If You've Ever Equated Taking Antidepressants With Failure, Read This

Seeking medical help for depression can be hard. But author and activist Hari Ziyad wants Black Americans to see it as a triumph, not a weakness.
"In my community, depression is uniquely stigmatized," Hari Ziyad writes. "Here鈥檚 how I broke free."
"In my community, depression is uniquely stigmatized," Hari Ziyad writes. "Here鈥檚 how I broke free."
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost

Once the suffering catches fire, you can鈥檛 ignore it. Our relentless pandemic, cruelly paired with escalating white supremacist violence, has killed more than a million Americans. Faced with such widespread grief, many of us have noticed our mental health deteriorate in unexpected ways. If you鈥檙e like me, this has also meant confronting the question-turned-grenade of self-judgment: Are you so weak and broken that you require a magic pill to put yourself back together?

鈥淚n a system already built to exhaust us and make us feel disconnected from the ability to change shit, people who were already tired have been pushed to breaking points,鈥 says Shahem Mclaurin, a therapist and social worker based in New York. 鈥淏ut the stigma is really strong when it comes to psychotropic medication being something that deems you 鈥榣ess than.鈥欌

This stigma surrounding antidepressants, and how it manifests in Black communities specifically, is why even when my own pain became so pronounced that I could no longer ignore it, I still insisted on running away from it.

I started avoiding the possibility of my depression at the onset of the 2020 lockdowns, when my mother鈥檚 rare form of cancer 鈥 a cancer that grew perversely in her womb like a hardheaded child 鈥 revealed itself to be terminal. When I moved from New York to North Carolina to care for her, the combined stress of keeping her safe from COVID-19, relocating to another state, planning a wedding and finishing up my book made it evident that I needed to take more drastic steps to safeguard my mental health. Still, I stubbornly refused to consider medication.

At one point, I was seeing three different therapists at the same time. I turned further toward spirituality and meditation. I significantly reduced my drinking and my social media use, and invested more into deepening relationships with my family and community. All of this helped, but my mother still died, and there was still this brokenness I couldn鈥檛 seem to repair.

Perhaps it just needed time, my shame told me. And so, a few months after my mother鈥檚 passing, I started a new job that required me to move again, this time away from the partner I鈥檇 just married. It was my dream gig, although my fantasies had somehow omitted the parts about regular 1 a.m. work nights and on-call weekends. Meanwhile, a new protest seemed to erupt every day 鈥 not that my work schedule allowed me to attend 鈥 because every day a new Black person, including one of my best friends earlier this year, was killed by the state. Every day, the grief and the work and the loss compounded.

My coping efforts kept me from having a full breakdown, but eventually I couldn鈥檛 focus. I couldn鈥檛 sleep. My anxiety got so physically intense that I felt like I might throw up if I got stuck in a prolonged conversation with someone I didn鈥檛 know. If I didn鈥檛 write down every task, brain fog erased it from my memory.

At the end of my rope, I finally set up a psychiatrist appointment. Even then, because I鈥檇 learned to manage my most acute sadness, I was focused on feeling good enough to get work done, like the good capitalist this society encourages us all to be. I still didn鈥檛 want to imagine myself with depression, so I convinced myself I might have ADHD. This avoidant misdiagnosis arose from a lack of clarity about how depression manifests.

鈥淭here are so many ways depression can show up: disinterest, having a hard time getting through things, anger and irritability, anxiety,鈥 Mclaurin explains. 鈥淵ou can miss it very easily, especially because of stigma.鈥

Of course, the stigma against mental health treatment is prevalent in every community, but for Black people it can take certain insidious forms. 鈥淲here other people can be like, 鈥業鈥檓 scared I鈥檓 going to lose my personality,鈥 Black people are like, 鈥業鈥檓 scared that I will stop caring about my people or the struggles that we face,鈥欌 Mclaurin says.

