September 2016: At about 8.30am one Monday morning, whilst in a crumpled, over-thinking, anxious and depressed heap at my doctor’s surgery, after admitting to her that I was sick of how I’d been feeling and asked her for help, she said: “…I’m going to prescribe some antidepressants for you”.
I don’t know what I thought was going to happen when I told her I was depressed. Perhaps I thought she’d put me on one of those stereotypical NHS 2-year long waiting lists to see a counsellor. But as this was the first time, in a lonnnnnng time, that I was opening up about myself to a health professional, I genuinely hadn't been expecting to walk out with a prescription in my hand. I don’t think I’d realised how bad things had become for me.
I know a lot of people are against/uncomfortable about antidepressants and I’ve heard a lot of talk about doctors just dishing them out willy-nilly (along with antibiotics). But for me, they have quite possibly been a partial life saver. Emphasis on partial.
On my way to the doctors that Monday morning I hadn’t realised quite how much support I was going to be needing, nor had I realised how much personal work I needed to do to get myself to a healthier place. But my second step on this journey (first step being the whole admittance thing) was to accept that if you had a bad stomach/back/sinuses/other body part you’d take medication for it, so if your brain is poorly then surely you can take something to try and help that balance itself out.
So I started taking the antidepressants. And in true Mandy-style, I think I had every side effect listed on the leaflet that came in the box with the tablets.
Thankfully my boss at the time was really supportive and knew what was going on, so after I took the first tablet sitting in my office, suddenly appearing somewhat stoned, nauseous, unable to stop my eyes rolling in to the back of my head and inept at following conversations in meetings, he suggested I should go back to the doctor to see if I needed to reduce the dosage and wanted me to work from home whilst I adjusted to the medication.
The side effects weren’t ideal (particularly the teeth grinding at night) but they were only temporary (a couple of hours every day for a few weeks).
After a while I noticed I felt different – not happy – just different. I think the word I’d use is “numb”.
I’d laugh at things that were funny, but I wasn’t left feeling elated. I’d cry at something sad that happened on TV, but I wouldn’t be left feeling like I was sad. I’d smile at something nice, but I wouldn’t be left feeling happy. I just coasted along. Just existed for a while.
Antidepressants (in my opinion) are just Winnie The Pooh plasters on a burst pipe. They help stop some of the issue from showing (i.e. maybe they calm/balance out some symptoms) but the cracks are still visible and things still seep through them.
I was still experiencing large build ups of negative emotion which stopped me from functioning. I was still avoiding more and more social situations. I was still sleeping and sleeping and sleeping (because it’s easier to cope if you don’t have to be awake dealing with things). I would still spend hours just staring into nothingness and sitting in silence and have no idea what I had been thinking about during that time… What a waste of a day – could have driven to Wales, paddled in the sea, and driven back in that time!
A couple of months went by taking the antidepressants (masking some of my issue) but I knew I still had a bloody long way to go. I had to start facing the ultimate problem; I was struggling with depression, suffering from anxiety and battling low self-esteem. The only way I was going to overcome this properly was to take action and listen to the advice I was being given. I had to speak.
Something my doctor had suggested was that I contacted Leeds IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) – a free mental health service for Yorkshire folk. So I built up the courage, dialled the number and arranged to have a 45 minute interview over the phone (where this woman, who I can only assume was a robot, read from a script and was the opposite of comforting).
After this odd telephone consultation/interview, I was told I’d benefit from doing some online courses… Great. Apparently a website and a couple of crappy animations were going to help me get to the root of my depression/anxiety/low self-esteem problems were they?!
I think there was a lack of understanding on my part about what I was offered during my discussion with the IAPT robot. I made a bad assumption that these online courses would at least involve some form of human interaction, and when I learnt that it would just be me with my laptop for company it knocked me back a peg or two.
Now, I’m not stupid, I’m fully aware that there isn’t enough money in the NHS for mental health so I wasn’t expecting the results to be an all singing and dancing parade of psychologists/counsellors for me to cherry pick from. But I was most certainly surprised and disappointed with the outcome.
It made me doubt myself; made me think that I was making something out of nothing, and clearly just needed to get a grip and assumed (again) I was probably wasting people’s time hence being directed to some e-learning.
When I spoke to one of my good friends (who happens to be a clinical psychologist) about my experience he was as disheartened as I was (perhaps even more so). He offered to articulate his professional opinion on my mental health (as this was the first time I had admitted it all to him - don't forget I was a fabulous at acting at being "fine") to the poor sod dealing with my case. Following my friend’s involvement they (Miss Robot et al) spoke to me again and offered me “talking therapy” – i.e. speaking with a mental health professional in a reasonably nearby location (but only for six sessions – I recognise that six is better than none!).
Now what I learnt from this experience is that I should have pushed for more than what they were offering. I completely appreciate that not everyone has their very own clinical psychologist in their back pocket who can help them with getting the right care, but what everyone does have is a voice and if they think they need to talk to someone they need to push and push for it to happen.
Those six sessions I had with my amazing mental health professional were the most enlightening six hours of my life - and nothing to do with the antidepressants. The woman working with me was the most approachable, non-judgemental, understanding woman I’ve ever encountered in the mental health arena (admittedly I have little experience in this field), but she was exactly what I needed at that time in my life.
She let me just chat shit to her. She let me laugh at myself, get angry at myself and she also listened to the lengthy background detail that I needed to explain in order for her to explain to me how I could help myself.
At the end of the six sessions I learnt that we apparently went off-road from the normal sessions she’d hold with other clients. We didn’t follow the process of what we should have covered, instead she just let me talk to her. She taught me that one of the main things I needed to do to help myself was actually speak out loud and stop hiding my problems from others. She actually gave me a hug at the end of the last session and said she’d really enjoyed meeting me and getting to know me – well, who wouldn’t! 😉
Before meeting this lady, for as long as I could remember, I’d been having 5,000 conversations in my head at once, self-critiquing, worrying, doubting and assuming. But she made me realise that I actually would benefit from engaging with someone who would teach me the steps to alter how I approach/think about things and build up the confidence in eventually stepping away from using antidepressants.
After those amazing sessions (which I oddly started to look forward to) I ended up getting myself some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – and Christ alive has that helped me (but that’s another story for another day).
But back to the antidepressants… I continued to take the drugs alongside going for talking therapy sessions, doing CBT, conducting self-care (that I’d been lacking in significantly), I was having the open and honest conversations with family and friends (via this blog in some cases) and still had numerous turbulent months of having to put my health ahead of everything and everyone else in my life in early 2018.
It’s taken two years of hard work, patience from family and friends, but I’ve made it to the other side. I don’t know how and I don’t know when exactly, but I noticed I felt better. So I decided to come off the tablets.
It was a scary move because I was worried I might dip and take a few steps backwards if I came off them, but I didn’t. I was fine, and I felt SO much better and healthier.
To summarise, the antidepressants were just part of my journey. I had to have higher and lower dosages over the two years that I was on them (depending on how I was at the time - i.e. when I was off work for a few months the dosage went up) but I know they helped me along that journey. So not everyone’s experience will be the same, but for me they were a positive step (of many) along the way.
If you can learn anything from my experience, you’ve just got to remember to keep on top of all the things that help you and antidepressants might help but mostly for me it was; talking, talking, talking, self care, keep going/moving and talking some more.
“Drugs AREN’T bad, m'kay” - (that’s a quote off South Park for those in the dark).