A Woman’s Search for Mental Health — Beyond Medication

Editor’s Note: Many Americans seek prescription medication to manage stress, anxiety and depression. But for some, the pills become a problem in their own right. As part of our first-person series “What’s Your Story?” Sabirah Mustafa of Oakland Voices tells how she and her doctor came up with another approach. 

By Sabirah Mustafa

When Sabirah Mustafa was suffering from depression, she found that medication wasn’t the best prescription for her. (Shuka Kalantari/KQED)

I used to wish for a magic pill that would enable me to swallow away my problems, so I could successfully navigate my unfulfilled life. But when I found it, it wasn’t in any pharmacy. For many years I suffered from trauma and abuse, but I saw them as symptoms of a soul struggling to find answers in a question complicated life.

I wasn’t necessarily searching for easy solutions, just a way to cope with it all. When my doctor became aware of the overwhelming helplessness and sadness I felt, he prescribed medication he thought would help. But the debilitating side-effects were terrible. My environment appeared apart and distant from me. My mind and body felt out of sync with how I moved and spoke, which made me feel awkward and self-conscious. Joy, anger, sympathy and other emotions non-medicated people experience routinely were lost to me. I began to doubt not just the meds’ function, but also their purpose. When I complained about their side effects, my medications were adjusted, but the adjustments would transform one problem into another.

Roller coaster treatment finally reached a conclusion one day, when I saw my primary physician for chest pain and difficulty breathing. “Let’s talk,” he said.

He performed his routine check of my blood pressure and temperature, but he also listened as I described my personal and workplace challenges. My physical symptoms, he determined, were due to not managing my stress well. I was feeling overwhelmed at work and wasn’t communicating well with my boss.

My doctor suggested some ideas around communicating better, streamlining my workload, even considering a new job. Most of his suggestions I had already tried unsuccessfully. But he didn’t give up. We dug deeper. We spent about an hour going over each obstacle, including my complicated personal life. His prescription and referral tablet never left his pocket. Instead he spoke to me as a person who understood human challenges, without judging me.

It was difficult working through my issues without medication as a crutch. I wanted to just let myself off the hook and let my doctor solve all my problems for me, but it didn’t work that way this time, I had to come up with my own plan, tackling each problem until I could choose a solution I felt comfortable committing to.

I had to become the boss of my own life, a responsibility I had given to medication.

Confronting problems is not without uncomfortable side effects, too, I learned, like fear and worry, and like my medication, I had to adjust to the uncomfortable side effects of confronting my problems. But the benefit of being my own boss had surely outweighed the negative.

I now have a personal prescription for my magic pill that I wrote for myself: “Life is a drama. You write the script.”

Sabirah Mustafa is a community liaison for Oakland Voices, a project of The Oakland Tribune.

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