On Medication And Dysthymia

A version of this post originally appeared on tumblr here in May 2014.

I’ve been on medication for my depression for the past two years of my life. I’m going to talk about my experience with it so far, because there are a LOT of pretty strong opinions out there. The most popular opinion that I hear by far is that medication is awful and pushed on everyone for no reason. And of course sometimes that’s completely true, and it really isn’t for everyone. I never thought it was for me and I resisted it for years. People should know that it’s not always a horror story. Sometimes, the most traditional methods really do work.

I’ve suspected that I had dysthymia since high school, but I was only diagnosed with it this year. Dysthymia is a form of low-grade depression that is chronic and lasts for many years – some people have it their whole lives. It can start so early and last for so long that people simply believe that it is who they are, and don’t realize that there is anything ‘different’ about them. This was the case for me.

I believe that my dysthymia and social anxiety have been following me around since elementary school, when I first started to dread going to school and had anxieties surrounding friendships – probably around the first or second grade. It was nothing that anyone considered out of the ordinary. People, including myself, just assumed that I was a shy kid who enjoyed spending time alone.

When I was in high school I was “triggered” into experiencing more severe depression and anxiety due to a horrible breakup and subsequent bullying situation that resulted in the loss of many of the people who were closest to me.  At this time, I saw a counselor at my high school, who recommended that I seek a formal diagnosis.

After waiting for about a month, I got an appointment to see a publicly funded psychiatrist. After two sessions and approximately 700 questions, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression. The reason why I received a diagnosis of just ‘depression’ and not dysthymia is because symptoms must be present for at least one year in minors for that diagnosis to be made. Like I said, looking back I can see symptoms present from a very young age, but at the time, while I was being asked 700 questions, all of that still seemed normal to me, and the only thing that was different was that my friends all stopped talking to me.

I never wanted to be on medication. It was suggested to me by this doctor, and I refused, because I felt like medication should be a last resort, and I was 17 for goodness sake. I should have been in therapy at that point in my life, but there was no space for me in the public system and I couldn’t afford a private counselor.

So I just dealt with it on my own, and for a while it did seem to get better. I thought that my depression was situational, and some of it was – after I graduated high school and was out of that toxic environment, I felt much better. But eventually I realized that I had just become numb in a lot of ways. I was never truly happy. I never managed to pull myself out of that depression; I just pushed it down.

Fast forward a couple of years – I’m now nearly 20, and it’s the summer before my third year of university. Things are the same as they’ve always been for the past two years. I’m living with my new boyfriend in Toronto working a job I hate and generally bored out of my mind. Then something life changing happens.

I was in love with someone back in high school who loved me back, but did some not-so-great things and then left me for someone else. I didn’t think I would ever see him again, let alone form a relationship with him. I saw him at a few parties and realized that I was still in love with him. He told me that he was sorry for high school and that if he didn’t mess that up, we would still be together now. He didn’t say he still loved me. He didn’t actually say much. But I looked at his eyes and they were so sad and said everything else. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve felt something right down to my core. It broke me out of the numbness that I had been feeling (or not feeling, rather) and pushed me into action.

I couldn’t just let that go. I broke up with my boyfriend and moved back in with my parents. My ex and I “hung out” for several months and said all the right things and had such lovely plans for the future. He told me he loved me. That he wanted to marry me one day.

 

The reason I’m saying all of this is because he was the ONLY person I had ever met who could break through the dull gloom that was constantly hanging over me. With him I didn’t have dysthymia. I was just me, the best possible version of myself. I was truly happy. Knowing this in hindsight, it’s easy to see why I loved him so much.

But that didn’t last. “Perfection” fades, and as it did my depression and anxiety returned stronger and stronger until everything screwed itself up again. One anxiety reared its ugly head, the only thing that could make me happy was perfection – otherwise, nothing was good enough. After a while I could only see the bad and I couldn’t feel the good as much, and I nitpicked about things that in hindsight really didn’t matter. I couldn’t truly feel love, either for someone else or from someone else, and I wasn’t the best version of me anymore.

What happened in the year that followed isn’t really important. It can be summed up by saying that I just kept getting worse and worse and that, left untreated and coupled with unfortunate social situations, led to suicidal ideation and serious depressive episodes. This is called double depression – dysthymia, coupled with more severe episodes resembling major depressive disorder. I was a loose cannon. Even I couldn’t predict myself.

Mid-February of 2014, at 21, I landed myself in the hospital for a night. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me, but luckily by the end of the month I got into the counseling centre at my university (I had previously been on the wait-list), where I saw a psychiatrist who finally gave me the correct diagnosis of dysthymia and again suggested medication.

