Hold the Pills

Medicating our emotions isn't always the answer.

photograph by Jcjgphotography | Dreamstime

I love November: Its chilly days, its Thanksgiving feast, its trees shedding leaves in glorious colors and patterns.

Call me strange, but I’m also touched by its gray skies and somber mood; they lead to reflections on the year that’s slipping past us. And 2012 has been a hard one for me, full of unwelcome changes and many a low moment — the kind that prompt countless Americans to seek refuge in pills.

In fact the stats are staggering. According to a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drug use since 1988 has increased by nearly 400 percent. And women are 2.5 times more likely to take these medications than men.

Do we rely too much on pharmaceutical crutches? Probably. Is Big Pharma pushing these meds for all they’re worth? You bet. But these aren’t the reasons I haven’t joined the mellow throng.

I know antidepressants can lift people from the depths, or keep them from sinking there. An anti-anxiety drug, according to people who have suggested I try one, puts a gentle buffer between them and the stresses of the day. God knows I could use a buffer or maybe a dozen. Still, I resist, and I’m gradually learning why.

My troubles involve an ailing husband. Age and diabetes have killed his kidneys and are wearing out his heart. He has survived numerous trips to the ER, frantic 911 calls, and seven hospitalizations, just in the past 10 months. Other woes have also weighed me down: chronic pain, friends in crisis, the death of precious pets, loved ones moving away, joys I once took for granted becoming relics of the past. Now and then I have felt such a rush of sorrow, it’s been all I could do to put forth a “normal” face.

Yet even on the most difficult days my husband has been steadfast. If he can meet the challenge of rebuilding his strength, I can meet my own — learning new skills, juggling new chores, communicating with health pros who seem to speak a foreign tongue. And my experiences, painful as they have been, are simply the stuff of life and no worse than those that millions of others endure. As we grow older and love more deeply, we cling to pleasures we know will pass.

What I've noticed too, rippling just below the surface, is another emotion that sometimes stops me in my tracks: pure and stunning joy for all that I have.

But what of those grappling with horrors that strike without warning, when death and heartbreak seem light-years away? A 5-year-old boy drowns on a family vacation. A young mother, hit by a drunk driver, lingers in a coma for months. A 25-year-old woman, just back from a mission trip, puts a bullet through her brain on a lovely September day. For their survivors, medication can be a mercy.

Just as it can for those plagued by mood swings, or panic attacks, or a lethargy that settles like doom. A friend described fighting like hell to “get to baseline” every morning, then sinking ever further as the day dragged on. For those, a medication, carefully prescribed and monitored, can stabilize emotions, calm fears, lift the cloud that darkens the soul.

What I have felt this year isn’t true depression. It’s sadness — along with fear and dread — and to me these are normal responses to how my life has changed. I’ll admit that some mornings, just before dawn, that dread can be all-consuming, but usually it dissipates as I move through the day.

What I’ve noticed too, rippling just below the surface, is another emotion that sometimes stops me in my tracks: pure and stunning joy for all that I have. Certainly for my husband who pushes toward a comeback. And for friends who prop me up, including several who are already widowed. Without pointing that out, they put my situation in clear perspective.

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps it’s true,“Some folks choose to be miserable.” But while I’ve indulged myself in a pity party or two, I don’t think the clinically depressed can choose how they feel. Medication and counseling keep their miseries at bay.

I, for now, am grateful for emotions. A pill might dull my joy as well as my sadness and dread. And the latter, along with the experiences of the past year, are teaching me what I’m made of. That’s a lesson I’m doing well to learn.

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