Buspirone, to be precise. It’s a mild anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drug in the azapirone class, meaning it works on the neurotransmitter serotonin, but in a slightly different way from standard SSRIs like Prozac and Lexapro. I really thought I was done with medication, but two weeks ago, after meeting with my doctor, I agreed– after much hesitation– to give it a try.
Saying yes to medication wasn’t easy for me this time around. I’d tried a few different anxiety medications as a pre-teen when my panic attacks first hit, with little success, and had been essentially med-free since (excepting the first few weeks of a particularly dark time four months after my dad’s death, when my doctor prescribed as-needed Xanax to help release me from a seemingly endless cycle of panic attacks). Shortly before I left New York in May, I finally had the courage to throw the last of those pills away. Though I hadn’t taken one in nearly four years, just having the bottle around felt like a crutch I no longer wanted to rely on. I promised myself I was done with drugs; though I was still definitely struggling, I wanted to stick to healing myself through physical activity, diet, mindfulness, and formal meditation. I was proud of this decision, and felt like any extra discomfort on my part would be made worthwhile by the knowledge that I was living by my values.
By the end of the summer I was feeling pretty good, emotionally speaking, but was still having problems with dizziness and vertigo, which I’ve dealt with for several years. It’s a chicken-egg conundrum; Neither my doctor nor I can really tell if my dizziness is causing anxiety or being caused by it. I went to see a neurologist, who pronounced me fine, and thought that I should try treating my anxiety more aggressively before looking into other options like migraine drugs or allergy shots. At the time, I didn’t really think about the fact that her suggestion meant giving medication another try, so it came as rather a surprise when I got a call from my primary care doctor asking where she should call in a prescription. My initial reaction was to call off the whole thing, but– having spent the last year working on mindfulness– I decided it might be prudent to schedule a meeting with my doctor to discuss my options. Following this, I conferred with my mom and sister, and a couple of trusted friends.
Here is what I realized:
Often, when I don’t want to do something, my hesitation is based on fear; deciding whether or not my fear is legitimate, or at least worth paying attention to, is a big part of my mindful decision making process. I’m not against medication in general; I know it does great things for some people, and I completely respect those who choose to use anxiety medication and would love nothing more than to help eliminate the ridiculous stigma it still sometimes carries. Given that I have never had a problem with other people using medication, I wondered why I was so frustrated and angered by the prospect of ingesting it myself. After a bit of thought, I realized my anti-medication stance might be less of an evolved intellectual position, and more of a gut-level reflexive fear. It’s amazing how some of our highest ‘values’ are really driven, at their core, by simple, base instincts!
After attempting to think hard and honestly about my real reasons for not wanting to take medication, I came up with quite a mixed list. Some, ultimately, were legitimate and pretty well-founded: the research around anxiolytic drugs is mixed, I don’t really trust pharmaceutical companies, and the long-term effects of many of these medications is pretty unknown; some can be quite addictive. Yet some of my fears were uglier, trickier to articulate, and these were really the issues forming the core of my resistance: I was afraid of social stigma, of uncomfortable side-effects, afraid of feeling undefinably weird, afraid of ceding control of some part of my brain to a chemical I didn’t fully understand. Partially, it was an issue of control: taking a pill felt like a very passive solution to a problem that I felt I should solve with hard work and education. I didn’t want to hand over the reins. I really thought that taking a pill would turn me from an empowered individual working to make a better life for myself into a helpless victim.
These, I realized, were childhood fears, vestigial remnants of the mentality I had had when, as a terrified pre-adolescent new to anxiety, I was handed medication for the first time. It turns out, oddly enough, that I am not that scared child anymore. Taking a pill doesn’t mean I have to be passive, or that I need to drop everything else I’ve learned and cling to medication as my lifeline: I can use the years of self-discovery, of meditation and breathing exercises and research, to create a mindset conducive to allowing the medication to work for me in tandem with tools I’ve already learned. I realized that not giving medication a shot would be a decision coming from a closed-off place of fear as opposed to one of openness and strength. In my case, saying no to medication without trying it first would be just another way of succumbing to anxiety, allowing my mind to be closed by fear. Thus I decided to give this Buspirone a try.
I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of being on medication. I’m not a fan of Big Pharma, I don’t love that modern medicine still doesn’t really know how these drugs work (when they do, which isn’t always), and I still believe in the power of self-healing through other means. Also, quite honestly, taking a pill for anxiety makes me remember some pretty tough times in my life when I’ve really felt like I needed medication, and that mentality is one I’ve expended considerable time and effort moving beyond. However I’ve decided that, while I’m not 100% comfortable with medication, it has the potential to drastically improve my life, and to ease the burden on those around me. Also, I get to decide what kind of a medication-taker I’m going to be. I’m going into this with as much information as I can: I’ve done my research on Buspirone and am continuously learning as much as I can about what it’s theoretically up to inside my head. As a result of this, I haven’t fallen back into the kind of passive victim mentality I was afraid of. My best friend gave me a great metaphor when he asked me to consider thinking about medication as a dance partner: yes, it can assist me in doing things that I couldn’t otherwise accomplish, but have to do my part as well, or nothing will happen. I take a pill every day, but I don’t spend my life passively waiting to see if it helps. On the flip side, I try not to be hyper vigilant, falling into the trap of constant self-monitoring for symptoms or improvements. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, I can (under my doctor’s supervision) stop using it. In an effort to feel more engaged in my treatment plan, I’ve also set up a system of charts, based on my research into various anxiety scales and accompanied by a daily journal, so I can more objectively gauge the medication’s effect over a six week period. I still meditate and work out and dance and write and do yoga and try to eat mindfully and learn about alternative forms of treatment, and I think it’s possible that one day those things may be enough to give me the full and dimensional life I want. For now, I’m borrowing an Oliver Sacks-ian philosophy of life as a series of experiments and adventures.
How do you feel about medication? Do you currently take anything that you find to be particularly helpful? Share your story in the comments!
(Portrait of the bucolic bliss that is Marlboro, VT by yours truly. I am taking a semester off from Columbia to live with friends in Westminster, VT. I am incredibly grateful to live in such a beautiful place.)