One Month on the Happy Pills (Depression)
In early April, I went to talk to the doctor about depression, and walked out with a prescription for Zoloft.
It’s been an interesting month. One of the things that surprised me was how many people talked to me about their own experiences with depression, both on my blog post and in person. When I went to Penguicon, the depression post came up in conversation almost as frequently as my cover poses. Depression is far more common than I realized … which reinforced that I had made the right decision to blog about it.
Almost immediately after I left the doctor’s office last month, I started feeling a little better. Since it takes time for the meds to build up in your system, I ascribed that initial improvement to the fact that I was doing something about the problem instead of feeling stuck and hopeless.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the pills. I wasn’t convinced the meds would help — I wasn’t even entirely convinced that I was really depressed as opposed to just feeling stressed out — and even if it was, I wasn’t sure the dosage I was on would be enough. But damn if I haven’t noticed an improvement. I’ve been able to take things in stride that would have been far more upsetting a month ago, from the suicidal raccoon that busted up my headlight to schedule snafus with my wife and kids to the Great Flea Invasion at home to assorted work stuff.
It’s not all happiness and rainbow-farting unicorns yet. The other day, something knocked me back into that ugly/hopeless/fugitall morass, and it took about two days to pull myself out. But overall, I’m doing better.
I feel more like me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this. Back in 1998 when my pancreas took early retirement, the diabetes seriously messed me up before I got diagnosed and brought my blood sugar under control. I was, to put it bluntly, a cranky, miserable asshole. And it had snuck up on me over weeks or months, so slowly I hadn’t even noticed. When I finally got on insulin, I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much I had missed me, if that makes sense.
It happened when I lived in Nevada, too. Elko did not agree with me, and looking back, I was seriously depressed by the end of it, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. I quit my job and moved back to where I had friends and family, and just like in ’98, I found me again.
I missed me. And I’m a little disturbed that I seem to make a habit of losing myself…
I’ve kept an almost paranoid eye out for side effects. I noticed a little bit of dry mouth early on, but that might have been psychosomatic. I’ve heard people talk about antidepressants making them mentally fuzzy, which was probably my biggest fear. I don’t think that’s happened, but I’m not completely sure. I’m struggling with the sequel to Libriomancer, but I was struggling before I started the meds too. I think it’s just a pain-in-the-ass first draft, not a consequence of extra mental sluggishness on my part.
The current plan is to stay on the Zoloft for six months to a year, then reevaluate where I’m at. I’ve also got a list of possible referrals for counseling that I’m planning to follow up on. (I’ve been procrastinating, partly due to lack of time, and partly due to the lingering shame of needing help.)
I really dislike the idea of being dependent on pharmaceuticals for my happiness and mental/emotional well-being. Insulin for a messed-up pancreas? No problem. Medication for a messed-up brain? That’s harder to accept. But I’m even more scared about the idea of going off the pills and sliding back into the space I was in earlier this year. I’m hoping the counseling will help with this and give me some longer-term solutions.
For the moment though, things are pretty good. I’ve been able to enjoy more of my life than I was before. The good parts actually feel good, and the bad parts, while still present — damn fleas! — aren’t as overwhelming.
Score one for the happy pills.
May 16, 2012 @ 10:02 am
Score one for the happy pills. Glad they’re helping. I could probably stand to go back on some for a bit right now but alas, no insurance. Hope things continue to improve for you, and kudos, of course, for talking about it. I’ve blogged about why I blog about depression: to take the power out of it. Hope you find that to be the case, too.
May 16, 2012 @ 10:07 am
Good for you, Jim! One of the things I learned was that depression has a physical impact on the brain. I used to think it was just a “oh I’m so bluuuuuuuue” sort of thing, but it’s not. I had been opposed to taking medication, but my doctor said, “Would you take medication for Alzheimer’s?” And I said yes, because it’s a disease. And she replied, “So is depression.” So for a while, I was on Lexapro. It had an immediate, beneficial impact.
