For two years, I was dead.
Not in the literal sense, but if a life worth leading is a combination of responding to text messages, having new jeans, eating anything, thirsting for knowledge and wanting to live, then I was very much dead. “You have 86 unread texts, 6,000-plus unread e-mails,” I’d remind myself. “Don’t open them.”
For many years, I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety. And I see a therapist every two weeks, if I’m lucky. I’ve been on a mixed bag of “dolls,” as my boyfriend and I playfully call them, an ever-changing cocktail of SSRIs (for depression) and benzos (for anxiety) that could numb a small elephant. But I haven’t always been so lucky. And really, luck has never had anything to do with it. I’m not better or worse for having struggles with mental health—certainly not better and absolutely not worse.
Living in terror
There were times when even with a bounty of love in a room—or in my inbox—I could not feel it. Everything terrified me: A conversation with my roommate, a girl whom I love, made my chest tighten; a friendly request for drinks would be met with, “I’ve got a birthday.” (There was almost never a birthday. And if there was, I likely wasn’t going.) I was trapped in a jail of my own creation, a dark and unclean fortress that had amassed more dirty laundry than Joe’s Apartment. A deluge of selfies, taken at home, was my way of saying, “I’m still here.” Days would go by, and I hadn’t showered. Some days, I would only leave my room to use the bathroom, smoke or feed my cat.
Ping: “Coffee?” No response. Ping: “u okay?” No response. Ping: “Kevin???” No response. Not only did I feel panic, I began to know what it meant to be a bad friend and brother—a truly bad guy, and not just some person who “tells it like it is” because they have “no filter.” My anxiety, as a result, worsened. Unlike the prevailing mantra of my peers, I was sorry I was not sorry.
You get good at manufacturing curt replies (when you send them), but they never explain enough. My friends would often ask, “Did I do something wrong?” And they never did. There was nothing vengeful about my isolation, and what even the people closest to me didn’t realize is that I was simply floundering. “When will I see you next?” they’d ask. I really didn’t know. I didn’t even know when I’d see myself next.
I refer to these two years of my life as the “dark period,” because it was when the physical world collapsed, leaving me standing in the middle of nothing. To paint it in movie terms, I was either Sandra Bullock in 28 Days or Sandra Bullock in Gravity. There have been plenty of other instances in my life when I’ve felt this way, but these were my worst years. Have you ever ached for something but don’t know what that something is? That’s what my anxiety felt like, endlessly. I had no words and no answers, despite that being what I do for a living. That shortage of knowledge, a puzzle that couldn’t be solved and a growing unwillingness to do something about it? That’s what my depression felt like.
Relationship Replacement therapy doesn’t work
So, what did I do? The one thing I knew I shouldn’t: I started a relationship. With a beautiful man in Connecticut. He was kind, vulnerable, handsome, athletic (an accomplished kayaker) and owned a dog and a house overlooking a park. I never got to that house, but in a way, I don’t know if I was ever meant to. I staved off suicide by submitting to the impossible. I was in a relationship with someone I’d never officially met, ever. We’d talk a lot, we’d exchange a multitude of texts, we’d Skype, we’d pine, we’d complain and we’d dream, but it wasn’t until he came to Toronto that it was real.
I was in a relationship with someone I’d never officially met, ever.
The problem with something fantastical becoming real is that you have to choose between life and fantasy. Once there’s a physical body that you’ve touched, you have to wade through a shallow pool of pros and cons. Pro: Connecticut is a distance from the mind, which allows me to remove myself from the here and now—my own private poverty (both emotional and financial). Con: We barely know each other in the flesh and we can’t make that work.
It sounds like an easily drawn conclusion, but it wasn’t. Friends would ask, “What’s the harm? Go visit him!” But in my head, my anxiety took over. A simple vacation for others was a whole list of questions for me: Could I accept a flight from a lover? Would I be able to enjoy the vacation once I arrived? Do your problems go away when you go away? What if this doesn’t work out? Something that should have been enjoyable began to weigh me down, which sounds strange, given that I had the full support of everyone around me. Your friends will tell you that you “need to get away” and that “you deserve it,” but inside, you feel like you can’t even step outside of your own brain and that you deserve nothing.
My anxiety and depression coached me into thinking a certain way. I couldn’t see beyond my perceived failings: In my mind, I was emotionally stunted garbage middling between unemployment and underemployment, and there was nothing worth knowing about me. If I couldn’t be happy here, what would make me happy there? My trappings and failings traveled with me like debt.
In my mind, I was emotionally stunted garbage, and there was nothing worth knowing about me.
Using a relationship as freedom was bound to fail, and I didn’t even know where my next meal was going to come from. When your mind is a no-man’s-land and you’re bound by the strains of depression and anxiety, the power of common logic can often escape you. Your highest highs are a combination of lucid dreams and short-lived euphoria, while your lowest lows come from a combination of drug abuse, self-inflicted captivity, self-harm and diagnosis. I needed help not a boyfriend.
I showed up to my family doctor crying. He wasn’t my therapist, but I treated him like one anyway. I told him about my American “boyfriend,” my habitual drug use and how, most nights, I couldn’t fall asleep. I told him I was sad and I didn’t have answers. I showed him my phone, with its reminder of dissatisfaction, and the balance of my bank account. I cried some more, unleashing my every vulnerability until he stopped me: “You might need to be on an antidepressant,” he said.
