What Happened When My Doctor Prescribed Me Antidepressants
Fourteen years ago, I stepped into my doctor’s surgery and said I needed help. I was gripped by depression and didn’t see a way out, although at that time, I didn’t know what I was struggling with, only that I was struggling in a way I couldn’t ever have imagined.
The doctor was kind and compassionate. I was diagnosed with depression and she wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant. My first thought?
“I’m not taking them, I’ve got to try and beat this on my own.”
I didn’t want to take time off work and I certainly didn’t want to be taking antidepressants.
Why not? I’d never felt that way about any other tablets I’d been prescribed. Hay fever medication, antibiotics, painkillers, bring them on; anything to cure what ails yer (forgive me, I’m from Middlesbrough). Hell, I’d even let my nana rub butter on bumps on my head (although I never did take her prescription of whisky to sweat out a flu).
My reaction that day was one of fear, born of ignorance and stigma. At that point in my life, I knew very little about mental health or antidepressants (I’ve had plenty of experience and a very thorough education since). Despite my lack of awareness, I was very aware of the perceptions many people have of mental health problems.
I was scared having depression on my medical records would stop me from getting a job in future, and would prejudice me in the job I had at that time. I was afraid of how I would be judged. I guess I felt the problem was me, rather than an illness, and that it was me who had to fight and defeat it, not a tablet. Taking them felt like a personal failure, an admission that I needed to take a tablet to change who I was, because who I was, was clearly defective.
That was another fear, the tablets would turn me into somebody else. Or maybe turn me into a zombie? It felt like I would be messing with my brain and surely that wasn’t right? Maybe I would become addicted?
I did what most of us would do in that situation … I took to Google. Another fear was duly added to my list — I could become suicidal. My mind clouded by depression, it was only the negative messages that took hold, ignoring those who considered their medication to be a lifesaver.
It wasn’t until months later, after a terrible breakdown at work, I started taking my medication at the urging of a friend who had taken them to help lift his own depression. I really didn’t think they would help me, but at that point I felt I had nothing to lose and I had to at least try. I took them and … nothing. How I already felt was so ill and alien that I couldn’t feel any worse, but nor did I feel any better.
Until I did.
It was months later, after five months off work and a number of sessions with a psychologist, but I got better. Were my antidepressants a magic pill? No. Did my “happy pills” make me happy? No. Did they turn me into a different person? Did they change me into a zombie? No.
Did they help me recover? Yes.
My experiences have led me to question why there is fear and stigma around antidepressant medication. I feel there are a few contributing factors.
There is a perception antidepressants are being handed out “like sweets” by general practitioners (GPs). I’m not in the medical profession and can’t speak to the accuracy of this. However, I think this plays into a wider narrative that GPs just want to get patients in and get them out; that they are somehow merely fobbing people off with tablets. I can only speak for myself, but that has never been my feeling from the GPs I have seen.
It’s an inescapable fact most GPs are overstretched, and I am sure there are many committed doctors who wish they had longer to dedicate to each patient. But the reality is every one of us has to work within the constraints of the system we are in. Doctors are no exception. And if they can send a patient away with a prescription that could help them, you can’t blame them for doing that.
This is especially true in a system where mental health is so incredibly under-resourced. It can be very difficult and time-consuming to get the help you need and very expensive to get treatment privately. Given the inadequacies of mental health care, it is little surprise GPs will do what they are practically able to in the short-term: prescribe an antidepressant and sign you off on sick leave.
This point links us to what I consider to be another villain in the piece: “big pharma.” The global pharmaceutical companies that profit from each person who pops their pills. I’m not qualified to question the ethics of the industry, but I’ve worked in boxing, and I know a horrible business doesn’t mean the product or service can’t have a positive impact on many lives (although I appreciate not everyone may agree with the example I have used!).
Many people argue there are better ways to address mental health issues. More “natural” ways. Ways that don’t require us to put chemicals in our bodies. There seems to be an increasingly widespread belief natural is good and chemical is bad, but that is far too simplistic for me. We are chemical machines. Our deepest, most wonderful feeling — love — is itself associated with the release of the chemical oxytocin. And, as a former casualty of the modern dating world, I can testify to the importance many people place on “chemistry” when it comes to selecting a partner. Furthermore, dopamine and serotonin are chemicals, and they are responsible for our ability to feel pleasure and happiness.
