On Medication and Dysthymia

By CHelsea ricchio

Originally posted on tumblr here on May 7th, 2014. 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week! It was just Mental Health Awareness Week in January, but maybe that was just around here. I feel like no one is more aware of mental health than me, but I like the idea that I could help share information and experiences with people who are not so aware.

Now that I’ve had the conversations I needed to have, I feel comfortable saying that I’ve been on medication for my depression since the beginning of March. I’m going to talk about my experience with it so far, because there are a LOT of pretty strong opinions out there. At least at my university, the most popular opinion by far is that medication is awful and pushed on everyone for no reason. And of course sometimes that’s completely true, and it really isn’t for everyone. I never thought it was for me and I resisted it for years. So I’m going to share my experience, because people should know that it’s not always a horror story, and some people just honestly want to know what it might be like. I know I did.

I’ve suspected that I had dysthymia since high school, but I was only diagnosed with it this year. Dysthymia is a form of low-grade depression that is chronic and lasts for many years. It can last for so long that people simply believe that it is who they are, and don’t realize that there is anything ‘different’ about them. This was the case for me. If you want a bit more info, the Wikipedia article is actually very good. I believe that my dysthymia has been following me around since elementary school, when I first started to dread going to school and had anxieties surrounding friendships – probably around the first or second grade. When I was in high school I was “triggered” into experiencing more severe depression due to a horrible breakup and subsequent bullying situation that resulted in the loss of many of the people who were closest to me.

I never wanted to be on medication. It was suggested to me when I was 17, and I refused, because I felt like medication should be a last resort, and I was 17 for goodness sake. I should have been in therapy at that point in my life, but there was no space for me and I couldn’t afford a private counsellor.

So I just dealt with it on my own, and for a while it did seem to get better, but eventually I realized that I had just become numb in a lot of ways. I was never truly happy. I never managed to pull myself out of that depression, I just pushed it down.

Fast forward a couple of years – I’m now nearly 20, and it’s the summer before my third year of university. Things are the same as they’ve always been for the past two years. I’m living with my new boyfriend in Toronto working a job I hate and generally bored out of my mind. Then something life changing happens.

I was in love with someone back in high school who loved me back, but did some not-so-great things and then left me for someone else. I didn’t think I would ever see him again, let alone form a relationship with him. I saw him at a few parties and realized that I was still in love with him. He told me that he’s sorry for high school and that if he didn’t mess that up, we would still be together now. He didn’t say he still loved me. He didn’t actually say much. But I looked at his eyes and they were so sad and said everything else. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve felt something right down to my core. It broke me out of the numbness that I had been feeling (or not feeling, rather) and pushed me into action.

I couldn’t just let that go. I broke up with my boyfriend and moved home. We “hung out” for several months and said all the right things and had such lovely plans for the future. The reason I’m saying all of this is because he was the ONLY person I have ever met who could break through the cloud that was constantly hanging over me. With him I didn’t have dysthymia. I was just me, the best possible version of myself. Knowing this in hindsight, it’s easy to see why I loved him so much.

But that didn’t last. “Perfection” fades, and as it did my depression returned stronger and stronger until everything screwed itself up again. The only thing that could make me happy was perfection – otherwise, nothing was good enough. After a while I could only see the bad and I couldn’t feel the good as much, and I nitpicked about things that in hindsight really didn’t matter. I couldn’t truly feel love, either for someone else or from someone else, and I wasn’t the best version of me any more.

What happened in the year that followed isn’t really important. It can be summed up by saying that I just kept getting worse and worse and that, left untreated and coupled with unfortunate social situations, led to  suicidal ideation and serious depressive episodes. This can happen in cases like mine, in which dysthymia is left untreated for a long time and triggering experiences keep happening. This is called double depression (also referenced in the Wiki article). I was a loose cannon. Even I couldn’t predict myself. Mid-February of 2014, at 21, I landed myself in the hospital for a night. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me, but luckily by the end of the month I got into the counselling centre at my university where I had previously been on the wait-list, where I saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with dysthymia and again suggested medication.

I was out of options. This truly was my last resort. So I said yes. I wasn’t really expecting it to work. But I had to know that I had tried everything.

