I’ll admit to a serious character flaw here: I spent most of my adult life feeling smugly superior to people who took meds for their mental health issues. I thought that anyone who “succumbed” to medication was simply weak and hadn’t tried hard enough to find a natural solution.
Growing up, I got stomach aches whenever life was particularly stressful, and racing thoughts kept me from falling asleep at night. At the time, I was just called a worrier—anxiety wasn’t a word that got thrown around much in the ’90s. Later, I thought I had it under control because I spent my 20s learning meditation and yoga (and pretending that I didn’t spend some nights obsessing over the future deaths of my parents to the point of making myself physically ill).
And the truth is, mindfulness really can work for plenty of people.
Many people who deal with mild anxiety are able to manage it proactively by engaging in some kind of mindfulness practice, says Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“I’m all for preventive options,” Saltz says. “If you’re a person who’s biologically and psychologically primed for anxiety and likely to experience recurrent anxiety, then strategies like mindfulness meditation and yoga can help you feel more relaxed physiologically and psychologically on a day-to-day basis.”
Yoga and meditation aren’t the only answers here, either. Any form of exercise can help bring you into the present, as can prayer or breath work. Whatever works for you.
But I also discovered that sometimes you need meds—here’s what changed my mind.
Basically, I had kids. There were problems with breastfeeding, trouble getting my baby to gain weight, colic that had her screaming for hours… all of it was too much. It was a tough first year, but I got through it. I was an anxious mother, but my anxiety was manageable.
Then I became pregnant again. There were a hundred reasons I was scared of having another baby—my first had been a hard birth, I was worried I’d have more problems breastfeeding, money was an issue, and I had just signed up for five years of grad school. During my second pregnancy, I went from being relatively in control of my emotional state to hiding in the bathroom so I could scream into a clenched fist. More and more frequently, my toddler’s tantrums ended in both of us crying.
My midwife noticed my strange behavior and asked me some direct questions during one appointment that resulted in an immediate referral to a psychiatrist who specialized in perinatal depression and anxiety. An assessment revealed I suffered primarily from anxiety and was borderline OCD as well. Strangely, it was kind of a relief to be officially diagnosed with something—at least there were solutions ahead.
Early on in the pregnancy, I remember begging the universe to help me through this ordeal. I wanted to feel less alone, less upset, less afraid.
I tried to meditate, but my skin crawled within a few seconds of closing my eyes. All of the techniques I’d used to manage my anxiety up until this point were now completely useless.
This isn’t unusual, Saltz says. “When you’re in the throes of an actual anxiety disorder,” she says, “usually those preventive techniques aren’t enough.”
I still wasn’t ready to try medication, however. My psychiatrist had given me the option of starting an anti-anxiety medication that was considered safe for the fetus during pregnancy; however, when I found out the baby might experience some symptoms of withdrawal when they were born, my anxiety quadrupled. So instead, I tried therapy and tabled the idea of taking meds until after.
My son was born in an easy home birth, which was a relief since I’d been so worried about having another challenging baby. He was good at breastfeeding and slept for much longer stretches than my first—basically, I was in love, and all was right with the world.
And then it wasn’t. I was months past the baby blues, but things still felt off, and I felt this irritability constantly building up inside me. I was still seeing a therapist regularly, but something had changed, and my anxiety no longer felt manageable. Then postpartum depression hit me full force.
At this point, I was still desperately trying to avoid medication.
I kept thinking that if I could just hold out one more day, putting one foot in front of the other, I could find my way, and my psychiatrist, therapist, and postpartum depression support group all supported my choice to remain medication-free. I wasn’t suicidal, after all—I was angry a lot, and I had kind of forgotten what happiness felt like, but what mattered to me was that I wasn’t taking medication.
But then I realized that wasn’t what mattered. My quality of life was what mattered. According to Saltz, the point at which a disorder becomes a pathology is when it negatively impacts your quality of life and ability to function in a significant way. I was definitely at that stage, despite my weekly therapy sessions and support group meetings.
I was also worried that I would never be able to stop taking medication once I started it.
One of the main reasons I didn’t want to try the meds was that I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to feel things—good or bad—as much. I was also worried that I would never be able to stop taking medication once I started.
But it turns out that isn’t the case. “We’re not talking about medication forever, for a lot of people,” Saltz says. “We’re talking about short-term medication to be able to bring down the anxiety enough to participate meaningfully in your therapy.” Meds can enable you to really engage in the emotional work of therapy—which can be the real key to long-term change.
So I gave it a shot.
When I finally started taking medication for my anxiety, I realized that the pills didn’t dull my emotions. Instead, they gave me an added buffer in my everyday interactions with both loved ones and strangers. Instead of reacting immediately with anger to a situation, I had a few extra milliseconds to consider my response, which allowed me to respond more positively. This hasn’t just helped my own state of mind, it’s also made me a better parent since I’m not as easily upset by my kids.
Three years later, I’m still taking my medication, and I’ve stopped judging when someone tells me they’re taking meds for a similar reason. After all, meds have allowed me to enjoy being a parent instead of constantly fighting off anxiety attacks—and who doesn’t want that.
Glynis Ratcliffe used to be an opera singer, but after her daughter begged her to stop singing and be quiet for the millionth time, she decided to use her inside voice and write instead. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.