I hate feeling beholden to medication. I hate Big Pharma. And I hate thinking that I might be missing something because my brain is chemically tweaked out on happy pills.
“I’m going to see how I do without taking Zoloft, I think,” I casually mentioned to my husband a few months ago. “I feel happier than I used to be. We’re happy, don’t you think? And sometimes you just need to be chemically tuned up for a while when you’re going through a rough time, but I think that time is over.”
He nodded. He trusted me.
I began taking antidepressants at the same time I was diagnosed in 2007 with dysthymia, a low-grade depression that you experience for a period of several years. You can function, you are often even high-functioning, but there is a dread and a malaise and a darkness that hangs over all of it. The smallest things can trigger it, and often do, leading to a feeling of meaninglessness rather than an appreciation of all of the wonderful experiences that in fact do make up life as a whole.
I had stopped taking the pills a few times in the past — when I first got sober in 2010 and didn’t want any kind of chemical in my body, when I was feeling sluggish a few years ago, and when I moved to California briefly in 2012. Each time ended with someone metaphorically shaking me and saying, “You know there is a fix to this. Why are you putting yourself through this?” But I wasn’t happily married those times. Now, I thought, I was fixed.
Yet this little experiment started the same way as the others: I found myself crying more. I snapped easier. I bit my husband’s head off for little things that weren’t worth it.
“I don’t feel any pleasure,” I told my mom over FaceTime. I found that, as I have throughout my life, I could brighten my mood up when I was task-oriented or on deadline. But alone, at home, I would find myself struggling with the smallest of things. It was hard to admit that even with all of the happiness that my marriage provided me, it hadn’t cured my mental health.
I told my husband that I wanted to escape my current life — somewhere tropical, somewhere without any responsibilities or expectations. I told him I wished I had gone to college for something different. I wanted to redo everything. Then, out of nowhere, as my depression got worse, we got in one of the biggest fights we’d ever had. I had been playing with fire all along. That’s what untreated depression is. It’s a fireball I was treating like a benign problem that some hugs and kisses would magically cure.
It started off as a nice morning. My husband was making me breakfast, and as he reached into one of the kitchen cabinets for some sugar, a bag of green cleaning gloves I had shoved on top of the plates fell onto the stove.
“Goddamn it,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”
As soon as I heard them, the words sent jolts of rage through me. My depression manifests that way, like a finely trained assassin on a mission of self-righteousness and resentment. A switch had been flipped. Sadness turned to anger, set off by barely anything at all.
Just the night before, my husband had nurtured me all evening long, playing movies and giving me pep talks about how awesome I was and how much he loved and admired me. It was clear that he could see my depression was getting the better of me, that I was listless and unresponsive and crying way too easily.
I woke up and told him, “I’m so grateful for you,” and I kissed him all over his face. “You’re the best. I love you, I love you, I love you.”
But when he dared to express the slightest frustration, I couldn’t resist the all-consuming nature of my depressive rage. I pulled up my phone and began looking for nearby hotels. “I don’t want to be around you,” I said.
Then he saw the pain beneath the anger.
“Mandy,” he said, reaching out to touch my arm.
I started crying. I felt helpless and too ashamed to confess that I had let my own self-care slip so far that I had morphed into a person who was torching everything in her path. I couldn’t flip the “self-destruct” switch on life, so I was trying to get the satisfaction of doing it to our marriage.
“This is so completely ridiculous,” my husband said. “This is all over nothing.”
I relented and found myself crying into his arms. I wanted so badly to be a person who didn’t need help, and I thought the happiness of our marriage would be enough to take away all of my problems. I was so afraid of missing some problem or insight about life because I was on antidepressants. But I won’t ever miss anything. The medication helps calm down my over-plugged-in brain, letting me know that I don’t need to constantly be in a state of cortisol-pumping “fight or flight.”
“I’m so sorry I turned this fight into a nuclear war,” I told him.
“It’s over,” he said.
“I’m always going to be fucked up,” I said.
“I love you exactly as you are.”
“Thank you,” I said. I realized then that the best way I can take care of him is to start taking better care of myself.