Many of you know that I took antidepressants for several years. What started as a relatively normal twenty minute doctor’s appointment at the student health center of my university ended with a trial pack of Paxil and a six year battle between me and my medication. I wrote all about my experiences in my book, The Antidepressant Antidote, however there is one important aspect of my journey that didn’t make it into my story.
In some ways I’m surprised that this crucial piece of the puzzle didn’t occur to me while I was sharing many deeply personal aspects of my experience with antidepressants. I suppose I was so focused on helping others reevaluate their relationship with their medication that I failed to notice or write about the profound implications of taking these powerful medications during such formative years of my life.
I took antidepressants from age twenty to twenty-six, a period of time that, for most people, represents an important developmental window.
It’s a time when we move from being teenagers into adulthood. We typically leave home for the first time. We develop new friendships, are exposed to new events and opportunities (both positive and negative), and we start to build a sense of who we are as adults. In other words, we come of age.
This issue recently came to life for me when I stumbled upon an excellent book by Katherine Sharpe, called “Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are.” In the book, Katherine describes a generation of youth, like myself, who basically grew up on antidepressants.
People like me, who are currently in their thirties, were among the first youth to be prescribed SSRI antidepressant medications when these drugs started to hit the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Reading Katherine’s book was like reviewing my own history over and over again, as Katherine interviewed over forty people who were also prescribed antidepressants in their teens and twenties.
Katherine’s personal story, and the stories of many of the people she interviewed, are eerily similar to mine. Many of the stories go something like this: Feelings of unexplained sadness and/or anxiety led to a visit with some sort of professional at some point in the 1990s. Often, after a very short medical appointment, SSRIs were prescribed. Sometimes the effects of the medication were beneficial, such as improved mood and lowered anxiety. However these benefits often came with side effects (most of which were never fully explained to patients before they started the medication), and a general dissatisfaction with the drugs.
Now, to be sure, this isn’t representative of everyone’s experience with antidepressants. I want to make it very clear that I am not anti-medication, and I know that these drugs have helped many people.
Personally, however, I really struggled with taking SSRIs, and I know that I’m not alone in this. In fact, I don’t think the medication should have been prescribed to me in the first place. My anxiety and sadness were never severe. I was never suicidal, I always maintained a job, got good grades, and had an active social life. In many ways I think I was simply experiencing the angst, alienation, and isolation that often comes along with growing up. Every time I went to a doctor to express my concerns, however, they would switch me to a new drug in the hope that I would experience fewer side effects. By the time my six year saga was over, I’d tried Paxil, Celexa, and Zoloft. And I still felt pretty miserable.
Looking back at this period in my life, I can’t help but wonder what effect these powerful drugs had on my developing identity (and physiology). How might my life have been different if I hadn’t been on the medication during such a crucial developmental window?
Perhaps my life would have been better or worse – there’s no way to know for sure. What I do know is that during this time I acted in ways that were often strange, especially when I was trying to get off of the medication. I was more impulsive and I took bigger risks, often because weaning off of the drugs caused a number of temporary withdrawal symptoms, including an extreme drop in my already low self-esteem.
These days I’m asking myself:
What would I have done differently in my twenties without SSRIs?
What would my life be like now, at age thirty-five, if I hadn’t taken SSRIs in my twenties?
How did SSRIs shape my current personality, my development, my psyche?
I don’t have answers to these questions. And to be honest, after a year of promoting my book I got a bit burnt out on the whole antidepressant topic. It’s a deep issue that pushes many buttons for a lot of people. I rarely write blogs on this topic because I typically receive more than a few items of hate mail accusing me of being anti-medication and hurting, rather than helping, people who are struggling with mental illness. Please know that this is not my intention. Rather, my hope is that by asking tough questions, I will bring light to what I believe is a critical issue. We are prescribing powerful medications to our youth, yet we know very little about what effects these drugs might have over the long-term.
Otherwise, how will we move forward?
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.
Image courtesy of e-Magine Art.