It started with a maths test.
I was in the eighth grade, sitting at my assigned seat with a pencil and a green sheet of paper in front of me — it was the class final.
Suddenly, my mind went blank. The words and numbers on the page blurred together and became meaningless. I froze with fear. My heart raced. What was happening to me?
With all the effort I could muster, I raised a shaky hand to ask for the bathroom pass. As soon as I got there, I started crying uncontrollably. Between the sobs, I vomited into the toilet.
Although I didn’t know it then, what happened that day would be the beginning of a painful and confusing series of severe bouts — “episodes,” in psychiatric parlance — of anxiety and depression that would land me in a handful of hospitals and treatment centres.
Eventually, I’d be prescribed antidepressants, the drugs that I’m now convinced saved my life. But the road to medication was rocky. If it weren’t for a handful of truly caring doctors — and, of course, the health insurance that made the drugs affordable — I probably would never have found them.
This is one of the reasons I find articles that belittle the condition, like a recent New York Times story, irksome. The article, published in the Times’ style section with the title “Prozac Nation is Now the United States of Xanax,” describes anxiety as “a shared cultural experience” that is the result of external factors ranging from a recent election to increased social media use. While feelings of stress and tension may be more prevalent today, these feelings are not tantamount to mental illness.
In reality, some 18% of the US adult population may suffer from real anxiety disorders, and studies suggest many of them have a difficult time getting the support they need. I certainly did. Articles like these could make that even harder.
When my anxiety first started cropping up, my parents wanted me to go a “natural” route — in other words, they wanted me to stick to talk therapy with counselors and avoid medication.
But despite weekly sessions of therapy, my panic attacks got so bad that I couldn’t sleep or go to school. I had nightmares. I thought of every worst-case scenario that might happen and lived as if they were imminent. I started obsessing about everything, from the tests I might fail, to the friends who might abandon me, to the food that might make me fat. I contemplated suicide. My weight dropped to 90 pounds.
Concerned, my parents took me to dozens of doctors, who tested me for everything. When no results turned up, my mum took me to see a psychiatrist. After two or three 45-minute sessions, I was diagnosed as anorexic “with panic” and given a prescription for Klonopin.
Klonopin is not an antidepressant — it’s a benzodiazepine like Xanax, the drug the Times article says has replaced antidepressants like Prozac or Lexapro as America’s trendy drug of choice.
But Klonopin didn’t alleviate my symptoms; instead, I felt like it made me numb. Because many people who suffer from anxiety — which the NIMH says is more frequent in women — also suffer from co-occurring mental illnesses like depression, the medication that works best may not actually be an anti-anxiety drug.
One day, I refused to go to my therapy appointment. I cried and told my mum that I was broken and there was nothing that could be done.
So we started over. I stopped seeing the psychiatrist and began seeing other doctors. An endocrinologist put me on my first antidepressant — a drug called Lexapro. Lexapro belongs to a group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are thought to work by amplifying the activity of the chemical serotonin in the brain.
The way we’d know if the medication was working, my doctor told me, was if I didn’t notice any big changes in my feelings or behaviour. At some point (I can’t say exactly when), I started to feel like the world seemed a little less dark. It was as if I’d been seeing everything in front of me with a dark-tinged, heavily vignetted filter, and someone had gently peeled it off. I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t feel numb. When my doctor asked how I was doing, all I could tell her was, “I feel OK.” She smiled.
Studies suggest this can happen for many people with depression and anxiety who are prescribed the right medication.
Slowly but surely, I started to get better. The panic attacks stopped, and I gained back some weight. I made friends. I started eating real food. I excelled in school. I went to college. I developed a support network of people I could trust and talk to. I moved across the country. I went to graduate school. I started a career.
I did absolutely none of it on my own.
Life goes on
I kept working with a therapist who was trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of psychotherapy that involves recognising negative thought patterns and coming up with solutions to overcome them. I saw a psychiatrist who managed my medication, went to yoga classes several times each week, and stayed close to the friends and family that had helped me through the bad times.
Research suggests that each of these parts of my recovery can help alleviate the symptoms of depression. Exercise has been linked with a reduction in many depressive symptoms. So have antidepressants, therapy, and steady social support.
Antidepressants were a tool that helped me find normal. They lifted a heavy blanket of anxiety and depression that had previously made everything seem like an impossible chore.
Had my condition been merely a “sociological condition … that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media,” as the Times article suggests, I doubt medication — whether it had been Prozac or Xanax — would have had such an impact.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.