Why I’m Not Ashamed To Be On Antidepressants
When I was a teenager, sometime around the age of 15, I started worrying about everything constantly. It’s difficult to describe exactly how my anxiety manifested itself and took me over, but here’s an example: any time something happened such as me feeling embarrassed, or thinking a friend might be annoyed at me, or anything to do with a boy, I had to go over the situation again and again in my head, reassuring myself everything was okay - and always ending with the mantra “everything will be okay, relax and stop worrying, what’s meant to be will be.” If I was interrupted during this, I’d have to start again. Often, to ensure I got through it uninterrupted, I’d go off to a quiet place (my room, or the toilets at school) and say it to myself there. Until I could go over it perfectly, I’d be distracted and unable to concentrate on anything else — the anxiety bubbling away inside me, not leaving until I’d done it.
This became “normal” for me; part of my everyday life. I figured it was just who I was, and that I would deal with it. Sure, it was distracting, but it didn’t happen all the time. I got used to it. It didn’t even cross my mind that something could be done about it.
Around the same time, I started pulling my hair out — a condition called trichotillomania. I had a similar attitude towards this — it was just a silly habit, and it provided me with a sense of relief (similar to scratching an itch). Even when I lost hours to it and ended up with clumps of hair on my floor, my mum asking me what was going on, I didn’t think I needed help. I was fine. I mean, it wasn’t ideal, but I could handle it.
Gradually, though, little by little, everything got worse. I graduated from university into the recession, moved back home and was in an unfulfilling job. I stopped going out and socialising. Without school and university work to distract me, my anxiety increased tenfold. I started to give myself bald patches from pulling my hair out, and it was getting increasingly difficult to cover them up. I realised that I needed help and went to my doctor.
I was determined that I only wanted therapy, and didn’t want to go on medication. In the UK, it’s instilled into so many of us that “drugs are not the answer” when it comes to our mental health, and that the American way of prescribing pills so often is far from ideal. I believed this. My doctor was wonderful and asked me what I wanted to do — she didn’t pressure me in any way. So I decided to go to therapy. I was put on a waiting list for the NHS, but it took weeks to even get a phone consultation, and even then I was told my therapy may only be “online CBT”. I needed help quicker. I was lucky enough to be living at home and to have a supportive mother who would help out with paying for a private therapist. So I got recommendations and saw one, but nothing really improved. Begrudgingly, I decided to go on drugs. My doctor prescribed me sertraline (known in the US as Zoloft), the most commonly prescribed SSRI in the UK as it supposedly has the least side effects. She explained we’d try me on it for 6 months, possibly a year, until I felt ready to come off it - that it would help me through right now, basically.
Things improved. I made new friends and started going out again and having fun. For the first time in years, I was incredibly happy. A friend recommended another therapist who I went to and found much more helpful, and she helped me realise that the anxiety I suffered from was a form of OCD (which is a much misunderstood disorder). She also told me that she felt therapy often worked best hand in hand with antidepressants. I went travelling and got a much more fulfilling job when I came back. What’s more, I had treatment for my trichotillomania at the wonderful Lucinda Ellery Consultancy in London using their Intralace system (and my hair has now grown back!).
I’d stayed on sertraline while I was away travelling, as I spoke to my doctor and we agreed it would be for the best in case I really needed it again when I was away. But when I got back, I decided to come off it. I didn’t want to be reliant on it forever, after all, and I was fine now. Now my life circumstances were better, so surely my mental health would be fine without medication, too? I could be happy on my own, right?
How wrong I was. I hadn’t even noticed how the antidepressants had helped with the obsessive thoughts and anxiety until they came back. I’d been free from them for a few years and now here they were again, like an unwanted guest at a dinner party. I realised that for my own sanity, I needed to go back on the sertraline and stay on it for the foreseeable future. After all, if it helped, why wouldn’t I? If I had a physical ailment that meant I needed to be on drugs for the rest of my life, would I not take those drugs? Why should my mental health any different?
Yes, there are side effects — the main one for me has been weight gain (one of the reasons I decided to come off them), but given the difference they make to my life I’ve come to realise I’d rather be a bit heavier and happy than skinny and unhappy (the pressure on women to be thin is a completely different story, of course).
I have friends that have anxiety issues, but refuse to go on pills. I respect their decisions (I was one of them once, after all), but their reason to not go on them is purely because of the stigma, which troubles me. A friend of mine told me it was easier to come out as gay than someone whose life had been changed by antidepressants — that’s pretty shocking in my opinion, and shows that attitudes need to change. Lena Dunham’s post on social media earlier this year was a great insight into the stigma attached to taking them, and I was pleased to see a public figure speaking out about it.
Whilst I agree drugs should not always be considered the first resort in many mental health cases, they’ve certainly helped me the most. There is enough stigma out there about speaking about mental health problems, let alone getting help. So down with the stigma for being on antidepressants. They enable me to function, and I will never be ashamed to say I will now probably take them for the rest of my life.