I was out of options. By this point, I had already tried therapy, and I’d tried getting through it on my own, and I’d tried making all sorts of changes to my life. This truly was my last resort. So I said yes. I wasn’t really expecting it to work, but I had to know that I had tried everything. What did I have to lose?

But it did work. I am on 300mg of Wellbutrin, and I noticed a difference within the first two days. I can’t even express to you how shocked I was. Suddenly I had so much energy – I could get so much done in a day! Everything was sparkly and magical! I loved everyone!

The downside to that was that for the first two weeks my sleeping was erratic and sometimes non-existent, and I’ll be honest, sometimes that was really hard and kind of ruined the sparkly magicalness. Now, I still have trouble sleeping occasionally but it’s not as bad as it was.

Initially, I only cried over serious things that are worth crying over. This was amazing and really boosted my productivity because I spent less time in bed sobbing for no good reason.

The effects and side effects have sort of tapered off now, but I’m still happier overall. I don’t have as much energy – I returned to having less energy than the average person, and that is something that I am working on, but it is still better than it was. I started crying about stupid shit again, but it happens way less than it used to. I still get sad, but it doesn’t run my life. I can get upset about something and then just stop and move on if I need to.

Unfortunately I never really noticed a change in my anxiety, but feeling less shitty all the time made it much easier to manage. I’m more conscious of it, so when it’s affecting me I can tell myself that it’s the anxiety, not me or anything else. I have a better grip on reality. My relationships with others have drastically improved as a result. It’s way easier to keep friends around when you don’t freak out about every minute transgression.

I was scared that if I took medication, I wouldn’t be me anymore. I was afraid I would become numb like before, and I wouldn’t be able to think as sharply. None of those things happened. I actually think way more sharply and am more creative. True, sometimes I felt like I should be experiencing more emotion than I was, but I think that’s the depressive side of me fighting back, saying “No! Stop! Come back! You need to cry about the fact that all your peers are more successful than you and you’ll never get married! Where are you going?!” But 9 times out of 10, my body doesn’t listen to that voice. It distracts itself and forces me to distract my mind too. With more energy I was able to think more clearly, and I felt just like me, except a happy version. I am the best version of myself again, the person that I used to only be able to become with the help of someone else.

Now that I’m “better”, or at least conscious of my problems, I’m able to differentiate between what dysthymia feels like and what ‘normal’ feels like. I can see all of the little moments in my past that were more than just me being tired, or sad, or shy, dating back to when I was a child. I feel like I can express what dysthymia felt like for me compared to what other people feel on an average day.

Most days, I felt like there was a constant cloud hanging over me and I was always afraid that it would rain. Sometimes I would be stuck in a thick fog, and I couldn’t see anything outside of myself. I was tired all the time. I was just a little “less” than all my peers in pretty much every way. My self-confidence was terrible. It was hard for me to find joy in everyday things – I needed someone like my ex to draw out the real me and make me happy.

Feeling so crappy all the time made it easy for anxiety to take over my mind, and I spent so much of my energy just trying to get through the day that I had no energy to wonder if maybe all of my socially anxious thoughts were accurate.

I am very lucky that the first medication I tried worked, and so quickly too. So far I have had the “picture perfect” experience with medication. That’s rare, and I want people to know that it’s okay to try a few different medications and doses to find one that’s right for you, and it may turn out that it’s not right for you at all. But that does not mean that it’s not worth trying.

Having the medication work felt like a validation for me. I had always thought that if my life would just suck less, I would be fine. However, since I responded so well and so quickly to the medication, it’s clear now that it was always chemical, though I was triggered by negative situations. I was going to be okay.

And then I realized how much I had screwed up my life. I was angry. I realized that a lot of it could have been avoided, had I just listened to the doctor when I was 17. It would have been so easy.

It was hard to accept that all of those years of suffering may have been unnecessary. I felt like I had wasted most of the years of my life up until now. It was even harder to accept that maybe I would still have been with the person I loved if I could have just felt a little more joy and a little less anger, sadness, and insecurity.

And even now, would the people I loved be okay with me taking this medication? Would they still know it’s me? Would they always feel like I was sick or broken? Essentially, would they have the same fears that I did before? So far, the answer to all of those questions has been no. In fact, everyone I know completely forgets that I take medication at all unless I bring it up. The people who know that I’m still love me, maybe more than before thanks to the fact that I’m a much nicer person to be around.

As cheesy as it sounds, if I hadn’t gone through all of that I wouldn’t be who I am today. I try to focus on all of the good things that those painful years brought me. Maybe I wouldn’t know just how strong love can be. Maybe I wouldn’t have found my independence. Maybe I wouldn’t have accomplished the things I’ve accomplished now. Maybe I would still be a bird sitting in a cage, waiting for the other one to come home.

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