Got Pills? I’d love to see a photogenic ad campaign for anxiety-ridden pill poppers.
©photoCD / Adobe Stock
The white-mustachioed ambassadors of the Got Milk? Campaign torment me.
Salma Hayek sporting a white film above her lip in a glossy fashion magazine seductively suggesting drinking animal body fluids is sexy.
Being lactose intolerant and Rx dependent, I flinch each time the Dairy Council pushes bovine lactase like a street corner hustler while folks on mental health medications fight pervasive social stigma. Prozac may be over-prescribed by doctors who neglect to explain long-term side-effects, but I’d love to see a photogenic ad campaign for anxiety-ridden pill poppers. I dream of Salma downing a conspicuous capsule while clutching a translucent orange pharmacy bottle with child-safe cap in her manicured hand.
Finding the right mental health meds for anxiety-ridden pill poppers ain’t easy
Folks in need benefit from mental health medication, although it can take trial-and-error to find the right match. Doctors wrote me prescriptions five times since my marriage disintegrated in 2009, but I had a series of adverse reactions. Klonopin left me trembling, and Lexapro prompted depression so severe that I could barely peel myself off the floor. The tricyclic prescribed by a well-meaning doctor made me dopey enough that I could hardly remember my name, not to mention what I was taking.
After those bitter experiences, I avoided psychiatrists and their prescriptions even during years of flashbacks about childhood sexual abuse. Recollection was torture. I needed support to deal with night terrors, panic attacks, and lurking depression, but I was wary of medications that so far had done nothing but make my symptoms worse. Refusing further treatment, I endured a half-dozen years of agony through daily meditation, titanium-strength willpower, and regular episodes of screaming into the toilet.
My last medication mismatch occurred after I had a breakdown that had me calling the Suicide Hotline and scrawling “take me to the psych ward” notes. Rather than check me in, friends held my hand and insisted that I see a new doctor. Having researched my symptoms and tracked my moods for years, I suspected complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
I knew that I was most vulnerable while menstruating. Specialists were evaluating me for chronic fatigue and hormonal imbalances. I had learned to be vigilant about self-care, but bed bugs invading the apartment, my pre-teen declaring that he was moving out-of-state with his dad, and my girlfriend “accidentally” killing my cat pushed me over the edge.
Desperate, I took the first appointment available. I arrived at the psychiatrist’s office with eyes red-rimmed, hands trembling, body rigid with tension, and a finely-tuned awareness of my medical and mental health history. In his Hippocratic wisdom, the Madison Avenue doctor decided that I was depressed and put me on Lexapro. I protested, telling him I had taken it before and it had made my symptoms worse.
He declared that I was resistant to treatment and that he would offer only this option because it was the best fit according to his professional diagnosis. I reluctantly stuffed the paper in my pocket and wrote him a check for poor listening skills. I sat on the prescription but could barely catch a single REM cycle each night. Two days later, I filled the script, stared at the bottle for half the day, then finally popped a pill at bedtime.
I woke up feeling like my world had crumbled to shards of molten glass and immediately called the doctor. He said it could take a few days to work and that I should stick with it. I swallowed a few more doses but the abyss grew exponentially. I could not afford another out-of-network emergency appointment, so I quit cold turkey, clinging to prayer beads, hot baths, essential oils and music like lifelines, which they were. After a week, I shifted to telecommuting, journaled daily, consumed a boatload of vitamins, ordered copious takeout food, frequented the acupuncturist, and streamed standup comedy. That got me through the month until I could see an in-network shrink.
A psychopharmacologist who listens
That’s when life suddenly took a turn for the better. My new Park Avenue doctor was a psychopharmacologist who not only listens to patients but understands how drugs interact with body chemistry. I told him that I had PTSD from chronic childhood sexual abuse and that anxiety was the root problem.
My symptoms are typically limited to noise sensitivity and OCD, which served me as a workaholic. When I feel well rested, I am irritatingly upbeat, but a major panic attack can knock me out for weeks. If I could control the biological panic response, I’d be able to sleep, my body would recover, and the crushing overwhelm would lift. I would happily forgo the startled response at every car horn, but PTSD keeps me alert and slim, and maximizes my productivity. I do not need to eradicate anxiety. I want help in managing it.
I recounted my ill-fated experiences with pharmaceuticals and begged him not to put me on anything too potent. He confirmed my diagnosis and concurred about treatment, offering a milder medication used with children and the elderly, “patients with more delicate constitutions,” he explained. He gave me a low dose prescription, warning me that it would take a few weeks for it to kick in completely, but that I should feel some relief within a few days. He also threw in a mild sleeping pill to ensure that I would catch enough sleep even on bad nights.
I took the forms tentatively but felt so validated by his compassionate care that I filled them right away. The first few doses left me light-headed since they dropped my already-low blood pressure, but it wore off after an hour or so. Lunesta meant that I could sleep through the night, although I might wake up groggy. After a couple of days, things began to feel better. You could still break a two-by-four on my impossibly tense shoulders, but I began to enjoy Netflix from the safety of my bed.
The abyss that is no health insurance
Two years later, I maintain that these prescriptions saved my life. That’s why it was so terrifying to head to the pharmacy last fall knowing that I was without medical insurance. Temporarily among the uninsured masses due to a botched job transfer, I had a panic attack when CVS declared it would cost $727 to get my quarterly share of happy pills.
Luckily, a friend stepped in to flirt with the pharmacy technician and got me 30 nights of guaranteed rest and as many days of manageable stress for only $264. Once upon a time, I would have been irate at the economic injustice, but I had no energy to rage at the medical-industrial complex. Instead, I felt relief, gratitude, and eager anticipation of “now I lay me down to sleep.”
Looking back, I wonder how I survived the first 42 years of my life without these tiny pills. How many others endure pointless suffering because of misdiagnoses and social stigma?
Even well-meaning friends have questioned my meds, saying things like, “You’ve considered natural remedies, right?” I have taken thousands of dollars in supplements, herbs, essential oils, homeopathy, smudge, and flower essences.
“Have you tried bodywork, energy work, holistic modalities?” I meditate every day and get regular doses of yoga, pranayama, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, energy work, and shamanic healing.
“What about food, exercise, time in nature, and regular orgasms?” I have been on a strict hypoallergenic diet for a dozen years and have tried everything from running and ecstatic dance to excessive hiking and tantric sex. Nothing ever offered relief beyond a few exhausted hours.
“Encouraging folks to titrate down to smaller doses is not supportive feedback for battling inner demons.”
Enough with the stigma against anxiety-ridden pill poppers
The stigma around mental health medications is pervasive enough that I have questioned the prescription regimens of others while hoarding my secret stash. I’ve bemoaned the “chemical dependency” and weight gain of a friend on bipolar meds.
“You know what that does to your liver?” is not the support that she needed on a down day. I’m guilty of giving unsolicited advice to friends on Prozac (“What if you want kids?”) and Zoloft (“Have you tried St. John’s Wort?”).
Encouraging folks to titrate down to smaller doses is not supportive feedback for battling inner demons. I know the benefit of tiny white pills, but judgment is stronger than compassion. Such insidious undermining is why I am lobbying for a lineup of smiling supermodels asking, “Got meds?”
Yes, thank you, I do.