When Meds Mess with Mental Health

Nicole Melanson ~

Storm over sea

Depression has been amplified this past week due to the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I mostly follow literary figures on Twitter and both deaths kicked off a lot of discussion about mental health. Coincidentally, I cracked open Gayle Forman’s I Was Here over the weekend and spent an afternoon reading about a teen girl’s efforts to understand her best friend’s unexpected suicide. So, now seems as good a time as any to talk about what I’m going through with my new medication.

Most of my treatments to date have been of the ilk you find on wellness blogs eg. making environmental changes, modifying diet, incorporating stretching regimes, getting more sleep etc. I have also been following a rigorous supplementation protocol. And I’ve experimented with different drugs prescribed by various specialists to trouble-shoot this or that, usually with mixed results. But I put off hitting the really hard treatments until now because I wanted to make sure I was equipped to handle the symptoms.

Wellness banner

If you’ve ever done a detox, you’ll know there’s nothing fun about it. When your body is used to steady hits of caffeine, sugar, or what-have-you and you suddenly cut those out, it hurts. In fact, it’s not uncommon for you to get sick as your system fights to recalibrate. Trying to recover from biotoxin illness is even harder because the junk you’re trying to filter out is literally poison.

I knew what I was getting into when I started these meds and did everything I could to set myself up for success beforehand, partly because I also suffer from Lyme and I wanted to minimize the possibility of an intensification reaction. I still hit some speed bumps in the initial weeks of treatment, but the symptoms were largely manageable and have since subsided. Except for the depression.

Rainy puddle

When I wake in the morning, I feel like I didn’t get any sleep the night before. My body aches. My spirit aches. I have to force myself to get out of bed. I stand in the shower and the water feels like it is beating my bones. My limbs feel too heavy to hold up. I trudge everywhere I go. All I want to do is sleep. And despair.

Being depressed is like walking wounded. Just going about your business like a normal person causes pain. You try to think of something positive and feel despondent instead. The things that should bring you joy leave you feeling hollow, like someone scooped your insides out with a spoon. You become negative in the purest sense of the word. Empty. Null. Void.

I can trace the onset of this depression to the exact day I started treatment. I swallowed a handful of pills, went to bed, and woke up with a headache, a stomach ache, and muscle aches. I was also miserable. The aches eventually went; the misery remains. (I should clarify here that no one’s in danger. I am not thinking of harming myself or others. I can still do everything I need to do—I just feel wretched while I’m doing it.)

White capsules

Years ago, a friend of mine mused that the term “side effects” was a misnomer designed to downplay the significance of unwanted results. If you swallow painkillers that eliminate pain but cause nausea, aren’t both of those results? If you take meds to address a specific problem and simultaneously trigger depression, which is the result and which the side effect?

In my case, I believe the desired outcome is worth the side effects, so the question becomes: how do I deal with depression while undergoing this treatment? For now, I am approaching it pretty much the same way I managed natural childbirth five times: by keeping my eye on the prize. I haven’t found any effective means of stopping myself from feeling bad, but what I can do is remind myself that the bad feelings are temporary and will pass.

Hourglass with green sand

Of course, the whole reason I’m able to do this is because I have a baseline for what feels good. I know what’s normal for me and what isn’t, so I can look at this experience the same way I’d regard a stressful period at work or a tough time in a relationship and put my energy into just holding on and riding things out. (And cross my fingers that everything will go back to normal once I complete treatment!) But what about people who don’t have that baseline? What if you always feel bad?

I’ve been chronically ill (physically) for nearly a decade now, so I fully appreciate what it’s like to wonder if you’re ever going to be well again. But I also look at how dramatically my new meds changed my mood and ask: if chemistry can make me feel this bad, is chemistry equally capable of making someone else feel good?

Chemistry beakers and test tubes with colored liquids

If I can get this depressed this quickly off a quarter of the recommended dose of a medication that isn’t even supposed to affect mood, then maybe the scales can tip towards wellness just as readily for someone else who’s suffering.

I am by no means suggesting there’s any such thing as a magic pill, or protocol, or therapy. I am not confident I will ever regain complete physical health, so I’m not about to tell someone who’s mentally ill that they’ll wake up one day feeling amazing. All I’m saying is try to have hope.

Stones balanced on water

If you are suffering depression, try to believe that what you feel right now mightn’t always be your norm. Ask around, solicit help, wait for the tides to shift. Find someone to talk to. If you can’t use your voice right now, maybe you can write your thoughts? If you’re not sure who wants to read them, why not try one of these journals?

But most importantly, please hang in there. You never know what the catalyst for change might be.

x Nicole

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