I have a confession to make.
Though I have been a long-term mental health cheerleader, doing backflips that show the world my Encouragement Pants, throwing my You Deserve Therapy pom poms into the crowd and chanting ‘take your drugs, there’s no shame, go and fix your messed up brain! Woooooo!’ – until about six months ago, I had never tried antidepressants.
I know, twelve years of plotting my own death any time the wind blew, and I never even tried to rebalance my brain chemicals. What an absolute pomegranate.
There are a lot of reasons why a person may decide that antidepressants aren’t for them without ever trying them. In my case, for example, I have a neurological condition called can’ttakemyowngoddamnexcellentadvice-itis. I spent ten years in and out of therapy, telling myself that medicating would equate to failure – that if I was just given the tools in therapy, I could fix myself. If I couldn’t get out of my doom-cycles without drugs, I was a waste of bones and sinew. My friends would come to me with their multitude of mental illnesses (trauma recognise trauma, yo), and I would give my spiel about how talking to a doctor changed my life, got me into therapy, and maybe drugs are right for them. Because, when applied to anyone else, I would never for a second think that medicating was a form of failure – what a ridiculous concept! Lol.
The other reason I was so reluctant to try them after being prescribed them on about seven separate occasions was, essentially, fear. This is a problem stemming largely from media representation and the under-funding of NHS mental health services. Media taught me that while drugs might stop the urge to ram a pen into my thigh every seventy-four seconds, they would also stop me from feeling anything at all. That I would become a zombie and live my life simply existing (and maybe hunting for brains). The lack of NHS funding meant GPs could never refer me to specialists without several months of waiting, so I would talk to (often male) doctors who would essentially read me a list of possible side-effects which, as with every medication, are e-x-t-e-n-s-i-v-e. I was scared enough by the dreaded, ‘You may have a reduced sex drive’, but the one that scared me the most was, ‘You may get worse before you get better.’ If you have ever been in an iron maiden at the bottom of a mile-deep well filled with hot cigarette tar and broken china dolls, you may understand why the concept of ‘worse’ was not an option for me. (For those of you who haven’t, the answer is ‘yikes’).
So, I convinced myself that as long as my head was above water, I didn’t need any of my other body parts – what more do you need than sight, sound, taste, smell and intrusive thoughts? (Spoiler, hands are actually really useful). I kept my head above water on a diet of ridiculously fantastic friends, therapy, houseplants and denial. Unfortunately for denial, however, two years ago, I entered an actually healthy relationship, and six months later started therapy with the first person to ever tell me that I had been abused and was dealing with trauma. Absolute party pooper, that one. 1.5 years into a relationship with a person that makes me less of a twat every day, and a year into therapy with a person not afraid to use her £40 an hour to call me on my bullshit, I realised something still had to change. That perhaps it would be nice to handle a knife and fork every once in a while, and maybe to walk places rather than waiting for the tide to drift my head where I needed to be.
Encouraged by an oppressive pandemic and an irritatingly correct girlfriend, I called my doctor and asked to be put on a low dose of whatever antidepressant she felt best for a heavy case of self-loathing and life-aversion. Rather than saying, ‘Antidepressants?! You absolute pillock – you should be put in a padded cage and laughed at by toddlers and pigeons!’ as I’d assumed she would, she said, ‘Okay, sure, we’ll start you on 50mg of sertraline and go from there.’
Which was pretty anticlimactic.
So, I started sertraline. I didn’t turn into a zombie – I haven’t even craved brains a single time. It didn’t crush my sex drive into a marble of misery. It didn’t get worse before it got better. No. I actually just feel, for the first time in my life, fine, most of the time. I have the confidence to ask for what I need, even sometimes for what I want. I’ve started wearing bright colours for the first time since I was maybe twelve (I bought myself YELLOW shorts). It’s pretty remarkable, after spending the entirety of the life I remember being almost always miserable and sometimes happy, to spending most of the time slightly above okay and other times really happy. It’s like having a cool aunt that kicks all the nonsense away and gives your brain a hug (I can only apologise for that – I really wanted that auntie depressant joke to work).
Yes, I still get sad. I still get angry, embarrassed and overwhelmed.Very occasionally, I still have the urge to get too friendly with a lit match. But that’s just being a person. (Especially a person living in a country with a Tory government). Of course, everyone has a different experience of medicating, but I’d say it’s worth an adventure into the Jungle of Being Okay. It’s a lot less humid in there than you think.
Take your own advice, kids, you deserve it.