I started taking Prozac in December because, quite frankly, I was in the midst of a “nervous breakdown.” This an old-school term that is no longer used in psychiatry, but I have yet to find another one that more accurately conveys the process of losing your marbles, so I’m bringing it back.
After a three-day Adderall stint (prescribed, for the record) to study for an exam last September and a particularly traumatic trip to Big Bend National Park (which is, in itself, a long story for another time), I found myself entangled in an Obsessive-Compulsive episode that, to this day five months later, has never really ended.
When I think back, I’ve had OCD tendencies for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I would save scraps of paper and plastic around the house in fear that bad men may come to murder my family and would only stop the attack if I provided them with an offering of sacred trash. I also was already convinced at eight years old by the Southern Baptist church that I was never a good enough Christian and was likely going to hell. I’ve gone to multiple doctors multiple times for illnesses I am absolutely convinced I have after hours of online research, only to be told time and time again that nothing is actually wrong with me.
If I start getting too voluptuous, I begin to hate myself, weigh myself multiple times a day, and actively restrict food until I end up binge eating. And when my cousin’s especially catty husband interrupted my brother and me cutting up at a bar with, “Okay that’s enough with the twincest,” it freaked. me. the fuck. out. My cousin’s husband is a true bitch and was likely acting out because he wasn’t the center of attention, but nevertheless, I contemplated endlessly about what I could have been doing that warranted his comment so that I could avoid ever doing it again.
OCD is like experiencing your own personal hell on repeat. But, for the most part, my OCD episodes wouldn’t last for more than a few minutes in the past; maybe a week, if my brain was in a particularly vulnerable state.
But this time, post-Adderall binge and Big Bend terror, was different. My brain was running around in a loop, constantly preoccupied with dying, having medical illnesses, hurting people against my will, and the other worst possible fears I could imagine, and I couldn’t seem to break away from it. I am convinced that the Adderall damaged my basal ganglia specifically (I have done EXTENSIVE research on it, of course), but I’m ultimately unsure if that’s the reality of what happened or if it’s just the hypochondriac part of my OCD.
I have scheduled an appointment with a neurologist just to check it out. The neurologist will probably tell me there is no obvious damage to my brain. Maybe I’ll believe it or maybe I’ll obsess about the quality of the diagnostic tools used and schedule an appointment with another neurologist. Or maybe, I contemplate, they’ll find that I have a brain tumor.
After this recent unraveling of my mental health started, I continued on a downward spiral. I was in a constant state of fear and would have several panic attacks per day. Even though I slept nine hours at night, I would be so exhausted that I needed another three-hour nap during the day. I preferred to quarantine myself in my apartment, and if I had to go anywhere I would start to get very irritable because my anxiety would be so bad that I needed to escape wherever I was immediately. I found myself frequently crying and trying to break up with my boyfriend who loves me unconditionally. I compulsively spent the majority of my days doing online research to try to figure out what was wrong with me, what caused it, and what the cure was.
An avid problem solver, I went to my regular therapist, who is amazing but is not an OCD specialist, and this unfortunately made things worse. I started going to an actual OCD specialist, and the homework of writing down my fears and reading them aloud was so anxiety-provoking that I was terrified of each appointment.
I meditated, did yoga, and listened to a Buddhist podcast every day. These were helpful for easing my mind but were only temporary solutions. I went to my doctor and got my B12, Vitamin D, folic acid, and thyroid checked (as abnormalities can affect your mental health). They were normal, surprise surprise, but I started taking supplements anyway.
OCD is like experiencing your own personal hell on repeat.
The list goes on and on. I tried everything short of medicinal psychedelics, which I seriously considered for a while because the research behind them is fascinatingly positive. But I was afraid that, since I was unable to find a medical setting to administer them, I would freak out during a trip with some shit I bought on the street and make things worse. Nothing was really helping, and I began to add killing myself into my rotating list of potential solutions because I was so miserable every second of every day that I knew I couldn’t exist like this for the rest of my life.
Out of fear that I would be committed to a psychiatric hospital, I made a safety plan with my boyfriend that if worst came to worst, I would just come live with him in New York. He would take care of me while I did an hour or two of personal assistant work for him and spent the rest of the day/my life hibernating in his apartment. True love, y’all.
