The traditional perception of anti-depressants as the final antidote to mental health or worse as a mere placebo effect – 2 stars, sub-standard with definite room for improvement. Today I look at my journey with pill-popping and why it isn’t the same as taking a couple of ibuprofen for a headache.
In early 2015, I folded into a heap in a GP surgery in Pimlico. Frequent and consuming panic attacks and numerous bouts of hysterics had driven me there- I wasn’t coping and I knew it. Faced with a doctor I had never met before, who barely acknowledged the tears spilling from my exhausted eyes; less than thirty seconds later I found myself walking out of the practice, a crumpled prescription for citalopram in my hand.
This wasn’t my first dabble into medication for my perpetual fear of abandonment and chronic self loathing. Back when I was seventeen I was prescribed beta-blockers after a particularly pathetic break up with my on and off school boyfriend. The beta-blockers stayed with me during the romantic reunion and were there when we finally called it quits after starting university. They stayed in my drawer and I’d pop one or two before an exam or even on a particularly bad hangover. A more sinister version of a fisherman’s friend, they provided comfort when I was ‘croaky’. But really, these beta-blockers were the equivalent of giving a ‘fruit winder’ to a child who had asked for sweets.
This new prescription however, was the real deal. My first foray into a relationship I highly suspect will last a lot longer than that ill begotten dalliance with the local pool’s lifeguard.That’s not to mean it isn’t of a similar stop-start nature, I committed to citalopram for a few months, before abandoning it due to the effect it was having on my sex life in a relationship with an actual human being at the time (Yes- that’s a thing). Citalopram was followed by a car crash of an affair with Sertraline, before I eventually settled into a semblance of a happy marriage with Venlafaxine early in 2016.
I want to discuss with you the in and outs of finding your medication and show what is offered as a cure, can often create more problems than it helps (that’s something that many doctors will neglect to tell you by the way). Far too many mental health narratives, skip over the ins and outs of this sometimes essential aspect to recovery. The problem with the head is that it’s not like other parts of your body, everyone is wired entirely differently, making the search for your personal elixr of life, painfully problematic. We should have all paid better heed to Pink when she sung the lyrics “You’re just like a pill, instead of making me better you’re making me ill”
So, back to citalopram, the universal go-to anti-depressant for GPs across the land. On mentioning it to several friends, I was taken aback at how many people had been on it at various points of difficulty in their life. One day in, the panic attacks were dreadful, I couldn’t stand up straight the vertigo was so bad and I was constantly throwing up. Alone in a toilet at work I called the doctor “That’s supposed to happen, let me know if nothing changes in a few weeks” before the dial tone let me know he’d hung up.
Naïve I persevered, but secretly wondered how on earth I’d manage feeling like this alongside a fulltime job (Reader- I didn’t). Because you do don’t you? You trust what the doctor tells you. Things definitely got better for a while, but whether that was due to the removal of the pressure of work and other small joys in my personal life, I’m still not really sure. I still felt that the levels of intensity that my emotions hit me with weren’t improving. Hysteria still happened and I was plagued with insomnia and sleep paralysis. I was cross and frustrated (in more ways than one, oi oi) so I stopped taking them unadvisedly abruptly.
To cut a long story (which mostly consists of me sitting on a bed snotting everywhere) very short, this was followed by a couple of months free floating. Where it quickly became apparent that my mental health had if anything deteriorated. It was at this time, I realised that not being on medication simply was not an option for me. A new Dr and a new prescription later- I was back in the early throws of adjusting to a new SSRI. Nausea, a mouth dryer than a desert, constant tears, vertigo. Not to mention the fact I was gurning my bloody tits off whilst doing the school-run (I was working as a nanny).
Sertraline did not work for me. It lessened my anxiety, but I would still have dramatic and intense emotional outbursts and worst of all I became very suicidal. Not because I wanted to die, no. But because the medication itself was presenting me with this notion, like a scab I desperately wanted to pick, even though I knew I shouldn’t. I also completely lost my concentration, so if I’m honest, I genuinely can’t recall much about this time now- I just existed. Another pill bought the dust, but here is the other thing you might not know. You can’t just stop medication, you have to wean yourself off, let it clear from your blood, and then slowly let a new one build up. You are looking at least a couple of months, where you have to accept the fullest force of the symptoms of your mental illness.
Next I was onto Venlafaxine, a pill I have to take twice a day without fail (or suffer the consequences). This one took a while to build up, it makes me sick to my stomach if I don’t take it with food, it keeps me up late at night and makes it difficult to wake up in the morning. It makes me light-headed and when I fuck up taking it, I pay with hell. However, I don’t cry as much. I don’t descend into overwhelming panic anymore. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t leave my bed all day. I think I will talk more about this medication and my relationship with it, but for now, it’s positives outweigh the negatives. If I’m honest, I know it’s not perfect, but I am too petrified that the next one will be worse.
What I wanted to show in today’s post is that being diagnosed then given medication- Isn’t like waving a magic wand, it’s not the end of the story. At the moment our perception of prescription medication in treating mental illness, is dangerously misconstrued and there is not enough dialogue surrounding the specifics of taking these tablets. You have to be committed, in the same way you would be to treating any long term illness. It’s hard and it’s arduous. I don’t want this to prevent anybody from seeking medical help if they are worried, but I did want to illustrate that you are not alone if you feel like arsehole. My advice for anybody embarking on starting anti-depressants or struggling with them would be:
-Be prepared to be unwell. Do not beat yourself up for being unwell, just be unwell.
-Listen to your body, know what your limits are.
-If your doctor is a Twat. Get a new one.
-Don’t let ant-depressants be the first thing you try- do not let a Dr push them on you.
-If you can’t deal with a side effect, tell your doctor. Even if you think it’s pathetic.
-Similarly, don’t be embarrassed. Some SSRIs can stop you orgasming/getting it up or kill your sex-drive, don’t live with that if you don’t wanna. It’s perfectly legit if not being able to get yours is actually making you more depressed.
-Tell people around you what’s going on, you will need support in the first couple of weeks.
-Set a fucking reminder on your phone the minute you are holding that prescription. Messing up taking these things is crappy.
It’s important to rebuff all the people out there, who may (honestly misguidedly) not consider it a ‘real’ medicine, or who have innocently suggested that someone takes up colouring in pictures of birds to help instead. My journey, whilst very personal, is by no means unique- many people have had a similarly challenging time to get where they are. So please, please don’t tell us our medication is a placebo and to not take it, or that we should learn to live without it. Many people will have the briefest of tinder flings with medication and some people will rely on it like an old friend- but let us decide on that one.
Would you tell a friend with diabetes that positive thinking can increase their insulin levels?
No, I didn’t think you would.