On Mental Illness, Medication, and Toxic Positivity

A few weeks ago, I made the difficult decision to start taking medication for my depression.

And already, one sentence into this post, I wonder - why is it a difficult decision? Why can't it just be a decision?

Generally speaking, I'm not Big Pharma's biggest fan. I tend to take the Hippie Lite approach to drugs, preferring natural supplements to medications - unless, of course, the things I'm trying to treat require something stronger.

If I have a headache that just won't quit, I take ibuprofen so I can function. If I experience painful heartburn, I chew on Tums rather than choose to suffer. If I have an infection that necessitates the use of antibiotics, I'll use them. And I don't think twice about any of it. None of this feels controversial or requires a days-long, nail-biting decision-making process.

Yet, when I began considering talking to my doctor about medication for the depression that's been following me around like some kind of incessantly codependent shadow for the last eighteen months, I felt...shame.

Why? When quality of life lingers somewhere between "meh" and "completely unbearable," why are there so many people who loudly and vehemently insist that no one should take antidepressants?

Because they carry a stigma. Because even though we're having more conversations about mental health, pervasive cultural messaging still exists that equates mental illness with weakness, laziness, and inadequacy. Because of the thing I tell myself whenever I consider anti-depressants: taking psych meds means I'm incapable of functioning the way I should, therefore I must be a failure.

And then...there's all the toxic positivity, too.

"Adjust your outlook!"

"Mind over matter!"

"Don't worry, be happy!"

"Choose happiness!"

"Make your mindset work for you!"

"Look on the bright side!"

"Good vibes only!"

On their own, there's nothing technically wrong with these statements. In the context of living with a debilitating mental illness, however, they venture into the realm of toxic positivity - an aggressively marketed and highly Instagramable mindset that frames positivity as Good and negativity as Bad, and perpetuates a broad and, frankly, ableist-as-fuck assumption that Being Positive will fix any situation, if only we Positive hard enough.

Toxic positivity is problematic because it diminishes the lived experiences of people with very valid struggles and silences any conversation relating to those struggles that isn't positively brimming over with hope and cheer. It makes it even harder to be authentic in discussions about mental health; if I tell someone honestly that I am not okay and my revelation is met with a barrage of platitudes about how I just need to Be More Positive (gee, thanks - why didn't I think of that??), I am much less likely to be forthcoming in the future. And the inability to openly and honestly discuss mental health struggles only increases the likelihood of isolation, loneliness, and even suicide.

For a long time, I bought into the messaging of toxic positivity. In my twenties, I came to the misguided conclusion that the major depressive disorder I'd been clinically diagnosed with at age fifteen wasn't real at all; I'd simply had a bad attitude. I told myself that if I had understood the concept of mindset work back then, I wouldn't have felt depressed at all!! I would have been fine!!! Great, even!!!!!! So adept was I at gaslighting myself out of my own experience that whenever I started to feel low (I refused to use the word depressed to describe my mood, because it was far too negative), I would berate myself for succumbing to yet another bad attitude. To counter it, I'd pretend even harder that I was Super Awesome and Totally Great - to my friends, to my family, and to myself. Good vibes only!!!

It was exhausting. I was living a lie. I was experiencing physical and emotional abuse from my intimate partner during that era, for crying out loud, and still I believed that allowing myself to feel sad or distressed or hurt about my circumstances was only evidence that I was a selfish, entitled, and ungrateful little brat with an attitude problem. I wish I could travel back in time, envelop my past self in the biggest bear hug imaginable, and tell her that her feelings didn't make her a bad person; they just made her human.

I've come a long way since then. These days, I acknowledge my mental illness. I honor it, and I make allowances for myself because of it. I'm much better at giving myself grace; I know now that my depression is an illness, just as tuberculosis or cancer or meningitis are illnesses, and I've learned how to recognize when I am Not Okay and utilize my resources for help. My list of self-care practices is a mile long, and I've implemented better work-life balance, effective routines, and healthy habits that take my mental illness into account.

These things have helped, to a certain degree, but they have not granted me the quality of life I desire. Still, requesting medication felt like throwing in the towel - like an admission that I'm simply not capable of coexisting with my mental illness. That it's bigger than me, and that I'm scared of what it can do to me when left unchecked. That's scary - especially when it's the truth.

I've thought about suicide more times in the last year than in the rest of my life put together. It wasn't that I had a specific desire to die; it was just that being alive wasn't doing it for me anymore. It was too hard. Everything was too hard: work, socializing, cooking, managing simple tasks, taking showers, remembering details, putting on pants, getting out of bed. When normal, everyday things seemed impossible, I'd think about being dead and feel comforted, because at least I knew there was a way out, should I ever choose to take it. At least it would be easier.

