It’s fair to say that my mental health journey was…unusual. I failed 7 antidepressant medications in 5 years. That might be a world record! Both medication + therapy are hugely important for my health today. But the zero waste movement also served as a catalyst for me to find further healing in the last year. And never in a million years did I expect to find healing among the trash.
I believe it is by opening ourselves up to others and sharing our journeys that we can change the conversation around mental health, and I want to help be a part of that change. So here begins my story. I can’t say with any certainty that what worked for me will work for you. I can’t offer you any guarantees. But what I can offer you is hope. No, the road to finding lasting mental health isn’t easy and there definitely isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. But the treacherous, winding road that I walked to get where I am today can be a small testament to the fact that there always is a light at the end of the tunnel, even when it seems like there is no possible way out of the dark.
Above: I used to believe that taking medication for depression + anxiety meant I was weak.
Now it is no secret that as a zero waste activist, I refuse plastic whenever possible. At the end of the day, my relationship with plastic is two-fold: I owe my improved mental health to the medical industry and all the advancements ushered in by plastic. And for that, I am humbled and grateful. But I won’t stop fighting against plastic pollution for a minute, and it is my hope that hospitals and pharmacies will find more sustainable ways to care for patients and distribute medication. Both the benefits and the setbacks of plastic have been influential for my healing. Those plastic orange bottles are my lifeline, but sheesh, can we get a prescription bottle take-back or recycling program around here?!
My battle with mental illness has been waging for as long as I can remember. As a child, I agonized over why my emotions and social interactions didn’t feel ‘normal’ and I frequently felt disconnected from people because of my melancholy personality. Around age 12, I felt like dark storm clouds rolled in, settled over my brain, and never cleared. A combination of genetics and painful life experiences triggered bouts of depression + anxiety. Day-to-day, I never felt like I had the ability to cope with situations in the same way my peers did. From all outward appearances, I was fine: close friends, good grades, active in clubs and sports. But as time went on, my head became filled with lies about mental health that society fed me. Lies such as…
“Therapy is for sick people. Depression and anxiety aren’t real illnesses.”
“Seeing a therapist means that I am less lovable and desirable than other people.”
“Medication is a crutch and a sign of weakness.”
“Finding my soulmate will heal my depression. I just need to fall in love.”
Only years later did I learn to believe that depression + anxiety are illnesses; seeking out medication or therapy does not mean I am a failure; and if I need to be on medication for the rest of my life to remain healthy and happy, I am not less of a person. In my teens and early-20s, instead of bringing my pain to the attention of my family or friends, I brought it with me into my romantic relationships in the hopes of finding healing. This resulted in more rejection and deeper wounds. But I was laser-focused on fighting my way through my mental illness with sheer willpower and never admitting that I needed help, all the while living on a (pipe)dream that falling in love could make the pain go away.
Around age 14, I started to crack. I began experiencing regular attacks of anxiety and irrational fears. I felt as if the rain clouds over my head had morphed into a level-5 hurricane that I couldn’t escape from. Some months I thought my brain was actually going to kill me, other months I felt OK. All the while, I pushed those ugly, terrible feelings of anxiety + depression deeper and deeper into the dark, dusty corners of my mind. I managed to keep my life together for almost 5 years as I ran away from my illness. By 19, I had spent so much energy fighting against my brain that I didn’t feel truly passionate about much at all. I was constantly changing my mind and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I grappled with thoughts of suicide. Mental illness made me feel utterly lost, and it reaffirmed the most toxic lie of all–that I was not good enough. I finally broke down and reached out to my parents for help. I took the first big step on my journey and began talking to a counselor. Therapy truly saved my life, I can’t say it enough times.
It took a year of therapy to convince me to see a doctor about medication. At 20, I finally took the next big step. I thought that it would be a simple process: get a prescription, take a pill each day, feel better! Joke was on me. I tried Prozac, Paxil, and Welbutrin over the course of 2 years with minimal benefits and an array of side effects. At 22, I stopped taking medication all together. Being unable to find an antidepressant reinforced the lie that I had to be strong enough to conquer my illness without medical intervention. With the help of weekly therapy, I no longer felt like I was living in a hurricane. More like I was trapped in a dense fog and I could only ever see one step in front of me. All I wanted was for the fog to lift so that I could look out on the horizon and feel hopeful about the future. Medicine was supposed to provide this relief, so why didn’t it work for me?
At 23, I decide to give medication another go. It was obvious to me and my family that I was sick and that I needed to keep searching for a real solution to balance my brain chemistry. I had since moved and my new doctor gave me a great deal of autonomy in the medication selection process. We tried Zoloft, Pristique, Lexapro, and Welbutrin (again). We adjusted dosages, tinkered with the times I took pills, and paired different medications with Klonopin for dual treatment of depression + anxiety. We worked hard for two years to find a medicine but didn’t find a match. At 24, I was utterly discouraged. While I was reaping the very real benefits of therapy, I began to wonder if I would just live in a haze forever. My counselor and my doctor never gave up hope, but at that point, I had. I was so emotionally exhausted that I felt like I was drowning, unable to come up for air and breathe fresh air. Was life worth living this way?
