Off the Meds: How I’m Coping With Anxiety and Depression

I’ve had anxiety and depression my entire life. No tragic event triggered any of my issues; it’s just how my brain is wired. Always has been. When I turned eighteen, I started getting “help”, though the regimen of one prescription after another never provided much relief. I spent most of my adult life medicated, trying out more prescriptions than I care to admit.  At one point, I was on four anti-anxiety/antidepressants at once. I had four mood-altering drugs floating through my system, and I still couldn’t deal with the day-to-day stresses of life.

I’m better these days, but I am having an “episode” right now. It started yesterday in a class I’m taking, where the instructor is expecting advanced-level work from beginner students. I’m incapable of producing the kind of product she’s assigned (I think most of the students in class are in the same boat), and I’m afraid I might fail the course. Not for lack of effort, but for lack of skill.

It started as a tension headache at the base of my skull and migrated to the front of my head. By the time I got home, it had turned into a full blown migraine. I became nauseated, and my thoughts started spinning so fast, I got dizzy. Then another trigger. And another. Before I knew it, I had five or six issues pressing down on me, all unsolvable, all requiring my immediate attention.

I shut down. The pain, the nausea, the anxiety. I couldn’t deal, so I went to bed. At 5:30 in the evening.

I’m up today, and while the headache is still lingering, throbbing dully on the top of my scalp, I’m coping. I’m coping because I noticed something. I noticed the throbbing sensation in my head, and I am letting it throb. I noticed the tightness in my chest every time I think about one of the unsolvable issues I need to solve. And I’m letting it be.

I noticed I feel overwhelmed. I noticed the tears that threaten to spill every time someone asks me what’s wrong. I recognize all these reactions my body has to stress, and I’m not trying to get rid of them. I will ride this out, because eventually, it will go away. Eventually, I’ll either solve the unsolvable, or I won’t. This class will end, and I’ll either pass or fail. But if I fail it won’t be because I didn’t try. And I won’t die. My life won’t end if I get an F.

I’m noticing. Acknowledging. Accepting. And I’m sitting here, staring bleary-eyed through my headache at the computer screen because I’m able to do these things: notice, accept, acknowledge. It wasn’t easy to get to this point where I can acknowledge and accept the things my brain and body do when I’m stressed. Six years ago, if I were feeling what I’m feeling now, I’d be in bed wondering why the medications weren’t helping and berating myself for being weak.

I’ve been off the meds for almost five years now, and I owe it all to a friend of mine who pointed me toward a certain kind of therapy. It’s called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’m not running an ad for this. The creators of the therapy aren’t paying me or anything. I just wanted to share some information because it worked for me, and maybe it can work for someone else too.

I’m writing about this because I’m having an episode right now. And because I recognize how I’m handling it. And it made me think about everything I’ve gone through, and how different I am now than I was six years ago.

ACT uses mindfulness and visualizations to essentially rewire your way of thinking. That’s how it feels to me, anyway. Like my brain has changed. I won’t get into all the details because this post is already way longer than I intended. But if you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, I encourage you to look it up. Search for a therapist who practices ACT. At the very least, you should read the The Happiness Trap: How To Stop Struggling and Start Living.

The Happiness Trap breaks it all down into exercises that walk you through the concept of ACT. I’m not saying this book will change your life. But it’s a start. I read it while I was going through the program with a therapist, so I can’t even say the book changed my life. But it definitely helped reinforce what I learned in therapy.

I’m nauseated and trembling a bit just thinking about hitting the publish button on this post. It didn’t turn out nearly as eloquent as I’d hoped it would be, but it did help me cope to type it all out. Hopefully it might help someone else who is struggling. Mental health should be openly discussed like any other health issue, so I’m going go to hit that publish button now before I change my mind.