A Dose of Happiness: Erasing the Stigma of Antidepressants

The walk in medical office is nondescript, the waiting room devoid of any personality, any artistic touch or warmth, even.  The ratty old chairs are lined up along three of the dingy white walls, filled to capacity with even duller looking patients waiting their turn, most of them glued to their mobile devices, zombie-like as they scroll through, a few of them staring blankly at the television screen perched on the wall, showing nothing but a slide show of possible diagnoses or reasons to ring the doctor.  “If you suffer from any of the following, consult a medical practitioner,” The screen reads, and scrolls through a laundry list of symptoms.

None of these symptoms are ones I possess; in fact, to look at me one would never know I was sick to begin with.  Was I even sick?  Should I just turn and head back home?  After all, I was only mildly depressed, I figured.  Perhaps I didn’t need the help of chemicals to make me happier.  Perhaps all I needed, as some proclaimed, was more fresh air, vegetables, nature; wasn’t that the case?  Wasn’t depression ‘all in my head’?

The shame that had brought me here was so great I hadn’t even wanted to visit my own family doctor.  Worried that he might judge me or offer me that same advice that so many others before had, tell me that I just needed to get out more or get over myself, I opted instead to take an afternoon off and visit the walk-in.  I’d wait as long as needed to speak to someone who had never met me, knew nothing of my life, and offer me a magic solution to make me happier.  I’d settle for a little more contented, even, or just less…willing to just stop going.

I’d tried to seek help, tried to convey to those close to me that something wasn’t quite right, but I just didn’t know how to communicate it.  The thing was, to know me, few would know that I was, in fact, struggling.  I’d smile and carry on about my day, always with the effort of not taking up too much room in anyone’s life, always reminding myself that others surely had it worse, that I should be more grateful, more peaceful, more patient.  And yet, I was having difficulty with the simplest things, such as waking up in the morning and getting out of bed, talking to friends, dealing with my daily responsibilities, which included raising my two daughters alone.

There were nights in which I laid in bed wondering if I had done well enough that day in my work, in my relationships, as a mother, as a friend.  Often times I would sleep too much, hardly able to stay awake, and others that the anxiety would wreak havoc with my mind, exhausting me to the point of being unable to sleep, unable to relax or “just let go”, as so many had advised in their supposed well-intentioned way.

I’d spoken to a higher up at my work.  “I think I might be nearing burnout,” I’d said one day, my voice barely a whisper, afraid to admit I wasn’t doing well, but needing someone to hear me.  “Well, I’m not your doctor,” she’d replied, matter-of-factly.  “If you’re having trouble, go see your doctor.  In the meantime, I’d like that report in by 4pm today.”  Perhaps, I thought, I was being selfish or foolish for even feeling this way.  Perhaps.

The receptionist called me in, a tablet in hand.  She barely looked up from it as I sat now, in the examination room, atop the exam table, expectant, worried, doubtful.

“Okay, so what brings you in today?” She asked, stifling a yawn, refusing eye contact.

“I think I might be a bit depressed,” I replied, looking down.  I could feel tears coming, but I willed them away.  “I mean, not crazy depressed, but you know…just not really living up to my full, uh, potential or whatever.”  Or whatever.  Why couldn’t I just say it?

“Mmhmm,” more typing into the tablet.  “Okay, well, let’s take your blood pressure and then the doctor will see you.”

The wait seemed like hours, though in retrospect, I’m sure it was minutes.  The doctor came in, a young man who looked fresh out of med school. He was friendly, chatty, just disinterested enough to make me feel safe to speak, somehow.

“I’m going to get you to fill out these two questionnaires,” he began, handing me the flimsy papers with maybe about ten questions per side.  “This will give us an indication of where you stand.”  I filled them out promptly, measured my answers carefully so as not to reflect just how sad I really was, but to infer that there was, indeed, some work that needed doing.  I was asking for help but not sure how to make that known.  I waited, watched his face as he appraised the results and pull out his script.

“So, you seem moderately depressed,” he began, and asked some of my medical history, which I offered back, tick, tick, tick.  “Here’s a prescription for an SSRI; you’ll take these daily and see how you feel within about a month, and then visit your GP to reassess.”

