By Susanne Kerns of The Dusty Parachute
Hi. I’m Susanne. And I’m done being embarrassed that I take an antidepressant for an anxiety disorder.
I mean, seriously. I have so many other things that I should be embarrassed about, like that time in the fourth grade when I didn’t have an act for the talent show so I just walked back and forth on the stage, doing random, jerky, Rockettes-style kicks to the J. Geil’s Band song, “Centerfold.”
That was embarrassing.
But taking charge of your health is just smart. We tell our kids all the time that they should be proud of being smart. Therefore, I should be PROUD to be taking an antidepressant.
Yay Me! I’m on Zoloft because I’m smart!
But I wasn’t always this smart.
You see, in August 2007, I found myself being admitted to the emergency room near my mom’s house because I was hours from dying. Hours. Why? My appendix had ‘exploded’ four days earlier and previous doctor visits had misdiagnosed my symptoms as a stomach bug.
I had a fever of 106 and was starting to hallucinate. I was vomiting blood and could no longer sit up, but my number one concern wasn’t that: it was that the nurse asked me which medications I was on…in front of my mom.
Yeah, I was dying — literally dying — but I was more worried that my mom would know that I was on an anti-depressant for postpartum anxiety than about finishing up my admissions paperwork so the doctors could help me not die.
This made no sense. This was not smart. Besides, I felt no shame telling the nice nurse that I was taking a thyroid supplement because my body doesn’t make enough of whatever a thyroid is supposed to make, so why should I be ashamed of a medicine that helps supplement whatever my brain’s not making?
(Admittedly, it’s probably because if I didn’t take my thyroid medication, I would just get sleepy, but if I didn’t take my Zoloft, I couldn’t drive over a bridge without feeling like I was going blind and that my body was going to evaporate, resulting in a fiery crash. Feeling sleepy is something other people can relate to. The bridge-blindness-body-evaporating thing sounds a little crazy, and crazy doesn’t feel smart; it feels embarrassing.)
That said, crazy or not, the medicine gave me the extra boost I needed to work on immersion and vestibular therapy so I could regain my confidence in driving and stop my spiral of anxiety. I’ve been safely driving over bridges ever since. (Or maybe it’s just that we moved from Seattle to Austin and there really aren’t any bridges here?)
I stopped taking Zoloft a year later, when we started trying to get pregnant with our son, and never needed it again.
Late last fall, my anxiety came back overnight, and with a vengeance. And this time bridges weren’t the problem. At first it was mainly high-ceilinged, echoey buildings — like restaurants and grocery stores and places with a lot of commotion, like school pick up. So, pretty much every place a stay at home mom has to go every day, forever. Perfect.
Soon things progressed to the point where I was never free of my symptoms, even at home. And my symptoms flared the most whenever I was watching TV. And that’s when sh*t got real because nothing comes between me and my TV.
Except full-on, “oh my god, I’m dying” panic attacks.
It’s hard to explain what a panic attack is like to someone who has never had one, or even to someone who has had one, since I’m sure they’re all different. Mine feel like that falling sensation that sometimes jerks you awake at night, combined with that uncertainty you get when you wake up on vacation and your brain’s all foggy can’t quite figure out where you’re at. Just for fun, add in that all-over sensory overload buzz you get right after you have a near miss when some jerk almost side-swipes you while driving 65mph on the freeway.
It’s that. Times a hundred. And it lasts for about twenty excruciating minutes.
When my mind and body weren’t busy assaulting me with full-blown panic attacks, my days were filled with exhaustion, vertigo, and the suffocating feeling of breathlessness, which I overcompensated for with ‘relaxing deep breaths’, which essentially just led to hyperventilation.
Speaking of which, let me digress for a moment: For anyone who tells you to meditate or exercise your way out of anxiety attacks, those are all lovely concepts — and things that can help in general with anxiety — but I could not exercise. I felt like I was constantly sleepwalking, underwater wearing a backpack full of my kids’ Pokemon collection binders. Plus, just the thought of going outside and opening myself up to the possibility of having a huge panic attack on the way to my kids’ school brought on more anxiety.
I could not meditate. I tried, and closing my eyes aggravated my vertigo, and trying to concentrate on my breathing made me worry about if I was breathing right, or breathing too much, or breathing too little, or OH MY GOD! WHAT IF MY BODY JUST FORGETS TO KEEP BREATHING ONE DAY!!!
Actually, I take that back, I did use kind of a meditation of sorts by forcing myself to mentally recount the most basic facts about my life in order to ground myself in reality and offset the “disappearing” feeling during panic attacks:
“My name is Susanne. I am married to Chris. We live in Austin. We have two kids. I have a daughter. She is 10. That cat’s name is Reuger. His brother is Duncan. He’s probably off pooping on a couch somewhere. I bought that couch at Ikea. I bought this dresser in Seattle. My son is 6. I painted his dresser. I bought the paint at Lowes.”
When I was outside and didn’t have family and furniture to itemize, I moved on to alphabetical lists of categories like colors, animals or vegetables: A: Artichokes: B: Broccoli, C: Cauliflower, D: Pass, E: Eggplant…
(Seriously, there’s gotta be a D.)
And while I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but while my mind was a whirling mess, I gave a pretty decent appearance of looking like I had my sh*t together.
