Do you suffer from anxiety? It’s a simple question posed on medical, dental and insurance forms. My answer was always no. An anxiety sufferer eschews confrontation, is unable to handle everyday tasks, and nervously bites his nails. His eyes dart left to right looking to unleash a fight-or-flight response on an unsuspecting person or text message. Not me.
I was not suffering from anxiety. Even as a trader on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, anxious feelings only overtook me every year or two. This is normal in stressful times. An elevated heart rate and shortness of breath are natural reactions to modern life that should be spot-treated like a cough suppressant for a cold.
I’d pop over to my GP and casually deliver symptoms that engendered a reliable response: alprazolam and zolpidem. This is how I navigated rough spots, and when life got back to normal, I stopped taking the medication. I was responsibly treating myself.
Ironically, it was a career change away from the fast-paced, high-stakes world of energy trading in New York City to slower-paced work for the federal government in Washington, D.C. that catalyzed a comprehensive reframing of my ailment. Navigating horrific temporary housing and an unfamiliar, political workplace dynamic without my usual support network sent me rushing to my doctor.
I repeated the usual dance but as ink hit prescription paper, the doctor gently confronted me, “I understand you’re in pain, and this will help, but you know as well as I do that it will not address the underlying problem.” He suggested talk therapy and antidepressants.
Antidepressants. SSRIs. Rose-colored glasses. A white flag waved high in the air while you skulk away from reality. The blue pill. No thank you. The chemicals and synaptic arrangements constituting the person I am felt sacred to me. By my early 20s, I had achieved such a hard fought victory to like myself that it was unthinkable, even treasonous, to soften the edges of my personality to ease the day-to-day.
I said I would consider talk therapy, but not anti-depressants. When I left, I chose neither. My new job soon got worse and there was a death in the family. I futilely turned again and again to the scripts but my circumstances soon proved too much for the blunt tools in my medicine cabinet.
I spent my days sitting at my desk feeling clouded and drowsy from the meds with interspersed torturous episodes of feeling out of breath. At home, I felt disconnected from my son and guilty over my perceived failure as a new father. Nights were six or seven hours of restless sleep.
Soon, depression set in. I found myself stuck in the negative feedback loop I hadn’t experienced since the darkest hours of junior high. As an empathetic friend later related, it feels like drowning. Feeling out of control and wanting a better emotional connection with my son, I was finally motivated to find a therapist and start Zoloft.
Two weeks of nausea and six weeks of failing to achieve orgasm were the price for emotional clarity and calm. It was one of the best trades of my life.
I realized that my prior views about SSRIs were not at all what I was experiencing. I was still me, and proud to be me. Sure, I had slightly altered the modulation of serotonin at my synapses, but I didn’t feel happier; existential and real-life problems still existed all around me. What Zoloft gave me was the emotional space to rationally address the issues without veering towards irrationally negative interpretations. Taking Zoloft wasn’t hiding from reality, it was putting my glasses on so I could see reality better.
In the end, I did change a little. But following this logic to its natural conclusion leads to a pervasive and well-confirmed truth: we are forever changing. Minds, bodies, and genes are altered by environmental factors. I believed this before Zoloft, yet I still held onto the irrational desire for psychological stasis. Now, glasses on, I’ve realized that our flexibility and capacity to grow across profound avenues of existence is at the heart of our uniquely human ability to become the people we want to be. For me, this is a large part of the human experience, and I feel more a part of it now that I did before. I also feel grateful.
Adam Goldsmith was an energy derivatives trader for 9 years. He is currently an economist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.