“Cut Down on the Pharmaceuticals”

Unhelpful advice from a clueless man

I was glad for the distraction. My boss’s boss comes around my cluster of cubicles every few days to say “hi,” catch up, and toe the line of good taste. He’s one of those guys that think grazing the edge of politically incorrect at work is somehow “edgy” or “real,” as opposed to tired and cliché.

I talked with him and another coworker about haircuts and Ryan Reynolds and sitcoms for about ten minutes and then somehow the topic turned to whether America could ever return to a political landscape that didn’t reward the misbehavior and ignorance that is now our every news cycle. Kind of a thorny subject in the workplace.

“I took my antidepressants this morning,” I said. “But I’m not prepared to have that conversation this early.”

I didn’t have to bring up my antidepressants, but I try to be open about my history of mental illness. And maybe part of the reason it came out of my mouth was because of a conversation a few weeks ago. As I came back from running a lunchtime errand, the same boss’s boss asked why I had a fountain soda from the Target snack bar. I told the truth.

“Because I had to go pick up my antidepressants.” I get my prescriptions filled at Target, which means I get to go to Target more than is probably necessary.

“What do you have to be depressed about?” he asked.

I just smirked. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that response, but after seventeen years of varying levels of chronic depression and treatment, I could laugh to myself at such a predictable question. We exchanged bit more verbal repartee, but my honesty seemed to have shaken him. He’s used to being the one who makes other people uncomfortable. Which is why it was so satisfying to knock him off-balance.

So maybe that moment is what planted the joke* on my tongue. Maybe after a few of his borderline misogynistic comments I just wanted to make him squirm a bit.

*And it was a joke. Although world events — like any event — can affect mental health, it’s a lot more complicated than “America is a flaming dumpster, therefore I am depressed.”

“What you need to do,” he said. “Is go for a run at lunch, get those endorphins going.”

“I do both,” I said, glancing at my gym bag, which sat about three feet away from him. Exercise is a big part of how I manage my mood. But I’m not about to quit the cocktail of drugs that help me keep from descending into a miserable stupor.

“Endorphins are better than chemicals,” my boss’s boss said, missing his own joke. He was moving toward the door. “Cut back on the pharmaceuticals.” Then he slipped out the heavy office door and into the hallway that leads to the elevator.

I debated having a word with him. I thought of who else might have overheard us. I wondered if he’d said this to anyone else. Because that’s what worried me.

The offhand (if ignorant) remark of a guy I barely know doesn’t shake me. But that’s because I’m lucky, fortunate, privileged — whatever you want to call it. I’m fortunate enough to have lived through three debilitating periods of major depression, which is arguably the most socially acceptable mental illness. I’ve been hospitalized and medicated. I’ve had a parade of therapists and psychiatrists — some helpful, some not. I’ve weaned myself off medication and suffered the consequences. I’ve told people about my history, written about it, and even questioned whether I still qualify as “mentally ill.” I’ve had seventeen years to figure out what it means to live with mental illness. I know what I’m dealing with.

But there might be someone in my office who is not so sure. Someone who has thought about getting treatment but keeps convincing themselves that it’s not that bad. Or someone who had to seek treatment in the last few years, but still doesn’t know how much their illness will affect their life. Or maybe one of my coworkers has a loved one who’s struggling and they’ve been wondering whether to suggest a mental health professional. And they probably don’t need another person minimizing the issue.

Part of what makes mental illness so challenging and confusing is all the people telling us it’s not really a problem. From wisdom such as “smile more” or “snap out of it” to advice to ask God for relief or to just go for a run, we hear all the time that mental illness isn’t serious, that it’s a choice. Which is seriously annoying because the implication is that we’re just not trying hard enough or we’re weak or lazy or we’re turning to drugs for an easy solution.

Sidenote: Psychiatric drugs are anything but simple. There isn’t just a depression drug, a psychosis drug , and an anxiety drug. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of drugs that affect a slew of neurotransmitters in all kinds of ways. And here’s something extra fun — they affect people differently. A drug that lessons one person’s symptoms might not work on another patient. Oh! Another big kicker — sometimes drugs that have helped your brain chemistry maintain an equilibrium and allows you to live your life will just stop working for you. I’m don’t mind an easy solution, but medication ain’t it.

People who don’t know what they’re talking about but insist on giving misguided advice are essentially gaslighting us into thinking that a real, demonstrable, and debilitating illness isn’t really a big deal.

I might still have this conversation with my boss’s boss if the opportunity comes up, but in the meantime, I’ll offer these rules of thumb.

1. Don’t tell people to change or stop taking their medication.

2. Don’t simplify mental illness to a matter of lifestyle choices.

3. Don’t presume to know more about someone’s health than they do.

And here are some rules of thumb for me.

1. Speak up when someone says something ignorant or damaging. A lot of people feel like they can’t.

2. Be patient when you can. Most people do not intend harm.

3. Remember that mentioning your illness or medication can lead to these cringeworthy moments.

4. Do it anyway.

Writer, musician, improvisor, recovering pessimist.

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