medication is how I do manage my mental health. After coming off of antidepressants, I began relying on a combination of individual therapy and group therapy, gaining a collection of coping mechanisms that helped me manage the symptoms of my mental health conditions.

This mode of combating depression doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. Slowly but surely, my life came back into focus. I learned how to handle even the worst of depressive episodes and talk myself through panic attacks. By the time my sophomore year of high school came around, I once again felt in control of my well-being.

When I explain this aspect of my mental journey, the majority of people I talk to have some way of criticizing my choice to refrain from medication, unable to understand why the “magic” happy pill wouldn’t work.

These comments are rooted in an assumption that medication is the singularly effective way to manage depression. For many people, this is true. I have dozens of friends who have had success with their antidepressants, and I’m happy for them. I have nothing against medication in the hand of another — it just hasn’t been effective for me.

Society tends to operate under a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to mental health. Medication falls under the treatment methods that we have deemed acceptable for the type of illnesses we have deemed “curable,” which isn’t always the truth.

In reality, mental health is different for everyone. While my depression exists in the form of irregular episodes, my best friend’s depressive symptoms are more constant, but less severe. Just like our mental health conditions don’t function in the same way, we respond to treatment differently, as well. Lexapro works for her; therapy works for me.

It’s understandable to want to find a quick fix for mental health conditions. If I could take a pill every day and be relieved of depressive symptoms, I would. But as I’ve learned by blind dating more than a few antidepressants, that form of treatment doesn’t work for me.

Treatment isn’t a simple process. It takes time to determine what is and isn’t effective. Now that I’ve figured it out for myself, I don’t feel a need to try things that haven’t helped me in the past.

The next time someone encourages me to get a new prescription, I’ll smile and nod, but I’ll remain secure in the knowledge that medication isn’t the best way to manage my mental health. I’ll know that, regardless of what society tells me, there’s nothing wrong with going against the grain to preserve my own wellness.

Olivia Rhee writes the Wednesday column on navigating mental wellness. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.