Women hold themselves to this standard where we’re supposed to be perfect. We all have our own image of what that should be, and it doesn’t involve taking psychiatric medication.
I’m walking up Lexington Avenue towards the subway on a cold Manhattan winter day from my psychiatrist’s office. It’s a route I’ve walked for five years, at varying frequencies, depending on the intensity of my mental health issues.
My doctor is warm and nurturing with a great sense of humor, and I always walk out her door with a smile on my face. But once I hit the street, my mood can quickly shift: frustrated that I need yet another medicine to achieve some semblance of normalcy or disappointed in myself that I can’t cope. I scan the faces of the crowds in busy Midtown. Can they tell I’m crazy? Do they see some vacant look in my eyes I can’t see? Or, conversely, I wonder about them: is she, that pulled-together woman over there, also buoyed by a bevy of psychiatric meds?
When I started an anti-depressant four years ago, I immediately started calling it my “crazy pill.” I want to say that’s just because I have a self-deprecating sense of humor, but that’s not the whole truth. Deep down, I thought it was because I was crazy.
But this time leaving her office was different. My doctor used the words “in recovery,” (probably not the first time she used the phrase) and something inside me shifted. Of course I’m in recovery. I suffered myriad traumas last year: losing my mom, my job, needing to give up my dog, and, hey, let’s throw a summer fling breakup in there for fun. Needing to take medicine to recover from emotional trauma should be the same as if I had been in a car accident and needed painkillers…right?
The word recovery resonated with me, and I finally internalized this: depression is a very real condition, and my doctor is treating me for it. I’ve written that depression can be like an emotional cancer—entirely pervasive and something that may go away. Or it may worsen.
On the outside, I pen essays, like this one, where I tell others that they should treat depression and other mental illness just as if it were any other disease. That it shouldn’t hold stigma. And I meant it…for them.
But why the double standard? Why would I be proud, even, to hear a friend was taking care of her health and taking antidepressants—but think that it made me crazy?
“Women hold themselves to this standard where we’re supposed to be ‘perfect,’” says Dr. Carly Snyder, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist. “We all have our own image of what that should be, and it doesn’t involve taking an antidepressant.”
In our culture, memes abound about wine being “mommy juice,” yet “there’s still stigma in trying to feel better in an appropriate way,” Snyder says. “’I’m seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder or depression’ becomes seen as ‘I couldn’t hack it on my own.’”
For me, I see others dealing with grief or job loss “better” than me, and I wonder what’s wrong with me. I’m doing all the “right” things: I ran the NYC Marathon (my seventh marathon) last year, I picked up personal training and yoga teaching certifications this year, and I have tried every last wellness trend known to woman in hopes that crystals, or maybe hypnosis, will be my magic bullet.
“We are in a really positive wellness kick right now [societally], and there’s a sense of ‘I didn’t do enough to help my mental health issues,’” says Snyder. Yet, “if someone were struggling with another disorder, a physical disorder, people wouldn’t say not to take care of it. Running is not going to get you out of a major depressive episode.” I constantly joke that if running a marathon isn’t enough to cure a depressive episode, maybe I just need to run an ultramarathon, but I know that’s not actually the answer.
But while a 50K isn’t the answer, it is important to care for our bodies to care for our brains, says Snyder. (In case you forgot—your brain is a part of your body!) “It’s important to give one’s self the leeway to not feel OK and realize it’s a process to feel better.” People with depression tend to see the world in black and white, and if you wake up every day and say: “I’ll feel better today,” then as soon as you don’t, it becomes a bad day, according to both Snyder and my own experience. “There has to be room for disappointment and some gray area—and allowance for time of healing. It’s not going to happen overnight in the presence of significant illness and trauma.” She likens it to a bad bruise: it can come on quickly but take a long time to go away.
If you’re already depressed though, that still sounds bleak. You want immediate gratification, right? Of course you do. Here’s the thing: we have control, and we’re not failures for having depression and anxiety. (Take a minute and write that down or say it out loud. Let it really sink in.)
You don’t have to let your mood disorder dictate your self-worth or how you see the world—things I was guilty of. I identified myself as a depressed person, I threw my hands up in the air and blamed depression for my behavior. Snyder says that “when we are depressed, we deprive ourselves: I don’t deserve to feel better, I don’t need to feel better. There’s this bleakness that comes in. You know in your heart that this is not what it feels like to live in your day-to-day life, but it becomes harder to see a way out.”
But you win, she says, by taking control—by going to therapy, by going to a psychiatrist, by not listening to that voice in your head that says you don’t deserve it.
And although I’ve been treated for years—through therapy, medication, hospitalization and myriad holistic approaches, some legit, some snake oil—it was only on that cold day that I finally internalized it, that I really believed I deserved to feel better, and that depression was an actual diagnosis I had that needed to be treated. I saw my psychiatrist as a partner in my recovery, rather than someone who held all the power to cure me via her prescription pad.
This realization took some of the power from the disease and allowed me to (eventually) reframe subsequent flares as just that, something that might happen to anyone with a chronic illness.