It was that simple.  I left the walk in with a script in hand for anti depressants.  I was about to take medication for depression for the first time in my life, and I didn’t know how to feel about it.  At the drug store, the pharmacist took her time in explaining to me how to take them, the potential side effects, the time frame it may take to “feel a difference”.  I, not knowing what to expect, smiled and nodded gratefully.  Now to go home and take them, and to wait to feel me again.

It’s been almost two years that I’ve been taking medication, switching doses, switching pills, countering my PTSD-induced depression with new chemicals to match the weekly therapy sessions, constant ‘homework’ and residual, ongoing stigma of living with a mental illness.  I see memes online, or Facebook updates stating that happiness is a choice, telling us that nature is the world’s best anti depressant, and that pills are poison.  I encounter people who tell me we’re all depressed to an extent, and that depression is selfish, that PTSD is based on ‘poor decisions’.  The battle is constant, not only in the desire to end the condescending, patronizing views of those who truly don’t understand, but within myself, coming to terms with the fact that I cannot change the past, or my emotions so easily.

Being depressed is not a reflection of weakness.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not an indication of poor decision making.  I am not selfish, I am not foolish, and I am most certainly not a victim of this world.  I have learned, in this journey through darkness, that asking for help is not an easy feat – indeed it can be hurtful when asking the wrong people – but at times, it is necessary.  We needn’t suffer in silence, and we needn’t be shamed for feeling what we do.

Park Mums

To be honest, I often avoid the park as a whole, at least during ‘peak hours’ as one might call it.  My youngest finishes school at 2.30pm, making the 3 – 5pm a hotspot at the park, the Daily Gathering of the Park Mums, as it were.  I just can’t do it.

One day, I cave; Georgia has to go to this specific park because So and So will be there, and we were supposed to play Unicorn Fairies of the Sand, and if we don’t go, what will ever become of me?  I, of course, cannot allow my five-year-old’s wellbeing and development be so negatively affected as to miss out on such an event, so off we go, bottle of water and sun hat in hand, arriving into the fray of mums and their little ones gathered about in cliques throughout the grassy picnic tables and under shady trees.

Park Mums, I call them, looking around for a space to sit, preferably alone, not in the mood to make human contact, smiling and nodding a bemused, “Hmmm” as we pass each other.  Georgia is off, squealing with delight and running wildly up and down the structures, my presence temporarily forgotten.  I think to myself, ‘At least she’ll sleep well tonight’, and I take notes of what I observe around me, forever enthused by the social cues one throws at another, the way they mirror each others stances, and what their conversations are like.

“Anna!” One familiar mum calls out to me, walking over.  “Come and meet some of the gang,” and off we go, meeting ‘the gang’, the fellow mothers in the park.  They’re stood in the sand together, close enough to reach out and touch their kids, as necessary, their arms all folded across their chests as they chat away, occasionally pausing to admire their offspring, or, more commonly, to chastise them sweetly, with such proclamations as, “Sarah, that is a no thank you!”  You see, little Sarah had been throwing sand at some poor child’s face, who was now screaming in pain, the sand in his eyeballs.  No thank you, Sarah, indeed.  “Bobby!  Bobby, come here right this instant,” Another mother says, her voice measured and calm. She gets down to his level, and holds his chubby little hands in hers, “Bobby, do you think Paul likes it when you hit him in the head with a shovel?  No, I do not think he likes it.  Look, now Paul is crying,” They look over, and he most certainly is.  No thank you, Bobby.  That was kind of you to consider hitting me in the head with that steel shovel, but no thanks.  Paul is clutching his head, tears rolling down his cheeks, looking at Bobby as though imploring, “Why, Bobby?  Why me?”  Bobby’s mum walks him over to Paul to apologize, as Paul’s mum smiles kindly, “Oh, boys being boys,” She says, and the two are fast friends again.

We return to our conversation, as it were, about home life, bed times, kitchen cabinets and minivans, things which couldn’t possibly interest me less, but I stand, taking on their defensive stance, following their gazes every so often to check on my little Georgia, who’s now galloping and simultaneously barking like a dog; the kid is alright, I figure.

“Oh, Matt came home the other day,” starts one mum, and we all lean in a little closer, imagining this must be juicy, “And can you believe, he suggested we order pizza for dinner.”  Everyone laughed heartily, and I stood, uncertain as to what was so funny.  I glanced at one, questioningly.  “How ridiculous!” She chuckled, “What kind of pizza will be gluten and dairy free, and vegetarian, nearby?  Doesn’t he know the kids react poorly to gluten?  It makes little Elise frightfully hyper!”  “Not to mention, Henry gets such a temper, right?” Adds another, to which gluten-mum nods, sagely.  “I cannot fathom feeding my kids that garbage.”  A collective moan of agreement, and I excuse myself to hide the package of Skittles I have in my purse, my Kryptonite to bribe Georgia to leave the park without tears on either side.