In facing the monster I鈥檇 made depression to be, I first had to face the fear Mclaurin alludes to: losing my connection to Black people鈥檚 pain. On top of this, I had to face the fear of utilizing a system that has been complicit in our oppression, and the fear that I was the weakest link among parents and peers who never had access to treatment and still ostensibly survived. On the other hand, if I pursued treatment and it was successful, I鈥檇 have to face the possibility of leaving behind the folks in my community who didn鈥檛 have access to this resource, and the survivor鈥檚 guilt that would accompany this.

鈥淚 have a lot of Black clients who are like, 鈥業 need resources. My material reality needs to be shifted,鈥欌 Mclaurin says. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 real. But we can鈥檛 shift these systems overnight. And we especially can鈥檛 shift these systems, period, if we don鈥檛 take care of ourselves.鈥

"I was convinced that living in pain, which inherently drains us of the energy to battle, was actually a sign of putting up a good fight," Ziyad writes.
"I was convinced that living in pain, which inherently drains us of the energy to battle, was actually a sign of putting up a good fight," Ziyad writes.
Hari Ziyad

Any good mental health expert will tell you that medication is not an all-encompassing solution 鈥 but it can be an extremely helpful tool. And we should use every helpful tool we can, Mclaurin insists, especially since we are systematically denied so many. It turned out that my other coping tools complemented my meds rather than competing with them. I鈥檇 thought that to seek further help was a sign of weakness, but therapy and spiritual work helped me understand that it鈥檚 really a practical act of self-preservation.

I used to think my parents and peers survived without help, before unpacking this myth with therapy and ancestor work. I believed it even as I watched my mother die of a cancer that kills Black people with uteruses at more than twice the rate of other groups, even as I saw a burgeoning suicide epidemic end too many of my friends鈥 lives. I was convinced that living in pain, which inherently drains us of the energy to battle, was actually a sign of putting up a good fight.

By the time my psychiatrist confirmed what I secretly already knew, I understood the need to reject antidepressant stigma on a theoretical level. But I couldn鈥檛 shake the feeling that accepting her prescription of Lexapro would mean I was somehow giving up on my own ability to heal.

鈥淲ill I have to keep increasing the dose?鈥 I asked anxiously, explosions going off in my head. 鈥淣ot generally,鈥 she replied. 鈥淎nd if you ever feel like you don鈥檛 need it anymore, we can talk about coming off, too.鈥 Hearing her reframe medication as a journey, and not as a type of surrender, morphed this monster of depression into something a little less terrifying.

And who knows? Perhaps my own ability to fight will never be quite enough. Sometimes, I still fear being so weak and broken that I need that magic pill. But I鈥檓 beginning to understand that only someone intent on keeping me weak and broken would want me to feel so much shame about my 鈥渂rokenness鈥 that I don鈥檛 fight for my peace. I don鈥檛 want to be my own enemy. I don鈥檛 want to be the person lobbing those judgment grenades, no matter how strong and put together I鈥檓 鈥渟upposed鈥 to be to survive. Those who set these ableist, anti-Black rules never cared about our well-being in the first place.

Besides, I鈥檓 now a few months into taking antidepressants, and I can confirm they aren鈥檛 magical. They might take a while to work, and can have nasty side effects. Some might not work for everyone, and all of them are marketed by profit-driven pharmaceutical companies that have no real interest in our overall well-being. Any new medication should be approached with education and curiosity. And even amid my largely successful journey with antidepressants so far, I still get sad. I still need to work at community building and mindfulness and drinking less. And I still need for us to be free of the systems that have contributed to my pain.

But because I鈥檝e begun to stop equating this journey with failure, I can now work at these things with a clearer head, more stable moods, and a stomach no longer constantly churning from anxiety. I can work at these things after a full night鈥檚 rest. I can work at these things and still experience genuine joy and be present in my body, for what feels like the first time since my mother鈥檚 cancer forced me to face a monster. And maybe now, I鈥檒l be better able to help someone else face their own.

If you鈥檙e going through it and looking for a little help navigating your journey, know that there are resources specifically for you. Here are a few of my suggestions:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).