At age 24, I discovered zero waste. Obviously, being passionate about a cause doesn’t cure depression or balance the chemicals in your brain. But it was not by chance or accident that zero waste was what I developed such a deep passion for so suddenly. The lifestyle felt like a missing puzzle piece in my brain, meshing well with my personality, my love of organization, my dislike of clutter, and even my faith life. It was challenging and rewarding all at once. My battles with depression + anxiety weren’t suddenly over just because of zero waste but I did feel invigorated in a new way, like seeing blue skies for the first time after countless overcast days.
After failing medicine #7, I came across a new genetic test specifically designed to analyze genes linked to mental health. In short, the test can tell you which of the 50 most common mental health medicines will work best with you body’s chemistry. I asked my doctor if we could run the test (lots of plastic involved.) When the results came back, we discovered that almost all 7 medications I had tried fell into the ‘will provide little to no benefits’ category. Using the results, my doctor put me on Trazodone + Klonopin. I was 25 and it is the first medication combo to improve my mood without a slew of side effects. On a scale from 1-10, if a normal person’s mood was a 10 and my average mood was a 5 , then Trazodone brought me to a 7.5. The medication was by no means an instant fix and I had to weather a month of headaches before I saw improvements in my mood. But I had hope for the first time in a long time. Trazodone felt like sunlight slowly burning off the fog that had shrouded my mind for so long.
When I stumbled on the zero waste lifestyle, I was immediately fascinated. I was so utterly captivated that I researched and read about the movement for hours a day for the better part of a year, looking for answers on how I could change every facet of my life to have less of an impact on the planet. The simplicity and practicality of zero waste somehow put mind at ease and set it racing all at once. I joined a local zero waste activist group and engaged in environmental conversations with people all over the world via social media. I began to see my life through a whole new lens, and I truly couldn’t get enough trash talk!
As I became more involved in the movement, I started seeing discussions about plant-based versus meat-based diets. At the time, I had no idea there was a link between the environment and animal agriculture. I found the discussions very interesting and I wanted to find out what side of the argument I fell on, so I dug deeper. I researched environmental impacts, ethical controversies, and health effects of my current diet compared to a plant-based (vegan) diet. The compelling stats in favor of a plant-based diet certainly grabbed my attention, and delving into the ethics (or lack thereof) of factory farms sent my head reeling and made my heart ache. As I grappled with the idea of altering my diet so significantly and whether that was the morally right thing to do, I came across anecdotes and research that linked plant-based diets to improved mental health. Call it the perfect storm, but all three of these reasons–environmental, ethical, and health–came together at once and compelled me to try changing my diet. I consulted my doctor and she approved, so long as my lab values came back normal and my depression didn’t worsen.
I don’t believe there is a single diet that perfectly fits the nutritional needs of every single person. I knew there was a chance that cutting out animal products wouldn’t work for me personally. But I was hopeful that a plant-based diet would have benefits on my mental health. Before the diet change, I ate a nutritionally balanced diet, avoided almost all processed or prepackaged foods, and made the majority of my meals from scratch. In January of 2017, I cut out meat entirely and began slowly phasing out other animal products. I haven’t eaten meat since. At first, I felt physically horrible. I felt like I was going through withdrawal, I had intense cravings, and I was overwhelmed by such a drastic lifestyle change. Come February, the cravings leveled off and I started to get a grasp on cooking. My pallet changed and I started to like fruits and vegetables I thought I hated. But in March, something big happened. After 2 months of no meat and minimal dairy/ eggs, I felt like the remaining haze that hung over my brain was burning away. I was more energized, less sluggish, and I no longer felt waves of intense exhaustion throughout the day. As time went on, my mood continued to improve, my PMS symptoms nearly disappeared, and my skin cleared up. If Trazodone held my mood around a 7.5, then the change in diet brought me up to a 9. Who knew that plants could be so powerful?!
At my May medication appointment, I was able to look my doctor in the eye and say, “I actually feel ‘normal’ for the first time in my life.” My mental health is a very fine balance. If I miss a dose of my medication, I feel a shift in my brain and my mood drops. If I consume dairy products, I’ll feel sluggish, moody, and my skin will break out. And God forbid I miss a week of therapy! Depression + anxiety are very real illnesses that I will always have. Don’t be fooled into thinking that I am now immune to having a down day because I eat mostly plants! But the combination of therapy, medicine, diet, and my passion for the environment and zero waste makes me feel like life has truly opened up for me. And now it’s time to go change the world–one piece of trash at a time.
To my family + friends, all the zero waste activists who have fueled my passion, and every single garden + farm that has nourished me in the last 6 months: thank you a million times over.