Broken/Identity: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man & the Lion

In my When the drugs don’t work post I briefly mentioned how I’d recently had 2 ‘moments’ relating to me coming off of one lot of anti-depressants. I also said I’d explore them in a separate post. Well, since then, not only have I had a few more ‘moments’ but something else has cropped up that’s essentially led me to feeling broken – physically, mentally, emotionally – and feeling like I’m having an identity crisis. I feel like all 3 characters from the Wizard of Oz but in reverse: I have a brain, I have a heart and I have courage but they’re slowly being chipped away at and I fear I’ll lose them. This is why:

So, I’m fully off the Amitriptyline, which I was taking to help me sleep. And I’m pleased to report that my sleep has relatively been unaffected since coming off the drug. But, for the short term, that’s where the positives stop. The withdrawal symptoms have been agony. I suddenly feel as if I’m riddled with arthritis from head to toe; my shoulders feel like they’re tissue paper that’s been scrunched up or bubble wrap that’s been twisted and popped all at once; my digestive system feels like an Olympic gymnastics team’s flipping and tumbling inside it; my head feels like it’s a hamster wheel – fairly empty but rapidly rotating making me feel dizzier and dizzier; and each night, my bed sheets are soaked through from profuse sweating (I know, gross, but it’s the truth and I promised to be frank and candid). And that’s just the physical symptoms. Increased anger, heightened paranoia, reduced concentration, inexplicable irritability and constant crying (more so than usual which, for me, is like saying the Niagara Falls has got bigger!); those are just some of the mental and emotional responses I’ve had. So all in all, a rather unpleasant few weeks. Slowly but surely I feel as if my brain is disintegrating and my body is withering, becoming limp and lifeless like the Scarecrow dangling in the field.

Adding to my broken body, I now have a broken heart. It would be unfair for me to go in to detail because this doesn’t just directly affect myself, but I can’t really write this blog without reflecting on life as it happens, and experiencing a break up and the subsequent broken heart is something that’s recently happened to me. And it’s the proverbial straw. I’ve gone to write this sentence a number of times and I still don’t know what to type. To keep the Wizard of Oz analogy going, I feel the exact opposite to how the Tin Man feels when he’s given a heart: deflated, disappointed, despondent. Towards the end of the film, the Wizard of Oz says to the Tin Man “Hearts will never be practical until they’re made unbreakable.” And yet the Tin Man still wants one. Why? What I’d give to have an unbreakable heart right now, or even no heart at all. Ok, ok, I don’t mean that. I do believe in what Tennyson said, and I’m trying to remind myself of that every time I feel anger / despair / confusion about this all. And the thing is, I do still have a heart: I am still in love, I love so many things in life, and I still believe in love. For now. But with everything else that’s been going on, it’s hard to remind myself that things will get better. I’m trying so hard to just let the feelings and emotions wash over me but not drown me. My little heart is still beating, just not pounding. I feel broken physically, mentally and emotionally, but I am not broken and I won’t feel broken forever.

And that’s where the Lion comes in. Man alive do I have courage. It’s not something people usually boast about and it’s certainly not something I usually attribute to myself; I just think “Well, I just get on with things.” But I am going to boast right now #sorrynotsorry. I am brave. I do have courage. I’m facing up to some tough shit and trying to deal with it the best I can; I’m asking for help where I need it and I’m trying to accept when I’m not coping. I know I’m not the only person in the world who has problems, but I also know that everything is relative and one person’s crap isn’t necessarily better or worse than another’s: crap is crap and we all deal with our own crap in different ways (figuratively speaking, thank you!). I’m just trying to deal with my own the best I can and in a way that’s right for me.

And yet, I’m terrified. I am so scared that my broken body and mind along with my broken heart will break my courage. And without that, what do I have? My yellow brick road. I have my yellow brick road: hope. I can’t and don’t know for sure what will happen and how things will turn out but, then again, neither did Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man nor the Lion. So I’m just going to keep on putting one foot in front of the other and follow my yellow brick road.

