I was on a London train, strangely (I detest public transportation) when I felt the first antidepressant I’d ever been prescribed (Lexapro) kick in.
You know, the train isn’t so bad, is it? I thought to myself, twirling a lock of hair around my fingers, which were polished a pristine shade of pink, in order to fit my job’s required dress code (gag). I was working at a beauty counter at a world-famous, London-based department store at the time and we retail girls were held to high standards in the grooming department.
Nails had to be nude or pink, tights had to be black and opaque, feet had to be bound into stiff black leather heels. Every couple of hours I would pop paracetamol into my mouth in attempts to stave off the pain of those vicious pumps.
I gazed at an old, crinkly-faced man sitting across from me on the train. I found myself very much enjoying the structure of his tweed coat and fought back a bizarre urge to tell him so.
The train screeched to a halt.
I twirled off the train and galloped like a Clydesdale up the stairs as I ascended onto Oxford Street. It was a hideous November day, full of doom and gloom; a charcoal sky pregnant with rain refusing to be birthed. The kind of day where you can feel the clouds begging the gods to please set them free, their palpable heaviness so weighted us humans could feel the drag of it pushing against our sloping shoulders.
It was the kind of day where everyone walks with a hunch in the spine. Faces like sour lemons. Mouths closed like lockboxes.
On this particular day, the weather didn’t make me want to crawl in a hole and die like it usually did. It felt chic. It had the stylish, aloof, attitude of a fashionable woman adorned in an expensive trench coat and beaten up motorcycle boots.
As I skipped down the street, I noticed sparkly little fairy lights strung up across the storefronts.
Even though Christmas was over a month away, It suddenly felt as if the Christmas spirit was somehow holding itself hostage, in my body. As if Christmas was rushing through my veins in lieu of blood. As if there was nothing in the world to dread — only glorious things to look forward to. As if the mundane reality of my day-to-day existence was suddenly doused in glitter.
The shops shimmered. The frenzied tourists rushing through the streets high off the dopamine rush of a shopping trip shimmered. The apple red phone booths that neatly ear-mark the London streets shimmered. The fabulous gay boys wrapped up in their blanket scarves always shimmered but they were shimmering extra today.
Girls like me, en route to their retail jobs, shiny black heels in hand, beige uggs on sore feet, basking in their last moments of comfort and freedom before shackling themselves to wicked shoes and bright lights for the next eight hours, shimmered. And me and my fed-up-with-life shopgirls, we never shimmered.
My body rebelled against the cumbersome air and my feet felt Ballerina light as I made my way to the shop floor.
“You’re looking good today Barrie.” My no-nonsense Scottish boss, Fiona remarked, arms folded protectively over her heart.
“Thanks!” I practically sang. “Got any lipsticks that need sanitizing?”
I don’t know if you have experience with Scottish women like I do, so I’m going to tell you little something, something about ’em. A Scottish woman can smell bullshit from miles away. Fiona’s ice-blue eyes froze into me, accessing me, trying to figure out if I was high or drunk or simply overcompensating for a gnarly hangover.
However, I was none of those things (for once!), therefore was not “taking the piss” out of no-nonsense Fiona. My desire to sanitize lipsticks was genuine. My authentic positivity was confusing to her. She was used to me being the loveable hissing bitch. She raised a blonde eyebrow so high it kissed the ceiling, and let out a long, sigh. The sigh of a real woman with real responsibilities who can’t be bothered to waste her precious time, psychoanalyzing an American girl’s uncharacteristic mood swing.
“Alright, Barrie. Lipsticks are right under there.” She pointed to a giant cardboard box. I smiled and got to work. Oh, how I ADORE Fiona. Oh, how I ADORE SANITIZING FUCKING LIPSTICKS.
“All right, what’s going on here Barrie?” My best friend on the counter, D* asked eyeing me suspiciously. D was from Nottingham, the city where the movie Robinhood takes place, except if you’ve ever met anyone from Nottingham you know that a) they have a drastically different accent then the one depicted by Russell Crow, and b) they have a bullshit radar as strong as the Scotts. It’s like gaydar but for liars.
Fiona must’ve told D I was acting strangely and had sent her over to investigate the situation. (We were quite the family, my counter girls and I).
“What?” I asked beaming so big I felt the sunshine all the way from Southern California shine on my face.
D paused, and eyed me up and down as she often did. “Those new pills kicked in, then?” (English people always add a completely unnecessary “then” to the end of their sentences).
Suddenly it all made sense.
I had told D that I was starting SSRIs for the first time, just last week. “I used to take those. Stopped because it screwed up me sex drive. And I’m nothing without me sex drive.” D had confided. She had paused to examine an eyeliner pencil that looked too low and too haggard to hold court at our prestigious beauty counter.
“Thought it was a bit off that you didn’t smile as much as those American girls I met when I worked on that cruise ship. The girls from ‘FLAAARIDA.'” She attempted a Valley girl accent.
“Your American accent sucks,” I said because it did.
She’d socked me affectionately in the arm and we both returned to silently sharpening eyeliners.