I opt to sit back down, preferring to be a passive observer of The Park Mums and Their Offspring, the running title in my mind.  There goes little Johnny, chasing Peter with a branch.  Neither of the mums react until Peter turns around and calls little Johnny an asshole, at which point mums surround both sides, chastising for using such filthy language, demanding an apology.  “We must be at one with our emotions, Peter!” His mum kneels down, her eyes intent on his.  “Do you not recall what we learned in last week’s meditation session, my love?”  After letting him go back to play, she turns apologetically to the other mums, regarding her sympathetically.  “Has he had any gluten today, perhaps, or any food colouring?”  It would be a reason for this outburst.  The others nod in agreement, “Hmmm” all around.

Finally, Georgia is filthy, her shoes more filled with sand than little feet, and she tells me she’s just about ready to head home, with the promise of Skittles en route.  Some mothers raise their eyebrows.  “Sure, baby,” I reply.  “Hey mum?  What’s for dinner?” “Well, I can’t be bothered to cook, so why not pizza?”  Georgia is delighted.  I have broken the Park Mum Code, and I’m regarded with scrutiny, whispered tones.

“Did you see what Peter did to Johnny?” Georgia asks as we leave the park.  I nod.  “What a douchebag,” She mumbles.  I have done it all wrong, and yet I can’t help but let out a little laugh.

After Summer, The Cold

It happens when you simultaneously least expect it and recognize the imminence of it all, doesn’t it?  That moment in the relationship that’s like a change of seasons, the halcyon sun-filled days of summer and their endless sun suddenly turning darker, the air colder.  You brace yourself against the chill of the wind, confident that a shrug or turning your back to it will eradicate the brittleness in your bones, but the moment arrives, all too soon and yet just in time to salvage what left of your heart has gone unbroken throughout it all.

I met Him on a sunny day, the start of summer, my heart open – too much so? – and hoping for love, perhaps, or better yet, for validation from someone.  Did I really want love, I ask myself now, or was it more for someone to simply tell me I was worthy of it, that I was good enough for him, that I was worth committing to, not disposable as so many before him had made me feel, or how I had availed myself to be.

He pulled the seat out for me, sat down with a winning smile and crinkly eyes – I have a weakness for crinkly eyes – and asked about my day, my life, and I, his.  The hours passed and in the end, I felt that I’d connected with my soulmate, opting to ignore the subtleties that raised a flag for me, the emotionality, the bouts of anger in his voice when speaking of an ex, the seemingly unsolicited tears that filled his eyes in one moment, only to be gone the next and replaced, once again, with that winning smile. “Tell me more about your trip to Spain,” he leaned forward, keenly interested to hear my thoughts, my adventures, and my life.

Our romance began as one from the books, I suppose, a typical whirlwind of long lazy evenings sharing pieces of our lives, as though little snacks to feed just enough of the curiosity but leaving more to the imagination, a yearning to taste one more bite, but no, not yet.  Soon, my love, soon.  We laughed at silly things, held hands as we sauntered down city streets, proudly showing the world what happiness really is, stopping at times to stare longingly into each other’s eyes, our foreheads touching, our eyes bright with the joy we were feeding each other.

Fall came, and with it, the change in Him, or perhaps in me?  In us, maybe.  It was subtle, just as the change of seasons can be, with the occasional biting cold from a sharp word.  “Why were you talking to that guy?”  “I’ll bet you were a lot more fun a few years ago…”  At times, the words were spoken under his breath, so muttered and muted that I doubted what I’d heard, and I chastised myself for being so foolish as to believe he would say such things, shrugging it off.  In other moments, he looked at me, his eyes cold and emotionless, coolly delivering the criticisms without so much as a blink, his voice almost a monotone, the words hanging in the air between us, waiting for a reaction; I struggled to offer one which appeared to fit his temperament.  I had disappointed him, and I would, again and again.

