At the turn of the century, I found myself in my 20s, living 3,000 miles away from home and working at a top graphic design firm as an assistant graphic designer. We worked extensive, difficult hours creating commercials and opening credit sequences for giant companies like AT&T and NBC. For the first time in my life I was living far away from family and friends, pursuing a fast-paced career with a mountain of responsibility.
I soon found myself embroiled in uncomfortable office politics that would lead me to HR in tears, cause me insomnia every night and give me anxiety attacks on the way to work every morning. I woke up exhausted and unable to eat, only drinking coffee for breakfast as I ran out the door to make it to the office on time.
My only friend at the firm was the receptionist — a feisty African-American woman who loved punk rock. We bonded at the job over 5pm margaritas and our shared musical tastes.
She hated the producers, a clique of “mean girls,” who constantly ridiculed her and treated her differently. At the time, I could only nod because I had little interaction with the producers. They kept all us “creatives” in a back room far from them.
Until one day when my friend asked for my help. She knew I was a whiz with computers and asked me if I could help fix a problem with getting hers back onto the network after it had been inexplicably dropped. She informed me that I needed to access the head producer’s computer to fix the glitch and that she was out on lunch, so I’d have to work fast before she returned and caught me sitting at her desk.
I felt like I was in a spy movie. The clocked ticked loudly as I clicked through the settings on the ancient iMac until I was able to find the security settings and allow the receptionist’s computer back into the network minutes before lunch ended.
Unfortunately, though, the head producer somehow figured out that we “hacked in,” as she put it. She became outraged, screaming at the receptionist for asking me to help instead of calling in their IT guy, and accusing me of being a dumb creative who could have ruined everything and couldn’t possibly know how to fix their network problem — even though I did fix it.
Another time, I was asked to stay late after all the main graphic designers left. The clients were coming in and they wanted someone there who knew illustrator. Of course the clients had changes. I was plunked down in front of the computer with five different people standing behind me, telling me to tweak copy and alter graphical elements. I was there until 10pm and I wasn’t paid a penny in overtime. Instead I was asked to run out and get coffee and snacks before I went home.
The only highlight of my brief job there was when NBC chose my design for a new game show’s opening credits. The senior designers had asked me to come up with a “throwaway” design to add to theirs for the presentation. No one ever suspected mine would be chosen. I was ecstatic.
However, I was told that because I was only an assistant, I would not be the lead designer on the project, nor would I get a promotion or a bonus, but I could help out during my free time. I was heartbroken. My anxiety worsened.
Finally, I went to my doctor and explained my sleeplessness and frequent panic attacks, hoping for some kind of relief. She told me only underlying depression caused those symptoms. So to treat the anxiety, she had to treat the depression. I didn’t feel depressed, but I was young and trusted her authority.
Thus began an eight-year nightmare wherein I was a guinea pig, trying various “meds” from Paxil and Wellbutrin to Celexa and Lexapro, which culminated in me absolutely losing my mind on Cymbalta in 2008.
During that time I lost my job, was unable to find another one, and pretty much became unable to function in the real world. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I also lost my drive to create art and write — the two things that had brought me joy for my entire life.
Shortly after I began taking Cymbalta, I would lose time. I’d wake in the morning, take my meds, and then my day would vanish. I’d be wide-awake, but wholly unaware of my surroundings. I’d have these moments hours later where I’d feel like I just woke up. I could be anywhere doing anything. On a bus. Shopping. Walking down an unfamiliar street. It was terrifying. I was also later told by friends and neighbors that I could be found talking to imaginary people or, perhaps, simply to myself.
Finally, one day, my blackout led me to my apartment building’s courtyard, where I screamed nonsense whilst wielding a decorative samurai sword. The cops arrived and the next thing I knew I was placed on a 5150 hold.
Whilst in the asylum, I was pumped with more meds. They refused to believe that what I was experiencing was actually a severe allergic reaction to the Cymbalta. Instead they concluded that I must have some form of schizophrenia, despite the fact that my family ensured the doctors that prior to taking the medication I’d never exhibited such traits.
