In Mental Health, There Are No Happy Endings

One of the most embedded wishes in the consciousness of humans, and certainly in American culture, is the wish (and belief in) for happy endings.

We want so badly to believe that after this, that will happen, resulting in at least this one problem forever being solved.

I think a lot of wars happen with this mindset.  We go in with the belief it will solve all our problems, and we learn eventually that every war has its cost, and the question is really whether the cost is worth the victory.

Marriage is so often portrayed as the happiest ending of all, the moment when we finally find the love of our life and then everything is just perfect.  Of course, anyone who’s been married knows that a marriage is not an ending but a new beginning, with its own set of challenges and frustrations (not to say it isn’t beautiful!).

And then there’s health.  I think there’s nothing more mythologized than health.  We see these “before and after” pictures of people who have lost weight constantly shared online, with absolutely no details about the hard work that took them there, and the hard work they’ll need to continue for the rest of their lives.  We’ve turned the discussion of things like cancer into the vocabulary of “battles” that are either won or lost.  Hardly any discussion about the rates of death, the acceptance of death, or that even when a battle is “won” the war is hardly ever over.

I think that’s why so many people who have had a mental illness, or even just emotional challenges, so often throw all their wishes and hopes into a little pill.

We’re one of the most over-prescribed nations in the world.  From the moment we are young, we are taught that our brains are simply computers that need to be reprogrammed if we have a virus.

And it makes sense.  On an emotional level, at least.

Finding out you have a mental illness can be one of the scariest moments in a person’s life.  You’re being told that you don’t have as much control over your mind as you thought.  And it’s natural to want that feeling to go away as quickly as possible.

It happened to me.  Twice.

The first time was when I was diagnosed as bipolar.  I remember sitting in my first meeting with the psychiatrist of the mental hospital, and I said loudly, “How do I solve this?!”

He calmly explained that I needed to take Depakote, two pills, once a day, every day.  Maybe for the rest of my life.  And I needed to go to therapy.

At the time, therapy seemed distant and far away, not something I identified with.  What I knew was that my pills had already made me start to come down from the insane manic episode that had taken over my life for the past two months.

I said, “Okay!” and I stormed out, convinced all my problems were solved.

The second time was a year and a half ago.  I had been experiencing a year of anxiety, and it perplexed and scared me.  I thought I had conquered all my emotional demons, that I was now a “normal” person.  I wasn’t taking medication anymore, and I was convinced that I never would need to again.

It was only after a few panic attacks and my wife’s insistence that I finally dragged myself into the psychiatrist’s office, feeling defeated, as if I had failed.  The happy ending I had mythologized into my life was falling apart all around me.

Ironically enough, it was so much harder for me to start going to therapy the second time.  The anxiety time.  I had lost my therapist of almost a decade to his alcoholism and jail, an incredible man with demons that haunted him, and I had gone without one for over a year.  Exactly during the time that my anxiety had developed.  And despite how much I believed in therapy, despite how much I fought for it with the people I knew, and even in public campaigns, I fought the search for a new one for a very long time.

Because the stigma of therapy goes deeper than just the stigma of getting treated for mental health.  There is a stigma the runs much deeper, a stigma that lives within us just as much as it does outside of us.

It is the stigma that we might be broken.  The stigma that we might be failures.  That we are, inherently, unfixable.

This is, unfortunately, the other side of the “happy ending” coin.  The belief in happy endings necessitates a belief that we are inherently good, that we are the protagonist in the story who gets the girl, the money, the happiness.  And when that fails to come to pass, when we are faced with a life that continues to challenge us in new ways, we see ourselves as the problem, because who else but the bad guy gets the imperfect ending?

And so, even the most staunch believer in something like therapy can fall into the trap of this point of view.

One of the things that became increasingly clear to me as I came out of that hospital and started taking my medication was that medication wasn’t the complete solution to my problems.  Therapy, the more I went, was what really provided me with the tools to feel stronger, more adept at dealing with my problems, and just plain happier.

But I think there was always hope somewhere deep inside of me that one day I would “conquer” bipolar in the same way one might “conquer” cancer.  The analogy of a battle lived inside of me, and the wish for a perfect ending was encoded into my heart.

So, when I finally got to the point, 7 years after that meeting with the psychiatrist in the hospital, that I didn’t need to take Depakote anymore, I thought that I had reached the ending of that story.  That there would be no more chapters.

I was half-right.  Because the book never ends.  There are smaller endings, the kind like marriage and fending off a disease.  But the book will always have more chapters until it is officially, truly over.  Every ending within is really the opportunity for a new chapter, and even then the chapters earlier will always affect the ones after.  The narrative is connected, alive, and breathing.

About 2 months ago, I stopped taking anxiety medication regularly.  It was sparked not by me, but by an article my friend Stephanie had sent me that detailed how my medication, Klonopin, was linked with an increase in Alzheimer’s if taken regularly.  Scared, I immediately started weaning myself off of the medication.

The result was fascinating.  I had been in total fear of going off my medication, despite the encouragement from my psychiatrist to at least lower my dosage.  I recalled in fear the way I had walked in and out, in and out, in and out, of my in-laws’ synagogue, breathing shallow breaths as I wondered if what I was wearing was appropriate.  I remembered how I would sit in work, unable to get myself to focus because my arm hurt, my entire body ached, and my heart beat a thousand miles a minute.  I remembered the eye twitching and the teeth grinding.

There was a part of me that had bought into the idea that my happy ending was never coming, that I was doomed and broken, that I was the bad guy.  And going off anti-anxiety medication would doom me.

So, when I decided to quit, I braced myself for the worst.  For panic attacks, unbearable anxiety, so much more.

Instead, as I quit, nothing happened.  Nothing.  One or two moments of anxiety.  My mind, instead, started functioning in a way that I realized it hadn’t for over a year.  I began to think about a million things that I had been doing on autopilot, that I hadn’t rethought or approached differently.  Projects, writing, relationships, work, life.

And I realized that anxiety medication, like essentially all psychotropic drugs, is not a cure-all.  Like war, it has to be used with its cost taken into account.

And I realized one more thing: that all the work I had done through therapy, that thing my wife had so pushed me to do that I resisted and resisted, had given me the tools and new thinking patterns that allowed me to not become overwhelmed by anxiety nearly as much.  It had allowed me to make the cost of taking anti-anxiety meds to be higher than the benefits.

Anxiety is natural.  Just like depression and even manic energy.  And within this reality we can see the response to the myth of happy endings.  Because emotion is not meant to be killed.  It can become unhealthy, but it is never evil.  It is part of who we are.  Medication never removes anxiety, depression, or any other emotion.  It covers them and hides them from us.  And sometimes that is absolutely essential, when those emotions are out of control or under the power of an illness.

But our goal, and this is why therapy is so important, and why war may be an answer but never the ultimate one, is to direct the energy of those emotions, to learn how to live them in natural, healthy ways.  100% organic.  And that way, we can live fuller, truer lives.  Ironically, in our hope to create a happy ending (or to hide from what we think is our evil selves), we create a life that cuts off from truly living our lives.

I’ll forever be thankful to Stephanie for accidentally reminding me of that.

But I’ll also be wary.  Because I know that even now, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that this is the end, that life will be perfect from now on.  No more emotional difficulties, no more challenges.

All I need to remember is that such an ending wouldn’t be happy, it would be incredibly sad.  It would mean no longer facing life fully, no longer engaged in the constant growth and evolution of being a human being.

I can’t wait to see what’s in the next chapter.

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