Since the beginning of 2019, my depression has been making my life extremely difficult at the best of times and completely unmanageable at the worst. Why should I feel shame for wanting to use medication to correct that? Why are there so many people out there who have told me in the past - and who will probably tell me in the future - that psych meds are the devil's concoction and all I need is a prescription to Cheer Up?

It's not as though I haven't tried to overcome my depression through alternative means. It always amazes me when others assume I haven't. People are always very quick to offer advice when they find out I live with depression - advice that ranges from the unrealistic ("Go skydiving! It'll get your adrenaline moving and give you a real appreciation for everything you have!") to the obvious ("You should probably talk to a therapist.") to the downright insulting ("Have you tried drinking water?" or "Just think happy thoughts!" are among the most cringe-worthy). What do these people think I've been doing all these years? For as long as I can remember, I've been devoted to trying to feel happier. There's not much I haven't tried.

I'll prove it. Behold, a comprehensive list of all the things I've pursued in the hopes of alleviating my depression, experiencing happiness, and making my life work:

  • Herbal remedies

  • Essential oils

  • Meditation

  • Acupuncture

  • Strength training

  • Bicycling

  • Yoga

  • Massage

  • Reiki

  • Access Bars therapy

  • Craniosacral therapy

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

  • Trauma healing

  • Past life healing

  • Journaling

  • Mindset work

  • Gratitude

  • Drinking water

  • Dietary shifts

  • Salt lamps

  • Crystal healing

  • Theta healing

  • Auric cleansing

  • Life coaching

  • Quitting caffeine

  • Drinking more caffeine

  • Getting up earlier

  • Sleeping in later

  • Taking naps

  • Practicing self-love

  • Affirmations

  • Visualizations

  • Mantras

  • Sage cleansing

  • Moon rituals

I've tried all these things, and I am exhausted. Sometimes they work for a while. Sometimes they make me feel marginally better - and when you're at rock bottom, even a marginal shift upward is a relief. But the reality of the situation, for the last year and a half, is that I have been on a relentless roller coaster ride...and I wanted off.

The way I saw it, there were two ways to exit: I could finally give in to my suicidal ideations, or I could resign myself to taking a pill and see if it helped.

I opted for the latter.

Last week, I experienced joy. I'd been at a small and socially distant outdoor gathering with a few friends; we'd sat six feet from one another on a grassy hilltop and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. I heard the crickets and watched the light reflecting off the lake below. I felt connected: to the world, to Mother Earth, and to the incredible women who sat on that hilltop with me. Driving home, I rolled the windows down and let the fresh air wash over my skin. And without warning, an unfamiliar-as-of-late emotion bubbled up within me: joy.

It began in my solar plexus and bloomed upward, escaping my mouth in a sound that was half laugh, half cry of relief. How I've missed you.

It was the first time I thought, "Heyyy...I think that pill is working."

Yesterday, my partner Paul and I undertook some cleaning projects. I've been meaning to get to this stuff for ages and simply haven't had the energy or motivation. As I was contentedly reorganizing the kitchen cabinets, matching up Tupperware containers with their lids, deep-cleaning the pet food and water bowls, and collecting items to donate, Paul looked at me incredulously.

"Where did all this energy come from?" he remarked. "I haven't seen you attack projects like this for quite a while."

It was the second time I thought, "Heyyy...I think that pill is working."

Living with severe depression never really feels to me like living - just surviving.

There are okay days. Days in which I can get out of bed, get dressed, brush my teeth. Days in which I can talk and laugh and interact with my clients and maybe even complete my to-do list. Days in which I don't have fleeting thoughts of suicide.

But I am no longer willing to settle for just okay.

I don't want to merely survive anymore.

I want to thrive.

Ten years ago, I would have gasped at my own audacity. How dare you think you deserve to experience ease, peace, and joy? Who do you think you are? How pearl-clutchingly hedonistic of you. Learn to be grateful for what you have.

But I have since had to ask myself this question: how bad does it have to get before I think I deserve to try and feel better?

Why shouldn't I try everything within my power to feel better?

Now that I've been on my medication for about a month, I feel lighter, freer, less weighted down. I used to feel that I was walking perilously close to the edge of a cliff, and the slightest breeze could threaten to blow me over the side. Now, thanks to my medication, the path I'm walking is much farther away from the cliff's edge; it would take a gale-force wind to cause me to plummet.

The relief is staggering. I feel alive - and for the first time in a long time, life is beautiful again.

I don't honestly know what the underlying point of this post is, other than, simply, to give permission.

Permission to take medication, if that's what you need.

Permission to want something better.

Permission to advocate for yourself.

Permission to trust yourself more than anyone who tries to tell you the best way to live in your mind and in your body.

And in case you need to hear this today...you're doing a great job.

Even if you're struggling. Even if you cried yourself to sleep and couldn't get out of bed this morning. Even if you feel like a complete and total Garbage Person. Wherever you're at in this moment, you are unique, beautiful, and worthy of love, and you're doing a great job at life. <3