Trigger warning: this post mentions depression, anxiety, taking antidepressants, self-harm and attempted suicide. If you have personal experience of any of these then you may find this post distressing.
Next year will be the twentieth anniversary of my diagnosis of depression. It will also mark almost twenty years of taking antidepressants. That is huge! It means that I’ve suffered from depression for the majority of my adult life.
If you’ve read this blog before then you’ll know that I’m very open about my depression and anxiety. I feel no shame that I have these illnesses. They are as much a part of me as the oddly shaped mole I have on my right arm.
I haven’t been so forthcoming about the fact that I take antidepressants daily. But I’ve taken antidepressants for almost half my life and I’m likely to take them for the remainder of my life.
Just recently, I’ve read two articles that have very contrasting opinions about the efficacy of antidepressants. The only real thing that these pieces of writing have in common is that they left me with a desire to write and share my own experiences. Of course, I’m not a medical professional but I can talk personally about my life with chronic depression and anxiety and my relationship to antidepressants.
Antidepressants & Me
A Tale of Two Articles
The Argument Against Antidepressants
The first article was in The Pool and is a detailed synopsis of a newly released book called Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. This book basically states that antidepressants don’t work and that the claim that people who are mentally ill have something wrong in their brain is a lie. In short, there isn’t a fault in the body that causes mental illness. Instead, the cause of depression is the inability to cope with traumatic life events.
I was diagnosed with depression when I was twenty years old. This year I’m turning forty. That’s a hell of a long time to be suffering from something that isn’t really an illness. Maybe I should just pull myself together. Or accept that shit happens and get over it.
There was no scientific evidence for this theory. The book claimed psychiatrists the world over have no idea what causes mental health problems. The book apparently goes on to suggest that medical professionals created an unproven theory that a chemical imbalance in the brain causes depression. And antidepressants treat depression by redressing the balance.
The Argument For Antidepressants
I read the second article in The Guardian yesterday morning. It was written by the paper’s Health Editor and talked about the results of a six-year study which have recently been published in the scientific journal, The Lancet. This study proves that antidepressants do work (some more effectively than others) and that one million people in the UK should be given access to proper treatment for their depression. Be that drugs or therapy.
My Story of Taking Antidepressants
My personal experience of antidepressants is that they do work. They have worked for me. They’ve given me the chance to live a relatively normal life. I’ve had my dream job, I married a wonderful man who I love and I’ve become a mother to two amazing children. If I wasn’t able to take a pill every day to control my depression then I’m sure that this life would not be possible.
However, not every antidepressant works for everybody. We are all made up of different DNA and so different medication will affect each of us differently. And it took me a number of years before I found an antidepressant that suited me. Also, not everyone who suffers from depression will need to take antidepressants. But I did and there is no shame in that. So that is why I’m sharing my story.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression in January 1999. It was the second term of my second year at university and I was twenty years old. And to all extents and purposes, I had a fabulous life. University was brilliant and I was enjoying my degree. I was dating a boy I adored and I had some amazing friends. Life was okay.
But the truth is that I wasn’t okay. I’d lost weight and I had no desire to eat. I couldn’t sleep and if I did then I would have horrific nightmares. I felt nauseous all the time and was plagued with constant headaches. My days were filled with anxiety and I could often be found crying uncontrollably.
Eventually, I suffered a nervous breakdown and my parents had to drive to university and rescue me. As soon as I could, I saw a GP. He arranged for me to see a psychiatrist. This psychiatrist gave me my official diagnosis and prescribed me the antidepressant paroxetine (seroxat).
It took a few months before I was taking the maximum dose of seroxat. And for a while, the antidepressants were helping but as the year wore on, I began to deteriorate. I started to self-harm. At first, I just started to punch myself. Eventually, I started cutting my arms and legs.
Over the next few years, I continued to self-harm. My mental health deteriorated further. And in November 2002 I took the last of three overdoses.
Obviously, the seroxat wasn’t working and I would have to change antidepressant. And my psychiatrist decided that he would like to try me on venlafaxine.
The next few months were hell. I was severely ill and I just wanted to die. There were days when my depression was paralysing and I would spend the whole day lying in bed staring at a wall. I didn’t even have the energy to cry.
My depression and anxiety were debilitating but my psychiatrist was adamant that I needed to change antidepressants. The reduction of the seroxat left me feeling physically and emotionally destroyed. But I couldn’t start taking the venlafaxine until the seroxat had completely left my body.
When I started to take the venlafaxine the side effects were awful. There were a few times when I lost my vision or I stood up but I’d lost feeling in both my legs. However, after a few months, I had reached the maximum dosage. It was then that life began to improve.
I soon felt that I was able to hold down a part-time job and I started working as an afternoon manager in a small fashion boutique in my hometown. Then in December 2003, I decided that I wanted my life to start again. And I needed to think about creating a career for myself.
