CW: some profanity; mental illness-related fatalities
The first time I went on antidepressants, I was sixteen years old. My school counsellor suspected that I was depressed, and a visit to my GP confirmed her suspicions. I stopped taking them when I finished high school, but after a couple of months it became obvious that antidepressants were still a necessary part of my mental health treatment, so I went back on them for another few years. I went off them again while I was living in abroad, because the medical system in that country was not well-equipped to handle mental health problems. Luckily I was doing well at that point, and I suffered no ill effects from going off them this time. I stayed off them until the end of my undergraduate studies.
Unfortunately, immediately after finishing my studies, I developed a severe anxiety disorder. After spending several weeks unable to do much more than sleep and watch comedy TV shows, I managed to drag myself to the local doctor’s office and leave with a prescription for antidepressants. I have been on those antidepressants ever since, and I do not plan to stop taking them any time soon.
Although I would not say I am proud of taking medication for my anxiety, I am not ashamed of it either. I take my health seriously and I believe in the science of medicine. Medication is an important part of medicine, and it is often the best treatment option out there for all sorts of medical problems, anxiety included. If I were to stop taking my medication right now, I would not be able to effectively manage my anxiety. I am one person for whom going on anti-anxiety medication was the right decision.
Having said that, I also understand why other people with anxiety have trouble deciding if they should medicate. The decision to go on medication for any sort of ailment is a major one, and other viable treatment options for anxiety, such as therapy, exercise, mindfulness, and self-care, seem less extreme on paper. There is also no denying that some people react badly to anti-anxiety medications. I suffered terrible nausea with one medication, and others experience loss of appetite, dizziness, dry mouth, lack of sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and/or other side effects. It is also worth noting that medication sometimes does not work. Anxiety is a complex mental illness, and everybody’s experience with it is different. There is no one fail-safe method for treating anxiety, and medication is simply not the answer for some people.
The other reason why so many people resist taking medication for their anxiety has to do with shame. To take medication is to admit the presence of illness. We do not take medication if we are not ill, after all, and nobody wants to be ill. Mental illnesses like anxiety come with an extra layer of shame, in that mental illness is still more likely to be seen as a point of personal weakness than as a legitimate condition that can be detrimental to one’s health. Strong people do not suffer from mental illness, the narrative goes. And if they are suffering, they have the gumption and willpower to combat it without ‘resorting’ to medication. The pervasiveness of this narrative was exemplified in 2016, when a meme was shared around the internet showing a beautiful forest along the top half with the caption ‘This is an antidepressant’, and a picture of a Prozac pill along the bottom half with the caption ‘This is shit’. That meme received considerable backlash from mental health professionals and activists, but it also received support from the general public. A narrative that pervasive is difficult to ignore. I am sure it is the overarching reason why many anxiety sufferers claim that their condition is ‘very mild’ or ‘not that bad’, and refuse to try a medication that might have done them a world of good.
Bearing all of this in mind, I believe that the key to deciding whether or not to take anxiety medication is to consider what your reasons are for not wanting to take it. Your reason for taking it is simple: you want to treat your anxiety. Your reason for not taking it is guaranteed to be more complex.
If you are concerned about side effects:
Any medication, regardless of what it is designed to treat, has potential side effects. Antidepressants do not necessarily have more side effects than other medications; they just happen to not be an exception to this rule. So while there is a slight chance that you will experience side effects, there is a greater chance that you will experience reduced anxiety. Also, if you have bad side effects with one type of medication, the option to try a different medication is always available.
More Radical Reads: 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Anxiety
If you are worried that the medication might ‘change’ you:
It is possible that medication will affect your mood in such a way that you are better off without it. But it is also possible that medication might affect your mood for the better. To offer an example, somebody I know found that their anxiety medication reduced their anxiety, but it also reduced their ability to feel other emotions. It was as if the medication was a shield, and both her anxiety and all of her other emotions were arrows trying to punch through the shield, but not quite being able to do it. I, on the other hand, find that my anxiety is less like an arrow and more like a blanket that prevents me from feeling any other emotions. My medication acts like a knife, cutting through the blanket and opening up holes through which other emotions can pass through. Both me and this other person took the same medication, but our experiences were very different. It is impossible to know if an anxiety medication is going to work for you unless you try it, so the question you might need to ask yourself is: is the risk of a potentially bad experience worth the possibility of a good experience?
If you think your anxiety is not “bad enough” for medication:
I cannot make any assumptions about the severity of your anxiety, and I believe that personal judgement is key when it comes to deciding how to treat any condition. Having said that, I find that people are not always the best judges of how severely different conditions affect us. Until quite recently, I believed that my anxiety was not that bad, even though my symptoms include frequent panic attacks, stomach problems, loss of feeling in my hands and feet, heart palpitations, and a fear of doing mundane things like travelling on the London Underground or reading novels. My anxiety has an enormous effect on my life, but I did not realise how severe it was until a medical professional told me. Even if you think your anxiety is not “bad enough” for medication, it is well worth seeing what your doctor has to say about it.
More Radical Reads: 5 Steps to Taking Care of Myself After a Panic Attack
If you think taking medication is embarrassing or overly dramatic or indicates a defeatist attitude:
All mental illnesses are heavily stigmatised, so any embarrassment you feel makes a lot of sense. I do not have a solution for that, other than for you to remember that anybody who does not have anxiety cannot contemplate how awful it can be. As for feeling like taking medication is like admitting defeat, consider this. Say you wear glasses. Does wearing glasses mean that your poor eyesight has ‘won’, and that, if you were not such a defeatist, you would be living your life nursing eye strain headaches, not seeing the writing on faraway street signs, and bumping into everything? Or are you recognising that your poor eyesight is making your life more difficult, and taking steps to manage that? It takes a great deal of strength to admit that your anxiety is getting the better of you, and then actively seeking out ways to treat it. The anxiety does not win when it is treated with medication. It wins when it takes over your life, and, in many tragic cases, ends it.
In the end, the decision to treat your anxiety with medication is entirely up to you. Nobody, not your family, your friends, your doctors, or anybody else, can force you to take or not take it. However, if you are being recommended medication and hesitating over it, take some time to consider the validity of the reason behind your hesitation. Do not be afraid to speak to your doctors, or to others with anxiety, and weigh up the pros and cons of different treatment options. The important thing is that you are acknowledging your anxiety for what it is, and seeking out ways to manage it as best you can.
[Featured Image: A close up of a person’s face. Their eyes are visible and the rest of their face is covered in a neutral-colored woven scarf. Source: pexels.com]