Ending a Midlife Affair with Meds

My affair with an antidepressant reinforced what I already knew: I'm not one for affairs. I'd rather fight tooth and nail to keep and restore what I have than take a break from it. But that is so much easier said than done with a Klonopin in my pocket.
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I felt guilty. I felt unnatural. I felt ashamed. Finally, I broke down and confessed my dirty little secret to a girlfriend and found that she not only knew what I was talking about, but she was doing it, too. And the more I opened up about it, the more I found that I was not alone. Women in their late 30s and 40s were all having the same affair.

With an antidepressant.

I started taking Lexapro after my anxiety attacks came back and, for all intents and purposes, practically crippled me. I've always had anxiety attacks, or panic attacks as some know them, but after years of learning how to deal with them, I thought I had them under control. While my kids were little, the anxiety attacks even subsided to the point where they hardly bothered me. But at the stroke of 40, they came back worse than ever.

I couldn't get in a car, a bus and certainly not an elevator without panic overwhelming me: a crippling, terrifying sense of dread. I couldn't draw a proper breath, my heart pounded and heat flashed through my body, making me break out in sweat. To top it off, my PMS symptoms of frustration, depression and irritability stretched two to three weeks instead of the typical one.

My doctor, fully aware of my dislike for medication of any kind (please, I had two kids all natural, I could take some pain!) suggested that I deserved a break from anxiety. Rebooting the system, he called it. He also fully supported the idea that I begin talk therapy, but in the meantime, he offered me the following analogy: you can build a house with your hands, or you could use power-tools. Either way, you're building a house, right?

I had just gotten kicked off of "Dancing with the Stars" (as the first contestant) and my ego traveled back to ninth grade, when I was the least popular kid in school and just couldn't figure out what I had done wrong to be so disliked. But I had to get over myself, quick. I had children who needed me. I had a husband who needed me. I also had my novel (that took me five years to write) to finally promote. This was no time to sink under!

I knew that unless I did something drastic (far more drastic than my new and intense exercise routine and healthy diet-plus-vitamins, but less drastic then running away from home and my life, screaming, blinded by tears and rain, down, say, Fifth Ave), I would at the very least alienate all my friends, my children and my husband.

Lexapro it was.

At first, the stuff didn't seem to work. It wasn't until a few months into treatment that I realized what had happened. My world had quieted. The constant buzz of anxiety became noticeable only by its absence. It was like spending your entire life in a room buzzing with fluorescents, and then, one day, they stop. I wasn't even quite sure what to do with this silence, how to live in it.

When I had to have a physical for insurance on "America's Next Top Model," I truthfully wrote down the only medication I took, Lexapro. Writing was admitting it, and I did so with a fair bit of trepidation. Unfortunately, this was promptly broadcast all over the "ANTM" production set. It seems I couldn't be properly insured on a TV set if I was taking an antidepressant. I had just started taking it, and this reaction was exactly what I had feared. I was judged crazy. Unstable. It was almost enough to get me to stop it before it had even had a chance to work. Fortunately, the woman in charge of all this paperwork laughed and admitted that she was also taking said medication -- weren't we all? The production could just write a waiver taking their chances with crazy ol' me. And they did.

As I got braver and dared to speak more openly about what I perceived as a terrible weakness, my girlfriends, one by one, stepped up and admitted that they were also on antidepressants. At one point, I found myself at a girls-night-out dinner and discovered all eight of us were on assorted antidepressants! One girlfriend took it because she was depressed. One took it because she got too angry. One also suffered from anxiety attacks. The reasons were diverse, but what we had in common were our age ranges and being married with children.

This shocked me. It also got me wondering. What was going on here? Was this a sort of universal malaise that hit peri-menopausal women? Without antidepressants, would we all be quietly suffering, or exercising like maniacs, having sexual affairs, turning to alcohol or drugs? Was this the female equivalent of a male midlife crisis -- Botox and antidepressants instead of the fast car and young chick?