Lately, I’ve been trying more natural approaches to countering my depression — vitamin D3 supplement (because bloodwork revealed that I have a D3 deficiency), exercise, eating cleaner. Also, I’ve switched back to a primal/paleo diet, because grains — especially wheat — have been linked with inflammation, and inflammation has been linked with depression.
Good luck with this, Jim.
May 16, 2012 @ 10:07 am
“It’s not all happiness and rainbow-farting unicorns yet”
It’ll never be ALL happiness and rainbow-farting unicorns, of course. But it’ll be closer once you start with counseling, I promise. I use antidepressants to control my migraines, but if I am not seeing a psychologist while taking them, my depression is more likely to try and drown me than if I have someone who is otherwise utterly unconnected to my life who doesn’t judge to listen to me talk, bitch, and work things out for myself (as well as giving me a leg up when I can’t seem to work them out for myself by asking questions that will help me work on them.) Though society does tend to shame people more for needing mental assistance than physical assistance, there is nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. <3
May 16, 2012 @ 10:17 am
You might want to take a look at a book called The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris. I don’t know if your comments accept links, but if they do, here it is: http://www.amazon.com/The-Happiness-Trap-mindfulness-based-ebook/dp/B004XI12O8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1337177678&sr=1-1
I spent the past eighteen months in a master’s program for counseling and of everything I read and learned, the ideas of ACT counseling were what resonated most for me. That book is the consumer-friendly version.
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:33 am
Neverending unicorns of rainbow-flatulence would probably get boring anyway. Though one of the things I need to learn is how to separate the normal frustrations and low points from the “Oh crap I’m backsliding into the Gray Swamp of Depression Doom!” One step at a time…
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:34 am
The Alzheimer’s analogy is a good one. I’ve been trying to think about it in relation to the diabetes — I have no shame in taking insulin for my messed-up pancreas, so why should I have a problem taking Zoloft for my messed-up brain chemistry?
May 16, 2012 @ 10:36 am
I’m glad you’re feeling more like you.
May 16, 2012 @ 10:39 am
The rest of us like you, too, so could you please stop losing him? Get one of those toddler leashes or something. 😉
Kidding aside, depression sucks. I’m glad the pills are helping, and I’d urge you to follow up on that counseling, too. I’ve never found a happy pill that works without side effects (yay weirdo metabolism, go me) but I feel so much more like myself after working with a cognitive behavioral therapist. She’s taught me ways to cope with the stress, self-doubt, and depression. It’s worth the time and effort!
May 16, 2012 @ 10:42 am
Thank you for your bravery to post about this openly, particularly about the “lingering shame of needing help.” One thing it took me a long time to realize about seeking and receiving counseling is that, depsite the medical/psychological nature of it, it is a service and you are the customer. It may take a few tries before you find the right counselor for you. One of the worst feelings I’ve had is feeling stuck with a counselor that, in hindsight, was simply not the right person for me to be talking to. Don’t be afraid to shop around; it’s a real relationship and a good counselor truly can make an immense difference. Much love.
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:42 am
You and me both, thank you!
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:43 am
I was thinking of implanting a GPS chip so I could track myself down the next time I go wandering off…
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:43 am
I’ve heard that advice from a few others as well, and I’m definitely taking it to heart. Thank you.
May 16, 2012 @ 10:45 am
I’m really glad things are looking up for you Jim 🙂 I was diagnosed about 13 Years ago and finally getting the treatment I needed changed my Life.
The title of your Post is a little bit of a trigger for me so I wanted to offer a thought:
There is something that you should make certain you understand in order to manage your expectations and also for how you communicate about depression with others. Anti-Depressants do not make you happy. They do help you stop feeling sad for no reason and that is a very different thing. Once that depression roadblock has been cleared away, your happiness level is up to you
Not trying to be a downer, but I worry a little when I see the phrase “Happy Pills” because it may reflect unrealistic expectations for what the medication will do for you.
