Every night at 10:31 the alarm on my phone labeled “DRUGSSSS!!!” starts going off. While I may be slightly dramatic for naming it that, they are prescription drugs. I don’t have a reminder to take a daily dose of heroin or a multi-vitamin.
The three types of drugs sitting on my ever-cluttered nightstand are birth control, Zantac, and Zoloft.
I take the birth control because practicing safe sex is important, but the other two have a more complicated history.
When I was 12 I started to have panic attacks. It wasn’t long before I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Panic Disorder.
Six years later, I was still having panic attacks. I had never been to therapy and while they were always getting worse, I was getting better at dealing with them.
At least, that was the case until my freshman year of college. That was when I started having trouble eating. I didn’t understand why, but I would start choking on my food. I couldn’t swallow, and more often than not I wound up racing to the bathroom, unable to keep any food down.
Stubbornly independent as always, it took me a few months to admit that this was not something I had under control. After that, the doctors also had trouble designating the root cause of my inability to swallow.
Eventually, we realized that it usually happened when I was eating around other people, or when I was stressing about something.
I had never been to therapy or put on medication because my parents didn’t believe in it, but now I was 18, and the decision was mine. The doctors recommended both therapy and an anti-anxiety medication, but I was nervous about it.
I had lived with my anxiety for so long that it had become a part of my identity. It led me to a psychology major, helped me to form bonds with the people around me, and was part of what made me an individual.
I took information in from everyone around me. Most of my friends encouraged me to start both. They had witnessed my eating issues more than anyone and had significant concerns. My parents and boyfriend at the time were against it. They thought it would change me. The reality of it though, was that it didn’t matter what everyone else said, I was the one who had to make this decision.
I started therapy first. I went to the campus counselor, and she also encouraged the medication. I finally decided to start taking Zoloft–a medication most commonly used to treat depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety–the summer before my sophomore year of college.
A few months later I started having trouble breathing again. The panic attacks had nearly stopped, this was different. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. It was like I couldn’t breathe, there was something physically stopping my breath.
I assumed it was anxiety related, because everything seemed to be. It wasn’t. It was acid reflux. It took a trip to the emergency room to figure that out. I was told to take a 150 milligram daily dose of Zantac.
Finally figuring out what was going on in my body was a turning point for me. It changed my entire outlook on myself. It didn’t happen overnight, but with the help of medication I was able to push myself to do better in every aspect of my life.
The important distinction is that the medication did not change me, I changed. The medication gave me the opportunity, but I still had to actively work on my own well-being.
I was always a shy person, terrified of new people. The medication removed some of the anxiety surrounding meeting people, but it didn’t remove all of it, and it didn’t make me an automatically outgoing person. I still have to push myself when I want to talk to someone new. The anxiety medication just allows me to push past my fears, and face situations head-on. It allows me to function “normally.”
I definitely still have issues, especially if I forget to take my medication. I have an alarm on my phone, but occasionally I’m out of my apartment when it goes off. This can cause real issues.
At one point, a few months after I started taking Zoloft for my anxiety, I ran out of pills and had to call both the pharmacy and my doctor multiple times. The doctor I was seeing at that point wasn’t listening to me too well, and hadn’t left enough doses for me before I could come back to see her. I figured it wouldn’t be such a big deal if I missed a few days, and besides, I didn’t have another option.
A few days into it, I started to have horrible panic attacks, more than I ever had before. I wound up crying a lot, and confused as to why. At one point I started to leave for a class I didn’t like and ended up racing back to my room, curling up on my bed, and crying so hard I couldn’t speak for about twenty minutes.
It took a lot of questions from my boyfriend at the time to figure out why I was in such bad shape. I was going through withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms usually aren’t so bad, as long as you go through it the right way. Your doctor slowly, usually over the course of a few months, brings down your dosage until you are off of the drug all together.
In that case, I was not slowly weaned off of it, I just stopped taking it for a few days.
Soon after that, I switched to a doctor who listens to me and respects my understanding of my own body. I have never had an incident again where I haven’t had my medication for days on end.
There have been, however, days where I forget to take it. It’s only ever one day at a time, and I have never had such serious withdrawal symptoms from it. If I forget for a day, I may find myself a bit emotional a few days later, but that’s the extent of it.
In case you’re still confused, or think that it’s ridiculous that someone takes medication for their thoughts, let me explain it this way.
Zoloft is an SSRI, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Generally, these are prescribed for depression, but they can also be used to treat anxiety.
SSRIs work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Basically, serotonin is a happy chemical in everyone’s brain. Some people though, happen to lose a lot more serotonin to reuptake, or reabsorption. SSRIs block the excess reuptake, therefore allowing the brain’s happy chemicals to work properly.
This doesn’t work for everyone. All drugs have side effects, and different people react differently to them. For some people, like me, the worst side effects are weight gain and occasional headaches. Other people might have severe nausea and insomnia. Even others may be more likely to commit suicide from medications. It all depends on the person and the type of drug.
If a certain medication isn’t right for you, maybe a different one is. The truth of the matter is that it’s trial and error. Sometimes you get lucky and your doctor picks the right drug for you on the first try. Other times, you wind up with nasty side-effects and have to change your medication or dosage.
The most important thing with taking any medication is telling your doctor about any problems you experience, and making sure that you have a doctor who hears you.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”