Hooked on Happy Pills

‘Well I’m happy for you to stay on them…’ My GP peered thoughtfully at me over the rim of his glasses. ‘I’m also perfectly fine with you coming off them. I’ll set our review for a year’s time shall I?’

And thus passed the annual antidepressant prescription review, like so many of its predecessors, proving about as useful as a chocolate teapot – and that although it’s so very easy to start taking happy pills, getting off them is another story.

Happy pills. antidepressants, SSRI’s – whatever you call them – used to be the preserve of those teetering on the edge of psychosis. These days everyone’s on them. There’s no doubting that some people in the throes of serious clinical depression really need support from medication – and drugs like paroxetine, citalopram and zoloft provide a chemical lifeline to those nosediving into a serotonin-deprived abyss. However there seems to be a worrying trend towards over-prescription. Medication being handed out like smarties for the mildest cases of the blues – and patients consigning themselves to years of pill popping.

The NHS prescribed record numbers of antidepressants in the UK last year and a recent study by women’s campaign group Platform 51 found that nearly half of those using antidepressants have taken them for at least five years, while a quarter have used them for ten years or more. The statistics are frightening, but actually being part of these numbers scares me even more. I’m eight years and counting.

I have been on and off antidepressants three times now. Having never been able to tolerate more than the lowest possible dose of my particular brand of synaptic rocket fuel, I still have absolutely no idea if they help me at all. Literally none. However the emphatic explaining away of my anxiety, depression and fatigue symptoms with ‘serotonin deficiency’ has consistently led me back to a GP-endorsed SSRI prescription.

I do know that the first two weeks of cranium electrics, nausea, sandpaper mouth and night sweats feel like a grenade has been dropped into my soul. And that once these side effects have tapered off it’s impossible to benchmark what effect the antidepressants are really having. I’m just thankful to have survived. I’m told the ‘therapeutic benefits’ of my medication can be expected to kick in after six weeks or so – but at this point I’ve usually been working so hard at getting better through exercise, meditation, healthy diet and general avoidance of stress that any number of things could be bringing me back to wellness. Drugs have always been just one aspect of a very holistic treatment plan for me and I’ve never been sure of the part they’ve really played in my wider recovery story.

My uncertainty has always sat in stark contrast to the certainty with which medical professionals have recommended drug therapy to me. All roads lead back to chemical imbalance, it seems. That knowing nod in the GP room when it’s discovered that depression reared it’s ugly head again a year after ditching my medication, the inferred conclusion that being drug free was the chip in the metaphorical mental health windscreen that led to a whole world of shattered glass. Serotonin, you see. And my counter-argument that we’re all still utterly clueless around whether or not the pills actually help me? ‘Well they really can’t hurt…’

Except for some people it seems they can. Hurt, that is. Particularly for those on high dosage antidepressants, withdrawal can be vicious. Dizzy spells, migraines, aches and pains, insomnia. If you’ve watched Leo Di Caprio sweating and whimpering his way through heroine withdrawal in The Basketball Diaries think of SSRI comedown as a vanilla version. Pretty, it is not. Six months easily turns into six years on these pills when kicking the habit is this hard. Then there’s psychological dependency. Even if you’re not chemically hooked, mustering up the confidence to throw out the blister-pack-shaped safety net is terrifying.

At this stage I have no idea what to do and neither, it seems, does my doctor. It’s definitely the easier option to keep mindlessly slipping a small blue pill under my tongue after breakfast everyday. But time’s marching on and with it the ever decreasing likelihood of a chemically unaltered future. Do I really want to remain a slave to lab-manufactured serotonin? Can I put up with the tedium and inconvenience of monthly trips to the pharmacy coupled with the expense of prescription charges? It’s a sensitive subject – a decision worthy of careful, contemplative thought with due consideration for what support might be needed further down the road – and it’s going to take more than ‘come back and see me in a year’ to get there.

My depression demolition team


Depression can be very isolating. Soaring stress levels can severely impede what you can do on a daily basis and trying to keep up with social niceties is exhausting, then there’s the reclusive nature of the illness. Why go out and meet people when you can completely withdraw and spend the evening at home weeping in front of an endless conveyor belt of Mad Men episodes?

