By Montel Williams and William Doyle
March 17, 2009
This is Montel on Drugs
I stick a needle in my leg three times a day and shoot it with a drug.
One of the shots is a very promising drug for the management of MS that is believed to help modulate the immune system. I believe it is literally helping to keep me alive on this planet. It's one of an exciting whole new generation of medications designed to help people with MS live better lives. Lots of people take this particular drug with no problems at all.
But some people do experience side effects, including mood swings. These hit me in really strange ways. For example, yesterday I was on an airplane and I watched a movie in which the father character dies. This made me cry loudly and uncontrollably in my airplane seat. I started feeling really stupid for crying in public, and then I was really off to the races! This quickly led to my feeling like a total failure, which made me cry even more. I eventually bounced out of it, but it was such a strange feeling.
Until I started taking this MS drug a few years ago, and before I was diagnosed with MS, I would never have described myself as having major depression.
Thinking back on it, I realize now that the intensely emotional subject matter of my shows didn't help. If you take a person like me who can get depressed, and give him a job dealing with emotional turmoil every day, what you've got is a recipe for a train wreck. After taping TV shows dealing with everybody else's problems all week, on top of the drug, on top of trying to manage the symptoms of MS, by Friday mornings I'd be a wreck. I'd spend an hour or two in the bathroom crying, to try to expel the tumult going on in my head.
You know what the number-one cause of death is among people with multiple sclerosis? It's suicide. I think it's from the physical disabilities and depression brought on by the disease and by chemical imbalances in the brain, perhaps sometimes on top of all the medicine we have to take.
Before I got MS, when doctors would ask me, "Have you ever suffered from mood problems?" I'd say, "Hell, no!" Sure, I had periods of sadness, anger, and anxiety, and I've always been a passionate guy, and pretty open about my feelings. When I was in the military, I was extremely intense and sometimes emotionally angry in my desire to succeed. I was trained and ready to slit the throat of the enemy. But depressed? No way! It was a foreign concept to me. MS changed all that.
I started getting depressed. I took the depression grand tour: light depression, moderate depression, and kick-ass severe depression. Then doctors started prescribing me different drugs for depression and the real fun began.
I am a 100 percent supporter of Western medicine, with all its miracles and its imperfections. I'm also wide-open to critical opinions and alternative approaches. In my opinion, when the pharmaceutical companies do something we disagree with, we should tell them. And when they create a drug that helps us live a better life, or saves lives, we should cheer them on. I work with leading pharmaceutical and research companies and their trade association PhRMA, as spokesperson for the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a fantastic program that is the proudest professional achievement in my life so far.
Some antidepression drugs are absolute lifesavers for many patients. But drugs are not always perfect for different patients, and obviously neither are doctors. I'm living proof. For my bouts of depression, I was prescribed a broad spectrum of drugs over time, from mild antipsychotics all the way to antiseizure medications.
When I was on an antiseizure medication, I felt like a zombie. It made me feel cloudy and disconnected from everything. When I spoke, the words sounded like a jumble of mass confusion. I could feel my creative edge and mental sharpness blunt and fade, and I hated the feeling.
Then I was put on an antidepressant medicine. I won't name it, because my experience may not be typical. I can tell you it wasn't Prozac. This drug made me feel agitated, psychotic, and eventually suicidal. I was having serious conversations in my brain about how to kill myself. Should I jump out the window? Jump in front of traffic? Suck a bullet out of a gun barrel? I'm a gun owner, so this is an extra-dangerous thought process for me.
After a personal problem one day, I found myself standing in the doorway of my office and I heard myself announcing to my staff, “You know what? Maybe I should just blow my brains out!” This freaked me out so badly that I immediately grabbed my prescription bottle and flushed the pills down the toilet. (I later found out from a doctor that this is a bad idea. Rather than stop cold turkey, he said, I should have weaned myself off the drug under medical supervision.)
