I was twelve the first time I took psychiatric medication.
The weeks leading to my treatment blurred into a smear of insomnia and discontent. Sleepless nights opened with horror stories read by the greenish glow of my aquarium light. When the words wearied me, I contemplated my fish bumping about in a lidless sleep. I felt like them, eyes open, insensate. Sometimes, I slept before sunrise. Other times I drifted through school without rest, as if I was another person imitating myself. As sleepless nights piled up, my eyes sunk inward and my cheeks blossomed outward from stolen sweets. Mom sought remedies and plied me with hot baths, vitamins, and sprite mixed with increasing amounts of brandy. Nothing worked.
I don’t recall seeing a doctor, but the relief his prescription brought me is vivid. Orange, triangle-y Triavil tablets took away racing thoughts and unwound the knots that kept my eyes sprung open at night. When I woke, well-rested, the real me became less of a shadow each day. A week after my former chatty, semi-pesky self resurfaced, treatment ended. We brushed off the incident as if I a headache summarily banished by aspirin. Months later, insomnia crept back, but to a lesser degree. The family deemed sprite and brandy a good enough cure.
I returned to medication in my early teens. Although I forget what precipitated this bout of nervous exhaustion, I recall my distress over stopping the remedy. Filled with dread, I peered into the bottle as tablets vanished. Weeks, months, an eternity of insomnia, seemed inevitable. When I appealed for more medicine, Mom reminded me how Dad had been overprescribed Valium for a back injury. The agony of his withdrawal enfeebled him for months, reducing a strong man to a husk. “I don’t want that for you, Lori. Let’s get a steady sleep schedule settled, and your body will adjust.” Sleep hygiene is a respectable approach, but it does not always work. My insomnia converted from a headache with a cure to a character flaw to battle with 7:30 wakeups. I coped with bedtime tumblers of Almaden wine and stuffing dark socks under my door.
I stumbled down valleys of sleepless despair and imposter syndrome ruminations for a decade before my wellness collapsed. It was more than wide-awake nights or disembodied days. My ability to function beyond shuffling to our sagging couch to watch cop dramas had ended. I did not shower, brush my teeth, or leave the house. I saw doctors, though. Some branded me “neurotic” or quizzed me about my periods. One grey balding physician told me I had “serious problems that would take years to overcome.” No diagnosis, just judgement.
I fought against antidepressants, insisting, “But I don’t feel sad!” True. I didn’t feel anything. Except anxiety and exhaustion. My older self would like to explain to younger me that depression is not always sadness. Depression can be restive, obsessive, and agitated. Tired of aquarium light nights and stuporous disconnected days, I went back to my childhood doctor who suggested Paxil. In two weeks to the day, I woke up…happy. My legs wanted to move, smell brought me pleasure, and colors became glorious again. At last, I could sense my heart in my chest, not as an anchor but as a buoyant entity to propel me up out of bed and into the world.
In the next ten years, I played leapfrog with my meds. On again. Off again. Pregnant-me took no meds and was happier than ever. Postpartum-me needed a truck of Lexapro. Moving-to-New Hampshire me thrived on change and novelty. My-son-was-diagnosed-autistic me needed medication to cope with hordes of specialists and their conflicting advice. Eventually, I realized the only way to avoid forays into the sleepless abyss was to take medication every day. Sometimes I am happy, others sad, but I can function. I can sleep. I am present for my family.