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August 3, 2019

The Numbing of a Nation: Why Antidepressants are Not a one-size-fits-all Cure.


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My parents love the mantra, “Better living through chemistry.”

I get it. Their generation was the beneficiary of many technological advancements that we adopted into society before the impacts were truly understood. Plastics, processed foods, and breast implants spring to mind.

Just as with the case of those modern miracles, the invention of a pharmaceutical answer to every nagging question is also a huge quagmire we are only beginning to grasp.

My mom takes a lot of prescribed medication. So much so, in fact, that my brother-in-law nicknamed her, “Pills,” a few years back. Some of the medications are prescribed to handle the side effects of some of the other medications.

I’m a recovering alcoholic, so I have experience in trying to medicate away my pain.

Once, during a family discussion about my affliction, I raised my concern about my mother’s dependence on pharmaceuticals. I was rebuffed as acting like a know-it-all for questioning the treatment plans of highly trained medical professionals. I admit, my approach to the subject probably came across more as arrogance and less as concern, and I could have used some polish on my delivery. Besides, we were there to talk about my addiction, so I think I caught my family off guard by expressing concern for my mother.

As an alcoholic, I did what most people do when diagnosed with a deadly disease. I researched. I read clinical documents that explained how my body and brain chemistry were negatively impacted by my alcohol consumption, and I read the stories of alcoholics in recovery who fought to overcome my same tragic and prolific disease. Along the way, I learned that millions of people are both regular, consistent drinkers (depressant), and have been prescribed SSRIs (antidepressants).

It seems logical to me that if I’m engaged in an activity that is causing me harm, it is easier to disengage from that activity than to find a way to mask the effects. In the case of drinkers who take antidepressants, that logic appears to be elusive.

There are a lot of factors in my success in long-term sobriety. Here’s the one that tops the list: I quit drinking because my alcohol-induced debilitating despair reached the point where I no longer wanted to live, and in my haze of booze and depression I made the connection between the booze and my depression. If I had sought a prescription for an antidepressant, I am 100 percent certain I would still be an active alcoholic today.

My mom is no alcoholic. In fact, she didn’t drink at all during my formative years, and she drinks very little now. Her situation is different from mine, but there are similarities.

It seemed legitimate to me to ask this question: If some of her medication caused disrupted sleep, and as a result, she had to take sleep medication, shouldn’t we inquire about an alternate treatment that has no impact on sleep patterns? I wish I had worded the question in a less arrogant, less know-it-all kind of way. Maybe I just did (I love you, Mom!).

In addition to being a loud and proud alcoholic, I am also a politics junkie. I try to get my information and commentary from a variety of sources, and I have my favorites because they come across as straight shooters with less of an agenda. I watch Chris Wallace on Fox News, and I record and watch Anderson Cooper on CNN almost every night.

I was startled to hear Mr. Cooper’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness in an interview with Democratic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson on Thursday night. Mr. Cooper was challenging statements Ms. Williamson has made about the overuse of antidepressants to treat normal human despair, and Mr. Cooper, who suffers from the loss of his brother to suicide, was far more emotionally challenging than usual. Anderson Cooper is as good as it gets, and this interview remained (just barely) professional. But it speaks to the passion shared for a topic we rarely speak about.

I believe Anderson Cooper is right that properly prescribed antidepressant drugs save lives. Ms. Williamson believes that, too. I also agree with Marianne Williamson that antidepressants are overprescribed with catastrophic consequences, and I was shocked to see that Anderson Cooper seemed unaware of or unwilling to understand this second point.

In an article in Psychiatric Times from 2014, author Dr. Ronald W. Pies, who largely defends the volume of prescriptions for antidepressants, admits we have a problem with writing SSRI scripts too casually with insufficient evaluation time to treat everyday stress and sadness. He goes on to say that antidepressants are often misprescribed to treat bipolar disorder with harmful consequences. In a 2009 article in Psychology Today, author Dr. Christopher Lane reports on a study of nearly 700 adults prescribed antidepressants where 70 percent of the patients presented no medical need for the medication.

Just as plastic containers, chemical-laden frankenfood and fake boobs aren’t the Utopian creations we once believed them to be, pharmaceuticals are not always the cure for what ails us. Sometimes, we are supposed to be sad or sleep deprived or anxious, and when we numb that uncomfortable sensation, the results can be cataclysmic.

If we are suffering from the loss of a loved one, we’re not supposed to sleep well. If our marriage ends in divorce, sadness is a required part of the healing process. If work stress or challenges of parenting makes us anxious, that anxiety serves a natural and advantageous purpose to help us navigate the situation with attention and care.

And if alcohol consumption creates debilitating despair, the depression should serve as a spotlight on the source of our pain.

Sometimes, antidepressants are miraculous lifesavers. For that, I am eternally thankful. But sometimes, antidepressants are the participation trophies of adulthood numbing our emotions and preventing us from learning to process loss and grief and stress that’s supposed to be part of the human experience.

While writing this article, I learned of the death of 22-year-old Saoirse Kennedy Hill, granddaughter of Robert Kennedy. At the time of my submission to the editors, the cause of death had not yet been released, although Ms. Hill’s public battle with depression hung like a dark cloud over the family’s Cape Cod compound. I don’t know what took this young life, but if it wasn’t suicide or overdose, I will be more than a little bit surprised.

The serious nature of the mental health crisis we face is no longer in dispute. But the idea that antidepressants are a one-size-fits-all cure is as simplistic as trying to feed our hunger with Twinkies and macaroni and cheese, and quench our thirst with bottled water—all while refusing to accept the consequences. I don’t know about Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s experiences with antidepressants, if she had any. What I do know is that there is a lot of gray area, and the solution to one problem is often the cause of many others. I hope Ms. Kennedy’s life can serve as an amplifier to the growing volume of conversation about mental health.

If Anderson Cooper’s aggressive questioning draws our attention to the mental health crisis, I’m glad. If Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s pain draws our attention to the mental health crisis, it is a silver lining for a dark cloud of loss. If the addiction epidemic draws our attention to the mental health crisis because the line that separates addiction from mental illness is indistinguishable, that’s a good thing.

Make no mistake, there is nothing simple about this. The solutions to this crisis are complex and evolving, and universally numbing our emotions has catastrophic and unnatural ramifications.

Had I been prescribed antidepressants as an active alcoholic, the numbing of my emotions would have kept me drinking—stuck in an unfulfilled life with shattered relationships and a ravaged self-esteem. And that’s the best case scenario.

And if I had kept drinking, I’d probably be dead.

This is an emotional topic for Anderson Cooper and Marianne Williamson and the Kennedy family and most of us in one way or another. And before we develop our simplistic opinions and start insisting that there isn’t room for a variety of solutions to the most complex of problems, let’s remember the oceans full of plastic and the obesity and diabetes epidemics our advancements have left in their wake.

And before we ease the pain caused by one human invention with another human invention, let’s consider life lived in a natural state. Sometimes, the solution is less and not more, and the natural experience of human emotions is not only acceptable, but also necessary for health – both physical and mental.



If you are ready to explore life free from the toxins of alcohol, I hope you’ll read my free ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety and consider the elimination that saved my life during my mental health crisis.

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