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.