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 10:50 am
“Happy pills” … yeah, I thought about that phrasing a bit when I was writing the blog post. On the one hand, I like to bring in some lightness/humor when I can, but I also see what you’re saying. I’ll keep your feedback in mind as I write about this in the future, thank you.
May 16, 2012 @ 11:22 am
If it’s any comfort, I’ve found that distinguishing between normal upset and broken brain, on a day-to-day basis, is indeed a learnable skill. (Y’know, for me, at least. And I hope for you.) Knowing which one it is seems to help me recover faster, since the solution to one is different from the solution to the other.
I’m not sure how long it took me to develop the skill. Maybe three years, from my initial diagnosis? BUT, I also think I was very slow on the uptake about it being something I needed to learn at all (instead of just letting the meds take care of the whole shebang), so I think you’re ahead of the game.
May 16, 2012 @ 11:57 am
It took me three failed mess before we found one that worked. The first thing I noticed was that I started to have good days. This was a shock because I hadn’t had a good days in several years. The first time I had a bad day after that I was very discouraged. Then I realized that even the bad days are a good sign because it means that I actually have good days to compare the bad ones to.
That is when I realized that it really can get better.
May 16, 2012 @ 11:58 am
[Content warning: mental illness]
I’m glad to hear things are getting better for you. I’ve been really, really, really down lately, and a couple of weeks ago I finally reached the point where my SO told me I needed to get help or he didn’t know what, but he was overwhelmingly scared for me and tired of seeing me depressed. I sorta kinda got help (the place I found marked me as “not that bad” and put me on solely medication management . . . yeah . . . had that before, not enough for me) but, with me not getting better since then, and with hearing from others who ARE getting better with help, I’ve finally reached the point, I think, where I’m able to stand up for myself in asking for help. No more pretending I’m okay because that’s what a “normal” (whatever that is) person would be, or saying I’m better than I am because they want me to be, because that would be easy. I’ve not been hospitalized for depression, and these places seem to think that not being hospitalized = not an emergency, get in line and maybe we’ll find 15 minutes to talk to you.
Yeah, I’m done with that.
I guess, mostly, I just wanted to thank you for speaking out. These past months have been a bit of a night mare for me, mentally and emotionally. It’s heartwarming to hear other people dealing with this better, and it gives me hope that I’ll actually get better eventually.
May 16, 2012 @ 12:07 pm
So glad the meds are helping, and that you’ve found YOU again.
Here’s another vote for getting into the talk therapy. Think of it this way: if you broke your leg or your arm, you’d do physical therapy, yes? Well, the only consistently effective way we currently have to access what’s in your brain is through (a) chemistry and (b) words. As an author, you know better than most how powerful words + brain can be, especially when it comes to helping someone see things they hadn’t noticed before or see them from a different/larger perspective, or to create new pathways for how they think about something. And, as an author and one who works to be self-aware, you’ve actually got a pretty significant advantage over most other people when it comes to talk therapy, *because* you’re good with words. Once your therapist helps you to learn what you’re working with and some basic skills for dealing with it, you’ll be able to hack your brain pretty darned effectively… and then you’ll have those skills for the rest of your life.
May 16, 2012 @ 12:19 pm
I find learning to separate normal life frustrations and sadness from actual depression/anxiety difficult also. I’m always asking my husband, therapist, friends – is it NORMAL to be upset about this? I’m glad to hear it CAN actually be learned!
I’m glad you’re feeling better, Jim. I hope the counseling will help, too.
May 16, 2012 @ 12:22 pm
Thanks for being willing to talk about it. The more people hear about realistic experiences of mental illness and treatment, the less likely they are to fear and shun ppl with mental illness, and the less shame they’ll feel about possibly getting their own treatment if needed.
(PS – I got my mom The Stepsister Scheme for her birthday and she liked it.)
