I’ve always been very invested in the idea that I was severely and clinically mentally ill. I was put on medication at 21 years old and never looked back. It’s now been 20-plus years.
I’ve battled depressions since I was a kid. It really began at 15 with your typical “I’m not pretty enough”/”Nobody understands me”/”Fuck you, stepmom” teenage angst but gradually morphed into something deeper, darker and more sinister. So it was a no-brainer when they put me on anti-depressants right after college. By then I’d had a voracious eating disorder for years as well as, at 19, a brutal nervous breakdown. I’d been in talk therapy since I was 13 but I didn’t seem to be making any real progress. I just wanted to feel better and if medication was going to do that, I was onboard. It was 1991 and the tide was beginning to turn in terms of the whole concept of psychiatric medication. After Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation was published in 1994, it seemed like the American public was more open to the idea of anti-depressants than ever and soon it seemed everybody was on something. It was almost hip.
I’ve seen countless shrinks and psychopharmacologists. I’ve been diagnosed bipolar, borderline and depressive as well as with having body dysmorphic disorder. I suffered mood swings and terrible melancholy years before I ever picked up a drink or a drug. I was always attracted to the “upper” drugs (amphetamines, cocaine, Adderall, Ritalin) as I sought to battle my naturally depressive tendencies. Even during active bouts of drug addiction, I always stayed on a slew of psychiatric medications. In my early 30’s, I developed epilepsy thanks to my years of speed abuse. So then anti-convulsant medications were added to the growing list of anti-depressants, mood stabilizers and atypical anti-psychotics that I was taking daily.
I’ve been on almost everything: Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Lithium, Depakote, Zyprexa, Abilify, Cymbalta, Provigil, Strattera, Lamictal, Lexapro, Trazodone, Seroquel, Risperdal, Geodon, Tegretol, Lyrica, Neurontin, Topamax, Keppra, Dilantin, Zonigran—the list goes on ad infinitum.
I’ve tried numerous times in my life, during periods of sobriety, to get off all the meds. The result was always disastrous. As soon as I’d titrate down to the lowest dose of anti-depressant, I would drop through the floor and be bed-bound and crying—that’s if I didn’t have a grand mal seizure first. After a few of these experiments gone awry, I resigned myself to the fact that I had a biological-based mental illness that I would need to medicate for the rest of my life. But many close to me, especially my parents, never bought this—in spite of my psych ward visits and three suicide attempts.
But when you’re told for years by multiple professionals that you’re mentally ill, you believe it. Why shouldn’t I? I was smart, educated, pretty, healthy and financially comfortable. What else could explain my deep hatred of myself and inability to function in life? Why, every few weeks, was I struck by a depression so deep that I was paralyzed and entertained killing myself? Of course it had be chemical, I thought. And I felt like shit on the drugs, so imagine my despair off of them—no fucking way.
I took pride in flaunting my medication regime at people. I would saunter around Whole Foods with a vintage t-shirt that read “Rx drugs are my life!” I would post pictures on Facebook with pills spelling out “Am I normal yet?” I would horrify friends and boyfriends with the large bag of pharmaceuticals rattling around in my purse. And when anything fell apart—whenever I blew up a marriage or a job opportunity or relapsed—I’d just say, “What do you expect? I’m crazy.” It was a convenient out as well as my dearly held excuse for not fulfilling my potential.
I never really doubted my innate biochemical imbalance and went on to try a sundry of holistic and new age ways to correct it. This included but was not limited to vitamins, amino acid therapy, biofeedback, acupuncture, yoga, promiscuity, exercise, bodywork, and more. But I always kept my medication net in place, just in case.
Fast forward through years of being on heavy medications. I was now a few months sober again, newly divorced, extremely depressed, broke and unemployable. I was taking more medications than I had in years: Prozac, Lithium, Abilify, Effexor and Phenobarbital. I was tired all the time and totally suicidal. I slept a lot and cried even more. And during a monthly session with my psychiatrist, she told me that there was nothing more she could do for me, medication-wise. “You’ve maxed out on everything,” she said. “You’ve taken everything already that I might prescribe. And my hands are tied because of your seizure disorder. I’m sorry but this is pretty much it.”
Seems as if I’d finally hit the wall. Shattered were my dreams that some magic pill was going to make me feel the way I assumed other people naturally felt. This was as good as it was going to get, she was basically telling me, and it wasn’t good enough. This made me even more depressed.