Drugs can be so good
For years, I’d avoided the “good” kind of drugs. “They’ll take me away,” I’d argued. “I’ve read and watched Prozac Nation.” But he said, very matter-of-factly, that this is an option and not the option. And I was on my last leg: I’d fantasized about killing myself with such frequency that it seemed like only a matter of time before I’d bite the bullet. I’d even tried twice before, to no avail; an intended overdose without the finale. A sickness achieved, sure, but not of the dying sort. I was Neo in The Matrix, and even though there were two pills to swallow, I pulled a Mark Renton and chose reality.
I’d fantasized about killing myself with such frequency that it seemed like only a matter of time before I’d bite the bullet.
That next week, I was sitting with my now-therapist, who initially prescribed me Pristiq, an SSRI, which I could not afford because I was still unemployed and didn’t have benefits. I discussed this with him, but he proclaimed it was worth trying due to its proven effectiveness. I submitted, accumulated “good debt,” and the results were horrifying. I was completely void of sexual urges–my libido was completely zapped–and although I had been warned it was a side effect, I didn’t think I would experience it. Then came the hunger that could never be fulfilled, leading to weight gain. What you don’t often hear is that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication aren’t always right for you. You have to “shop around.” By my next appointment, I had told my doctor that I would like to try something a) more affordable and b) that would allow me to have sex (when I desired to have it again). At this point, I was abstinent, and it was the last thing on my mind, but I wanted to feel the urge. He prescribed Zoloft and Ativan.
…but drugs can be too good
What many also don’t realize is that a pill doesn’t instantly cure you of your depression and anxiety. It takes approximately a month before your body adapts to a new SSRI, so there’s still the anxiety of something not working, like when you work out and aren’t getting quick-enough results. Ativan, however, works fast and almost too well. Because benzos are classified as controlled substances and incredibly easy to become addicted to, they’re not easy to get in bulk. The reason is, your body develops a tolerance, and before you know it, that one magic pill can turn into three a night.
In the process of discovering what worked for me, I found that Ativan worked too well, and I began popping three a night. I became an addict very quickly, and my 45-day supply would literally vanish before my eyes. Becoming addicted to benzos is not something I’d recommend, because if you can’t get an appointment, and your therapist is unavailable to refill your prescription, you come down very hard and very fast. Although Ativan helped me sleep, it was the only thing helping me sleep, and I needed that to change.
Withdrawal feels like dying
The withdrawal period was absolutely wretched. I experienced uncomfortable heart palpitations throughout the day, chest tightness, sweats, headaches, restlessness and hunger. The symptoms are much like with any other addiction, but because Ativan impacts your neurochemistry, it really isn’t something you want to fool around with. You’re essentially experiencing agitated symptoms you were trying to escape from in the first place. But quickly halting intake could lead to convulsions, tremors and seizures, and I took the risk anyway. It took more than seven days of hell to feel just okay again. For this decision, you should consult a physician, even though I didn’t.
The same goes for antidepressants. Sure, they may last longer in your system, but once you begin withdrawals, prepare for the possibility of excruciating headaches, fatigue and irregular heart palpitations. I went through a period where I was spending the little money I had on antidepressants, and some months, I couldn’t afford them. Within three days, my body was begging for them, and sometimes I had to wait longer than that. I can assure you that it is even less fun than it sounds.
It takes a while to realize you don’t suck
Anxiety and depression suck, but these things don’t make you a horrible person. You won’t see that right away, and I didn’t either. Some days, I still don’t see it. For years, I took my lumps as if feeling like pond scum was my raison d’etre. I even needed to be coached into believing that I could be helped in my darkest days because I simply could not see it as a possibility. Drugs aren’t for everyone, and you might choose not to go this route. That’s okay. But if you feel like you need to, or want to try, it isn’t defeat. There isn’t one right way, but you need to turn the wheel and make a choice.
Anxiety and depression suck, but these things don’t make you a horrible person.
My therapist and I are working toward a day when I won’t need antidepressants, and I imagine that won’t be easy. It’s like telling someone they can no longer eat wheat after a lifetime of eating bread. I still have trouble sleeping some nights but I’ve begun using natural methods to help me. Oddly, counting sheep doesn’t always work.
At the end of these stories, you usually face someone’s grand, sweeping conclusion about how things are way better now. You might read an a-ha moment that suggests Yeah! He did it! Sayonara depression, you loser! I haven’t won, because it’s not a contest, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see a day where I’m 100 per cent the way I’d like to feel. That’s reality, with depression or not. I’ll probably even have to change medication a handful more times before we get it right. Shaking the worst days takes time and effort — it’s like endlessly re-doing an art project, until you can take a few steps back, observe and definitively believe, it’s my masterpiece. So, here’s where I’m at now:
I have definitely learned to shut my brain off the old-fashioned way: by shutting my eyes and ignoring the Internet and life. Sometimes, my strategies don’t work at all, and I take a quarter of a Mirtazapine to get me where I need to go — in addition to knocking me out, it also makes me very hungry, so I’ve gained a bunch of weight. I still have really bad days, but I’m much more balanced than I was before. My life isn’t perfect, but I’ve got a plan now. And, really, I’m just thankful I do. Because without one, I’d still be dead.
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 25, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health programs. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, posting on Instagram using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk video on Facebook, or sending a Snapchat using the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.
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