On the other hand, opium is natural. As is cannabis. Yet both are illegal in the UK, and both are used medically. The birth control pill isn’t natural. The fact is, very few things in life are inherently good or bad. Things need to be considered in context, taking into account their intended use, and the risk/benefit analysis for the individual and for society as a whole.
We shouldn’t rule out a chemical treatment of a condition that involves chemicals.
Is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain? I don’t know, but whether it is or isn’t, and the extent to which it may play a role, it certainly has a chemical component, given that our bodies respond to stimuli chemically.
Undoubtedly, there are a variety of factors that influence our mental health, and therefore there are a number of ways we can address mental health problems.
There is strong evidence for the “five ways to well-being” being linked to good mental health. Connecting with others, being active, learning, taking notice and being mindful and giving can all be hugely beneficial to us. It is also important for us to feel a sense of control and agency over our lives, and to feel we have a purpose, a sense of meaning and to feel valued.
Reading, writing, painting, singing, walking, running, baking, bathing, talking, meditating, breathing, volunteering, counseling, cooking …. the list is endless. As endless as the differences between each individual.
We are all different, and each of us has to navigate our own way through our mental health problems. I firmly believe in medication being one of the tools we have to help us climb out of the hole in which we could all find ourselves.
One of the cruelest features of depression is it can leave you still, snuffing out the candle of hope and killing off the will to do anything that may help. Things you once enjoyed, that you loved, can elicit no feeling at all. The physical imprisonment of depression is almost like being encased in concrete. In such a state, medication can be crucial in acting as a hammer and chisel, chipping away to reveal who we really are beneath the illness; easing the weight of the concrete around us and freeing us to take tentative steps toward those things that can carry us back to health and wellness.
We also need to take into account the broader perceptions of mental health. Mental health problems force us to confront who we are, and who we think we are. Our sense of identity can become tightly interwoven with our diagnosis. When looking for a way through our struggles, we are compelled to consider our relationships, our lifestyle, our job, our very identity. It can, at times, be very difficult to separate what is “you” from what is depression or anxiety.
Is a particular thought, feeling or behavior, me? Or is it depression? Counseling can help us to unpack these things, but we are complex beings, and mental health problems are complex issues. Tablets can become an additional part of this complicated web that makes us who we are.
Which of my thoughts, feelings and behaviors, are me? Which are depression? Which are the tablets?
In an attempt to answer this question for myself, I stopped taking antidepressant medication in July 2018, after five years. I knew I had changed and developed myself a great deal since my previous illness, proven by how I had responded to particular circumstances in my life. I wanted to know who “I” was without tablets.
Who I was, or rather who I became, was ill. In February 2019, I was felled by a debilitating depression that lasted four long months. Was this caused by stopping medication? I can’t say for certain, but there were no obvious precipitating thoughts or events that logically led to the depths I sunk to.
Now, I take tablets and I feel no need to come off them. I don’t feel like a zombie or another person; I feel like me, for good and for bad. Taking them feels no different to me than taking a vitamin tablet each day (which, at my age, I need to start doing!).
I’m not a failure for taking tablets again, just like I am not a failure for having depression in the first place. By relating mental health problems so closely to who we are — at both a personal and social level — we can feel almost obliged to overcome our problems ourselves, without resorting to medication (or to counseling for that matter). Placing such pressures on ourselves can lead to a very dark place indeed.
Of course, we must take responsibility for our health and our recovery, and this post is not trying to suggest otherwise. We must do all we can to help ourselves. I’m not saying we just take a tablet and wait for the clouds to clear. There are always other things we can do. However, we must be able to accept we may never know all the answers to how we got the diagnosis we did. Unpacking the mysteries of the self is a lifelong pursuit, often with no final destination (which also illustrates the folly of trying to understand the mystery of others’ behavior, when it can be so difficult to figure out our own).
I can only speak from my own experiences. I would never presume to tell anybody else whether they should or shouldn’t take medication. But what I would say is don’t automatically rule it out, and consider where any objections may be coming from.
The important thing is to do whatever it takes to get well, and to stay well. Because really, what is more important than that?
Getty image by Anastasiia_New