Depressed people are no picnic to be around and there have been times I certainly wouldn’t hang out with me.

Because of this the pool of people I spend time with has slowly but steadily shrunk over the last few years, leaving a very select few friends and family members splashing about in the shallows with me. Since I stopped being ‘fun’, my wider circle of acquaintances has drifted away to the point that these days the most intimate window into their lives I have is through Facebook.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to be forcibly reminded who your real friends are. I’ve got some pretty good ones. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my carefree and frivolous partying days – having a big network of mates can be ridiculously fun. But they’re not the ones who will sit on the phone with you at 3am when you can’t sleep, or take you to the doctors when you’re too anxious to go alone.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to spotlight a few of the people in my life that are helping me through this relentlessly awful time, and some of the incredible things they’ve done for me over recent years. My loved ones have become a fearsome force of destruction when it comes to battling my depression; picking me up every time I fall and refusing to let me to give up. Without them I doubt I’d still be standing today.

First there’s my parents. Pushing 60 and not without their own troubles, they’ve been my rock throughout this ordeal. They’ve taken me in and looked after me when I couldn’t cope by myself and put up with numerous tantrums when frustration made me lash out at those I love the most. I know they’d do anything for me, that this journey has been horrific on them too, and they’re my main motivation for getting better.

D, my best mate from school, although having no way of conceiving what depression is like – being the most joyful, positive and energetic person I’ve ever met – has never stopped trying to understand what I’m going through. She’s made it very clear that there’s no time limit after which she’ll cease putting up with my hysterics, and is the first to correct me when I question why she’d still want to spend time with someone who has become so tired and boring. I’d be lost without her.

W, my best mate from University, is a flaming ball of positive energy. When I’m about to fall down the well, she rugby tackles me back into reality and forces me to think positive. She once travelled all the way from London to my parents’ home to drag me back to the city on a train because she knew I couldn’t do it alone.

My brother M. He seems to have stolen all the wisdom genes in our family, for there’s no-one else who can shift me from completely panicked to calm, in the space of a phone call, like he can. He takes no prisoners in his approach to dealing with my illness and knows exactly when to call me out on my crap, but I trust him implicitly.

Lastly, there’s my friend A, a qualified psychologist who I know, at times, has found it difficult not to overstep the boundary between friend and therapist, but time and again has provided much needed advice and support with infinite grace and compassion. Despite having to spend most of her day dealing with other people’s problems, she always has time for me.

When I start to feel jealous of my 20-something peers whose colossal social spheres seem to involve nothing but having the time of their lives (damn you, Facebook, DAMN YOU) I only have to think about my little pocket of loved ones. I only need to remind myself how truly privileged I am to have these people in my life, and to hope that one day I can show them the same unfailing loyalty, love and respect they’ve shown me.

And then I remind myself to switch off Facebook.

Coming out of the depression closet

public speaking

“You should be writing about your experiences in the Guardian or something. You know, show people it’s nothing to be ashamed of…” a friend said to me recently.

I nodded. “Yeah. Maybe in a few months. Think I’ll just do the anonymous blogging thing for now though.”

Putting your name to an illness like depression is brave, courageous and generally bloody awesome. It shouldn’t have to be, but thanks to prevailing bad attitudes and stigma towards mental health, it is. Considering the Victorians thought depression in women was down to the ‘wandering womb‘, we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of how society views the depressed and anxious. If only curing my affliction was as simple as shrieking ‘Wench! Back in your box!’ at my nomadic uterus.

Campaigns like Time to Change and the wealth of celebrities speaking out about their experience of mental illness are doing brilliant things to oil the wheels of change when it comes to stigma. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

It’s definitely important not to hide your illness in the shadows. Talking about it helps and self shame and stigma only serve to reinforce society’s misunderstanding of depression. I do believe that those who have experienced a walk with the black dog are the ones who can truly debunk and stamp out unhelpful depression myths.

