Me and My Meds

I’ve been a bit reluctant to talk about my anxiety medications on my blog. One reason for that reluctance is that medications are a very individual thing, and something that works for one person may not work for another (or may make their symptoms actually worse), so I didn’t see much value in sharing my medication experience, as it is just my experience, and doesn’t necessarily provide valuable information to anyone else. And I really didn’t want to imply that I was in any position to provide advice on something as serious as prescription medication.

The other reason I haven’t really talked about my meds is that the subject of psychiatric medication is a bit of a controversial one. Some people believe psych meds are an evil tool of big pharmaceutical companies who want to get us all addicted to meds we don’t need. On the other side, we have people who say that psychiatric medications have saved their lives and are essential to their ability to function. I’ve been in anxiety support groups where the subject of medication is virtually banned (sort of like the way you might ban topics like politics and religion) because it tends to cause such heated disagreement. 

So I guess I didn’t want to rock the boat, particularly among my fellow anxiety sufferers, because in my experience, once you find out that a fellow traveller with mental illness views the subject of medication differently than you do, that’s a disparity that can be hard to get past. It’s sort of like finding out that a friend supports Donald Trump (or doesn’t support Trump, depending on what side you’re on) – you never quite look at them the same way again, and there’s a constant temptation to try to convince them they’re wrong.

But, well, I’m not normally one to hold back when it comes to opinions about mental illness (obviously, if you’ve read my blog!), so I guess this subject shouldn’t be an exception. And I feel like the anti-med voices seem a bit numerous and a bit louder than the pro-med voices, especially on social media. So maybe there needs to be a bit more heard from the other side, from people like me who are happy with their psych meds.

OK, I’m going to spell out my disclaimer here – what works for me may not work for others, and the only opinion about taking medication that really counts is your doctor’s. But here’s my experience with the world of psychiatric medications.

I take two medications for my anxiety, and I have a lot of love for each of them. I started off on clonazepam, which is classified as a benzodiazepine. It’s basically a tranquilizer, though more of a “relax and mellow out” kind of tranquilizer than a “knock you out” kind of tranquilizer. Its effects kick in pretty quickly (about 15-30 minutes for me), and then gradually wear off over the next 24 hours or so. I take a small dose every night shortly before bedtime, as that tends to be a high-anxiety time for me. It was initially prescribed for me by my family doctor when my mouse phobia first kicked into high gear, and it allowed me to relax and sleep properly for the first time in weeks.

I find the effects of the clonazepam pretty much wear off by morning, although my psychiatrist says they probably linger at a low level for much of the rest of the day. I’ve been taking it for about a year and a half, at the same level, once a day, every day (though other anxiety-sufferers sometimes just take clonazepam on an as-needed basis when they feel especially anxious).

Benzodiazepines are a bit controversial, as their use sometimes leads to abuse. My doctor told me that clonazepam tends to be less abused than other benzodiazepines because its effects taper off more gradually, so there is less of an urge to take it too frequently or at higher doses.

I suppose I might be classified as “dependent” on clonazepam, in the sense that I’m taking it long-term, and if I ever stopped taking it, I’d have to be tapered off very gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms (like rebound anxiety). But I’m careful not to abuse my clonazepam – I stick to my regular dose (which is actually less than the dose my doctor originally prescribed), and haven’t increased it. And I’m being monitored on a regular basis by my psychiatrist, who is comfortable with my continuing to take clonazepam for now.

My second medication is called sertraline, better known under the trade name Zoloft (or Lustral in the UK). It’s actually classified as an antidepressant, specifically an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), but it’s also used to treat anxiety disorders (it seems that faulty serotonin levels in the brain can contribute to both depression and anxiety, and that’s what SSRIs address). Sertraline is different from my clonazepam in the sense that it’s a medication that you have to take every day for it to work, and its effects are steady and continuous. You usually have to take it for a few weeks before it starts to be effective. I did struggle a bit with side effects at first: digestive effects, fatigue, and shaky hands. Most of these effects went away in a month or so, and the rest went away when my psychiatrist reduced my dosage slightly.

Unlike clonazepam, which I can actually feel working when I take it, sertraline’s effect on me is harder to quantify, because it’s just something that’s in my system all the time. I do know that within a few months of starting sertraline I felt better than I had in years. But I suspect that’s probably a result of the combination of all the tools that I’ve used to treat my anxiety, which, along with the meds, includes things like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, mindfulness and meditation, and talking to my psychiatrist. But I do believe that meds helped to get me to a point where I had the clarity of mind to be able to tackle those other methods.

I’d been quite nervous about starting on psychiatric medication initially, mainly because I’d heard all the horror stories – the bad side effects, the idea that your personality will change, that sort of thing. My psychiatrist made it clear that starting medication was entirely my choice (in fact, I was the one to first bring up the subject of meds in our appointments), but he did reassure me by saying that we’re much more likely to hear the bad stories about medications than the good ones (those don’t tend to be nearly as attention-grabbing), and that lots of people do well on medication.

And he was right – I don’t feel dopey or spaced out on my meds. I haven’t had any personality changes (which my husband confirms!). I’m still the same me, just a somewhat less anxious, more functional me. The way I see it, I have a slightly screwed up, anxiety-prone brain, so psych meds don’t mess up my brain, they just bring it closer to the normal level of functionality that most people’s brains are already at.

So that’s my psychiatric medication story. Meds don’t work for everyone, but they work for a lot of people, and they work for me. So now that I’ve put my story out there, hopefully it can be one of the less-exciting “psych meds are actually good for me” stories that perhaps we don’t hear enough of.

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