A lot has happened since I last updated. I’ve started my new job, and I do want to talk about that, but that will be another entry because I just finished the most amazing book. And I must review it. Also, sidebar, happy Mental Health Awareness Month AND Happy Foster Care Awareness Month!🙂
So, without further ado, I recently read a book called Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are by Katherine Sharpe. This book is a fascinating mix of personal memoir and sociological cross-section of America in the late 1980s through roughly 2012, though most hard numbers data is from 2005 or before. The author, Sharpe, was put on antidepressants for the first time at 18 and was on them more or less continuously for about ten years. She found that she personally experienced some existentialism in being put on medications so young and reached out to other people age 18-40 to ask about their responses to medications at a young age, their feelings about the medications then and now, and how they’ve adjusted into adulthood since, including whether they still take medications. She also talked with professionals to get their perspective and did her own research.
Phenomenal book. 5/5 stars, would recommend. It taught me a ton about the era in which I grew up. I could relate to a lot of this book.
I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder at 14 (then changed to bipolar by 15) and medicated more or less continuously from 14 to 22, and on and off from 22 to 25. Sometimes it was something I wanted. Sometimes it wasn’t. Especially 22-25, it was my choice, and that made a fairly significant difference for me. This book explored a lot of the issues that came up for me around medication. Like, who am I on meds vs off meds? Are the meds changing who I am? These issues, as Sharpe explains, are remarkably more common in adolescents and young people put on medications because the central issue of adolescence is “Who Am I?” To add meds into the mix – and Sharpe is crystal clear that some kids absolutely do need them – is to complicate that search for answers.
Sharpe also talks about the changing landscape of talk therapy, and the onerous impediments many insurance companies put in the way of getting good, long-term therapy. She talks about her own experiences, and eventually going off medications. She talks about others’ experiences who stayed with it. She talks about others’ experiences who didn’t stay with it and are doing well now without drugs. She talks about the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in medicating-for-life, and the changes in drug marketing with direct-to-consumer advertising (think the Zoloft/Prozac/Abilify/Seroquel/Cymbalta/etc. ads on TV).
And one thing that hit home so much for me was when she talked to her sample group (a convenience sample of people who answered her request) about what has changed now, and what they are doing now, with or without meds, many said over and over again that they just live healthier. They don’t socialize when they don’t want to. They make sure to get good sleep, even if it means leaving friends at the bar to be home by 10 or 11 at night. They eat better and exercise. And I couldn’t help but reflect on my own youth, when doctors again and again told me I needed to sleep better, that I was hurting myself by not sleeping, and again and again, I would tell them that it wasn’t fair and that I didn’t ask to be bipolar and that none of my friends had to get 8 hours of sleep (nevermind all teens should try for that…) and that I wasn’t going to make lifestyle changes because it just wasn’t fair. And I reflected on where I am now, when I do make sure I get at least 7 hours of sleep, if not 8, and I do make sure I eat relatively well and I do make sure I go for a walk pretty much every day. I set boundaries in my personal life and live healthily. And at 15, 16, 17, that felt like this death sentence to not be online until 3 in the morning. And at 26, it feels like self-care and peace and healthiness. And it just struck me that these same sentiments were playing out in other people interviewed in this book.
This book was really well done. My only real complaint is that it was very much from a white, privileged background. The author was white and, as far as I could tell, all of the participants were white. And that changes the dynamic. While she touched on 30% of all foster kids being on psychiatric medications, and many of them being on 3 or 4 or more, this book wasn’t the place to examine those issues because the sample was not former foster kids. So that is the only caveat, but if you’re interested in mental health in the 1980s-2000s, this is a good read anyway. And I will leave with some excerpts from the book.
“As our vocabulary for sadness, conflict, alienation, and exhaustion merges with the language of biomedical mental disorder, we lose the language of ordinary distress. The nonmedical words come to seem imprecise or old-fashioned. As it spreads, the new language breeds uncertainty, until almost any uncomfortable feeling comes to seem potentially abnormal. In our age, it has become increasingly hard to feel sad, angry, or overwhelmed – or have someone close to you feel that way – without wondering if you, or they, are sick.” – Sharpe, 2012