Like most Penn students, I spent Fling partying outdoors in the sun. It was wonderful, but when I recounted my weekend to friends later in the week, there was a part of the story that I wanted to leave out. That Saturday morning, I went to a brunch mixer, and didn’t take the medications I normally take during breakfast. By the time I was watching Mask and Wig perform in the Quad, I started to shake. When my friends and I agreed to go home and nap in preparation for going out later that night, I found myself stiff and panicked on my couch, unable to sleep or breathe deeply. It was the early stages of a panic attack. Eventually, I remembered that my interrupted morning schedule had caused me to forget my anxiety medication. I downed a pill and a half, and I was feeling back to normal within the hour.
After Olivia Kong’s suicide, I have seen the Penn community come together in an impressive display. We are all living in fear that the next student that takes their life will be a friend, who takes some of our heart and our peace with them. So, we have spoken out, with many people sharing their personal stories of mental health issues. However, I can’t help but feel that our dialogue is missing a crucial piece. Though I have read a multitude of stories about Penn students reaching out for counseling after personal turmoil, the subject of psychiatric medication is a glaring omission. On weekends like Fling, it becomes abundantly clear to me that many Penn students are turning to the wrong substances to deal with their emotional issues. We are happy to use a steady flow of drugs and alcohol to relieve our stress, often to the point of blacking out, but resistant to the idea of looking into medication therapy to help us function.
I have suffered from anxiety since I was a tiny child. It reached a crisis point at the beginning of my senior year at Penn, after a stressful summer job. I found myself struggling to breathe often, my lungs feeling like they were in a vice grip every time I walked down Locust. My hands shook, my mind raced constantly and I felt ready to vomit at any point. I had at least one small panic attack a day. The physical discomfort became unbearable, and I reluctantly took action. The therapist assigned to me at CAPS was wonderful. I felt like I was talking to a friend rather than a counselor, and he had such creative ways of framing my issues. However, it became clear to both of us after a while that talk therapy was not enough to help me.
I was trembling when I sat down for my initial evaluation with the psychiatrist. If my sessions with the therapist were a coffee chat, this was a second-round interview. He was older and more clinical, taking continuous notes on a pad during our appointment. The only time his bespectacled face cracked a smile was when we got to the questions about my dealings with men, which are their own kind of comedy. He even probed into my neurotic house cleaning habits, only to realize that they stemmed from being raised in the South rather than a psychological disorder. When we finished talking, he wrote me a prescription for Lexapro that I filled within hours at CVS.
Though he spent quite a while describing how the drug would need to trickle into my system before taking effect, I could feel it within two days. A corset I had been wearing for years was loosened. My hands were still, and my breaths were longer and slower. The number of thoughts I had in a day was cut in half. My fear and nerves were quickly replaced by the regret that I had not done this sooner, that it took a crisis for me to value myself enough to turn to medication. Now, in the rare times that I have anxious thoughts, they are frequently about the fact that I cheated myself out of this peace for years by caving to stigma about psychiatric drugs. People tend to think of these medications in the extreme, conjuring mental images of the shuffling patients in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” We fail to realize that, like physical ailments, mental health issues exist on a spectrum. If we will take NyQuil for the flu so it doesn’t turn into pneumonia, why won’t we consider medicating for anxiety and depression before they turn into a breakdown?
From now on, I will not be a part of our campus’, and society’s, problem with psychiatric medication. I owe it to everyone whose pride has pushed them to suffer in silence. I will try my best to be as willing to talk to my friends about seeking medication therapy for their issues as I am to cajoling them into taking another shot with me. I will be open about the fact that my pills are a part of my personal chemistry. Every morning, I will take Singuliar for my asthma and allergies, and Lexapro so I can breathe.
ANSLEY BOLICK is a Penn graduate and a graduate student in the Perelman School of Medicine.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.