May 16, 2012 @ 12:25 pm
Ms. Elise – yay for standing up for yourself and asking for the help you need! It took me a long time to get there, too. I thought because I can hold a job, and mostly keep it together in public, and pretend I was okay, that I shouldn’t need help. I’d even been told “well, I know you have some problems, but not as bad as ____” (who was hospitalized).
Asking for help was really hard, but I did it, and I think I’m getting better. Hang in there!
May 16, 2012 @ 1:03 pm
I almost suggested a tracker, but went for the simple option. And a cuddly stuffed-animal leash sounded nicer than “chain him to his desk so he can’t wander off.” 😉
May 16, 2012 @ 1:25 pm
The confusion between being blue and being depressed is why I divide them into little-d and Big-D depression. Little-d is, “Aw, man, my dog died” and you feel horrible for a while. Big-D is “I got this great comment, why am I not happy?” Big-D is also, “Aw, man, my dog died” and not feeling much more than you did before. For me, Big-D isn’t so much feeling down as it is not feeling (or every emotion being wrapped up tight in a quilt, so you get little bumps up and down, but not much movement either way). About the only emotion I would feel intensely is anger. I would go from bland to red-hot in a pico-second. Taking my own meds I now can feel good for a long time, and I can feel sad for a long time, but it’s not that echoing abyss of not feeling much at all and the anger is tamped down.
May 16, 2012 @ 1:34 pm
I was put on antidepressants in 1992. I lost my mother and her older brother to suicide. I have come to understand that my depression isn’t circumstantially based, it’s a genetic imbalance in my brain that is corrected with medication – much like my cholesterol. It’s not a weakness, any more than my high cholesterol levels (after being on a low-cholesterol diet for a year, my levels were the same – I just make the stuff.) The human body is complex, and the more we learn about it, the longer and happier our lives become.
May 16, 2012 @ 1:35 pm
Thank you for writing this. A friend pointed me to this post because I’d just written on my blog about a similar topic. A month and a half ago I was diagnosed bipolar, and I went (and am going) through a lot of the same conflicted feelings as you. Is this better? This is! But is it better enough to make me feel ok about needing a drug? I…don’t know…?
Before I got to the point of accepting the problem, a friend used a metaphor for me, which I find interesting given your post. She said, “When you have diabetes, you don’t act strong and fight through it. You take insulin.” It’s stuck with me, and it’s something I’ve said to friends and family when they’ve given me side-eye about diving into medication. Like you, I’ve been shocked at how much more myself I’ve felt. How much I *missed* myself. Friends and family have noticed, too. Even the ones who were skeptical.
I’ll be re-evaluating in 6 months to a year, too. In the meantime, I’m always relieved to know we’re not in this alone.
Best of luck,
May 16, 2012 @ 2:53 pm
I take generic zoloft for ADD/ADHD (offlabel use.)
Had depression for a while as side-effect of a prescription decongestant I was trying out. Took me a while to realize what had happened, because it felt so natural.
Glad you’re doing better.
Question: What do you think a truly sane human would be like?
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 3:45 pm
Thanks, Eric. I like that metaphor and go through the same thoughts myself. At the same time, diabetes was, for me, a pretty clear-cut thing. My blood sugar was off the chart, ergo I’m diabetic, ergo it’s time for insulin. With depression, it’s not as clear-cut, especially when you’re in the middle of it all.
But ultimately, the lessons are the same – there’s nothing wrong or shameful about taking medicine when your body is out of whack, whether it’s the pancreas or the brain.
Best of luck to you as well.
Jim C. Hines
May 16, 2012 @ 3:46 pm
I hope so. And I’m very happy to hear your mom liked the book!
May 16, 2012 @ 5:29 pm
(I missed the original post, or I would have been one of those commenting; I have lived with depression since I was in my late teens though I didn’t get an official diagnosis until I was in my 30s and what you said about the relief that comes with having a diagnosis and an explanation makes perfect sense to me.)
