The Bad Pill Kept Me From The Good Pill

by Bill Brenner on December 10, 2009

In a previous post I mentioned that I take medication for OCD: Prozac. It’s been extremely helpful, but it took a long time for me to even consider trying it. Here’s why:

Mood music:

As a kid sick much of the time with Chron’s Disease, I was often put on the maximum dose of a drug called Prednisone. The side effects were so horrific that I forever after resisted the idea of taking medication until I reached a point in my OCD treatment where I felt so desolate I was willing to try anything.

Prednisone does an excellent job of cooling down a Chron’s flare up. If not for the drug, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t be here right now. More than once the disease got so bad the doctor’s were talking about removing my colon and tossing it in the trash. Each time, the medication brought me back from the brink.

But there was a heavy price — literally and figuratively.

The drug quadrupled my appetite, which was already in overdrive because of the food restrictions imposed upon me during times of illness. It contributed mightily toward the binge eating disorder I wrote about a few posts back.

The drug also fueled vicious mood swings and introduced me to a lifetime of migraines, many of which were so bad I’d end up hunched over the toilet throwing my guts up.

So when I started to confront my mental disorder and specialists started talking about different medications available, I balked. In fact, I told one therapist to go screw.

I focused instead on building up an arsenal of coping mechanisms. That helped tremendously, but it wasn’t enough. I found myself against one final brick wall; one I couldn’t seem to punch through.

And still I resisted.

I had plenty of excuses. I knew many people who had gone on antidepressants and were still depressed most of the time. Some had gained weight — a problem I already had. I just didn’t see the point.

I also couldn’t shake the memory of a dear friend — a man who essentially became an older brother after my real older brother died in 1984 — who had been on medication for depression but ultimately committed suicide anyway. I walked away from that nightmare with the theory that antidepressants made people worse rather than better.

Finally, I resisted because the depression that often sprung from my OCD wasn’t the suicidal variety. Truth be told, I’ve never once considered taking my own life. It just never occurred to me. Mine is a depression in which I simply withdraw, saying little to people and spending as much time as possible on the couch zoning out in front of the TV. To me, medication was for people in far more serious condition.

And so I resisted until I was so desperate I was willing to consider anything, no matter how extreme or stupid.

After researching the various medications and consulting the doctors, I started taking Prozac in January 2007. The results were almost immediate.

I stopped re-spinning old anxieties in my head. I automatically stopped obsessing over things I couldn’t control, like the possibility that the plane I was on might crash en route to a business conference. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to experience all the things I used to fear.

I fell in love with travel. Work challenges became fun instead of something to dread. I finally became comfortable in my own skin.

The compulsive tendencies still surface on occasion. I still get batty over getting chores done. I still get bent out of shape if my sons use my desk and move a few trinkets out of place.

But the fear and anxiety went away in 2007, and haven’t returned. For that, I am grateful beyond words. Nothing robs a person blind quite like fear. You spend all your time hiding from all the beautiful aspects of life.

The medication also gave me the last little push I needed to stop living my work life in a way that was all about pleasing others and maintaining some imagined golden-boy image. By the time I moved over to CSO Magazine to be a senior editor, I was well past that sort of thing. While there, I’ve never had a problem speaking my mind, expressing ideas forcefully and simply enjoying the heck out of the work itself. I’m certainly lucky in that I work with a wonderful group of people. I truly like everyone I work with.

I did do some research on anti-depressant medication and found that there is an actual science to it all. I learned that while personal history is certainly a factor in the things that trigger mental disorder (a history of child abuse, for example), the root cause if often an imbalance in the fluids that direct traffic in the brain. The WebMD website explains it pretty well:

“One common theory is that depression is caused by an imbalance of naturally occurring substances in the brain and spinal cord … Major depression affects about 6.7% of the U.S. population over age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Everybody at one point or another will feel sadness as a reaction to loss, grief, or injured self-esteem, but clinical depression, called ‘major depressive disorder’ or ‘major depression’ by doctors, is a serious medical illness that needs professional diagnosis and treatment.”

It goes on to say that most anti-depressant medicines improve mood “by increasing the number of chemicals in the brain that pass messages between brain cells.” That’s a key point. Mental disorders that are often viewed as stereotypical insanity and craziness are rooted in a chemical imbalance. When the brain chemistry is out of whack, the thinking process is disrupted. In my case, side effects of that imbalance included compulsive behavior and the inability to move on from certain preoccupations.

