Growing up, my anxiety was like a cloud. Always there, mostly invisible to others, making everything a little bit more grey. For many years, I thought that everyone had one. I had always been taught that my brain was my most valuable possession. My brain was what made me good at solving puzzles at school and math problems in the car. I also assumed that it was what made me good at imagining an intricate plan by which a kidnapper could break into my room and being hyper aware of my surroundings to make sure I was fitting in. It never occurred to me that the good and bad could be disentangled from one another. I also could not imagine living without what I viewed as mechanisms to protect myself—mechanisms that I had meticulously curated over years of observing the world and its dangers. I experienced a great deal of pain because of these mechanisms, but I figured that happier people simply had better ones than I did. I carried great envy for those people. At the same time, I felt like I didn’t have time to question whether or not my experience was “normal.” I was conscious of a hollow place inside me, but instead of exploring it, I turned to other people in a frantic attempt to have them fill it for me.
When I got my acceptance letter to Bowdoin, I felt numb. I did not cry happy or sad tears. When the time came for my parents to leave on move-in day, I sobbed my eyes out in the Farley Field House bathroom between icebreakers. For me, moving to college and leaving behind the relationships and the safe place that I had constructed for myself seemed like the most terrifying thing that could possibly happen. I was incredibly naïve and blind to my privilege. I was also clinically depressed and anxious—facts that were not at all surprising to me or my loved ones, but which I had never acknowledged until a moment of desperation led me to visit a school counselor. I resisted therapy with my whole being. After all, there was a reason that I had refused formal help against my parents’ wishes for most of my adolescent life. When, after just a few conversations with a counselor, I received a diagnosis (generalized anxiety disorder) and a prescription (Zoloft), I remember feeling like I was giving up on myself and my struggle.
The space that self-care currently occupies at the forefront of pop culture has undoubtedly changed the discourse surrounding mental health in a positive way. Encouraging people—particularly young women—to love themselves and to carve out time to do so is an invaluable step toward eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Still, I’d argue that there is something restrictive about the premise that if you are struggling mentally, you merely need to slow down and spend more time with yourself. I wholeheartedly believe in the restorative power of that. But I have also experienced the biting feeling of failure when that form of self-care is simply not enough. Paradoxically, the trendiness of taking care of oneself emphasizes the importance of maintaining mental health while simultaneously reproducing specific boundaries within which it is acceptable to do so. Pills generally fall outside of those boundaries. And so it was with great hesitation and a twinge of guilt that I began to take one tiny pill each night before I slept.
Nearly two years later, I can sincerely say that beginning to treat my anxiety with medication is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is hard to put into words the joy that I feel from having discovered this tool that makes me feel so purely myself. People who have known me since my first year at Bowdoin have observed my transformation in real time—whether they know the reason for that change or not.
A trend that I have noticed in the conversations about mental illness that I have had both on and off of campus is the implication that people resort to medication as either a last resort or a copout. I have spoken with many people who have expressed discomfort at the belief that antidepressants can fundamentally change one’s personality. Needless to say, these conversations generally take place without the other people knowing that I am someone who has taken that option.
I am not a “different” person since beginning to take an antidepressant. I recognize myself as the same little girl who triple checked the locks on her bedroom windows every day. However, I now also recognize myself as the young woman who is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. I am me, minus the cloud, basking in the sunshine in a way I didn’t know I was capable of.
I do not write this article to inspire pity. I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have emerged from the dark tunnel of anxiety and depression. I write this with the hope of ending the silence around the use of medication to treat mental illness—on college campuses, yes, but also even before that stage in adolescents’ lives. I strongly believe that we (myself included) cannot claim to advocate for self-care until we recognize these as respectable options in the pursuit of mitigating psychological suffering. Medication was and is a brave choice, and the right choice, for me.
Meghan Parsons is a member of the Class of 2019.