When the drugs don’t work…

I started writing this post last week. I was looking to explore and share my experience of using anti-depressants. I’m going to continue the article but since starting to write it I’ve had 2, let’s say, ‘moments’ to do with my medication as I start to come off one lot of anti-depressants, which I’ll write about in a separate post. But for now, back to my original thoughts from last week…

**these are my personal experiences of taking prescribed medication which has been under continued guidance and review from my GP – please note that medication shouldn’t be adjusted without consulting your GP**

I often find that when I talk about being on anti-depressants I get the same sort of response: “oh but it won’t be forever”.  But what if it is? Well, actually, I don’t mind either way; I just want my mental health to get better and if that partly means taking some pills every morning and every night, so be it. However, an unexpected and once manageable issue that’s cropped up twice in the past 18 months has challenged me to reconsider such a stance, leading me to change my mind for the better and, in turn, change my mental health for the better too…

The day I confronted my depression and sought professional help (Friday 31st October 2014) was the last day when I didn’t take anti-depressants. I was very different then to where I am now in terms of my symptoms. Then, falling asleep was a luxury. And even if I did manage to get some shut eye, I’d routinely wake up each day, without fail, at 4am (an indicator of depression so I’m told – didn’t know that at the time). Then, I cried most days upon leaving work, walking the 10 minute walk to my car. Tears would roll down my cheeks for no reason. I simply felt empty. I was doing my dream job, I had amazing colleagues, and I was doing well at work. But I felt nothing. Or, rather, what I did feel was an absence. An absence of passion, an absence of drive, an absence of interest. When you work in the media, you’re required to take an interest in the world around you. Not so easy back then. If anything, it made me feel worse. I knew things weren’t right but I was blaming myself. I told myself I wasn’t coping at work, that I was the worst radio producer in the world, that I would never make my dreams come true, that I was letting my colleagues down. I sought to quit my job and yet, for what? I was supposed to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do since I was 7 years old (except for a brief period when I thought I might become a world champion figure skater!). If I wasn’t doing radio, what would I do? And what would happen to my dreams? I can’t tell you how terrifying that all felt. It was as if I didn’t know who I was anymore. I still have snippets of that feeling every now and then and it’s still just as terrifying. Thankfully, I’ve learnt ways to manage this feeling (that’s for another post!). On top of this, I was having panic attacks, something I had never experienced before. I remember one morning being in bed and feeling agitated and I thought I was about to have a heart attack. Obviously, a heart attack is more serious and, I should imagine, more painful, but when you don’t know what’s going on and your head’s not quite thinking clearly, that’s another thing to be terrified about. And, for me, this was the thing: the sense of terror and fear was overwhelming. I’ve always thought of myself as rather brave and fearless. I just get on with things. To feel the complete opposite only added to the uncomfortable, confusing and painful feelings.

So when I was prescribed anti-depressants – and for a short period sleeping tablets – I was relieved. Just anything to take the edge off of what I was feeling and help ‘set me right’ was gladly welcomed. That’s not to say I didn’t feel uneasy about taking medication but it felt like it was the lesser of 2 evils at the time. Along with what ended up being 6 weeks off work and 4 months of a phased return to work, the mix of medication and rest started to put things right again.

Forward 2 years and here I am, still taking anti-depressants. In fact, I’m taking 2 different types: Fluoxetine (Prozac) and Amitriptyline. The Fluoxetine is specifically taken to address the depression whereas the Amitriptyline is to help me with my sleep – something that has been an ongoing struggle for me. For a good while I found that I was still waking up early in the morning, struggling to go back to sleep and often struggling to get to sleep. According to my GP, sleep is the last thing to settle when it comes to treating depression, which isn’t helpful when sleep deprivation, for anyone, can make you irritable, stressed and ill – both physically and mentally. It’s easy to see how tricky it can be to break out of such a cycle. So when I went to my GP earlier this year expressing my frustration of still not sleeping, I was prescribed Amitriptyline.

