By Jamie Bornstein
(Originally published on Cognoscenti on September 9, 2013)
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.
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.
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.
Jamie Bornstein is the founder of Mental Health Safe Space. He lives in Sharon, MA with his wife and three children. He is the assistant director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.