I was 25, living at home with my parents, I didn’t have a job or many friends. Life looked bleak. But actually thanks to my antidepressants I was feeling better. And I was ready to take on the next chapter of my life. I arranged to do two days of work experience at some charities in London. And it was on one of those days that I met a wonderful man. A man who I fell in love with and a man who is now my husband and the father of my children.
Coming Off The Antidepressants
I stayed on venlafaxine for almost eight years and my mental health improved considerably. In fact, in 2011 my psychiatrist and I decided that I was stable enough to consider reducing my dose. Six months later I was no longer taking venlafaxine. It was the first time in twelve years that I’d not been on antidepressants.
At first, my mood was stable without antidepressants. But then gradually I forgot that I suffered from depression and anxiety and I began to live recklessly. I was burning the candle at both ends and I was constantly trying to keep up with my younger and cooler work colleagues.
Eventually, my depression and anxiety were so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. My psychiatrist and I decided that it had been a good experiment but that I needed to take antidepressants.
In 2012, Mr H and I decided to start trying for a family. I’d always known that I couldn’t have a baby while I was taking venlafaxine. I was on the maximum dose and the risk to myself and the baby was too great.
My psychiatrist and I made the decision that I needed to go on a new antidepressant. And it needed to be an antidepressant that was safe for pregnancy and breastfeeding. I knew that it was stupid to even consider not being on an antidepressant during pregnancy. The risk of not taking anything was greater than the risk to the baby. So my psychiatrist prescribed sertraline. The safest antidepressant to take during pregnancy.
After a few months, I began to take 200 mg daily (the maximum dosage). And I took this antidepressant throughout all six of my pregnancies and I continue to take it to this day. During my pregnancy with Little Mister H I produced a video about taking antidepressants during pregnancy and what that decision meant for me and the baby:
Another Relapse And A Change Of Medication
Then I had another relapse last summer. I thought that I’d coped with the miscarriages, but once Little Mister H was no longer a newborn, the stress and the emotion of the past few years caught up with me. I began to get panic attacks and my depression was bad enough that I often struggled to get up in the morning. All I wanted to do was cry and sleep. I wasn’t able to motivate myself to do anything. It took all my strength to attempt to be the mummy that my children needed.
My GP referred me to the local mental health services. I saw a psychiatrist in October 2017 and he altered my diagnosis from severe and recurring depression and anxiety to chronic depression and anxiety. I’d just begun six weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and although it was helping it was clear that I also needed a change in my medication. However, as I was already on the maximum dose of sertraline we didn’t have the option of merely increasing my antidepressant.
Sertraline is a brilliant antidepressant and it has always worked for me. I feel more myself when taking sertraline than with any other antidepressant in the past. And the side effects are minimal.
I didn’t want to have to come off sertraline. I couldn’t bear the idea of going through withdrawal, cold turkey and then the side effects of a new medication. Not when my children and husband need me.
Sertraline and aripiprazole
Thankfully the psychiatrist I saw at the local mental health centre was amazing. He was very understanding and he let me cry on his shoulder. I was truthful about how I felt and he was honest with me.
He prescribed me an antipsychotic called aripiprazole. But I don’t take the aripiprazole as an antipsychotic. When taken in small doses alongside sertraline aripiprazole acts as a booster to the antidepressant. And so in effect, it acts to increase the potency of the sertraline.
I’ve now been taking aripiprazole alongside sertraline for a few months. It has taken a while but I finally feel like I’m coming out of the relapse. And I’m feeling good.
The research study in the Lancet shows that antidepressants actually work. And although I don’t think paroxetine was the right medication for me, I do believe antidepressants have saved my life. And thanks to antidepressants I’m able to lead a relatively normal and happy life. I’m a wife, a mother and a writer. Considering how ill I’ve been in the past these are huge achievements.
Antidepressants and Me
For years, I struggled with the idea that I would be taking antidepressants for the rest of my life. I felt that my dependency on antidepressants was proof that I’m a failure and a terrible person. I wasn’t even able to lead a normal life without taking medication to stop me going insane. This angered and frustrated me.
But then one day, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist and what he said changed my whole attitude to my depression and my antidepressants. He told me that depression and anxiety were just my things. Some people have high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy or heart disease. That is their thing. But they wouldn’t deny themselves the medication that they need to live a normal life and to feel healthy. They don’t feel that taking medication is a weakness. And neither should I.
So chronic depression and anxiety is my thing. My mental health problems don’t define me but they are a part of me. And taking antidepressants is now part of me too.
Antidepressants don’t work for everyone. But they work for me.
What are your feelings on antidepressants?
I’m not a medical professional and I don’t have any medical training. This is my personal story of suffering from chronic depression and anxiety and taking antidepressants.