I would wake up in the morning clear-minded, in a sterile, white-walled, concrete dorm room, then I’d be marched out into the hallway in front of the meds station, where a white-robed nurse would hand out little cups of pills and water. After a few days, I noticed a similar pattern as with the Cymbalta…in that shortly after taking the medicine, I would no longer be lucid or aware of where I was.
For example, once after taking my meds, I was convinced I was really a robot who could only converse in binary code. I went around yelling, “00110100111000!” — total nonsense! When the medicine wore off I knew I wasn’t a robot, but no one seemed to notice or care that I was completely normal and cogent prior to swallowing whatever they gave me and utterly out of my mind for awhile afterward.
Another time, I became convinced that antidepressants were created to control creative people because they posed a threat to the wealthy elite. However, they still saw potential in creativity so they made devices that could read our minds while we slept, stealing our dreams to feed into the Hollywood machine and churn out entertainment to lull the masses and fill their own pockets. I didn’t sleep well that night.
The conspiracy theories would fade as the sun rose and the pills they gave me wore off, only to begin a new cycle of crazy after another round in the morning.
I felt as though the best treatment for me after the Cymbalta experience would have been to allow me to detox entirely from all meds, return to a default setting, and assess from there. But instead, they refused to listen to my pleas, deemed me insane, and gave me another pill.
Finally I had enough and decided to pretend to take my pills, but not actually swallow. However, I wasn’t sufficiently savvy and they caught me. Three giant male guards held me down on the floor, my throat pressing hard against the cold tile, as I whispered that I couldn’t breathe and begged them to let me up. A nurse pulled my pants down in front of everyone and stuck me with a needle. I blacked out. I was convinced I was dying.
I thought I’d never get out of there. Finally my best friend told me to lie. To tell them I no longer saw or heard anything that wasn’t real. To play along. Do everything they said. Stop resisting. I did as she instructed and was released soon after, even though I still wasn’t my old self.
The meds wore off over time as I met with my weekly mandated psychiatrist. He determined, after many visits, that I had never been genuinely clinically depressed. Instead, I was simply nervous in a new city, felt overwhelmed at my job, and wasn’t happy with my life. He also noticed I only got panic attacks after not eating and having too much coffee.
He advised me to look into a healthier diet, exercise, and figure out what made me happiest in my life instead of popping pills.
It’s been seven years since I took my last antidepressant and I’ve never felt better. In that time, I’ve rediscovered the joys of creativity and written several articles, books, poems, and blog posts. I’ve delved into a health and wellness program of eating fresh, homemade vegetarian food and practicing daily yoga and cardio. My marriage has never been better. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. Even my hair and skin look healthier!
According to the CDC, “Antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages in 2005–2008 and the most frequently used by persons aged 18–44 years. From 1988–1994 through 2005–2008, the rate of antidepressant use in the United States among all ages increased nearly 400%.”
I find it incredibly hard to believe that the rate of actual clinical depression has increased by 400% over that time. I think that doctors are doling out antidepressants to people who don’t truly need them. People who are, perhaps, sad about a life event or aren’t eating well, but not veritably depressed. Especially given the cavalier attitude my general practitioner had in diagnosing me and prescribing me meds. I never saw a shrink. She never referred me to talk therapy. However, I am convinced that all I needed back then was someone to talk to about my problems.
Moreover, my doctor never expressed to me the importance of nutrition. In fact, no one had prior to the psychiatrist. Basic nutrition should be taught to school-age kids, along with the importance of daily exercise.
I had no idea that skipping breakfast, drinking coffee all day, having a granola bar for lunch and a pizza for dinner was contributing to not only my poor physical health, but also poor mental health.
Antidepressants are not a cure-all and they are not for everyone. Sometimes all you need is a better diet, a more fulfilling career choice, and someone to talk to. As a society we are over-medicated and undernourished in body, mind, and soul. It has to stop. We need to bring those CDC numbers down. Less pills, more preventative care. We need to heal society; we need to heal ourselves and help each other without the aid of over-prescribed pharmaceuticals.
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