Right now, I'm not taking any medication. Some doctors might look at me and say I'm a perfect candidate for this drug or that drug, but I feel okay without them right now. Some people are opposed to any antidepressant medicine at all. That's their personal choice. But I'll tell you: I'm convinced that medications help some people function better, deal with depression, and enjoy life more. I Need Professional Help
Those four words can be the most important words of your life.
The World Health Organization defines depression this way: "Depression is a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. These problems can become chronic or recurrent and lead to substantial impairments in an individual's ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities."
If you feel you might be depressed, you really should seek out professional help and see what treatment and therapy options are available. Don't feel ashamed, or bashful, or afraid. Depression can truly be a silent killer. I strongly believe that if you even think you're depressed, then you need to see a doctor. Don't wait. Do it now. You'll be amazed how much the right doctor and the right information can help you. Trust me, I know it.
I've been in psychiatric therapy several times in my life.
You should be simultaneously very open-minded and ruthlessly skeptical in evaluating therapy.
What do I mean by ruthlessly skeptical? I mean you should always keep in mind that doctors are fallible, they need your help to get things right, and they are there to serve you, not the other way around. You are the boss of your own medical care, and it's your job to lead the process, gather information, and question everything.
I have had great therapists who have helped me navigate personal crises and helped me lift myself up and live a much happier life. They have become very positive figures in my life.
And I have had a lousy therapist or two who have pushed me down emotionally and frankly made things worse, so bad that I didn't want any more therapy. So I did the same thing you should do if it happens to you—I fired them.
One psychologist I saw was an incredibly gloomy, maudlin character who acted like he was sorry you had to see him. When I first met him he looked at me like he was Sigmund Freud reviewing the case of a hopelessly deranged person. Other times, his expression matched that of a doctor who's about to tell you you've got something terminal. I'd walk out of his office feeling more depressed than when I went in!
In the middle of a therapy session, another psychiatrist suddenly became inflamed over something I said, and he started screaming at me. Then he got a grip on himself, apologized, and gave me a soliloquy about how I had triggered the memory of something his father had said to him when he was a kid. Some psychiatrists are pretty screwed up themselves!
But the good psychotherapists I've seen have helped me live a better emotional life. They've helped me work through personal crises, validated the good things in my life, and helped me help myself. They've understood that their job isn't to direct my behavior, but to help me explore my own emotional problems and solutions. They've been a tremendous help to me in my journey toward happiness.
While researching this book, I interviewed one of the top psychiatrists in New York, Dr. Richard Rosenthal of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center. He has an enormous track record of clinical experience treating thousands of patients. I'd never met him before. He bounded out of his office to greet me with a huge smile on his face and he seemed to crackle with positive energy.
As we sat down to talk, I was struck by how open, enthusiastic, and nonjudgmental he was about his work, and about my emotions and my ideas. It struck me that a big reason he was so successful in his work is that he comes across like a powerfully positive life coach, someone who would really be your champion. "The next time I feel the need to formally consult a psychiatrist," I thought, "this is exactly the kind of doctor I'd want to talk to." I think that's the kind of doctor you should try to find if you need one.
The journey toward happiness can be helped tremendously by skilled guides like a good therapist, a loving and wise parent, a member of the clergy, or a good friend. But I believe the voyage starts deep inside yourself.
It's funny, but for me, writing this book is like good therapy.
It's making me happy by helping me better recognize, and understand, and savor the moments of happiness in my life. It really is a glorified personal journal. It's like a therapeutic exercise.
And it's helping me understand that maybe it's okay for me to be many things emotionally. Maybe it's okay for me to be sometimes sad, sometimes depressed, and other times very happy. Maybe it's okay for me to be all of the above more or less simultaneously.
You know what?
Maybe I'm just human!
How can you and I discover the keys to live well emotionally and start building a life of happiness?
A wonderful place to start is deep within our own minds, where we can explore the ancient question of what happiness is, and what it really means.