Although I’m now a Care Partner with Prairie Health supporting the mental health of others, it took me a long time to even recognize the state of my own mental health. I struggled with undiagnosed depression and anxiety without the support of a therapist or psychiatrist from a young age. It wasn’t until I attended graduate school where mental health was openly discussed amongst my peers that I felt the courage to reach out for support with therapy and medication. I talked to a psychiatrist for less than 10 minutes and was put on an SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor). I couldn’t get over the fact that I was given a medication that would alter the way my brain regulates emotion based on a conversation the length of talking to a cashier at the store.
Two years later, I am thankfully now in a good place. I’ve learned a few things after going through this process of taking medication, which I wish I had known prior to starting.
In hopes of helping others on a similar journey, here are my 6 recommendations I’d give to any friend starting on an antidepressant.
1. Keep a log
A common phrase people use to describe being on antidepressants is “feeling numb.” I experienced that as well, but with a twist. I would feel numb, then I would feel an intensity of emotion over the smallest things, resulting in a sudden onslaught of tears. I didn’t realize I could have these seemingly opposite feelings on the same day.
During this period, I kept thinking, “this is how it’s going to be forever.” I kept a log as suggested by my wonderful friends in social work to understand the gradual changes that might not be on the forefront of my mind. Also, keeping a log and externalizing the thoughts in my head allowed me to separate my feelings and thoughts from reality. This log proved to be useful in multiple facets of this journey.
I monitored these 8 things for the first few months on a scale of 1 to 10, along with a brief commentary:
1) Changes in appetite
2) Changes in energy levels
3) Changes in mood
4) Changes in “numbness”
5) Changes in “fogginess”
6) Changes in nausea
7) Changes in sleep
8) Changes in concentration
If you’re looking for something more than pen and paper, there are a number of mood tracking apps that can work great; one of my favorites is Daylio.
2. Focus on your journey, rather than comparing
It seemed on the internet and among those around me that there were 3 typical responses to medication: people got “better,” you had to constantly switch between different medications, or the side effects weren’t worth the effort. I wanted to be in group 1, feeling only the positive effects and ready to tackle graduate school, unpaid internships, and working part-time along the way.
Although comparisons can be helpful to check if you’re on the right track, I knew I needed to focus my comparisons to my own journey to get a better idea of how I was improving. “Normalizing my normal” was a mantra I told myself, often. After all, we know mental health doesn’t exist as a binary (you’re good, or you’re not), meaning there’s a lot of complexities in between that matter too. And if medication was part of my story of veering closer to feeling “good,” I wanted to normalize this too. I used my log to visually track my progress, despite polarized thinking might be telling me otherwise.
3. Be honest about what you’re feeling
I felt uncomfortable being honest with my psychiatrist about how I was doing, and I didn’t want to be labeled as a “difficult” patient. Bringing my log to my appointments allowed me to feel more grounded. By doing this, I didn’t need to scramble to murmur that I was doing “fine” when it was clear on my papers that particular symptoms were intruding on my wellbeing. I needed to tell myself this then, and I want to remind you, that this is your health and that needs to be prioritized.
Your depression and anxiety might be loud and manifest as untrue thoughts about being a burden, but these feelings don’t represent the real you. Letting mental health specialists in on the truth of what’s going on will not only be relieving on your end, it will help them know how to better support your needs.
4. Be Consistent
The brain fog I felt made it difficult to consistently take my medication. Some days, I wouldn’t remember if I took my medication or not. I once went several days without taking medication; my body reminded me of this when I experienced a withdrawal symptom that felt like electric shocks throughout my body. On top of this discomfort, I had some difficulty focusing and eating due to the nausea I experienced as a medication side effect.
I learned to set a reminder on my phone to build a routine with taking medication. This prevented these withdrawals from happening again. Another option to consider? Buy a simple pill container that separates out medication for each day of the week, so you know whether you’ve taken your medication that day.
5. Enlist support
Disentangling the stigma of taking medication required being vulnerable and opening up to people who love me about what I was needing. The more I talked about it with people, the more normalized this felt. Different friends were able to provide support on various levels. One friend sent me a voice memo every morning with a quick and sweet affirmation for the day. Another friend brought me lunch on days we had classes together.
Your loved ones want to take care of you. Sometimes, they just need to understand how.
6. Be patient with yourself, your body and the medication
WebMD suggests people notice positive changes in 4–6 weeks. But for some people, it might take even longer. The side effects can be grueling in the beginning, making it even more difficult to understand if “it’s working” or not. The best thing to do at this point is to acknowledge that these side effects are temporary and that you’re doing your best. That that’s all there is to do in this particular moment. Of course, if you are noticing severe symptoms or severe side effects persisting for more than 8 weeks, make sure to let your doctor know right away.
It became clear to me at an early age that I would be on a journey with my mental health, but it took until adulthood to really understand what exactly this journey would entail. I discovered a weight was lifted when I was able to vocalize my needs needs. A huge reason I am excited to be on the Prairie Health team is to support folks who want to take control of their mental health.
Prairie offers a different approach to medication than the one I had with my psychiatrist. Prairie tailors treatment specifically to each individual’s genetic makeup; this translates to fewer side effects, faster recoveries, and better care. In my journey, when I had concerns regarding my medication, I didn’t have a professional to talk about this with until my next appointment with my psychiatrist many weeks later. Prairie breaks down this barrier to successful medication management by incorporating Care Partners (like myself) to discuss your concerns proactively. I am fortunate to be a partner in this challenging journey so Prairie’s members don’t have to go through it alone.
If you are interested in discussing whether Prairie can support your healing journey, take the first step and book a free 15-minute consultation with a mental health specialist like myself. My fellow Care Partners and I would love to meet you.