A few years back, when I was without health insurance and trying to go off my anti-depressants (Zoloft at the time and Zoloft now, though you name it and I’ve probably taken it), a friend of mine pointed out exactly this to me when I was on the phone to her and sobbing madly because I couldn’t handle life. I was lucky — despite not having insurance I found a doctor who was willing to give me enough Zoloft to get me through the month it took for my new job’s insurance to finally kick in.
And I still have times when I feel like an exposed nerve and there’s nothing I can do about that even with the anti-depressants in my system. As I said to my therapist: It never gets better, not really; we just get better at coping. And in my case, that requires medication to balance my brain chemistry.
Do please see the counselor, and if you don’t mesh with the first one you see please see another. The first one won’t take it personally and it’s better to have someone you feel you can trust (I’ve seen a number of therapists over the years — some better and some worse — and it can get kind of complicated in my case given paganism/queerness/etc., especially here in my very red state).
Glad you’re feeling better. So looking forward to Libriomancer. 🙂
May 16, 2012 @ 9:10 pm
I’m glad the meds are helping. Like a lot of people, I’ve struggled with depression for years, since I was in my early teens. With practice, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m depressed, and I hope it’s something you can learn. My rule of thumb is, “Does nothing interest me?” Alternatively, “Is everything too much work?” That novel I’ve been grinding through for the last year isn’t exciting me? Probably just soggy-middle-blues. I don’t want to write anything at all? Probably depression. Often the beginning stages of depression for me include a lot of anger, and I have to ask myself, “What’s the common denominator here? Hmmm, that would be me.” The whole rest of the world did not magically become obnoxious overnight. 🙂
Which is nothing new, and something any depression screening will tell you, but it does get easier to recognize the symptoms before things get out of control. I guess all this is a long-winded way of saying good luck. We’re cheering for you.
May 16, 2012 @ 9:42 pm
I’ve been down a similar road, two thoughts for you….
First, Paxil made me a zombie, Pristique is good stuff. Made the two years of counseling more effective.
Second, look at your family medical history. I feel that I have inherited a genetic defect which predisposes me to a chemical imbalance leading to depression. I have 4 generations of anecdotal evidence.
Because of the demands of my former profession I wasn’t able to seek help right away, but it took a convolution of events to make me seek help. Weakness is seeing a problem and not having the courage to address it. You are addressing the issue. Make the time to find a good therapist for YOU. Avoid toxic people
May 16, 2012 @ 11:38 pm
Someone already mentioned CBT (cognitive behavior therapy). The easy-to-understand version is a book called Feeling Good, The new mood therapy, Dr. David Burns. CBT can work with antidepressants, and for some, either those who get every side effect in the book before they even reach therapeutic doses (like me), or those for whom it’s enough, it is a functional therapy.
To put it in perspective: if you have diabetes, you don’t always take insulin. If you can, and are lucky and patient and persistent, you may be able to control your diabetes with diet (cut out the white sugar, white flour, etc…) and exercise. If insulin, for example, made you deadly ill, you would HAVE to make the diet and exercise version work for you.
There is no shame involved – it is organic, and it is what it is, and dealing with it, the same as dealing with diabetes, is part of your life.
Some people don’t even want to try the diet-and-exercise method, even if it MIGHT work for them, because it IS a lot of work. Ditto with CBT (and similar therapies).
However, 1) you can use it any time, 2) once you learn it, it costs nothing, and 3) you don’t need a prescription (so you can use it when depression hits you at 3am on a desert island, or whatever).
Just a thought – to add to all the rest of the good advice above. Counselors, if they are doing their jobs, help YOU sort stuff out by providing context and perspective, things that are in short supply when you’re not functioning properly.
But the best goals for anything are self-management ones (even if self-management in a particular case means making sure you get your prescriptions filled in time).
Hoping everything goes well – and stick with the plan, even if the first ADs don’t work. There are lots of kinds and they affect different people differently.
You are very brave, being public about this – and it will probably help people you’ll never even meet.