A good example: In 2005, when I was still at the beginning stages of dealing with my OCD, the hype about bird flu started to circulate. There was endless talk about that strain evolving into a pandemic as deadly as the 1918 Spanish Flu; far worse than the H1N1 pandemic we are currently experiencing.

I spent the following months in blind, silent panic. I feared for my children. I scanned through three pages of Google News results per day to keep track of the bird flu deaths in Asia and elsewhere.

When I started taking Prozac, that sort of thing stopped.

Make no mistake: Medication does not turn us into uncaring, numb and slap-happy beings. I still worry when my kids get sick. I still worry when the economy tanks and layoffs occur all around me.

But instead of stewing over these things around the clock, to the point where I can focus on little else, I’m able to function and still enjoy the precious present despite the mental burdens of the day.

Medication isn’t for everyone. I have no doubt that a lot of people on antidepressants don’t need to be. But in my case, the diagnosis was dead on and the prescription has done wonders for me. Three years ago, the concept would have been absolutely absurd.

The ultimate lesson: If you are in the grips of mental illness and you face the prospect of going on medication, don’t be afraid.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Stevie Hemeon September 24, 2010 at 3:10 am

My wife used to cringe when I was put on Prednisone to tackle my severe gout attacks. I had the same side effets of the nasty anger I would unleash over any one who would push my buttons, though I would always apologize for my actions a day or 2 later after I was off the med becasue I blacked out when I went in to rage. As for the appitite it was tough to the point I would eat the family out of house and home. I amno longer on the meds because I am now on deialysis. Glad to see I wasnt the only one who had these same porblems.

Love October 10, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Bill I just recently (about a week and 1/2 ago) started taking Prozac for my OCD. I can say that I was very scared of taking any sort of medication but also am starting to realize that it is not that bad either.

Thank you for sharing your story here. I will for sure read more.

Audrey Clark June 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

prior to being medicated for depression-i got severely ill-w/ bi-polar…was not diagnosed until my 40s-thank god- i chose to take the meds-i still feel/im still me…but no longer morose/depressed-thank you for sharing your story bill….

Donna Runeric December 28, 2012 at 7:02 am

Hi Bill. I found your website this morning while googling ways to communicate with WBC and saw your post about the people who shielded the mourners from view of those incredible idiots. I went on to read about your journey to prozac. I don’t care what some of the rest of the world might say, prozac is absolutely necessary for some of us and wanted to also thank you for your science info. It’s interesting about the suicide angle. It seems that when it comes to suicide, our brains are either wired that way or not. Mine was, or is, I guess it always will be, but I’ve learned to control it as I’ve learned to control my alcoholism, but most of my family and friends are social drinkers and suicide is a totally foreign notion to them. Life is mysterious. But I can almost gaurantee; if I’d suffered from chrone’s disease (I’m 61) I’d have killed myself years ago. When I read your description, honestly, my suicidal mind said, “Oh, that would have off’d me by the time I was 14.” This is supposed to be amusing, though lots of people don’t see it that way. Sorry. Prozac and a warped sense of humor are two of the things that have kept me on this screwy planet. Anyway, I’m enjoying your blog.

Matthew B August 2, 2014 at 2:40 am

I enjoyed this chaps story above. I’m in a bad situation at the moment where ocd intrusive thoughts are controlling who I really am. It’s almost like a tick where every few minutes negative thoughts jump into my mind, like “your not real”, “this is just a dream”, “why bother, you’re going to die soon”. I also have disturbing thoughts about that I might go had and harm the people I love, or when I’m driving I get the thought of driving into incoming traffic. I don’t know what to believe any more with all these thoughts going on. I’ve tried clomipramine for about 6 months, but the side effects weren’t pleasant for me. It seemed to drain my energy and being a keen runner, it effected my times. Also, the sexual side effects weren’t great either. I’m seeing a psychiatrist again soon to see about meds/treatments and am kind of worried about going on prozac because about 18 months ago I had a nasty experience whilst being on sertraline for only three days. I hadn’t slept for three days and ended up hallucinating. It was a terrifying experience and most of my current ocd problems seem to stem from this episode. I believe prozac, like sertraline effect the ssri in your brain, hence the reason I am scared to take prozac. I wish I didn’t exist some days! What I have noticed is that my ocd thoughts almost go away in the evenings – could thus be because of the seretonin levels starting to be converted into melatonin? I wish there were some tests they could do on me to see if I have a chemical imbalance within and could treat me accordingly. I’m scared, depressed and feel totally numb. Most days I feel depersonalised and think I’m going mad. I emailed an ocd website with my problem, but even they failed to respond and get back to me. Help! Kind regards, Matt B.

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