I had held off on actual psychiatric medication at this point for a few reasons: 1) I didn’t want to be medicated for something I thought I could fix on my own through self-work and therapy 2) I knew medication was more of a Band-Aid than a cure, and I was afraid I would become dependent on it/it would be detrimental in the long run/it would turn me into a shell of myself, 3) I was very concerned about the potential side effects, especially the paradox of worsened depression and anxiety (Buddha knows I had enough), weight gain, and nonexistent sex drive.
But look, I told myself, when you’re off your fucking rocker, sometimes you have to bring in the big guns. All of the psychiatric providers in my area were booked for 6-8 weeks, so I decided my Primary Care Provider would be the fastest bet.
But how could I trust a PCP to make adequate psychiatric decisions? This was not their field.
Cue more online research.
After weeks of literature review, I decided on Luvox, an SSRI specifically tailored to OCD, and got a prescription from my doctor. Then, I never took it because, aside from having interactions with a lot of other meds, it can cause severe drowsiness. I was convinced I would become a zombie and be even less able to function in my day-to-day life. So, after more lit reviews, I decided on Prozac because it’s a tried and true drug that has a lot of research behind it, and my friends who are on it have found it to be very helpful with minimal side effects. I rolled up to my PCP and got another prescription.
For the first couple weeks, I was extremely nauseous and sleeping even more (which are common initial side effects). But then I began to gradually notice that I was starting to have days that weren’t absolutely insufferable. My energy was slowly increasing, and my depression and anxiety were slowly decreasing. I started to feel hopeful. Maybe life could be worth living. What an idea.
What really helped, though, was that therapy was becoming more tolerable. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the gold-standard for OCD, and writing down my worst fears and reading them aloud over and over and over again, although it seems counterintuitive, works like a miracle.
Our brains are hardwired to analyze things that we find threatening because this helps promote survival. But when you have a few screws loose like I do, problems can occur when this analysis becomes glued to irrational, but disturbing, fears and gets locked in overdrive, unable to break out of the cycle. That’s why repeated exposure helps. It desensitizes you to the fear so that your brain can get bored and move on to something else. It’s absolutely terrifying sometimes, but it works.
My energy was slowly increasing, and my depression and anxiety were slowly decreasing. I started to feel hopeful. Maybe life could be worth living. What an idea.
Some of the other things that come along with Prozac are curious. My best friend and boyfriend have nicknamed me a “Prozac Jumping Jack” because I have a newfound passion for organizing everything in my life and theirs. I have gone through our apartments like a tornado, getting rid of anything we don’t need anymore and putting everything else into an orderly fashion. I have revamped my skin care regimen, insisting that they join me in my nine-step routine when we’re spending time together. And I find great joy in having my shit together, such as fixing furniture that has been broken for two years, doing my homework ahead of time, and meal prep. I even do my BFF Bailey’s hair and makeup multiple times a week because it excites me to help her get her shit together, too.
I was a little concerned that my new activities were a part of the excessive perfectionism that can accompany OCD or maybe even hypomania that can occur with the boost in serotonin from SSRIs. But my therapist tells me it’s probably okay because I actually like to be a Prozac Jumping Jack, and it’s not caused by fear, creating more anxiety, or impairing my life. So I’m running with it.
The only thing that I still haven’t gotten used to is the vivid dreams. Lord, the vivid dreams. They’re extensive, and bizarre, and burned into my brain. Last night I dreamt that I had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital where Bailey came to visit me and took me on a day-trip to Target where two of my credit cards got declined. Then, I had a follow-up dream where I told Bailey that the whole previous incident had been a dream, but she didn’t believe me and convinced me that it was actually a true event. Finally, I woke up for real and was very confused but very relieved to be in my own bed, with no signs of a recent visit to the sanitarium or a negative bank account, bless my heart.
But, alas, I’ll deal with the dreams for now. I know the Prozac, in combination with therapy, is working because, eight weeks in, I am relatively comfortable living a functional life again. And I no longer want to kill myself, which is a statement I like to drop in casual conversation to open a dialogue about mental health and also to see how people react. They’re normally uneasy but generally supportive, saying things like, “Well, that’s always a good sign,” or, “Jesus Christ, Hannah,” or laughing awkwardly then launching into another topic.
So I’m still batshit crazy, but I’m slowly recovering from the abyss, and on my journey, I’m making friends, acquaintances, and strangers uncomfortably aware of mental health issues.
The modern woman really can do it all.
this post originally appeared on postgradproblems.com and is reprinted here with permission
top photo: Tom Varco/Wikimedia Commons
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