I was in my mid-20s when I had my first major episode of situational depression. I’d had similar but less intense episodes throughout my life, times when I couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time, or would find myself crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason, or sabotaging close relationships over small, seemingly petty things. But this time, after calling out of work for three consecutive days, I finally realized that maybe I was facing something that was bigger than me.
I’ve always tried to take medicine only when I really need it. I think this stems from growing up with my doctor father, who literally overmedicated himself to death. So, if I have a headache, I’ll drink a ton of water and lie down before popping any pills. Can’t sleep? I turn to teas. Scratchy throat? Oil of oregano is my go-to. You get the point. In general, I’ve always had this idea that I’m tough enough to tough it out. So, as you might imagine, it took a lot to make me consider that I might need psychiatric medication.
I confided in a friend that I thought I needed medication. She gave me the name of “a guy” to see. A psychiatrist. Getting ready for my first appointment, I was tempted to wear a trench coat and dark glasses. I was so embarrassed. I had convinced myself that seeking help was synonymous with being weak. And that if anyone knew I was in over my head and couldn’t handle it on my own, I would be exposed for what I felt I was: an imposter.
When the doctor asked me what was going on, I was too much of a mess to put my emotions into words. At the time, I didn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about my mental health symptoms. Even if I had, I probably would have been too ashamed to tell him, or to use words like “posttraumatic stress disorder,” even though intellectually I knew that treating me was his job, and he had probably seen just about everything in my realm of suffering and beyond. Instead, I said: “I think I need medicine. Everything hurts.”
“What hurts?” the doctor asked in a calm, measured, very shrink-like voice.
“My head; my thoughts, I think. I’m so sad and I can barely get up in the morning, and it’s really affecting my work. I think I need medication,” I repeated, not looking him in the eye. “Can you help me?” He paused. “I can, but I need a little more background information.”
I couldn’t give him much; I spent the next hour stuttering through basically the same line over and over again with long awkward pauses: “I think I need medicine. Everything hurts.” When our time was up, I left with two medications: Lexapro and Seroquel — one to address ongoing depression and anxiety and the other for “emergencies.” I doubt I used them right, because the side effects were gnarly. Headaches, nausea, sweating through my clothes so that I’d sometimes have to change before going on TV. I was supposed to go back to the psychiatrist for a follow-up appointment, but I never did. Side effects aside, the meds worked. My mood became more stable, and I was able to go back to work, more focused than ever. And now I felt like I knew the magic trick to deal with whatever came my way.
I didn’t. The decision to seek medication was the right one. Not seeking therapy to talk through whatever the hell it was that I was medicating in the first place was the wrong one. I quit taking the meds after a few months once I felt better, and I thought I was done with the whole thing. I wasn’t. A year or so later, I had another depressive episode. I was like, “Ugh, what’s the name of those magic pills again?” I thought I would just have a doctor friend sketchily prescribe them for me and my mind would clear right up again, like a UTI. Until I could get the prescription, I took my friend’s antidepressants (which, knowing now how dangerous that is for your body and mind, is really alarming). I just assumed all were created equal and they were basically different brand names for the same thing.
They weren’t. Rather than stabilizing my mood, my friend’s meds just made me more emotional and lethargic. Not all medications are created equal because not all mental health issues are created equal. And what I’d come to learn in the years that followed, after I finally started taking better care of myself, is that not all psychiatrists are created equal, either. It’s like finding a personal trainer; you might have to go through a few until you find one who fits your style and needs. This person should be a regular part of your life, not just someone you reach out to when things are going south. Once you’ve found the right person, finding the right medications usually involves a similar kind of trial and error. Eventually, after finding a psychiatrist I actually trusted, who (bonus!) was also an excellent therapist, I found a combination of medications that worked for me — sans nasty side effects — and a medical professional who monitored me.
At first, almost every time I picked up my meds at the pharmacy, I felt awkward and ashamed. I would take the pills out of their orange prescription bottles and transfer them into a generic Tylenol container, worried that someone would see the label and Google what it was that I was taking. It wasn’t until I started looking at my mental health like I would any other health issue that the shame and barriers that stood in the way of me getting better came down piece by piece. I came to understand that mental illness was not something to be embarrassed about or “tough out.” I know now that I really am as tough as it gets — tough enough to ask for help.
A word of caution, however: Antidepressants are not “happy” pills. I should know; I’ve taken many different ones through the years, but I still didn’t fully grasp this for a long time. Antidepressants are like floaties to get you across the pool safely without drowning. Most antidepressants will help get you from the deep end back to the shallow end, where you can stand up on your own. That shallow end is where everyone starts. Making your way out of the pool altogether to a calm, dry, happy place is up to you.
The way to get out of feeling like you’re in a constant state of triage mode is to practice self-care on the regular. There is a reason yoga is called a “practice.” You don’t just go to one class and become a yogi master. You don’t nail a perfect Bird of Paradise bind the first try (trust me, I’ve tried and met the mat fast). If you want to be great at anything, you can’t try it once and then peace out. Similarly, emotional wellness isn’t something you achieve and then cross off your to-do list. You have to check it (and yourself). Every. Damn. Day.
A version of this article was originally published on Entrepreneur.