But often while we’re fighting the good fight we forget about the people behind the illnesses. And that reluctance to go public with your problems isn’t always indicative of shame. Depression and anxiety are physiological conditions in the same way heart disease and broken bones are. But they’re more personal. 

People have very different ways of dealing with their emotions – some will reveal their problems to all friends, colleagues, bus drivers and woodlice within a ten mile radius, whereas others (me) are more private and need a bit of time and space to crawl out of the hole and heal first. Explaining what it’s like to go through depression to those that know you can be cathartic, and of course helps dispel mental health misconceptions, but it’s also exhausting.

Which is why the people that matter to me know what I’m going through, but everyone else is none the wiser. It’s why I’ll be writing about my experiences here, but I won’t be revealing my full name.

As long as I’m still in poor health and vulnerable, I plan on burying my head in the sand just a little bit longer. And I think that’s alright. Just as it’s OK to tell the world you have a mental illness, if you’re not ready it’s also OK not to.

An open letter to clinical depression


I hate you. You’re a thief that’s taken so much from me. The moment you gave me my first panic attack life changed forever and a door opened which can never be shut.

I’m in awe of you. Your relentlessness, your power over me and your ability to instill fear within the most joyful, everyday things. How you ever made the innocent tinkle of an ice cream van bell strike fear into my soul on a balmy summer’s day is beyond me, but seriously, bravo.

I’m grateful for the things you’ve taught me. Self awareness, that being vulnerable is OK, and that all frightening things shrink when you face them head on.

You muted my capacity to love and replaced it with a cocktail of fear, nihilism and apathy. But it’s back stronger than ever now.

You’ve aged me. I’ve confronted things that otherwise may have taken a lifetime of experiences to unearth. I’ve looked my mortality in the face and I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not afraid of dying anymore. I am afraid of not living though.

By taking me to the end of my fear threshold, you showed me there’s nothing to be afraid of.

By forcing me to take time out and recuperate, you taught me to be kind to myself. And now I’m better at being kind to other people.

By showing me that I was living wrong, you forced me to make changes. Living under your crushing weight magnified everything that wasn’t right in my world, and forced me to think about what I could do to make it better. Without you I probably would have just muddled along as I was, accepting things as they were. Now I refuse to live anything but joyfully.

You made me difficult, in fact a complete toss-pot, to be around. But that’s OK because I love those that stood by me all the more for sticking around. You did make me hurt my family when they were trying to help me though, and for that, I still think you’re an ass face.

You’re awful and there have been times you’ve almost destroyed me. But you haven’t crushed my spirit, and you never will.

Once more into the breach


After over four years of doing battle with depression and anxiety, punctuated with dizzying peaks and catastrophic troughs, I was just starting to feel like I was figuring it out. Back in stable employment, taking a few holidays here and there and even considering dating again, I couldn’t believe my luck. Could the black dog actually be retreating from my world once and for all?

Then spring arrived and with the change of season came a change in mood. For no apparent reason my hormones went beserk, hypomania and anxiety set in and now I find myself, once again, crushed by the weight of my failing nervous system and left cowering under a frightening black cloud. Feeling like there’s an axe wedged in my chest and that the sky is literally pressing down on my head. That creeping chill and a sense of impending doom wherever I turn. Dread. Feeling nervous before doing something as simple as doing the food shopping, or going to the dentist. I even find trees scary. TREES.

It’s disappointing, to say the least. But I’ve done it before and I shall endure it again.

I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than feeling like your life is passing you by. Seeing all the possibilities before you, trying to grasp at the tendrils of something real but having it escape you. Depression truly is a cage. Your 20s should be a time for fun, frivolity and exploration but unfortunately for many it’s also a very confusing, high pressured and anxiety inducing stage of life. But it’s also a time for growth and if there’s one thing that grappling with mental illness gifts you with, it’s strength of mind as well as a space to grow as a person.

Little comfort to someone in the midst of a black fog, I know. But to anyone else experiencing the quarter-life-crisis, as I like to call it, I’d wager that it really is more common than you think…and if others can crawl their way to the other side, seeing in their 30s with a renewed sense of wellbeing and inner strength, then so can you. And so can I.