Now, it’s not the first time I’ve been prescribed an anti-depressant to help me with my sleep. Last year, it was Mirtazapine. But that was far too strong for me. While it knocked me out for six and kept me dormant throughout the night, when I’d finally wake I felt like what I imagine it feels like to be a zombie: dazed, blurry vision, pounding headache, no sense of time. I stuck with it for a while as I thought I should give it a good go. However, there was no let up from the Mirtazapine. Whereas the side effects from the Fluoxetine (blurred vision, nausea, headaches, even more intense depressive feeling, ironically) wore off after a few weeks, my zombie like status didn’t go away. Instead of correcting one problem, I now faced a different one. This was not conducive to bettering my mental health. And so I stopped taking it (under the guidance of my GP, I should add).

But there was another reason why I stopped taking Mirtazapine and it’s the same reason for me tapering off my Amitriptyline at the moment: weight gain.

I’ve never had any issues with my weight before; growing up I danced A LOT- among other active hobbies – which kept me rather slim and in my adult years I’ve always done some form of exercise and eaten relatively healthily, leading me to having stayed pretty much the same weight/size for the past 10 years. Since taking both Mirtazapine and Amitriptyline, I rapidly gained weight. I have increased 2-3 dress sizes and in the space of 6 weeks I put on around 10kgs, which I just haven’t been able to shift. Nothing else changed in my lifestyle other than the introduction of the medication. But what did change was my mood, my self-esteem and my thoughts. And not for the better. I know, I know: the quality of sleep impacts my mental health and, in theory, if the pills are helping me then I should stick with them, right? But it’s not as black and white as that. For me, the weight gain has become an added stress I hadn’t anticipated and one I’ve been struggling to deal with. The fact I’ve had to buy new clothes so I can actually fit in to something has been an added stress, financially. And you can call me vain or shallow or whatever but for the first time in my life, I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I know I’m partly a product of my generation but I’ve always tried to see beyond social expectations for women (and men) and their bodies and have, more often than not, been pretty accepting of my own. It’s by no means perfect but, then again, that’s the point – no ‘body’ is perfect and to desire as such is, in my opinion, an unhealthy thing. Yet I would be lying if I said getting the odd compliment on how I look every now doesn’t boost my ego. However, I’m not going to go delving in to exploring the complexities of society, gender, psychology and so much more here; I think that’s for others to explore or, at the very least, for me to explore another time. My point is, I have mixed feelings and thoughts about my body at different times, as most people do about their own bodies I should imagine. Yet, since being on the Mirtazapine/Amitriptyline I’ve found that my feelings towards my body, despite any outside influences, have slid further down the negative end of the scale when it comes to perception and acceptance. I’ve really struggled to manage my emotions and thoughts surrounding my blood, flesh and bones.

So, like last year with the Mirtazapine, I am now coming off of the Amitriptyline. It’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion. I really have tussled with the various pros and cons, weighing up the options for me and thinking about the potential consequences. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past 2 years, it’s this: there has to be a balance between accepting who you are and how you respond to things emotionally with the extent to which you can manage such emotions and change for the better. In this context, while I know deep down that the issue of weight gain shouldn’t matter (unless it’s physically unhealthy, obviously), for different reasons at the moment, it does to me. And given where I am with things right now, it’s not something I’m able to fully make peace with and let go. I hope I will be able to in the future, but for now I’m actually accepting the way I’m responding to the situation and subsequently trying to respond to that in the most positive, kind and compassionate way.

So while I don’t mind *in principle* about taking medication for the rest of my life if that ends up being the case, I do mind the way I approach taking my medication. As with any any other medication, the pros and cons of the side effects have to be weighed up. Just sometimes, you don’t know what weight to give some pros and cons until you’re there, weighing yourself on the scales trying to work out which way to go.