I counted down the days until my sixteenth birthday religiously, like most teenage girls do – but it wasn’t because I had a party to look forward to, or even that I was particularly looking forward to the presents. I knew that when I turned sixteen, I could finally start taking anti-depressants, and for me that was a prospect worth looking forward to.
At that point, I’d been living with depression for almost three years. I was diagnosed at thirteen following months of shuffling back and forth from doctor’s appointments, missing school and trying to think of new excuses that would satisfy my concerned friends. I didn’t know what was happening to me, or where it came from – the pain, the anxiety, the anger, and by contrast, the long periods of numbness where I felt nothing at all. Depression took over my life, making it impossible for me to do the things that I used to love, or do tasks as simple as leaving the house or even getting out of bed.
I began to self-harm in some desperate attempt to gain control over my life – I was looking for a way to feel something, anything, even if that was physical pain. My psychiatrist asked why I did it, but it was too hard to vocalise and I was too ashamed to acknowledge it; in general, I found it almost impossible to talk about how I felt, be it with my mother or the doctors I seemed to see every week. It was recommended I tried different forms of therapy – counselling, cognitive behavioural and art. The doctors were reluctant to prescribe medication for patients under sixteen due to the possible side-effects, but for me, I was so desperate I would have tried anything.
Therapy made it easier to talk about and come to terms with my illness, but it couldn’t change my brain chemistry. When I turned sixteen I was finally prescribed a low dose of fluoxetine (better known as Prozac) and things began to change. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but soon enough things began to change. I found it easier to get out of bed in the mornings and sleep at night – I could concentrate at school, and was able to attend classes more regularly than I had in the three years prior.
Life on antidepressants hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had to change dosages and the type of medication I’m on in order to find what works for me – it’s a process of trial and error. If I miss more than one consecutive dose, I start to feel the effects of withdrawal. I can’t drink as much as a twentysomething might sometimes like to, and I have to see a doctor every couple of months to confirm I’m still happy with my medication. There are also the inevitable reactions that I’ve had when I disclose that I take antidepressants, ranging from the positive to the outright baffling. Most of my friends and co-workers have accepted it with little more than a shrug of the shoulders (which I think is the best kind of reaction) but there have been some who treated me like a sad little alien once they realised. I’m not entirely sure why – if anything, I’m a far more fun person on antidepressants than I ever was without them.
Whilst I was at university and struggling with the inevitable glumness that comes with being away from family and friends I went to see a new doctor. She thought I should come off my medication - I’d been taking fluoxetine for two years at that point, as well as attending therapy on a regular basis. I couldn’t think of anything worse than coming off the medication that had enabled me to live an ordinary life. I didn’t go back to that doctor; there’s an expectation surrounding antidepressants that they can only ever be a temporary solution, and that every person taking them should work towards a life without them.
I remember my life without medication. I remember suicide being an appealing concept, and how I would have given anything to not be the person I was. Although I still have days where I’m anxious and unwell for seemingly no reason at all, medication has enabled me to do things that ten years ago I never dreamed I could. I spent a year living abroad with no access to psychiatric services, and I’m sure that without my antidepressants, that would not have been possible.
For me taking antidepressants is no different to taking the pill, or to the medication my siblings took for their ADHD when they were at school. My illness is the result of a chemical imbalance, not a mind-set, and although I have found therapy useful for helping me to communicate and understand my depression, this alone was not enough. Depression isn’t something you can treat on a catch-all basis, and as such antidepressants aren’t the answer for everyone, but they emphatically were for me.
I’m not the same person I was without the medication, and it’s difficult to know how things would be now that I’ve spent almost eight years of my life taking a pill every night, but y’know what? I don’t really want to know. I want to be able to get out of bed in the morning, make plans with my friends, hold down a job and responsibilities – if it takes a daily 40mg dose of Citolopram to enable me to do that, then so be it.
Today is World Mental Health Day.