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As I was making my decision as to whether I should take medication to allay my symptoms of anxiety in 2012 I received two pieces of advice that stood as tent poles to my ultimate decision:

  1. From my medical doctor, “It sounds like this anxiety is disturbing your quality of life. If that is true, why not try the medication?”
  2. From the most influential psychologist in my life, June Hunt, “If you do decide to treat your anxiety with medication make sure to do it in conjunction with counseling so you can get to the root of the issues that are causing the anxiety. The medication can help your mind focus on what you need to discover.”

And so, with the help and advice of these and others in my life, I began to take Zoloft, as well as three doses of varying milligrams of Xanax throughout the day. Zoloft is a medication that does not fully take effect until week 8, so the Xanax was meant to give me some peace of mind until the Zoloft kicked in.  At 8 weeks I was able to wean off the Xanax entirely with relatively inconsequential added side effects.

I began taking both medications in the middle of January, 2013. Before and during the beginning of this journey I scoured the internet looking for any and all information I could find about Zoloft for the purposes of monitoring my own improvement—or lack thereof—and so I could be alerted to any negative side effects of the drug. For me, knowledge is power, always. For example, if I am sick and I am experiencing some symptom that seems out of the ordinary, I tend to focus on that symptom until I can find information as to why it is occurring. Once I know that the symptom is “normal” I can stop worrying about it and allow nature to run its course without the benefit of my overly attentive eye. I call this being a responsible patient. Others might call it paranoia. Still others might call it good ol’ fashion fear. Whatever the correct term, my watchful eye continued to scan the message boards for several weeks until I felt the medication begin to take its full effect.

I would like to provide two things throughout the remainder of this post:

  1. With the objective of offering hope to someone else who may be scouring the internet looking for answers to the question, “What can I expect when I begin taking Zoloft?” I would like to share my personal experience.
  2. There is a stigma related to depression and anxiety, as well as the medications that are meant to restore some semblance of normalcy to those who take them. I believe the stigma is born of a lack of understanding concerning the chemical results of stress in a person’s body and the general labeling of legal drug use to treat depression and anxiety as “weakness.” I would like to address the stigma.

Incidentally, I am in no way a doctor so everything I share here is based on my own personal experience, as well as the things I have learned from authors, doctors, other people who have walked similar paths to my own, and counselors.

When I first began taking the Zoloft/Xanax combination my anxiety was at an all time high. For me, anxiety during that time felt like fear, foreboding, a sense of impending doom, a complete loss of joy and a disconnectedness with the outside world. It also manifested itself in physical ways: wringing my hands, shaking my legs, twirling my hair with my fingers and not being able to sleep. These physical manifestations were not as debilitating as were the mental/emotional symptoms.

For example, there is a term I learned during this time called, “depersonalization.”  Before I learned this term, I described it as a feeling of watching the world from above myself. It was like walking through my day on autopilot: I was fully aware of my surroundings, in touch with my own five senses, thoughts and emotions but I also felt disconnected. It was as though being aware of myself and feeling connected to myself were two different things. As you may be able to anticipate simply by reading that description, I thought I was going crazy. I was happy to learn that this sense of “depersonalization” is a symptom of anxiety and it CAN be cured and it WILL go away with proper treatment of the anxiety itself. Remember, knowledge is power: once I realized that what I was experiencing was a recognized medical occurrence, I was able to let it go and not fixate on the way it made me feel. I have not experienced the feelings of depersonalization since February of 2013.

The physical effects I experienced as a result of taking Zoloft in the beginning included the following: fatigue, a vague sense of dizziness every now and then, I had a hard time coming up with words in the midst of conversations, I felt some unwarranted irritation and agitation with myself and others, and my appetite became substantially bigger. To combat these physical effects I worked out. And worked out. And worked out. I quickly found that if I could push through the fatigue to exercise, the discomfort I felt in exerting energy through the fatigue was far outweighed by the sense of overall calm I experienced at the end of my work outs.

So, there were days I can specifically remember when I would walk for 3 ½ miles and then begin running until I felt all of my “jitters” dissipate. Some days I would end up covering 8-10 miles.  Trust me when I say, I am not a runner. Running is to me what bath time is to cats. Even so, this level of physical activity truly released enough endorphins to balance my mind and bring a sense of stillness to my body so I ran like Forest Gump and managed to avoid any weight gain in spite of the ravenous hunger I experienced.

Some of the best advice I got in the beginning stages of my experience with Zoloft came from both my mom and my counselor, Ben. They both told me, at different times, to stop fighting the discomfort of anxiety and, instead, to lean into it. That sounds counter-intuitive, I know. Especially when you are used to steeling yourself against anxiety. However, what they taught me was that it was okay to feel anxious, it was okay when the medication made me feel “weird” or dizzy or tired . . . instead of fighting against it, which caused more tension and anxiety, I should simply listen to my body and respond to it’s signals.

Even 10 or 11 or 12 weeks into taking the medication there were days when I felt anxious. Normally, I would berate myself for being unable to control the feelings, feel disappointed that “this medication is not working,” and wonder, “is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?” This succession of thoughts and feelings would rapidly spiral into a dirty laundry pile on the floor of my brain and then I would douse the laundry in the anti-detergents of fear and a sense of hopelessness. However, once I really began to listen to mom and Ben’s advice—“lean into it, don’t fight it”—my approach to dealing with difficult moments or days took a different shape. Instead of falling down and rolling around in the dirty laundry of my mind I would recognize the initial discomfort. Stop. Acknowledge the discomfort and then make a CHOICE about how to face the discomfort.

