What I Learned While Taking Medication for Anxiety

About a year ago, I was going through a difficult time in a romantic relationship. We both cared for each other very much, but we were not on the same page as far as expressing affection or spending time together. Aaaand being naturally affectionate and needy, I was stressin’ big time. So when the Facebook hive mind led me to a podcast featuring a relationship counselor who promised to reduce stress in clients, I was hooked. I contacted her and set up a meeting over Skype.

The first meeting was promising. We talked about the times I felt anxious or worried, and she helped me realize that almost all of my serious episodes of anxiety had come during romantic relationships. It was quite embarrassing, admitting that I was able to handle most stressors in life but often fell apart when it came to relationships. Still, it was a healthy thing to admit.

As part of that process, the counselor suggested that I consider visiting a doctor to discuss anxiety medication. She related several success stories of clients in my situation, clients who used medication and discovered a surprising degree of relief from their relationship-induced anxiety. So I took her advice and discussed using SSRI’s with a doctor. The doctor agreed that it was worth trying and prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant which increases the amount of the mood-stabilizing chemical serotonin in the brain.

From the Cambridge Polymer Group

I took Lexapro for about four months, during which time I also met with the relationship counselor several more times. I didn’t connect with this specific counselor, though she was kind and gracious — our styles didn’t align, and I sometimes felt she was talking at me rather than with me. But I continued with Lexapro, curious to see the results.

I slowly began feeling a difference after a month or two of taking it. Unlike the success stories which had been related, I didn’t feel anything drastic. But I did notice something which I didn’t exactly expect: the SSRI really did stabilize my mood in all ways. I was less prone to the paralyzing emotions of anxiety which had occasionally plagued my relationship. However, as far as I could tell, I was also less capable of feeling excitement, wonder, or awe.

So, after four months, the doctor and I discussed weaning me off of Lexapro. I felt relatively emotionally stable at the time, and wanted to minimize my dependence on medication, and I was curious to see what would happen if I slowly stopped taking it. When I did, I felt very few symptoms of withdrawal, so I continued without and haven’t taken it for eight or nine months now. But in the time I took it, I learned some interesting lessons.

The first realization I had is that some people experience the world in a more level-headed way. I am excitable, emotional — I cry during Bollywood films (which are incredibly corny) and laugh until I can’t breathe watching the movie Elf (which is embarrassingly juvenile). And it’s not just films — I’m intense about personal relationships, competition, work. Some other people seem to be more like my SSRI self: they experience such moods, but less intensely.

Second, I learned that anxiety does not make rational doubts less valid. During all of my romantic relationships, I had conversations with people who expressed concern that my anxiety was causing me to doubt the relationship. But when I took the SSRI, my anxiety diminished without weakening my doubts one bit. It appeared that my anxiety was (mostly) an unhealthy reaction to valid doubts rather than an irrational source of doubt. This was an important lesson in learning to trust myself.

Third, and conversely, I also learned to separate myself from my anxiety — at least, to try. If doubts can still be valid without anxiety, that means I don’t have to experience the pain of worrying. I can be concerned or doubtful without obsessing. I’ve tried applying that since then — separating my emotions from my valid fears or doubts and trying to address them without replaying potential disaster scenarios in my mind.[1]

Finally, I was also reminded that anxiety, and depression, and medication for mental health are nothing to be ashamed of. Anxiety and depression are common — indeed, most of us experience them at some time or another. And medication, when used wisely and sparingly (and under medical supervision), can be a good tool for managing mental health. I’m grateful for that lesson, whether or not I ever take medication again.

[1] A funny side note for those of you who read my article about the meditation retreat a few weeks ago. A writer for The Guardian newspaper reports learning a very similar lesson about anxiety from a meditation retreat like the one I attended. And I say, good for her — anything that can help separate us from our anxiety is a worthwhile activity, if you ask me. Really, it’s a shame I didn’t read that article before I attended the meditation retreat — I might have appreciated it more if I had. Aaaand expected more pain and less thoughtful introspection.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’