The fleeting moments of happiness, of peace, became what sustained me as the days and weeks wore on, and we became both more familiar and less so.  We would dance delicately around each other, an unspoken, unrehearsed, clumsy tango of words of passionate love and, in some instances, from him, blatant hatred.  I became She Who Wished to Please, forever bending, twisting, attempting to find the best way to suit His needs, and often times failing because I wasn’t believable enough in my words or actions, or because I was exhausted and, in being so, selfish.

I lost weight.  Not that I had a lot to lose, to begin with, my career in fitness and modelling causing this to be a bone of constant contention.  But I did.  I lost it because I thought it would make me more likeable, loveable even, and that perhaps this would win His approval which I so desperately sought.  Was I good enough now?  Was I thin enough?  Pretty enough?

I changed my style.  I traded in short dresses for His sweatshirts, and on those rare evenings I would go out without Him, I would be sure to text constantly, letting him know I was ‘behaving’ as it were, not speaking to strange men, sending pictures that showed I was keeping myself together, that I was ‘being a good girl’.

Winter came, and with it, the biting cold, the kind that hurts just to be exposed, the kind that could kill the vulnerable.  With it came the change in Him, as well.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I must not see my closest friends, that I must give up my modelling, and so, to an extent, I did.  I did enough to appease Him, but likewise enough to hold on to what little of myself I could, the control I did possess.  Our time together became more about shunning the outside world in favour of each others’ company, and less about sharing the moments with others.  My group of friends began to fade into the distance, our messages to each other infrequent, kept to small talk in the instance he might ask to peruse them, as he did.  I learned to speak in code, or not to speak at all.  Of course, in time those friends I had took their own distance, opting to cancel on our plans, perhaps because my time was too limited, or perhaps, even, because my conversations were kept to singing His praises, as though saying it out loud on repeat would make it true.

My emotions toward Him became something of a mystery, even to me.  I found the crumbs he would leave me of great affection to nourish me long enough to sustain the hunger I was feeling for more, more, more.  I could live off these minuscule pieces and in return, I could better myself and give Him so much more of me.  Every morsel I received empowered me enough to give Him my body, my heart, proclaim my love loudly, as though proving to the world that I did, in fact, love this man, or perhaps that I, too, was worthy of being loved in return.

But the cold was too strong.  The iciness of his words would weigh me down, as though causing me to stoop, my entire stature changing as I presented myself to the world.  What had I become?  I was a shell now, empty, my voice, even, diminished, more a whisper, more like that of a child after a scolding.  What was I?  Where did I go? In the mirror, all that returned my stare was a woman with sunken eyes.  A little too thin – but this is what he preferred – and a little too withdrawn.  Where was the spark I once possessed?

I had wanted to end it so many times before, but somehow never felt strong enough, brave enough, or perhaps I feared nobody would ever love me as much again.  I would lie awake at night, imagining arguments I might stir up just enough to cause him to walk out – his leaving would be so much better than my own – and dreaming of freedom, of seeing my friends again, of remembering who I was.  But the end came suddenly, as though a long moment of peace being shattered by the clatter of glass breaking on the floor, the unbearable cold being so great that I could no longer feel myself, and I, numb, told him I was leaving.  This was the end.

Tearfully, weeks later, we met again.  “Isn’t it better to be miserable with someone than alone?”  He asked me, his voice hopeful.  “I don’t understand why we couldn’t work out.  I don’t understand why you can’t stay.  I treated you so well…”  Had he?  Had he been good to me?  The memories of our summer days flooded back in my mind, the happiness, the warmth of his embrace and the laughter we’d shared.  Perhaps he was right?  Perhaps I had not properly recognized the enduring warmth that should have carried me through the colder days of fall and winter.  Perhaps that should have sustained me.

I felt guilty, I felt ashamed for not being grateful.  And I stood.  “No,” my voice merely a whisper, “I am not doing this anymore.”  I turned up my collar and left, facing the bracing winter cold outside, the sun warm on my face.  As I left, I could see him behind me, his body hunched from the pain of loss, or perhaps the bitterness of defeat, of losing the battle to overcome one who, quite simply, refused to be stepped on one more time.

For the first time, I could feel the familiar glow of winter light.  The snow under my feet crunched in the otherwise silent afternoon.  I was free.

All around me was peaceful, the snow sparkling under the sunlight, and though it was alarmingly cold, the sun was warming.  I was able to embrace the chill in the air, and gazed up at the sky with a slight smile.  Suddenly I had faith that spring would come again, and with it, a change in me.