That was exactly six days ago. And now I was grinning so big my face hurt as I sanitized fucking lipsticks.
“I guess they are! Holyshit, THEY ARE!” I could feel my eyes glimmering, perkily dancing around like a girl emerging from a bathroom after snorting a line of cocaine.
“Don’t smile so big, you’re going to scare off the rich bitches!” D, gestured toward a small group of wealthy Europeans, dripping in blood diamonds, eyeing our perfectly curated display of lip glosses, hungrily. “I got to get back to work. I need to make me money.” She sauntered away swinging her hips with confident salesgirl swagger, before turning to look at me. “Barrie?” Her dark eyes twinkled.
I waited for her to tell me the SSRI-induced happiness that I was experiencing was going to wear off soon or give me a sudden onset of diarrhea or make me frighteningly manic or something else equally awful.
Instead, she just smirked and purred “Put some bloody lipstick on. You look like you’re talking out of a slit.”
I nearly fell to the ground I laughed so hard. D loved to make fun of my white-girl-ness. In fact, if there is one thing I really miss about England, with or without Lexapro, it’s that: The freedom to tease and to be teased.
The next several months were more transformative than any other time in my life had ever been. It’s not that Lexapro made me feel high like, say, a narcotic would — I guess it was the mere relief of not being paralyzed by severe depression was so new, the ability to feel a sprinkle of joy gave me a buzz. I had a whole new lease on life!
“It’s as if the curtains were drawn shut for years and suddenly someone opened them and I’m seeing all this light for the first time ever!” I exclaimed to my best friend back in New York via Skype.
Where for so long, I had been too fatigued from the daily onslaught of impenetrable sadness to go after my dreams, I now had my ambition and drive back! After a few months, I was able to muster up the courage to leave that beauty counter job, which while I didn’t exactly hate it, I always knew it wasn’t what I was meant to do with my life.
Now I was ready to launch my career in the arts and do the kind of shit that lit me up.
“Wow, you look fantastic!” The doctor who had initially convinced me to try antidepressants in the first place marveled as I sat across from her, rosy-cheeked and smiley like a Southern cheerleader. I was hardly the same girl who had been dragged, kicking and screaming, into her office by a friend six months prior, whilst in the throes of an OCD flair-up so dire I couldn’t even look at the flower-print wallpaper that adorned the doctor’s office without fearing my skin would start crawling off my body.
“I feel SO MUCH BETTER THANK YOU!” I belted like I was in a community theatre production of “Annie.” I couldn’t help it. I wanted to sing my love of Lexapro from the highest rooftop in all of London, that’s how much it had turned my life around.
“Fabulous darling.” The doctor said. “Let’s double your dose.”
Why not take it to the next level?
Those first few years on the meds were pretty amazing. I began to build a life for myself. Without the acute anxiety and depression I’d struggled so deeply with for most of my life, I now felt like a functioning human being who could, like, get shit done.
I no longer had to be blackout drunk in order to socialize. While the fear of rejection still haunted me endlessly in my sleep, I didn’t let it stop me from going after the things I wanted anymore. I could send emails without hurdling down the tunnel of shame. I could make phone calls without inhaling twenty cigarettes whilst frantically pacing around my apartment like a crackhead jonesing for her next hit. I even quit smoking! And crack. (Just kidding. Crack is one of the few drugs I’ve actually never tried).
I felt like there was suddenly this soft mattress beneath me, like if I were to fall it didn’t matter because there was this safe, ~pillowy~ place to land. I even found the courage to get my ass in therapy and confront some dark shit from my past.
I no longer felt like this open sore skulking around, an ugly gaping wound that anything could work its way inside and infect.
But soon problems reared their pretty little heads.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: No high lasts forever. Not even a chemically induced Serotonin high.
At some point, I began to grow wistful and nostalgic for the honeymoon period I had initially had experienced on Lexapro. Now that I was accustomed to not waking up wanting to die every single day, the will to live didn’t feel so ~magical~ anymore. I got used to not being depressed.
And once I’m used to something, I become bored.
Let me preface this by saying I have an addictive personality. I always want to feel slightly altered. It’s why I’m drawn to extreme workouts and excessive shopping and falling in love. I worship euphoria. And when euphoria starts to walk away, as euphoria always does, I’ll kick off my heels, strap sneakers to my feet and chase her down and tackle her into the ground.
I do whatever I can to make euphoria my bitch by ordering that extra drink. That second helping of pasta. That extra glob of mascara. That one last time having sex with a toxic ex…
But Euphoria is no one’s bitch. She’s as free-spirited as they come. You can tie her to the bed and attempt to force into being your personal prisoner, but she’s a sharp as fuck woman who knows how to unshackle herself out of anywhere. She’s a one night stand that gives you mindblowing, earth-shattering sex only to slip out of your apartment the next morning, gone before you’ve even opened your eyes.
Fueled by the desperate hope to find a medication that made me feel so amazing I could fly up to the high heavens and hang out with the angels (the earth is so boring), I began to change up my meds all the time.
