90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Health

James Bornstein: It bothers me that mental health issues and the use of antidepressants are mostly discussed only in whispers or behind closed doors. (Amanda M Hatfield/flickr)

1,670. The approximate number of times I’ve popped my daily dose of Celexa since I started taking it in 2008.

Ten. The approximate number of people — including my psychiatrist — who know I take an antidepressant. (Until now, I suppose.)

I don’t talk about it. In fact, I’m quite content to only think about it for the five seconds it takes to swallow it down each night.

Pill. Water. Gulp. Forget.

For 10 years, I endured acute anxiety and near-constant obsessive thoughts. My mind was stuck in a feedback loop.

Still, I’m bothered that mental health issues and the use of antidepressants are mostly discussed only in whispers or behind closed doors.

I’m guessing many people struggle with painful mental health issues and could benefit from pharmacological intervention. I also believe many people rule out treatment for understandable, yet misguided reasons. Finally, I’m willing to bet that if these people knew the too-often untold stories of those around them, friends and colleagues fighting their own mental health battles, they would be more likely to seek out potentially life-changing treatments.

I say this because I was one of them: too proud, too egotistically overconfident in my own ability to “work things out.”

So, during these aseret yemei tshuvah, 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, I would like to break my own silence in the hopes of helping others confronting similar challenges.

For 10 years, I endured acute anxiety and near-constant obsessive thoughts. My mind was stuck in a feedback loop. Unwanted and disturbing thoughts, often triggered at unexpected times, seemed to self-amplify in my mind, spinning around and growing ever louder until I felt stuck in a state of mental paralysis. When things got really bad, I would have a panic attack.

Panic attacks vary, but at their worst are described as near-death experiences. They are terrifying. My heart pounded as if trying to violently escape my chest while an opposing force pushed in from the outside. My breathing became fast and uncontrollable. I sweat. My eyes darted around as if looking for some visible and immediate threat. Reality seemed distant and a primal instinct to “escape” became my immediate concern. Escape from what, though, was not clear.

The attacks were brief but exhausting and recovery sometimes took hours. The most damning aspect, though, were not the attacks themselves, rather living in fear of future attacks that could come at any time, and in any place. At the movies. While taking care of my children. Anywhere.

What led me ultimately to see a psychiatrist (after seeing two psychologists) was a “last straw” panic attack while sitting at my desk at work. Out of necessity I was typically able to subdue the anxiety at work. The severity of this final attack, though, and its intrusion into my professional life, was so overwhelming and troubling that I began to seek help out of desperation to regain stability.

Desire for control ultimately trumped pride.

Several weeks later, sitting at the same desk where I suffered that ego-toppling panic attack, I started to laugh. I felt my face brighten as the laughter intensified. Again, I was in a feedback loop, but this time it was laughter that was feeding on itself, not unwanted thoughts.

I feared that medication would make me a zombie; that it would sedate me, soften my ability to maintain core beliefs, morals, and sense of the world in which I wanted to live. I worried I would not be me. I was wrong.

A week earlier I had begun taking citalopram (Celexa). While it was not clear to me at the time why I was laughing, I now understand that the obsessive thoughts and anxiety were beginning to subside. To finally feel at ease, after a decade of tension, was euphoric.

I feared that medication would make me a zombie; that it would sedate me, soften my ability to maintain core beliefs, morals, and sense of the world in which I wanted to live. I worried I would not be me.

I was wrong.

The medication not only left “me” intact, it allowed the real me — the me trapped beneath layers of debilitating anxiety — to finally reemerge. It did not eliminate anxiety, rather it allowed me to experience it normally. Unwanted thoughts no longer became anxious waves hurdling across the ocean with increasing strength and crashing ashore as tidal waves.

While I often felt like I was losing my mind during those years, the experience solidified my belief that suffering from a mental health condition does not mean you are crazy. Choosing a life of pain, though, when effective treatments are available, that just might.

Related:

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Keith

    Thank you for posting this – I hope this starts a trend of more people speaking up about how their positive experiences. I have several friends and loved ones who have absolutely benefitted from antidepressants – and some who, if they heard more stories like yours, *could* benefit from them.

