Head drugs

I was awake for almost 28 hours. I'm pretty sure I was up before five in the morning, and, of course, I wasn't able to fall asleep through the night. I tried, but it's hard to sleep while sitting on a chair that's just made for sitting down, surrounded by all those beeping sounds, and your eye still on the monitors, which have been screaming "respiratory apnea" for the past few hours.

We got into our private room at six in the morning, and even then I couldn't sleep. That time, I wasn't trying. I was just up. I'm don't think it's adrenaline. I didn't really spend time running around, save for that one convenience store run. (Was I even supposed to be out and about?) When we got settled I was thinking of getting breakfast - Shalla apparently was ordered to fast, never mind that the ER team said she can eat "anything" just a few hours before - and of getting some work done. I mean, I am in the midst of what is potentially - no, definitely - life-changing event, and I have the feeling I am going to be reprimanded for not being productive.

Should I get coffee? I decided against it. Then I remembered that I have not had coffee since breakfast from the day before, from before she sat beside me, asked for a kiss, and then admitted that she took almost all of her antidepressants.

I also remembered that I did not bring a pillow. There may be a makeshift bed, but there is no makeshift pillow.

I did fall asleep. It was half past eight, roughly, and by then I already had a heavy breakfast and sent some emails. There was nothing on the television, and, I told myself, little that I can do under the circumstances. I woke up just forty minutes later. Someone else was at the room. A doctor. A toxicologist. The guy that handled Shalla's case.

The conversation was as typical as you'd expect. In this case, that meant a bit of prying. Why did you decide to overdose on your antidepressants? He isn't a psychiatrist but I'm sure he gets a lot of these cases. My hunch was correct. He started talking about teenagers who also tried to do the same thing. I'm not sure if it's an all-in-one-go thing or if it's an I-feel-bad-so-maybe-I'll-pop-more thing. I don't remember the details. I was trying not to listen in. It felt like I wasn't supposed to.

But then the doctor noticed me trying to go back to sleep, and he asked if I was the boyfriend. Yes, I said, laughing awkwardly.

I couldn't fall asleep again, so I had to go through the realization that, again, he is a toxicologist, not a psychiatrist. I've had enough of people talking about how we should deal with stress by not thinking too much about things. I mean, I've been on one end of that that conversation many times. I talked about how stressful my work has been and all my father told me was to "not get stressed", which was frankly insulting. I'm sure that piece of advice was enough twenty years ago, but not anymore, not when so many people have talked about how important it is to "take care of yourself" and all that.

I'll remain skeptical of all these self-proclaimed "mental health advocates" - a part of me will always think there's a performative aspect to all this - but I'll give them credit for continuing to push that conversation about depression and anxiety, about how it's much more complicated than "feeling sad" or, worse, "seeking attention". Shalla has been diagnosed years ago - even before we met - and this is something I've had to entangle for almost nine years now. You know, the good days, the bad days, and the really bad days. Sometimes I think I have it myself as well, but that brings me to why I am skeptical about those so-called advocates: they talk about getting help, but it continues to be difficult to get help, not to mention prohibitively expensive for most people.

Some time last year Shalla got herself a free online appointment with the National Center for Mental Health. The queue was quite long. I think she got a thirty-minute session with a doctor at the beginning of this year. I remember being asked to join in for part of it. Rudimentary questions about how we're coping, what I'm doing. That's how she got her prescription for antidepressants. They're expensive.

After we got back from the hospital, she tried to get a second appointment. There really was supposed to be one - the doctor said "I hope to see you in a month" or something to that effect - but she somehow couldn't get in. The online form recognized her name and said that she's already confirmed the appointment, even if there isn't one. The line must be that long. Not surprising, considering the increased awareness, the added pressures of the pandemic, and the fact that the NCMH is offering their services for free, being a government-run facility and all.

One thing that struck me - apart from the online appointment system being for newcomers only, meaning Shalla didn't have a chance and would probably have to find another way to get that follow-up appointment - is the post we saw on NCMH's Facebook page about how you can get what they call a "free prescription" through the online appointment system. Right now that post is no longer online, but Shalla saw it, and I saw it, too.

Yes, that does sound irresponsible, and if the NCMH folk did take it down, then I'm glad they did. They should know, more than most, how mental health support is not just about the pills you take to blunt the whatever-it-is. But I can't help but recall the posts I've seen on socal media over the past few years, showing one day's dose of antidepressants. The hope, I believe, was to normalize the whole thing - that taking what we call "head drugs" is not something to be ashamed of, that some people do need these things to get through their days. I've seen it myself. There are days when Shalla would forget, and when she would remember, she would realize that it's why she's been feeling a little bit different than her new usual.

But hasn't that led to the impression that these antidepressants are the only answer to your bad days and your really bad days? Could that be the impression these teenagers are making? Are they deciding that, since it's been a really bad day, they can pop maybe two pills instead of one? Three instead of two? Maybe thirty-two?

Of course it isn't the only way. Of course it takes more than that to make things a little more manageable. It's also why these self-proclaimed advocates are also trying to normalize therapy, of talking about your problems with other people. It's why they talk about how we're not alone (even if we feel that way) and how they're willing to listen (even if, let's be honest, they really aren't). But medicines are more convenient than therapy, and easier to get than genuinely sympathetic friends and family. Not everybody has the money to plunk for sessions, nor the time, nor any idea where to go to. Not everybody is happy with "don't get stressed over what stresses you" as a piece of advice.

Clearly, there is a lot more to do. But then, it's easier to say strides have been made (and there are some) and leave it at that. It's easier to implore all of us to take care of ourselves, to take a break, to speak up when we're feeling down. But let's be honest - we're far from being the "village" that truly cares for each other. Not when we're more intent to show off how much better we are than the others. Not when we're more inclined to dig down on our beliefs rather than even attempt to understand why others think the way they do. Not when we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to watch out for others, by imploring everyone to simply look after themselves. Until then, most of this will just be for show - our saying we'll be there for when they need someone to talk to, and also, what we actually feel, or not feel.

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