“It’s not working anymore!” I would whine to my perplexed psychiatrist who so wanted to help me feel normal.
He didn’t realize he was working with a girl that wanted better than normal. She wanted…Euphoria.
First, we tried upping the dose of Lexapro. Radio silence. Then we tried going old school and switched me over to Prozac. Prozac!
I could wax poetic on those first few weeks of Prozac. She made me feel incredible for quite some time. “I finally found the one!” I would blab to anyone who would listen. I became the unofficial Prozac ambassador for almost a year.
But soon Prozac stopped making me feel elated and I went back to feeling like blah ole’ Zara again. My feet sunk back into the earth and I longed to be suspended into the sky again. “I think I can do better.” I declared to the poor shrink. We shifted gears and began cruising down the Zoloft highway. We didn’t have chemistry, Zoloft and I.
I began going steady with Prozac again, at a higher dose this time. I experienced two weeks of bliss only to feel completely despondent.
We tried a sexy new drug called Vibryd. I held on to her promise of happiness for about ten days but completely lost my sex drive — and as D said to me all those years ago: “When I lose me sex drive, I lose me self.”
Then I asked out Celexa. I had high hopes for Celexa. But alas, she just left me feeling empty like all the rest of the bitches that came before her.
I guess you can say I treated pills like they were lovers.
I swiped for new pills like I was on Tinder.
And just like a true fuckboy, I kept holding out for something better. There were too many options. Why settle when there are so many options out there?
So many of my friends seemed to be frantically searching for a lover to “rescue” them. A high and mighty sex and dating writer, I informed them they had to learn how to “save themselves first.”
Yet, I was doing the same shit they were doing. Looking for a pill to anesthetize all the pain I felt.
Girls on pills. Girls on boys. Girls on girls. We’ve all got our ways of trying to escape, don’t we?
The day before New Year’s Eve, 2020, I went on a long silent walk in the New Jersey woods. The woods in New Jersey are powerful. They stand strong in beautiful rebellion in a culture that worships nail salons and diners. They’re resilient and when I don’t know what to do, I move through them, hoping to pick up on their staunch sense of self.
About fifteen minutes into my walk I began to hear shit. That’s what happens when you let yourself be quiet. When you don’t drown out your thoughts with podcasts and pop music and audio-books about murder.
This strong voice inside my head kept loudly repeating the same sentence, so many times it became a mantra.
You don’t need this shit right now. You’re ready to try life raw.
You don’t need this shit right now. You’re ready to try life raw.
You don’t need this shit right now. You’re ready to try life raw.
I emerged from the woods with the realization that while my pills had most definitely saved me from myself, and I likely would not be writing this long-winded essay had I never gone on them, I might not need them as my liferaft anymore.
Maybe, somewhere over the years, I’d learned how to swim on my own. I didn’t know. I don’t know.
All I know is that I was ready to find out. I am ready to find out.
I’ve begun to realize that in the last few years I haven’t been using antidepressants the way in which they’re meant to be used. They’re there to help you crawl out of a black hole of depression. They’re there to correct a biochemical imbalance you can not control.
A biochemical imbalance I’m not so sure I have, or ever did have.
Where does the line between biochemical imbalance and trauma-related depression begin and end? I don’t know. Can you have a biochemical depression for awhile, and can you grow out of it, the way some people grow out of a dairy allergy?
Again, I don’t know.
All I do know is I’ve been on these pills for a decade. And I’m only 32. That’s my entire twenties. I’ve never known life as an adult without an RX.
If you know me at all, you know that it’s not my intention to influence anyone to go off their antidepressants. I’m as pro-med as it gets. Antidepressants gave me my life back. They flipped the light switch on during a depression so dark I didn’t think I’d ever see the beauty in anything ever again.
But you know what I’m also pro? Brutal honesty.
Before anyone hounds me, allow me to state the facts: I’ve slowly weaned off my SSRIs with the assistance of my trusty doctor, and I’ve got friends around me, ready to catch me if I fall. I understand that I very well may fall. I very well may come to the realization that I’m a person who needs antidepressants. And if that’s the case, I won’t be ashamed.
That’s one issue (probably the only issue) I’ve never grappled with: I’ve never felt shame about taking an antidepressant. And I’ve felt shame about almost everything.
I’ve been SSRI free for about a month. Now that I don’t have that extra spike of serotonin I’m doing all the things I can do to keep my head above water: Walking in the New Jersey woods. Exposing myself to cold. Meditation. Work-outs. All that shit. But that’s not what this article is about. We’ll get into all that in another article for another day.
So far I’ve felt only one major change. I can’t stop crying. It’s not necessarily a sad cry, I’m just so moved by everything. I’m the open wound I used to be. Only hopefully this time, I’ll have the tools to stop myself from getting infected.
(Oh. And I’m hornier than an eighteen-year-old boy. That too).
My debut book GIRL STOP PASSING OUT IN YOUR MAKEUP: THE BAD GIRL’S GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR SHIT TOGETHER is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and BAM! If you send me a screenshot of your preorder, I’ll send you swag!