An honest account of anti-depressants
I’ll be frank.
Up until around five years ago, I took a dim view of the term ‘mental health’. I largely thought it was a buzzword: the latest internet fad and an excuse for people to get attention. I was ignorant.
Certainly, I still think there are those who undermine genuine mental health conditions for their own gain. I’m just not convinced by people who have to set up a camera before a panic attack. Sorry.
However, correlative to the woe-is-me social media posts is a deluge of genuine, shocking statistics on mental health. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young men. One in eight people under 19 have suffered from mental illness. 74 per cent of us have felt unable to cope.
So when I was forced to confront my own ‘issues’, I was naturally afraid of becoming a statistic. I’m one of the lucky ones: no history of parental abuse, no crime or addictions, no unsurmountable debt. What on earth do I have to worry about?
And so we enter the world of anti-depressants. Full disclosure — I have been taking 50mg of sertraline once a day since June 2019, having started on 25mg. When I spoke to the doctor, I realised it wasn’t just the fact I’d watched my dad slowly succumb to cancer. It was deeper.
We’re all prone to bouts of anxiety, but some of us actually have a certifiable generalised anxiety disorder. I didn’t want to put myself in that box. People think you’re crazy, or you’re just complaining.
About a year before my dad died, I woke up at 3am with the most pounding, throbbing headache you can imagine. I’d spent hours that day hunched over a laptop, desperately trying to meet a client deadline. When I rang NHS Direct they asked me if I “felt like I’d been hit with a brick” (because, sure, everybody has). I said I wasn’t sure. Off to A&E we went.
18 hours, one CT scan and a lumbar puncture later, I had a migraine. How terribly embarrassing. What a godawful waste of the NHS’ time. I was mortified — I’m the kind of person who has to be bleeding to death to go to the doctors.
When I recounted this story to the doctor, she said it seemed like I was an anxious person, so she prescribed some very gentle selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These are said to increase our brains’ level of serotonin — the hormone for wellbeing and happiness.
A few weeks before, I’d told a friend I was thinking about anti-depressants. Not particularly because I was sad, but because I was just so unmotivated to do anything. All that drive to keep chasing clients and meeting deadlines had just flown away from me. Some days I’d hardly venture beyond pyjamas. And the gym? Forget it.
“They don’t make you happy, you know,” she warned. She said that instead, they simply make you feel…nothing. Apathetic. Not bothered. A what-the-hell attitude.
Today, I can totally see what she means. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I’m not so sure. Before, I would go into a panic about how many client deadlines I had to meet and how I was going to fit all the work in. Now, I think…I can do that tomorrow. Well, I’ve not missed a deadline yet. That’s a nice feeling.
On the flipside, they can make you so apathetic that you border on risk-taking. In the last few weeks I’ve probably put out more ‘honest’ emails and social media statuses than ever before. I even made a slight sexual innuendo in a LinkedIn post. A LinkedIn post! The horror! Old me wouldn’t have even let the thoughts flow into my fingertips. Ah well. Fuck it.
In that regard, again, I’d advise anybody considering them to be cautious. Having a ‘what-the-hell’ attitude is great when you realise how little most of the stuff you worry about actually matters. On the other hand, you never know whom you might offend. I guess there’s a filter in there for a reason.
Another weird discovery was the weight loss. Nothing drastic — do not take anti-depressants as a slimming aid. I dare say it was the fuck-it attitude that allowed me to ignore the scales every morning. I’d not weighed myself since a two-week cruise; the weight probably came off anyway. Either that or the thought of the starving children no longer bothered me when there was still food on the plate.
So there’s the good. Now time for the bad. One of the NHS warnings around anti-depressants is that they can “spur you to action” — quite a red flag for those with suicidal thoughts. I believe I’d also read that they make you get worse before you get better. I’d definitely say this was the case. After around three weeks, out of nowhere, the mildest inconvenience threw me into a trance. An email from a (now ex) client upset me, and I walked away to stand on my stairs. I looked up at the loft and pictured a rope.
Oh God. I panicked and rang a helpline called Papyrus. The woman on the other end was incredibly reassuring. She asked if I was perhaps having a panic attack. I said I’d never had one. She then made me look at everything that was going on — two family deaths, self-employment and marathon training — and said I just needed to slow the hell down. Sometimes you just need someone else’s take on it.
Full respect to the NHS here — my doctor rang me the day after for a check-up. Just good timing I guess. She warned me that I was adjusting to the new 50mg dose, and that I should give it time. Lo and behold, nothing has happened since. The only thing I would say now is that sometimes it’s a real bitch to get out of bed. Even on summer days.
But I don’t want to blame everything on the medication. Sometimes it’s about attitude. We have not only good and bad days, but good and bad phases. I’ve realised in my brief time on this earth that we will have phases where we’re on top — we’re eating clean, we’re hitting the gym, we’re nailing our career. At other points, we’ll just have a downer. Sometimes we just can’t be bothered. And that’s OK.
I didn’t write this to beg for sympathy. Far from it. I just wanted to be completely and utterly honest. Medication isn’t for everybody. In fact, I also went on a six-week NHS CBT course, which I’ll write about separately. I have no idea how medication will affect you and I don’t purport to be an expert. I’m not going to tell you to get outside and do some exercise or catch up with friends. This is merely empirical evidence from one user.
If you are going through one of life’s bad periods, I’m truly sorry. I hope you can find whatever it is you need to heal your pain. Anti-depressants are one option, but every option is a learning experience. This was mine. All the best with yours.
Papyrus UK is a suicide prevention charity. Call 0800 068 4141 or visit Papyrus-uk.org.