Things have been great lately. Really, really great. It’s not an overstatement to say that 2015 has so far been one of the best years of my life. I’m watching my dreams come true, literally. You can almost see it on my face in this picture from my first author event. Since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be an author, and now I am one. I’ve written a book that I can hold in my hands, and it feels wonderful. People are buying this book and reading it and telling me in social media comments, emails, and old-fashioned handwritten letters how much it means to them.
We had a fantastic party this month at The Charleston Museum to celebrate the print release of the book, and it was everything I had dreamed it would be. My hair and makeup and dress were almost flawless, the balloons and decorations and food were nearly perfect (with a lot of help from my friends), and the over 40 people in attendance – from my friends’ 1-year-old twins to people I work with at the hospital to senior members of our church – all seemed to enjoy the festivities. I read selections from my book and signed dozens of copies. The day was a blur of joy. Some of the most important people in my life were there, friends who drove from hours away, my parents who came all the way from Kentucky, and one person I hadn’t even imagined being in attendance when I planned the party (because I hadn’t met him yet), my boyfriend – my kind, funny, brilliant, gorgeous, practically-perfect-in-every-way boyfriend. See what I mean? Dreams are coming true all over the place!
In the midst of all of this, the reasons I had started taking anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication a year ago were hard to remember. Things seemed so much better now. I felt so much happier, calmer, more focused and together than I was back then. So I decided that it would be a good time to stop taking the meds. Let me say this: I do not advise anyone to stop taking their medication unless directed by a doctor, and sometimes, even when it’s suggested by your doctor, it’s really not a good idea. My doctor had told me that after a year, she likes to take her patients off the SSRI temporarily to evaluate whether it’s still the right dosage, and still necessary. It sounded reasonable to me, and like I said, things were going unbelievably well, so why not?
As the doctor suggested, I began weaning myself off the meds gradually, taking a pill every other day instead of once a day as usual for a week or so. And for a while, it was fine. Once the bottle was empty, I didn’t renew the prescription right away. I knew the medicine would continue to affect my brain chemistry for a few days at least. And at first, I didn’t notice any change in the way I thought or behaved. But by the end of a week in which a lot was going on — a lot of good things, but still a lot — I began to feel like Lloyd Bridges in the movie Airplane. (If you’re younger than me, you might need to watch the clip to get that reference.)
It was the wrong week to quit. For starters, I’m not sure there is a “right” week to stop treating the symptoms of depression and anxiety, at least not for me at this point in my life. Depression is a disease; it doesn’t just go away because you feel better. With time and counseling and lifestyle changes, some people do find that they no longer need the medication, I know. It’s clear that that’s not me, at least not right now. Part of that may be because right now, there is too much happening in my life.
In seminary, I learned the word eucatastrophe. Most of us know what a catastrophe is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a terrible disaster; a violent and sudden change . . .” and more things along that line. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other books, coined the term eucatastrophe to mean an unexpected turn of events for the good, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears . . .” I think it was my pastoral care professor who told us about the power of eucatastrophe in people’s lives. While it is an undeniably good change, a eucatastrophe is still incredibly stressful and upsetting, which is not what most of us expect to feel when life takes a happy turn. What no one tells you is that when your dreams start coming true all at once, life suddenly looks very different, which is exhilarating, but also disorienting and downright terrifying.
The fear that built up in me over the course of a week off the medication was that I no longer knew how to manage my life. I told myself that I didn’t know how to be an author, how to be a “role model” (as my publisher told me I was) to all the people who were writing to me about how much my book meant to them, how to be a public figure of any sort, or how to be someone’s girlfriend. Driving to work one day, I had a panic attack for the first time in nearly a year. It seemed to hit, as they always do, out of “nowhere” and left me feeling shaken for the rest of the day. My thoughts were scattered. Trying to focus on one person talking to me in the middle of a crowded cafeteria filled with other conversations left me sweating and dizzy. All of these were warning signs.
I recognized that I needed to get back on my medication immediately, knowing that it would take several days for it to get back into my system and begin working on the serotonin levels in my brain again. I called my doctor, who agreed and refilled the prescription for me electronically. All I had to do was go to the pharmacy and pick it up. The fact that it took me most of my day off to accomplish this was another confirmation that I needed the medication. As I got out of bed and began thinking about every individual step I would need to go through in order to get to the pharmacy and obtain the medicine, the worst case scenario for every one of those steps was flashing through my mind. Before I even finished getting dressed, I was in the midst of another panic attack. I wanted to just go back to bed and hide from all the fears. Instead I prayed and meditated, visualized everything going well instead of badly, and reminded myself that at the end of this task, I would have the stuff that helped my brain function normally, so that in a few days’ time, such mundane tasks would no longer be paralyzing. I began crying, tears of both frustration that I am dependent on a daily pill and gratitude that such a simple little thing works so well for me, when others I know struggle to find what works for them.
Thank God for understanding doctors and good medicine, for patient friends and coworkers, for boyfriends who are trustworthy and caring, for playful and cuddly dogs. They have all been manifestations of grace to me these past couple of weeks. I’m nearly back to my “new normal,” with a renewed appreciation for the healing I’ve found in the past year and a reminder of what life was like before that. And I’m aware that I have to find ways to deal with my even-newer new normal, one in which I am an author and a girlfriend and some other things that maybe I don’t really know how to be just yet. But I can learn. When my brain is no longer expending all its energies on simply keeping the sadness and panic at bay, I’m a really good learner. And I have some pretty wonderful people in my corner.