When I was 29 years old, I went to see a new doctor for my yearly exam. At the time, I was working as a TV news reporter, and my doctor immediately recognized me from the crime-filled, disturbing stories I had been covering.
He also noted that I seemed on edge as I sat in his office that day. His comments on my demeanor made me feel like there was something wrong with me, like working long days interviewing grieving parents about the murders of their children shouldn't overwhelm me.
"That is stressful," I said. "Isn't it appropriate I am stressed?"
Was this doctor really suggesting that something was wrong with just me because I wasn't desensitized to the horrific events that surrounded me? Did I really need medication to make myself numb to my surroundings?
"You're a strong, brilliant career woman. You can't be crying at work," I remember him saying to me.
At the time, I was so desperate to feel "normal" and not cry almost every day driving home from work because I was so exhausted and overworked. I walked out of his office that day with a prescription for Lexapro—a drug used to treat anxiety and major depressive disorder. In a 10-minute consultation, I became part of the statistic on the overmedication of Americans, and looking back on that is terrifying.
A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reports that antidepressant use has skyrocketed over the last two decades, up nearly 400 percent. Statistics show that one in 10 Americans now take antidepressant medication. Among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four.
Yet 69 percent of people taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the primary type of antidepressants, have never suffered from major depressive disorder (MDD). Even more shocking, 38 percent have never in their lifetime met the criteria for MDD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, or generalized anxiety disorder yet still take the pills that treat them.
I stayed on Lexapro for several years—even after I left the TV news business. I was changing careers, moving, breaking up with a serious boyfriend, and I thought that the medication would take the edge off of my life's uncertainties.
It wasn't until I attended a lecture by best-selling author Marianne Williamson that I had my wake-up call. I listened as Marianne talked about her latest book, Tears to Triumph, and about how moving "with the edge" is our life's work, spiritually speaking. The edge is made up of those sleepless nights, those cries, those uncomfortable conversations.
She told me that heartbreak is nothing new. Has anyone not had his or her heart broken? Has anyone not suffered a professional failure? Has anyone not experienced the loss of a loved one?
These things may be painful, but they are not mental illness. As I look back on that day in the doctor's office, I want to pull my 29-year-old self aside and hug her. I want to tell her, "You don't need an antidepressant; you need to find a new station to work for, a new boss, job, a new career. You need to sit in meditation 20 minutes a day, twice a day, reconnect with your spirit, and pray. You need to surrender your life to a higher power, eat healthier food, rest, connect with your friends and family in a meaningful way."
It's been several months since I weaned myself off Lexapro with the guidance of my doctor, and I feel like myself again. I have 100 times more energy. I am clear. I am joyful and alive. That lethargic dark cloud that used to follow me everywhere I went has lifted.
Since becoming more conscious and awake, I've discovered that our society seems to promote self-medicating and numbing ourselves out. I can't tell you how many times I've said and heard, "I need a drink." I've rarely heard, "Let's pray. Time to meditate. I need to feel my feelings so I can release this pain once and for all."
I am in no way saying that my story holds true for everyone. I'm not saying that anyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness should give up their medications cold turkey, or at all. I'm simply suggesting that we all take a deeper look into our choices, do our research, ask our health care providers and drug companies tough questions, and explore our options for treating anxiety and depression.
Feeling sad, out of sorts, anxious, or depressed at times is part of what it means to be human. My hope is that anyone who reads this will at least consider looking into other forms of relief. Your brain and heart will thank you.