And then something bizarre happened. At 43, for the first time in my life, I got pregnant. I had never been pregnant before—not through years of unprotected sex with strangers, not during a three-and-a-half year marriage to a husband who wanted another child. Never, ever ever—not one scare. So I naturally came to the conclusion that I was infertile. And suddenly, while three months into a new relationship with an older man, I got pregnant. I was horrified, shocked and also a little relieved: I could actually be a mother if I wanted! Thinking this was going to be my one shot, ignoring my awful financial situation and my very new and somewhat volatile relationship, I decided to go for it. And the first business at hand was to get off all the medications since most of them were extremely harmful to the fetus. I immediately began a quick titration off all the meds except for a low dose of Prozac. Surprisingly, most of the withdrawals were pretty uneventful—except for the phenobarbital, which turned out to be much gnarlier than I’d expected. As I unknowingly went through “barbituate withdrawal syndrome,” I had horrifying nightmares about being homeless, loaded and lost, with constant head-to-toe itching and a chronic sensation of pins and needles—not to mention the terror of having a seizure after being seizure-free for the previous five years. The Effexor withdrawal was brief but powerful. As soon as I dropped down on that, I took a major dive and called my psychiatrist in a teary panic.
“Is it normal to feel—”
“Like absolute shit? Yes.”
“So this isn’t my new baseline, right?”
“Okaaaaaay.” And with that I trudged on.
My then-boyfriend, who had double-digit sobriety, was a big meditator: he had been doing transcendental meditation for nearly 19 years. He’d had a sponsee, a former vet as well as a member of the secret service and an officer in the LAPD, who had been suffering from terrible depression and suicidal ideation—mostly as a result of combat-related PTSD. After this guy learned to meditate, he helped start a program called Warrior Meditation Project in Calabasas where vets, police officers and anybody in the service who is suffering from PTSD can learn meditation, yoga and nutrition as well as engage in intensive talk, art and equine therapy. One vet, I was told, arrived on 11 different psychiatric medications and left on none. The boyfriend suggested I try meditation.
When I had gotten off meds in the past, I hadn’t really replaced them with any other solid coping mechanism. Granted, I’d been in the program and had been working the steps, but regular serious meditation is a rarity among hyperactive newcomers like myself. My mother, who’d been meditating for almost 20 years, had been urging me to try it but I don’t seem to take advice unless I’m desperate, out of options or sleeping with the advisor.
“Sorry but I don’t think you’re crazy,” the boyfriend said. “And the work has to come from the inside.”
I would roll my eyes while raising my palm to him. “Talk to the hand, “ I’d say. But then I thought: what did I really have to lose? If it didn’t work, I could return to my miserable, medicated life.
So off to the Beverly Hills TM Center I went. I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect much and I knew it was no quick fix, which happens to be what I always want. Unfortunately, during this time, I miscarried. “Look for the silver lining in the situation,” my father said.
“Oh fuck you,” I thought, as my dreams of motherhood fell away once again. But what could be the upside of staying childless, I wondered. Keeping a svelte figure? Seemed vain. Being able to continue to focus on myself? Seemed selfish. Well, I had already gotten off most of my meds. Perhaps, I thought, this was the reason for the brief and surprising pregnancy. Prior to becoming pregnant, I’d never have even considered getting off meds. I apologized to my liver daily and feared the long term-effects of the pheno, but I clung to my pharmaceuticals the way any addict clings to their outside fixes, even when they no longer work.
In Transcendental Meditation, the teacher gives you a mantra that you repeat in your head to “charm” the mind into a state of restful alertness. As your breathing slows down and your body completely relaxes, you repeat this mantra, returning to it when you find yourself being carried away by thoughts. It’s been a difficult discipline for me but I’m told it gets easier. Sometimes I have periods of no thoughts, just the quiet repetition of the mantra. Other times I have the experience of no thoughts and no mantra—just a quiet feeling of wellness and subtle bliss. But most of the time, I’m off on the rollercoaster of my mind, flitting from what I’m going to eat for lunch to what I want to buy on EBay to fear of the future or regrets of the past. My teacher assures me that it is just the body and mind releasing stress and that as I continue, I will have less of that and more experience with being able to drop down into this place of peace and calm.
“We don’t meditate for the experience of meditating,” my teacher said. “We meditate for the other 23-plus hours in our day.”
I haven’t been doing it long but I have seen some rather stunning changes already. I am much less reactive. I am calmer and happier and have the ability to pause before I react—something which completely eluded me before. I sleep better and longer. I have more energy (which is also surely due to the impact of being off some of the more sedating meds). My friends and family have noted that I seem different, really different. The head of my sober living once jokingly remarked, “Who are you and what have you done with Amy?” All I know is that I seem to be in better spirits, smiling and laughing, worrying less and enjoying things more. I can be in the present. And I have noticed that I get a lot more attention from guys. I still dress like a boy in a garage band but something in me has changed: I glow. I was walking into 7-11 the other day and a toothless hick in a pick up yelled, “Girl, you are too pretty!” Proof enough!
I walked into that pregnancy highly medicated, smoking and really angry. I’m now on 40 milligrams of Prozac and smoke vapor or e-cigarettes. Although I lost the baby and the relationship, I feel like I might have finally found myself. I’m more in shock than anyone that I’m off most medications, seizure-free and meditating.
Of course, like a good alcoholic, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But so far, the sea is clear.