May 17, 2012 @ 1:06 am
I’ve never forgotten something my psychiatrist said to me when he first saw me and prescribed the pills I’ve been on for almost 20 years now.
Whatever people might say, depression is a biological illness. The very fact the pills work, show that it is. If it wasn’t, the pills wouldn’t help (perhaps beyond a mild placebo effect).
I know it’s true, because the times I’ve stopped taking the pills, it got worse again. I find that has helped me to recognise that I have a legitimate illness and I don’t need to be ashamed of it (although “society” doesn’t always help there).
My mother and brother both have diabetes and are on insulin, so I try to look at it as being like that, but it’s my brain that’s mucked up not my pancreas (so sorry you have both!). My son was diagnosed with ADHD about 18 months ago and is now on meds for it. I admit I’m finding that a lot harder, but I think that’s a mother-hen reaction more than anything else. His pills are helping him a lot too.
Here’s to our pills. As a friend of mine often says “better living through (prescription) pharmaceuticals”. Often, we really do need them.
May 17, 2012 @ 4:01 pm
As someone who has suffered from depression since she was 16 (that’s way more than half my life at this point) I refer to them as happy pills, and refer to my doctor as the happy doctor.
This isn’t because I believe these things make me happy, but because they’re part of the humor I use to deal with my depression. I also talk about sending messages in “morose code” because doing so makes me smile.
For me, fighting depression means finding the joy in little, every day things.
Good luck in your continued fight against depression, and may you find joy in the every day things.
May 17, 2012 @ 5:18 pm
Diabetics are more likely to suffer depression than people without diabetes. The stress of dealing with diabetes can contribute to depression and the metabolic effects of diabetes on the brain are believed to be a root cause or serious contributing factor to depression. Depression in turn leads to poorer brain function and neglect in managing diabetes, and contributes stress that makes your diabetes worse. So essentially your depression is another symptom of your diabetes and your body being in distress and it is absolutely essential to the management of your diabetes that you treat the depression. So maybe that view of it helps. In any case, glad you got medicine, glad it’s working and you are feeling better.
May 19, 2012 @ 8:01 pm
The way I put it is that my meds DON’T make me happy — they give me the CAPACITY to feel happiness. I still have to work on thought patterns, life experiences, and so forth in order to feel happy. But the part of my brain that CAN feel happiness is just plain not there when I’m not on the meds. No matter how much positive thinking I do, how many birthday parties I have, how much I know people love me, I won’t feel happy because I CAN’T feel happy (or other related emotions, such as “enthusiastic” or “motivated”.)
Yeah, it won’t be all sunshine and lollipops. However, when there IS sunshine, and when there ARE lollipops (sugar-free ones in your case, I suppose), you’ll be able to enjoy them.
May 24, 2012 @ 3:21 am
Um, maybe the Dalai Lama? And probably as common… I’ve met plenty of people in 64 years, and I must say, of all the ones I’ve had anything more than a completely superficial conversation with, I’ve never met a truly sane one. Everybody got a monkey somewhere.
depressed in atlanta
June 10, 2012 @ 9:52 am
After reading your blog I have some sort of hope noe. I have been on several types of meds for my depression zoloft, prozac, saraquial,and many others I cant remember names. I had lost hope that I would ever feel the same way I felt before my daughter passed away from SIDS. Nothing in this world seems to have with the pain and along with that (as if that isnt enough)I have developed a extreme case of anxiety. Im so tired of trying meds and their not working, I recently was given Zoloft I stopped taking it because I felt like I was getting worse not better. I did not do the two weeks because I think now I have lost faith in anything working since I have had no luck before. Seein how it is working for you I em going to give it another try.
Jim C. Hines
June 11, 2012 @ 8:17 am
From talking to other people, it sounds like it can take a while to find the right medication and/or the right counselor. Which is incredibly frustrating, because when you’re depressed, it’s really hard to find the energy and motivation to keep trying.
I really hope you’re able to find something that works for you.