It was the easiest decision I ever made. Easier than choosing a nail polish color. Like rolling off a log. A simple cry of "Uncle" and it’s done. Pour the vodka, open the amber bottle, and fill the left hand with the thirty little white pills. Open the mouth, shove them all in, and send them on their way down the gullet with the potent liquid. No thoughts. No worries. Feeling absolutely nothing.
Done, done, and done.
Although I took antidepressants religiously and repeatedly questioned my doctors as to their declining effect, psychotropic medications have taken me down an untenable path of confusion and failure—one that has driven me to examine where I went on February 25, 2009. That’s the date I downed an entire bottle of Xanax, not without the help of excessive pours of wine and vodka, and all with the hope of ending what appeared to be a perfect life.
Twenty years earlier…
I wait alone on the dark corner of Seventy-Ninth Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. I nudge my coat’s collar to my cheeks, wondering if the cross-town bus will arrive before the cold, March wind proves it the loser in the battle to keep me warm. A mental switch flips itself on, and suddenly I viscerally experience myself as if I am standing next to myself, feeling at once the actor and an audience member in the same movie. As the bus approaches, I envision meeting its front end head-on with a full body block. I stand frozen in my own private scene: the performer waiting for my cue to jump—the observer wondering if I actually will.
I cut to reality. The bus door flips open. In robotic motion, I ascend the steps, deposit the fare, and drop my heavy body into the nearest empty seat. We head across Central Park toward a friend’s apartment where I will spend the night alone, minding her cat.
That was the early 1990s. Despite my rising career in New York City advertising at that time, I had been sinking into an emotional pit for several years as I simultaneously worked a full-time job and raised our two young children with my husband, John. The frighteningly real bus stop fantasy, and the palpable feelings behind it, haunted me for weeks. A group of supportive friends with whom I shared the troubling scenario suggested I seek the help of a psychiatrist, who in turn diagnosed me with clinical depression and recommended an antidepressant medication. The subsequent first prescription of Zoloft aided and abetted my ability to regain a mental footing and fortified an emotional façade from my early forties throughout the following two decades.
Although I was glad to have relief from the strain of trying to keep it all together, the drug prescribed for me presented side effects that at the time seemed a small price to pay for my loftier goal of being alright in the eyes of the world. Initially, it assuaged my dark thoughts and laid an armored cloak over the deepening hopelessness, replacing it with a comfortable, impenetrable numbness. I became lulled into a false sense of being cured by the drug, strengthened by a misguided belief that all I had to do to sustain my mental health was remember to take the prescribed daily happy pill.
I grew from a sassy Size 8 to an unrecognizable Size 16—one of the medication’s many side effects. That fact only served to exacerbate my depression, lowering my self-esteem and obliterating any desire to maintain sexual intimacy in my marriage. The day I found myself relegated to the Women’s clothing racks, shuffling through sizes 1X, 2X, and 3X, only confirmed that I was no longer the former Miss Connecticut beauty pageant contestant with all the tricks of the beauty trade in my svelte hip pocket. I viewed the person in the dressing room mirror as a total stranger, disgusted with what peered back at me, longing for my former self, yet knowing in my heart she was gone forever. "Is this what happens when the girl becomes the woman?" I disdainfully asked myself. "Are we expected to leave our pretty selves behind in order to move forward in the process of living?"
With the added physical girth and lonely detachment from a healthy marital relationship, my energy and lust for life waned proportionately. Nothing made sense to me—not physically, mentally, or emotionally. Life’s ultimatums boiled down to this: if I didn’t take the antidepressant medication, I would not be able to hold down a job. I would fail my children and lose my marriage. I would not survive. Heavy body, heavy thoughts, heavy heart.
Had I been warned of the drug’s hideous side effects, I might have chosen to not take it, but on the other hand I really had no choice. By the time I awoke to the fact that Zoloft made me fat, I also knew it kept me on an even keel and I was too scared to try to live without it. My Catholic mother’s classic recommendation for any of life’s difficulties resurfaced: "Just offer it up for the souls in Purgatory, Martha." I wondered if the souls in Purgatory felt as depressed as I did on Earth, and if they’d ever pray for me if the shoe were on the other foot. Nevertheless, tolerating several other antidepressants’ side effects became my own personal cross to bear. The numbness the medications induced served to replace any normal emotions, making it easier to cope with life’s problems, but in the bargain they left me passionless. Eventually the drugs became ineffective, and unbeknownst to my primary care physician and myself, I tumbled down the treacherous rabbit hole.
The reality of my attempted suicide will never elude me. I live a guarded existence fully aware of how easy it was to step over life’s edge. I continue to ask myself the obvious, unrelenting questions that demand answers in order for me to go on living. How did I, a successful, ostensibly stable person, get so far away from a good life? Where did I go that February night in 2009? How did I even get there? How could I find my way back? Would I ever really get back to where I was—and did I even want to rejoin that place? And most important, because of my history with depression and how antidepressants affected me, was I ever really here in the first place?
© 2013 by Martha Rhodes. All Rights Reserved, Cover Photography by Paul McGuirk and Megan Lane.
The events described in this memoir are true. Some names have been replaced by pseudonyms in order to protect privacy, particularly those of medical personnel. This book is intended to reflect the life experiences of the author and in no way should it be considered to be medical advice, recommendations for treatment, or a replacement for medical care given by physicians or trained medical personnel. The author refers to and thereby endorses NeuroStar TMS Therapy® in this book because it was the only FDA-cleared transcranial magnetic therapy device available at the time of treatment and is an integral part of her story. This is by no means a promotional or advertising vehicle for NeuroStar TMS Therapy® nor does the author have any financial ties to Neuronetics, Inc.