A few days ago I posted about feeling out of balance. It was a minor funk really but I mentioned in the post that even feeling a little bit down causes me to wonder if it’s the beginning of something more. I don’t really think I’m on the brink of depression (and actually felt immediately better after writing about these feelings and getting them out in the open) but once you’ve suffered a major depression those worries are always there, lurking in the shadows. I’ve learned it’s best to honor those feelings, not be afraid to talk about them and then move on.
I wish more people could do this instead of suffering in silence, believing that they must always put on a happy face. Perhaps if we lived in a culture where it’s okay to talk about our off days 25% of women and 15% of men wouldn’t have the need to be taking some type of psych medication. (Thanks to my friend M for the link.)
Let me be clear, I took Zoloft in my battle with depression and anxiety so I am most certainly not criticizing the choice to use these medications. I simply want to explore why so many of us feel the need to take them in the first place.
Better at diagnosis?
Yes, I do think we are probably better at diagnosing mental illness than we were in the past. I also think that as some of the social stigma surrounding mental illness is lifted more people are seeking help. This could even account for some of the discrepancy in the number of women vs. men who take these meds; women are generally more willing to take care of their health in general and especially their mental health needs. However, better diagnosis and more willingness to seek help are not all that is at play here.
Assembly line care
My own experience with this type of medication was that doctors were all too willing to push it upon me and then declare me “cured”. The first mental health professional that I saw was not a psychiatrist. I specifically chose to go to someone who couldn’t write me a prescription because I wanted to get to the root of the issue, not just take a pill. The first thing the counselor did was recommend I see someone who could give me meds. So, I second guessed myself on the recommendation of an ‘expert’ and followed his advice.
The psychiatrist was all too happy to write me a script (after talking with me for a very short amount of time) and send me on my way. My follow up wasn’t until three months later. At that time I reported feeling a little better so he told me it would be fine to just continue getting my prescription filled through my primary care provider. No need to go back and spend time figuring out what led me to feel depressed- these pills FIXED me and, according to this guy, I was done.
Now, I realize that not everyone’s experience will be the same as mine. I had a crappy HMO and of the few covered docs only a few were accepting new patients. But really; that’s it? This is what the average citizen dependent on their employer provided insurance can expect from mental health care? I was shuffled along and no one suggested exploring (or even seemed to care) what had brought me to this point to begin with. It was handwaved away as a chemical imbalance despite the fact that the science tells us that this is only one part of most depressive episodes.
To be fair, the medications WERE helpful. But as a TOOL, not a cure. Every health care provider I saw was fine with me continuing to take these medication long term without exploring any other options. Apparently if I FELT better it didn’t matter if I ever truly got better. Never mind that the longer I would have taken these medications the higher the dosage would have needed to be for the same effect (and increased side effects). Never mind that an artificial dose of chemicals might SIMULATE happy feelings but it doesn’t mean that a person is actually happy. All that seemed to matter was that these health care providers, who had passed me from one to another like a piece of machinery on an assembly line, could count me as a success. I was “cured”.
This approach led me to do something extremely dangerous- I took myself off of my medication without consulting my doctor. And I crashed. I had been feeling better so I convinced myself that I WAS better. (It wasn’t that much of a stretch, the doctors seemed to agree.) But without that artificial rush I seemed to plummet even further than I had been to begin with. Thankfully I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t recognize this and I promptly refilled my prescription. I still stopped taking the meds on my own but researched how to safely wean myself off of them instead of going cold turkey. I’m sure one of my doctors would have advised me on how to do this if I’d asked, but I had lost faith and trust in them at this point and wanted to do it on my own.
As I said earlier, the meds were a good tool and because of them I was able to lift my head above the fog and recognized tha I needed to change some things in my life if I truly wanted to be better. As I mentioned, I’d lost faith in the medical establishment to be able to help me so I set out on my own. It is possible that even with the help of a professional I still would have made some of the same self-destructive choices on the path to recovery but I think there would have been fewer. I was left scrambling to figure things out on my own and I think some guidance from an objective, trained professional would have helped (and possibly saved me from some very poor attempts to feel better).
So, what happened?
Why is that I saw three different people and none of them were willing to do anything other than offer me medication? I did what I was supposed to do- I sought help, so why wasn’t I actually receiving any? Did I just happen to get three very bad medical professionals? Maybe I was wrong all along and should have just taken the pills and been done with it. Or perhaps there is a larger problem that needs to be addressed. One that is larger than the medical practitioners, larger than the individuals deciding how best to participate in their own recovery, larger even than big pharma. Perhaps it is an issue of what society deems as “acceptable” and “normal” behaviors and feelings.
Through my own experience as well as talking with a lot of women who’ve had similar experiences I’ve developed my own theory about what is leading to this rise in psychotropic medications, especially among women.* All too often when women are unhappy with their current life situation, whether they are overwhelmed or underwhelmed, overworked or under-stimulated, underestimated or have unreasonably high expectations placed upon them, they are too often told that they need to change THEMSELVES instead of their situation. They need to think positively, focus on the good, be grateful for what they have, and above all stop whining about their feelings and get back to taking care of everyone else.
Go ahead, whine!
Don’t get me wrong, positive thinking and gratitude have their place. But they only go so far if your life isn’t truly what you want it to be. It is not healthy to dwell on the negative but it is equally unhealthy to always feel the need to pretend everything is okay.
For example, I am extremely grateful for my healthy, happy, intelligent children. But being a good mom is draining at times and sometimes *gasp* my kids piss me off. It’s not often, and please don’t think I’m promoting the culture of parents who constantly complain about their kids and parental responsibilities because I’m NOT. But once in a great while I need to be able to say that I’m tired and/or pissed without feeling as if I’m a terrible mother.
Furthermore, 95% of the time I love my husband with unabashed devotion. But the other 5% of the time it has to be okay for me to say what I need from him in that moment is something different than what he’s giving me. Sometimes, even if he can’t do what I’m asking, simply being heard is enough.
I could give similar instances as they relate to my job, my responsibilities at home, other relationships and countless other things because NOTHING is good all the time. And it has to be okay to say that without someone trying to shove a pill in your mouth.
*I fully recognize that men are suffering from depression as well. However, I am not a man and haven’t spent a great deal of time talking with men about their experiences. I am speaking from my own knowledge base and therefore focusing on the challenges specific to women on this issue. Furthermore, the statistics clearly indicate that this problem of over-medication is affecting women at a higher rate than men.