I was nineteen years old. I sat alone in the doctor’s office on a chair in the corner with my pulse 120+ and my hands visibly shaking. And all I could say was “I just feel really nervous a lot of time. I can always see my heart beating when I look down at my chest. It doesn’t slow down.” That was all I could articulate. I couldn’t tell her about the thoughts. I had never told anyone. (Nate was the first person I’d end up telling, on the night we got engaged, actually.) She gave me a prescription for the SSRI Sertraline, the drug that almost killed me.
I was a 140 pound teenager at the time. Within a month I was down to 115. I went days without eating. The panic attacks were intense. I threw up almost every night. I would fall asleep shaking and wake up with my head pounding and my muscles sore. I sat outside near the mailbox late at night that summer writing poems about death.
I stopped the medicine without tapering. I just couldn’t do it. I never went back to that doctor. I’ve actually never been to an MD since then. I became scared of medicine.
Fast forward five years and I had a similar episode; my worst in a long time. My husband was out of town for the weekend. It was 5 o’clock Saturday morning when I pulled up in my mom’s driveway. I sat on the couch and cried as I finally tried to explain the thoughts. I kept walking around the house, my body sweating, my mind trying to convince myself that I was fine; that the thoughts weren’t real, but oh how they felt real. Every five or so laps around the house I went to the bathroom to throw up or have diarrhea. And I kept thinking, God I CANNOT do this again. My body literally can’t handle this. It’s just going to shut down. I finally fell asleep from exhaustion. I woke up and called Nate and told him the terrible thoughts in my head, and that I wasn’t sure if they were real. In my hysteria, I just couldn’t figure it out. He drove to my parents’ house at 3 am to be with me.
I didn’t go into work on Monday; I needed to recover my sanity. I set up an appointment with a psychologist out of town. We met, and I told her I didn’t know what was wrong with me, that it just couldn’t be anxiety. I started crying. She told me to just start at the beginning. So I started with elementary school and I cried some more.
I cried for the freckled little girl with long blonde hair and a pink heart backpack who walked to school every day terrified because of the thoughts. I cried for that little girl who didn’t know there were such things as sicknesses in the mind and so went through all those years alone.
I cried for the adolescent girl who missed out on friends and birthday parties because of the thoughts.
I cried for the guilt-laden teenager who agreed with the Baptist preachers that it was a spiritual problem.
I cried because I hadn’t known how to open my mouth and say what was wrong.
I wish tears weren’t clear.
I wish when they fell on something they made words.
The psychologist listened. She put the pieces together and found the patterns. It wasn’t anxiety. It was OCD. She explained there are types of OCD that are completely mental and aren’t evidenced in outward rituals like hand washing and checking locks. She also told me that talk therapy wasn’t going to help; that I really needed to be on a drug and probably for the rest of my life. And she helped me come to terms with the fact that drugs are okay. Even long-term drugs; some people need them. You’re not a hero for refusing medicine.
I set up an appointment with a psychiatrist. I told her that I had only ever tried one drug, and I was afraid. She prescribed a different drug in the same class (SSRI) at 25% of the dosage I had taken all those years ago. It didn’t work. I went back and tried another drug. It didn’t work. I went back again. Ten minutes into our session she was writing another prescription for a different drug but in the same class.
I clenched my teeth and blurted out: “I’m not taking it. It won’t work.”
She crumpled up the paper and started writing another prescription that was slightly different. I told her she didn’t understand what was wrong with my brain. I raised my shaky, shy, voice that I hate so much and just started talking. I told her I didn’t fit this category she was trying to box me into. Her eyebrows furrowed as I detailed what was happening to my mind. She started to really listen. She told me what was going on was very unique and very uncommon, but she was pretty sure she knew what would help. She gave me a drug for reducing intrusive and repetitive thoughts that come with a specific strand of OCD.
It’s been a month. I haven’t had any panic attacks in a month. The thoughts no longer plague my mind. If they enter my mind, like they do every once in a while, they don’t terrorize me anymore, they just float past like other thoughts. I started cooking dinner again. I’ve started eating more. I’ve been cutting down on my xanax intake. I’m taking things slowly, and I’m enjoying the current freedom. I keep telling myself that the bad thoughts will come back, and maybe they will. But it’s been a blissful month, and the thoughts can’t reclaim this month.
I just wanted to tell you that I’m not afraid of drugs anymore. I’d rather be addicted to drugs than be addicted to the thoughts. I’m taking a medication that is literally altering my mind, and God is not mad at me for it.
Anxiety, depression, panic – those are lifelong problems that don’t go away. if you really have them they’re not seasonal. You need to do something. Psychologist and psychiatrist are not bad words. You have a problem with your brain. You’re not a failure; your brain is.
Don’t say “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.” You haven’t. Something out there will work. It might take a long time. And it might make you sick and it might make your moods totally ridiculous, but just like Thomas Edison, you’re only crossing things off the list that don’t work.
You have to be brave enough to tell the professionals about your demons. You have to.