We’ve seen an uptick in suicide in the media lately, and the conversation around depression is suddenly on our minds. This month Nia Hampton muses on her own mental health issues.
I never liked taking antidepressants. They made me feel like a robot. They gave the world a false gloss, like those mall photos we used to take with our best friends back in the day. The ones where you get matching outfits and pose in front of some airbrushed backdrop; hip out, hands on knee, or if you were really cute you’re laying down on your belly holding your face in your hands like a dainty cherub. So much planning and preparation went into those wallet-sized pictures that serve as tangible reminders of the way you used to be.
For the brief 6 months I was taking antidepressants, I felt like a glossier version of myself. I lost weight. I woke up early every day. I managed to juggle a full social life, class schedule and internship. But there were weird moments. I couldn’t cry. I could only laugh. I was madly in love with this thin brown-skinned boy. All we’d ever really do was take naps together and listen to Frank Ocean. One day I was laying in his bed and he told me his mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I laughed. To this day, I don’t understand why I did that. We were both shocked in that moment, and he looked at me kind of quizzically but kept talking. I just got real quiet and tried my best be to present in the moment with him. Later that day, when I remembered how I giggled and felt embarrassed by my reaction, I laughed. Again. It was in that moment I realized that the medicine took away my ability to respond appropriately. It was like I could no longer comprehend sadness, so I just laughed at it.
This was a big problem for a self-labeled Sad Girl. I built so much of my personality around being sad. I was a brooding angsty poet for most of my high school career. My gift of empathy was what made me such an accepting friend, and I was really proud of that. As much as I felt it slowed my “success” down, prior to being on medication I was okay with being a depressive. I just needed a little help to get out of the episode I was in during that stressful spring semester.
Eventually, I would discover the thrill of drinking and mixing antidepressants. When I first got on the medication, my friends and I went to a club, and, not wanting to be sober at the club, I drank. I think it was only one cup really. But it was the most drunk I’ve ever felt, to this day. I was like a marionette that night. One minute, my hands were in the air and I was singing T-Pain like everyone else, and the next moment I was passed out for like 15 seconds. Then I was back in the middle of the party, laughing at myself. I drove myself home that night and passed out in my parked car. It was the first and last time I ever drove drunk, and yet another reminder that I had to get off antidepressants because there was no way I was going to be able to finish college sober. At the time, I felt that if I were to continue on my meds, I’d eventually end up friendless and deprived of classic drunken college nights. It was then that I decided I would stop, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get off them and be okay.
I never even wanted to take meds. Growing up in Baltimore, I witnessed what addiction does to people. It’s something I never wanted for myself. So when I was diagnosed with depression (the first time), I cried like a baby in the doctor’s office. I felt nothing but shame. I also felt a bit confused as to how someone like me could be depressed. What did I possibly have to be sad about? I was on scholarship at a great school, working and maintaining an internship, plus I was the scrum half for my rugby team, so I was in the best shape of my life. And yet, I cried non-stop for about a week straight before I dragged myself to a doctor’s office to talk to someone about a recurring thought I’d been having. I started wishing I could pause my life – just drop out for a while. Everything was loud and urgent and also so boring. I felt as if I was just going through the motions, which was weird because just a few months ago I was the most passionate person you could ever met. And then the crying started. I cried non-stop for almost a week before my mentor told me I had to go and seek professional help.
The stigma in communities of color surrounding mental health are infamous. Only white men with guns are allowed to be “crazy”. The rest of us are just dumb, weird, bad, or lazy. I’ve watched what my own family did to an older cousin who had a breakdown as a teenager, and I was determined not to end up like her. Yet I found myself in the psychiatrist’s office, teary eyed and making excuses about how I just can’t be crazy. My psychiatrist was a black woman and highly sympathetic. She gently offered that I try a small amount of medicine, which I did, and ultimately decided I didn’t want to continue with. Now, I am in no way recommending that a person follow my lead in discontinuing antidepressants. If they are working for you, stick to your professionally prescribed pills. But in my experience, they were a means to an end.
That summer, I was hired to teach sports to the Girls Scouts of Maryland at their sleep away camp in Conowingo, Maryland. We swam and sang and had glitter parties. I taught them archery and morning affirmations about self love. I cleaned mess halls and killed spiders. They conquered personal fears and climbed rock walls. They also cried for their parents and peed in theirs beds. We slept under the stars and hiked daily. And one day I threw out the remainder of my antidepressants. I woke up to to start my day with my morning ritual of peeing outside and taking my pills. But that morning I threw the remainder of my antidepressants into the grass, and haven’t really looked back.
It hasn’t been a cake walk. Just last year I had my second major breakdown, but this time I pursued talk therapy instead of medication, and the results have been interesting. The recovery period this time around has been longer and a lot more painful. There is no gloss over my life right now. If anything, I feel and see everything, and at times it’s incredibly bleak. But I feel stronger in who I am. I feel more accepting of myself, the good and bad in me. I see that nature is still the safest and most healing place for me to be. And luckily, I live next to the Gwynns Falls Trail, so I have access to a forest where I can just get lost in my own thoughts and cry without judgement. And I’ve been doing that lately. In the midst of an influx of suicides, sadness feels like the smoke before a fire. But it’s not. So please don’t treat me like my tears are a cry for help, when really it’s just a fucking cry. I reserve the right to be sad. I reserve the right to feel my emotions. I reserve the right to not want to will, fuck, work, twerk or self-medicate them away.
I’m learning that healing isn’t linear. At this point in my life, I’ve had various therapists, experimented with antidepressants, drank a hell of a lot of ayahuasca and received countless hours of reiki and acupuncture. And still, some days it’s really hard to get out of bed. And some days, I don’t actually get out of bed. There are periods of time when everything is okay and I’m full of energy. Other times, I’m full of energy and knocking out my to do list, and then suddenly my mood changes and I’m mourning my inability to cook for myself. It’s incredibly exhausting, but accepting my status as a “high-functioning” depressive feels like a step in the right direction. At the very least, I’m less ashamed of myself.