I couldn’t stop them. No matter how hard I tried the thoughts filled my head in a torrent. The greater the fear the thought induced, the harder it was to rid from my mind. Earlier in the day I was just a normal, moody pubescent. Out of nowhere I had entered a special kind of hell.
I was in seventh grade and experiencing my first anxiety attack brought on by obsessive thinking caused by depression. Depression causes negative, sometimes downright terrifying thoughts that can easily get caught in a cycle or repetition that paralyzes you with anxiety and fear. Of course, at twelve years old I knew nothing about this. I knew something was wrong, but I had no resources for processing what was happening to me. Is this what happens when someone goes insane? I suffered alone for quite some time, living in a daze of deep anxiety and deeper shame. I was so scared of what may happen if anyone found out about these terrifying thoughts living in my mind. I had visions of cold, white rooms, cotton uniforms, and visits from family on weekends. I was certain that this was the end of my freedom. (Note that I now understand that psychiatric hospitals can be a very helpful form of treatment, but I was too young to understand this at the time).
Thankfully, after a particularly difficult night, I got the courage to try to explain the flood of scary thoughts to my mom. I decided that whatever happened next could not be worse than the debilitating thoughts that kept me from sleeping and left me grasping for a sense of my previously reality during the day. My mom did not completely understand what was happening, but she allayed one of my biggest fears: that I was crazy and no longer worthy of love. The compassion and tenderness shown by my mom when I told her kept me from sinking completely. Speaking the thoughts out loud helped me understand their absurdity. Their power over me lessened.
This was the beginning of my recurring cycles of obsessive negative thinking. It would happen sporadically during the remainder of my middle school years and into high school. Eventually my parents and I decided I should speak to a therapist. I had two sessions with a wonderfully kind woman who meant the best, but had some strange methods of treatment. In case you are wondering, tucking your thumbs into your hands to control your energy flow was not an effective way for relieving my anxiety. However, the therapist did give me the diagnosis I needed: I had low serotonin in my brain which was causing the two codependent conditions of anxiety and depression. No, I was not crazy. No, I was not unworthy of love. I was just low on a brain chemical. The unconventional therapist gave me the most important revelation of my life.
There is a lot of science to learn about serotonin, and I highly suggest you do research on it and how the brain and neurotransmitters work in general. Fascinating and life changing stuff. The most beneficial way for me to think of serotonin is as the comforting chemical. When someone with a normal level of serotonin has a scary or negative thought come into their mind, it is much easier for them to disregard the thought and move on. In someone like me with low levels, the thought can strike an anxiety and adrenaline inducing response that is only perpetuated by my inability to let the thought go. I cannot comfort myself out of the thought. I become paralyzed with anxiety.
A fun fact I learned after my diagnosis is that unbalanced brain chemicals is often caused by genetic factors and that members of both sides of my family have depression. Somewhere along the line someone forgot to mention this to me. Would have been A BIT helpful to know about during my years of coping with symptoms without a diagnosis. This was a lesson for me to not hide my depression and anxiety. I never wanted anyone else to feel as alone as I did.
A diagnosis is an important revelation, but it does not solve the problem. I read some books and learned helpful coping skills, but the thoughts still came. I knew why they were there, and that was a comfort, but I still couldn’t get rid of them easily. As my senior year of high school was starting to wind down, I realized that I would soon be off to college, living with these symptoms without my parents’ support. This seemed impossible. I didn’t see how I could handle being independent, which I so wanted to be. Medication was brought up by the unconventional therapist and my doctor, but the idea concerned me. I didn’t want to change my brain. Would I be the same person? Yet, at this turning point of my life I knew it was my last hope for being able to handle my symptoms without my parents around to comfort me. I needed to be able to comfort myself.
As my dad and I drove home from church one day, I got up the courage to tell him I wanted to start medication. My dad didn’t want me to take antidepressants for reasons that are his to tell, and I didn’t know how he would handle my decision. I was not surprised when he began to protest, but what did surprise mean were the tears that filled my eyes as I told him plainly that I could not live as I have been living when I am on my own in college. It simply would not work. I needed to at least give medication a shot. My dad stopped protesting and decided he would support me. I don’t know if he ever agreed with the decision, but my dad saw how badly I wanted to try so he stepped back and let me make this decision for myself. I will always be grateful.
Soon after the conversation with my dad, I started a small dose of an SSRI antidepressant. (Something I also encourage you to research). It did not take long for me to notice a difference. My depression and anxiety were not cured, but the edge had been taken off. It was much easier for me to keep myself from being swept away in the torrent of negative thoughts and I was still myself. I went to college a few months later, and while I still had a lot of work to do, I was able to prevent myself from having debilitating episodes of anxiety and to begin using practices to further manage symptoms. I had found the independence I was hoping for.
Note on antidepressants:
I understand that this is not everyone’s experience with antidepressants. I was very fortunate to find a medication right away that worked for me and that I did not need a large dose, thus preventing too many unpleasant side effects. I also know that there is debate in the medical community about the effectiveness of antidepressants. All I can tell you is what I have experienced. The only correct treatment for depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness is the one that works best for the individual. This is what has worked for me.