  • cuvtixo

    Thank you for telling your story. I’d make more of a distinction between getting a diagnosis and being prescribed a medication, though. Such medications are not as exact and effective as medications for physical ailments, making the issues surrounding them complicated. These medications, and SSRIs in particular, sometimes cease being effective over long periods of time, an issue many don’t expect with meds, and it may lead to more confusion and embarassment. You are lucky to have found one that works for you, but continue to monitor them with your doctors. I’d urge people taking meds to also seek and/or stay in therapy, because the health outcomes for people who do both are much better than doing medications alone.

  • jinx

    My mother in the early 60′s started experiencing these same feelings after the birth of my sister. She went on for the next 15 years a a drug zombie from all the ill informed medications and treatment for her ailment. She ended up in the hospital going through the dt’s for drug dependency on the wrong medications she lived the next few years anxious but much better and able to work and live on her own. Her doctor put her on prozac for help with back pain My mother after almost 20 yrs said she woke up and felt like she did before she got sick “I finally felt normal” and she took that medication till she passed away.. . It wasn’t a placebo I got my mother back. So if you take the medication for the wrong reason of course it’s not going to work. But this medicine was the greatest thing that happened to my mother. So for all you that believe that this is something that people hide behind have not a clue to what this illness does to people. As a ten year old watching my mother cry, be scared and not know what the hell was happening to her for almost the next 20 yrs get a grip.. She did go to a psychiatrist who just drugged her with all kinds of crap. I got my mom back. I got my mom back.

  • Valerie Bowman Hammond

    an UNQUALIFIED thank you.

  • Lawrence

    This story lacks a balanced perspective. It is known that the drug companies will do anything to push these meds onto anyone, needed or not. ABC even did a major expose’ on how these companies push them onto children. ( Look up Teen Screen ) program.

    The fact is that as much as people need these drugs, many more do not. In fact the Medicaid program in FL. was bankrupt from all of the children in foster care on several drugs at one time, when it was later discovered that the MDs who prescribed them, did so in their financial interests to the detriment of the children.

    • poctordoker

      Citalopram costs 4 dollars for a month supply. 10$ for three months.
      just saying.

      • Lawrence

        Florida Medicaid system is bankrupt and there are lawsuits against the pharmaceuticals because of it. Just saying

  • A

    Thank you. And…me too.

  • Lawrence

    Mr. Bornstein states, : “I also believe many people rule out treatment for understandable, yet misguided reasons.” I wonder if he realizes that at least 1 in 10 Americans are on these dangerous drugs? Can we believe that “many” people are really ruling out these drugs that need them? Especially in light of the Harvard Medical School Publications state that there was a 400% rise in their use?

    It’s big money and these drugs get pushed on people who don’t need them. It happened to me at the Fenway Health Clinic. There is a new policy where they ask if you EVER wake up feeling tired or low energy. I was astounded by my MD fishing for any sign that I should be on medication. And it’s happening to the entire country. It’s no wonder that the Governor had to institute a law requiring Mds to list the gifts and incentives they receive from drug companies.

    We are bombarded with ads for medication to “fix” every possible unpleasant experience on TV, radio, other “news” media. Surely there is no need for MDs to “probe” so they can justify the prescription of even more anti-psychotic drugs to as many people as possible, needed or not.

    I left wondering why he didn’t ask me if I wake up with back pain, question my diet? It’s big money to push these harmful drugs.

    Especially in the long term and in children, they are dangerous drugs ( read the long list of possible side effects. )

    • cuvtixo

      A appreciate your point of view, but you aren’t clear about why they are “dangerous.” The long lists of possible side effects exist with about every drug to protect against lawsuits, both legitimate and illegitimate, not so much because of “danger.” Check deaths from Tylenol(acetaminophen) for comparison. Acetaminophen is a drug that’s much more “dangerous” than any SSRI, judging by overdoses and deaths, and yet much more widely consumed. Your doctor won’t ask about back pain in part because such analgesics are available without prescription, otherwise he might! Such OTC drugs are probably overused, but the stigma somehow falls on antidepressants instead. Maybe they are not so good and overprescribed, but see that in context of other pharmaceuticals.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you so much for being brave enough to break the silence.
    As much as I believe in “Mental Health Awareness & Advocacy” I
    find myself keeping the fact that I have been treating my own Mental
    Health diagnosis & issues for over 20 years silent to some degree.
    I do share when I think it may help someone.

    I find my stigma in family, friends, society so prevalent it’s
    hard not to start believing so of it myself at times? Then again people
    like yourself take a giant leap of faith in public and this helps us
    all!

    Thank You!

TOP