Here is an example of how I handled these moments of discomfort BEFORE I learned to simply lean into them:

One afternoon, after I had been taking Zoloft for about three weeks, I was sitting at a Panera Bread restaurant in St. Louis with my husband and my mom. We were enjoying one another’s company and having a perfectly relaxed meal together when I began to feel a little dizzy. I also felt a little nauseous, which was a sensation I recognized as a side effect of the medication. My thought process was as follows:

I don’t feel well.

I bet this will get worse.

What if I faint?

What if I throw up right here at the table?

Act normal.

Why can’t I breathe normally?

Oh no, this medicine isn’t working.

I am going to be like this for the rest of my life.

I think I am going crazy.

Act normal.

I am becoming a burden to my family.

They have been patient with me for this long but their patience will run out.

Act normal.

I hope I don’t die.

I might die.

I will probably die.

Act normal.

As you can see, one physical sensation had the power to trigger all of these negative thoughts, which triggered negative emotions, which triggered extra tension in my body, which trapped oxygen in the tension I was creating, which caused a quick succession of anxiety and depression coupled with rolling around in dirty laundry right there in Panera Bread. Incidentally, my mom and husband walked me out to the car and that is when my mom first said, “Honey, how do you feel right now?”   To which I answered, “I feel like I need to lay down. I feel like I might pass out.” (I had never passed out in my life).  She replied simply, “Then lay down. I think you just need to listen to your body right now. If you feel like you need to lay down, lay down. Instead of fighting it, just lean into it.” And suddenly, with her words, I felt like I had permission to respond to my own body, instead of trying to control its every action and reaction.

Here is an example of how I handled these moments of discomfort AFTER I learned to simply lean into them:

I was teaching Public Speaking again during the spring semester, 2013. As I mentioned in a previous post, I felt compelled to quit my job teaching at the university in the city but I learned by reading Dr. David Carbonell’s book, Panic Attack Workbook: A Guided Program For Beating The Panic Trick, if I had quit my job anxiety would not only have won the battle but it could have won the war. So, there I was teaching again but this time I was working through the fog of Zoloft and Xanax. I kept reminding myself that “help is on the way” and that one day I would stop feeling the side effects and I would begin to simply feel better. One day that I remember particularly well, I was watching student speeches. I was sitting in the back of the room grading their presentations when I began to feel a physical trigger to having a panic attack: I felt a little dizzy and a little nauseous.  My thoughts were as follows:

Uh-oh.

Act normal.

What if I have a panic attack?

Will I be able to hide it?

Stop.

What am I feeling?

I feel nervous.

I feel my breath quickening.

I feel fear.

Well, okay.

I acknowledge all of these feelings.

I am just going to keep watching the rest of the speeches WITH these feelings.

And then, something wonderful happened. While I was leaning into the feelings, they began to dissipate. I learned in this moment, and in many moments similar to this one, that the negative sensations of anxiety would continue to surface. I learned that these feelings that used to trigger a quickly spiraling tornado of horrible thoughts, feelings and physical reactions were invitations to brace myself. I learned that I no longer needed to brace myself. Instead, I could sit down in the midst of the storm, be aware of the wind and the rain, the thunder and the lightning, and just keep listening to my students’ speeches. Sometimes I even felt the storm begin right in the middle of a lecture. Even then, I acknowledged the discomfort, focused on the lesson instead of my own present state and leaned into the wind.

There was a real sense of freedom I incurred during the most tumultuous time of side effects of taking Zoloft. It was the freedom of not feeling okay and realizing that it is okay not to feel okay. Really, it’s okay not to feel okay.  The world will not end if YOU don’t feel strong.  YOUR world will not even end if YOU don’t feel strong or “normal” or well or so illustrious that everyone wants to be you.  There is a reason you don’t feel well.  Use that discomfort to initiate a process of discovering why.

Taking medication to allay the effects of anxiety and depression, along with the use of cognitive behavioral skills (such as breathing properly and deciding to lean into the discomfort) absolutely helped me regain my life. In fact, going through the tumult of falling from grace in my own eyes and having to take medication to regain my sense of balance is an experience I would not trade now. This particular struggle taught me to see my own pride, it helped me tear down some of the protective walls I had built over so many years of trying to erect a perfect image, and it created a space for me to face some of the demons from which I had been running for years.

This struggle also gave me a deep compassion for anyone else who struggles with this two-headed beast. If you are currently involved in this struggle, please receive these words: anxiety and depression are not your identity. They are symptoms of something else that is buried within the laundry basket of your own mind. You absolutely CAN regain your own life back, one day at a time, if you face the anxiety and depression itself and seek help from a professional who can help you assess your current condition and set you on a better path.

God has a plan for you. And He IS in the midst of the storm with you. In fact, the Bible says in Psalms 34:18, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It also says in Jeremiah 29:11, “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Sometimes God uses difficult seasons such as I have described here to get you to the next level in your life: sometimes God uses difficulty and pain to shape you for the purpose He has for your future.

Next time I will explain how anxiety and fear almost stopped me from traveling to Auschwitz with Eva Kor in the summer of 2013.  Can you imagine?

Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: Treasury Today website

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