I spent two years with my lover Lexapro; the two most mellow years of my life. My immediate frustrations were comforted, my resentments muffled, my anxiety calmed; I was wrapped in a thick, warm comforter, insulated against the sharp pangs that came with living.

But I was also insulated against or from fun things like my creativity and sexuality. I used to joke to my friends that after 24 years with my husband, we were, sexually speaking, a finely tuned precision engine. But now it felt as though I was being touched through a barrier, or, in this instance, a thick and cumbersome rug. After a while, it seemed like being intimate was just too much work for too little pay.

And as for creativity, well, with my new sense of peace, I found I had no need to actually say anything. This, for a writer, is akin to a cook who has no appetite. Sure, it's possible to work, but the results will be uninspired at best. I no longer bothered to fight with my girlfriends, or husband; I could just shrug and walk away from situations that previously had me in endless knots analyzing and discussing. And so, for two years, I learned nothing new. I felt emotionally Botoxed. Who was I under the blankets? What did I really feel like? I began to wonder and to want me back, even at the steep price of misery.

I decided that this affair had all the drawbacks of an affair: the sexual distancing from my husband, the guilt, the lies; and the benefit -- silence from the fluorescents -- didn't seem worth the price.

The weaning was predictably unpleasant, three weeks of being tired and shaky from wrangling with awful dreams. And then anxiety came creeping back: the clamminess, the suddenly speeding heart, the heat flashes, the disorientation. But this time, I also became aware of something I may have previously neglected under the loud hum of anxiety, or failed to identify, or perhaps simply didn't have: depression. It could have been circumstantial: after all, with my career at crossroads, my children no longer needing me every minute and my face and body beginning to cave under the demands of gravity, I had something to be a little down about.

I upped my exercise routine to every day. I could finally understand the drug addicts who had cleaned up but wrestled with the urge to use every day. With the drug, I didn't feel like me, but without it, I also didn't feel like me -- at least not the me I remembered, the one I wanted to be. My kids got to know a whole other side of mommy: an irrational, frustrated, weepy woman who had previously been tightly leashed and only let out when I was alone. I felt sorry for myself and then terribly guilty because I had absolutely no right to feel sorry for myself. The world seemed to be too heavy to carry by myself, but I could not ask for help, because I had never needed help before and didn't know how to ask. There were moments of sunshine, though. And I could feel its warmth and take pleasure in it rather than just noticing it.

The years since have been categorized by a fair deal of misery and soul-searching -- but also learning. I am on some sort of an accelerated life comprehension program I didn't sign up for, but nevertheless must process. This got me thinking: could it be possible that these feelings are growing pains? Perhaps they are necessary to cross to the other side where peace and confidence of age will finally triumph. After all, it's not only teenagers who have to adjust to changing hormones, and most of us can still remember the misery.

And I'm starting to wonder whether antidepressants can often be the emotional equivalent of plastic surgery. With them, we can stave off the anguish of change; we can take breaks from the afflictions of living. But is it also possible that through the serendipitous use of these brand new staver-'off'ers, we will ultimately pay a price: the price of going through life anesthetized and smooth with all the self-awareness of a slug?

I will never cease to be grateful to live in a time where knowledge has made it possible for people to no longer suffer. But would that knowledge exist without a little suffering? I'm certainly not an anti-medicine crusader -- in most cases modern medicine saves lives. There must be a large percentage of people for whom an antidepressant makes the difference between life and death, or at the very least, the difference between a life worth living and a life to be endured.

But I also think that those who try to take the shortcuts -- the pill to lose weight, the pill to be happy, the pill to be smart, to sleep, to be awake, are just running up their tab. And there may not be a pill when you're presented with the bill. Which you will. (Sorry for the trite rhyming, I couldn't resist.)

My affair with an antidepressant reinforced what I already knew: I'm not one for affairs. I'd rather fight tooth and nail to keep and restore what I have than take a break from it. But that is so much easier said than done with a Klonopin in my pocket.

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