By: Julia Bowyer
At age 13, I started feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly inexplicable sadness. My family had problems, as most families do, but nothing that could easily account for my loss of interest in eating or choice to spend most of my free time sleeping. Things that normally would have made me excited, like getting the lead role in a school musical or being invited to the movies by my crush, were instead met with blatant apathy.
I was lucky that my family didn't ignore the signs that I needed help. Since both my parents are medical professionals, I was sent directly to a psychologist for therapy and psychiatrist for medication. It turned out I was going through a major depressive episode--a common mental disorder where people experience a depressed mood or loss of pleasure for two weeks or longer. Though I was young, it's not an uncommon condition for adolescents. Nearly three million teens, ages 12 to 17, were diagnosed with a major depression episode in 2014, reports the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. I was prescribed a very standard regimen for how to treat depression: weekly psychotherapy and an antidepressant regimen. I was so depressed that I was willing to try anything to feel better.
As I grew older and the pressures of applying to college, finding a job, and defining myself weighed on me, I developed new symptoms in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. One moment I would be studying productively in the library, and the next I would have a troublesome thought about anything from school to family or friends. Before I knew it, my heart would be racing and my stomach would drop to the floor; my whole body would go cold. Once this happened, the rest of my day would be spent in fear that it would reoccur, and that I wouldn't be able to control it. For those distressing moments, I was prescribed benzodiazepines. Commonly referred to as "benzos," this family of medications, which includes drugs like Xanax and Klonopin, works by enhancing the GABA (gamma-amniobutryic acid) neurotransmitter, which reduces stress and anxiety in the brain. Later, I was still so stressed I couldn't sleep, so we added a sleep aid to the mix.
Every time I went in with a new problem, my doctors (I've had quite a few over the years as I moved from high school to college to NYC) were less concerned with digging into the root of the issue, which I was unsure of and would have liked to explore, and more apt to reach for their prescription pad for a quick fix. I started to feel like I was regulating my daily activities with pills, especially my sleep. The scary part is that I felt just fine on all of these medications--not particularly happy, but also not particularly sad.
Related: A New Approach to Finding Happiness
By 23, I was working at my dream job for a magazine that I loved. Things were going well; my life was headed in the direction I had always hoped for. I knew I should feel happy, proud, satisfied--but I didn't. I didn't feel much of anything. As I saw how my peers reacted to their individual successes and failures, I began to realize my usual emotional cocktail of numbness and detachment wasn't normal. I got promoted, broke up with my boyfriend, watched a sibling go to rehab...I knew I should react to these major life moments, but nothing seemed to really make me feel anything.
That's when I started to ask myself: How did I get here? How could I break through, to feel more present and engaged? At this point, I had been on antidepressants for a decade, and started to wonder: Was it safe to be on them for so long? What would my life be like without them? What would I be like without them?
My doctor at the time was a firm believer in medication as the primary solution in how to treat depression. I knew she would be very hesitant to support me going off of all my medications, so I didn't bring it up for months. When I finally did, she strongly advocated for me to stay on them, saying that since I had been taking them for so long, it would be difficult to wean myself off. When you stop taking antidepressants, the sudden decrease of serotonin (the brain chemical that regulates mood and that antidepressants make stick around longer) can cause your body to experience physical withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines are even more difficult to stop taking because of their addictive qualities. This is part of the reason why I wanted out in the first place. I didn't want to be so dependent on these drugs. I tried not to let my frustration show, but I knew that ultimately this was my decision and not hers. After a lot of discussion, she agreed that if I were going to try to thrive without medication, it would be ideal to give it a go when everything in my life was so positive.
To learn how to treat depression naturally, as well as the three important points to consider if you're thinking about making this major life change, continue reading the original article on Sonima.