There were some differences that I’m sure close friends noticed: I was less talkative, because talking and laughing made me feel like I was going to pass out in the hummus plate. I wasn’t drinking. (No alcohol needed when you already feel all loopy.) I didn’t go out as much, since the noise and high ceilings of bars and restaurants triggered panic attacks. And I couldn’t even go to friends houses, because I didn’t want to explain why I had to get up and take what my husband and I started calling, “walkabouts” every ten minutes.
(For those wondering, a “walkabout” was my coping mechanism for when my body & brain ganged up on my and said, “if you keep sitting where you’re sitting, we’re going to make you feel like you’re floating/falling, can’t breath/are breathing too much, and are passing out/are having an adrenaline rush all at the same time.”)
Somewhere in this craziness that was now my life, I did go to the doctor. He ran me through a series of blood tests, gave me an EKG, he had me switch allergy pills, and I discontinued Sudafed —which can cause over stimulation. But after a week, with no change in symptoms, he agreed it was time for a visit from my ol’ friend, Zoloft again.
And I have to admit that even though I had been on it for a year before, I was scared.
I don’t like taking medication. I didn’t take pain meds after my kids were born, and as happy as I am to enjoy a mind-alerting margarita, I didn’t like the idea of taking a mind-altering drug, no matter how much it improved my life the last time.
So in case anyone reading this is having the same fears, here are the questions I wish someone would have answered for me (based on my experience):
Did you try other medications?
Yes. Back when I took medication for my postpartum anxiety, I think I went through two other medications before finding one that worked. The others ‘worked’ but gave me a jittery, caffeine feeling. This one worked for me but everyone is different. In fact, for some people, medication can make their situation worse. I highly recommend making sure at least a couple people in your life know if you’re starting the medication so that they are on high alert to keep an eye out for any concerning changes in mood or behavior. As with everything else in this post, this is just MY EXPERIENCE. I am as far from a medical professional as possible. But if you feel like you’re having some of the same feelings I’ve described, I can’t encourage you enough to see a medical professional.
How long did it take to feel better?
The first week, I was feeling okay, but at the end of the second week I had the worst nighttime panic attack of my life. I called my doctor the next day and told him I wanted to stop, but he reassured me that sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. He told me to give it at least one more week, and I’m so glad I did because after about four weeks on the medication, I was 95% back to my old self. The only remaining issue was that I still needed my walkabouts while watching TV. Oddly, I could stand and watch TV or I could sit and do anything else, but if I tried to sit and watch TV I needed walkabouts. I dunno. But it was such an improvement, I was happy to be down to just that one issue.
I have no idea if my results are typical. Others may feel better sooner, later, or not at all. The only way to know for sure is to check with your doctor and see what works for you.
Did it make you sleepy?
Holy crap, yes! But only for the first month or so.
Did you gain weight?
Yes, and no. I did, but it was only the 10 pounds that I lost during the worst couple of weeks I had when my symptoms were so bad I could barely sit up to eat and trying to coordinate chewing and swallowing made me feel like I couldn’t breathe and was dying. I’m back to the weight I’ve been for the past 20 years, so I don’t think the medication caused weight gain; it just caused me to be able to eat normally again.
So, do you walk around all peaceful and happy all the time?
No. I think that’s a big misconception that antidepressants are a ‘happy pill’. It got me back to feeling normal, and that means I still have normal good days and bad days. I have happy times and sad times, but the good news is I still have my Maudie’s margaritas for the peaceful/happy part.
Do you still have any symptoms?
I’ve been pretty symptom free since after the first 4-6 weeks on the medication; however, I do notice some lightheadedness and a little arm-tingling during PMS or if I’m watching a really tense scene in a movie.
So, why after keeping this a secret from everyone for so long am I now plastering it on the internet for everyone to see?
Because I realized it’s not a secret that needs to be a secret. I don’t have anything to be embarrassed about, and I’m hoping that by being one less person keeping it a secret, someone who needs help won’t be as nervous about asking for it.
We didn’t cause this, we’re not making it up, and we’re not alone.
I am also speaking out because over the past few months I’ve come to realize, and admit to myself, that a ‘mystery virus’ that I had back in college that kept me couch and home-bound for almost two years of my life, was probably related to a similar anxiety issue. (That’s a whole other story for another time.) Back then, a doctor had suggested an antidepressant, but I didn’t want to be “the girl on an antidepressant” so I took it for a few days and it made me tired, so I stopped.
And I lost the years between my 19th and 21st birthday.
I don’t want anyone else to lose years to something that is, more often than not, treatable.
Make no mistake: anxiety and panic attacks are scary, confusing, mean, sad, frustrating, embarrassing and make you feel completely helpless and out of control of your own mind and body. But you are in control. You have the choice to take care of yourself, and if you’re having symptoms of anxiety and panic, talk to someone and go see a doctor.
You have nothing to be embarrassed of.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susanne Kerns is a Writer and Marketing Consultant living in Austin, TX with her husband and two children. Her stories have been featured in the books, “But Did You Die?” “I Just Want to Be Perfect,” “It’s Really 10 Months – Special Delivery,” and “Martinis & Motherhood: Tales of Wonder, Woe & WTF?!” as well as a variety of websites, including her blog, The Dusty Parachute. Susanne is also the Co-Producer of the Listen to Your Mother show in Austin. Follow her on Facebook to see why she’s frequently featured on Today Parents’ “Funniest Parents on Facebook” round-up. She’s also on Instagram, where she posts her tasteful nudes.* (*Mostly photos of poorly lit food, and animals, all nude.) You can also find her on Twitter whenever she accidentally opens the wrong app on her phone.