But it did work. I am on 300mg of Wellbutrin, and I noticed a difference within the first two days. I can’t even express to you how shocked I was. Suddenly I had so much energy – I could get so much done in a day! Everything was sparkly and magical! I loved everyone! The downside to that was that for the first two weeks my sleeping was erratic and sometimes non-existent, and I’ll be honest, sometimes that was really hard and kind of ruined the sparkly magicalness.

Now, I still have trouble sleeping occasionally but it’s not as bad as it was. I only cry over serious things that are worth crying over. The effects and side effects have sort of tapered off now and they’re less extreme than they were initially, but I’m still happier overall. I still get sad, and unfortunately I have a lot to be sad about, but it doesn’t run my life. I can get upset about something and then just stop and move on if I need to. Unfortunately I never really noticed a change in my anxiety, but feeling less shitty all the time made it a little easier to manage. I’m more conscious of it, so when it’s affecting me I can tell myself that it’s the anxiety, not me or anything else.

I was scared that if I took medication, I wouldn’t be me any more. I was afraid I would become numb like before, and I wouldn’t be able to think as sharply as I do now. None of those things happened. True, sometimes I felt like I should be experiencing more emotion than I was, but I think that’s the depressive side of me fighting back, saying “No! Stop! Come back! You need to cry about the fact that all your peers are more successful than you and you’ll never get married! Where are you going?!” But 9 times out of 10, my body doesn’t listen to that voice. It distracts itself and forces me to distract my mind too. With more energy I was able to think more clearly, and I felt just like me, except a happy version. I am the best version of myself again, the person that I used to only be able to become with the help of someone else.

Now that I’m “better”, or at least conscious of my problems, I feel like I can express what dysthymia felt like for me compared to what other people feel on an average day. Most days, I felt like there was a constant cloud hanging over me and I was always afraid that it would rain. Sometimes I would be stuck in a thick fog, and I couldn’t see anything outside of myself. I was tired all the time. I was just a little “less” than all my peers in pretty much every way. The worst part of it was that I always jumped to the worst conclusion about everyone – partially because of my experiences as a teenager, but partially just…because. If someone wasn’t perfect and attentive all the time I just assumed they didn’t love me any more. I probably ended some relationships I shouldn’t have because of that, though I wasn’t entirely wrong.

I was so happy that it was so easy. I had finally found something. I am very lucky that the first medication I tried worked, and so quickly too. So far I have had the “picture perfect” experience with medication. That’s relatively rare, and I want people to know that it’s okay to try a few different medications and doses to find one that’s right for you, and it may turn out that it’s not right for you at all. Having the medication work felt like a validation for me. I had always thought that my depression was situational, and if my life would just suck less, I would be fine. However, since I responded so well and so quickly to the medication, it’s clear now that it was always chemical, though I was triggered by negative situations. I was going to be okay.

And then I realized how much I had screwed up my life. I was angry. I realized that a lot of it could have been avoided, had I just listened to the doctor when I was 17. It would have been so easy.

It was hard to accept that all of those years of suffering may have been unnecessary. I felt like I had wasted most of the years of my life up until now. It was even harder to accept that maybe I would still have been with the person I loved if I could have just felt a little more love and a little less anger, sadness, and insecurity.

And even now, would the people I loved be okay with me taking this medication? Would they still know it’s me? Would they always feel like I was sick or broken? Essentially, would they have the same fears that I did before? I still don’t know the answer to all of those questions. But I know that the few people who know that I’m on medication so far still love me, maybe more than before thanks to the fact that I’m a much nicer person to be around. Including the person who matters most, who told me even when I was 17 and terrified that if I made this choice I would always still be me.

As cheesy as it sounds, if I hadn’t gone through all of that I wouldn’t be who I am today. I focused on all of the good things that those painful years brought me. Maybe I wouldn’t know just how strong love can be. Maybe I wouldn’t have found my independence. Maybe I wouldn’t have accomplished the things I’ve accomplished now. Maybe I would still be a bird sitting in a cage, waiting for the other one to come home.

CHelsea ricchio

Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 22 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie and her roommate. 



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