It’s almost two years to the day since I wrote this blog post about my experience with anti-depressants. I wrote that original piece in response to a Guardian article and, oddly enough, it’s another Guardian article that has made me want to write about it again. In the piece, John Crace writes about his experiences on Prozac and the frequent rebuttals he comes up against from people who believe that medicating depression and anxiety is not the best way to deal with it. What makes Crace’s piece so relatable to me, though, is the fact that he is taking Fluoxetine, the same drug that, until about five weeks ago, I had been taking for over six years.
Crace and I share the view that anti-depressants are, essentially, a good thing. In his piece, he talks about hearing the opinions of people who believe that other techniques, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, should be used instead. While I believe there is undoubtedly a place for therapy, and that it should always be offered as an alternative or accompaniment to taking anti-depressants, discouraging and stigmatising the use of anti-depressants is dangerous. For millions of people, including Crace and myself, anti-depressants have been nothing short of life-savers.
I was seventeen when I was first prescribed Fluoxetine. It is rare for people under the age of eighteen to be given anti-depressants, but in the midst of what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown, I don’t think the doctor had a great deal of choice. I had struggled with anxiety and depression for several years before I felt like I had to address it. I would go to school and sit through lessons feeling sick to my stomach, convinced I would throw up all over my desk. Nausea is a common symptom of anxiety, but I felt it extremely acutely, and could even predict in which lessons it would be at its worst. Bizarrely, PE, which was by far my least favourite subject, was the period in which I was at my least anxious. Being outdoors and able to move around freely alleviated the feelings of being trapped that I often felt in classrooms, and offered some light relief. It was worth it, even when we were on the football pitch in the snow, wearing skimpy little shorts.
When I first started sixth form, the anxiety held off for a while. I enjoyed the extra freedom and being around people who weren’t quite as awful as my former classmates. But after a couple of months, it reared its head again, this time worse than ever. Wednesday was my worst day at college because I had three classes one after the other. Though this may not seem like a reason to get upset, for me, being in a stifling classroom environment for three hours was nothing short of torture. One October afternoon, in the middle of a politics class, I had to leave the room, feeling completely overwhelmed. My heart rate was through the roof, I was sweating profusely and I was certain I was about to vomit. I didn’t, though. As soon as I had left the building, my symptoms subsided. This was the first time I had been unable to make it through a full lesson and it was then that I knew I needed to get help.
This was the climax of a problem that had begun when I was in year 9. During one afternoon assembly, I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming nausea and sense of dread. Suddenly, sitting in a warm hall filled with two hundred and fifty other kids, I felt trapped and panic-stricken. This was a feeling I had first experienced in primary school, but it had been much shorter lived. This time, though, the feeling stayed with me through every school day, and would also rear its head in airports, in cars and, occasionally, at home.
My friends and parents were completely oblivious to this daily struggle. Though they could see that I was not a happy teenager, and my parents would often ask if anything was wrong, they weren’t to know the extent of the problem. It was only when I could no longer face going into college, such was the terrible churning in my gut, that I had to let them in. Initially, this only made the problem worse. Though my parents were hugely supportive, having admitted the secret I had carried around for so long, I suddenly felt humiliated and exposed. While previously I had been able to pretend that everything was OK, now the mask had slipped.This led to a prolonged period of extreme depression, in which I would spend hours in bed, completely uncommunicative, not wanting to do anything but watch TV. I felt like a waste of space, a disappointment and a burden on my parents, which only made me shrink further into a state of self-loathing.
It was not until I was prescribed medication that things started to get better.
It has been over a month since I stopped taking medication, having relied on them throughout university and through most of my sixth form years. Though I now feel OK, (my dosage over the last few months was very small), like Crace, I am aware that there may well come a time when I need to rely on them again, and I will not hesitate to do so. Those who criticise the use of anti-depressants are often the people who have never had to rely on them and do not know the extent to which they can turn a person’s life around. Of course, this is not the case for everybody, but perpetuating the stigma that taking anti-depressants is a sign of weakness is extremely harmful. I recall chatting to a severely depressed friend of mine several years ago who refused to take medication. Despite me singing the praises of Fluoxetine, they were concerned about becoming addicted to the pills, and refused to try them. Fear-mongering in the press and among some corners of the medical community is turning people away from potentially life-saving medication.
Taking anti-depressants cannot solve all your problems, but it can help you get out of bed in the morning, restore your ambition, and allow you to enjoy life again. Like asthma or diabetes, there is no cure, but there is medicine that can help alleviate the symptoms. You would not discourage a diabetic from taking insulin, and we must not discourage people living with depression or anxiety from taking anti-depressants. To do so is to play with the lives of incredibly vulnerable people, with potentially disastrous consequences.