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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 11 December, 2018
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Opinion: Antidepressants – friend or foe?

I resisted taking medication for a long time because I was worried about other people’s reactions, but antidepressants have undoubtedly been my friend.

Anonymous

SIXTEEN MONTHS AFTER I first went to my GP for anxiety/depression, and 14 months after I first saw a psychiatrist, I finally caved and agreed to go on ‘medication’. I still hate referring to those little white pills by their correct name. Prefer the latter vague term. Means that I don’t have to actually admit to myself what I take every morning to stay level. Normal. To remain a fully functioning human being.

Immediately after I finally agreed to take the prescription, I cried. I cried for all that innocuous little sheet of paper signified to me. I cried because I felt like I had failed. At life. That this piece of paper meant that I was weak. Damaged. Less of a person because I couldn’t cope alone. I had never failed at anything before. And now I had failed the biggest test of all.

Even though part of me had always felt a little ‘different’ from the herd, a bit more vulnerable than most, medicalising the problem and putting an actual name to it, was a sad and poignant day. Even if I knew it was the right thing to do. On that day I officially said goodbye to ‘Me, the success story’ and hello to ‘Me, the psychiatric patient’, because, in my head at least, the two felt mutually exclusive.

But I also felt a sense of relief. That the battle was over. That the white flag had finally been raised against the enemy within. I had capitulated. And with that admission came relief together with the hope of better times ahead. I had called in the cavalry courtesy of our much-maligned pharmaceutical industry and by then I would take all the help I could get.

A perception that needs to change

Anyone who has never been on ‘medication’ probably doesn’t understand why it was such a big step for me. It’s a pill. You take it. You feel better. Big deal. But to take that attitude is to ignore the very real reality out there that, like it or not, people do have defined views of what taking antidepressant medication means. And to me, regardless of what I was suffering from, regardless of what doctors I had seen, actually swallowing that pill, taking that chemical into my system, consciously and deliberately re-programming my brain, however slightly, represented crossing the rubicon from normal to abnormal. From balanced to imbalanced. From strong to weak. Because that is the perception that is out there of what taking antidepressants means. And it is a perception that needs to change, starting with attitudes within the media itself.

I hate getting my prescription. I become self conscious and feel exposed, knowing that the white coat behind the counter has been given such an intimate insight into what’s going on inside my head that even close friends and in-laws are not aware of. I feel like I’m standing there with a ‘Fragile’ stamp emblazoned across my forehead. Or a ‘Slightly Imperfect’ sticker on my brain. I overanalyse their treatment of me and search for signs of pity in their eyes. And completely forget the fact that I’m probably number 15 of the day taking my drug or similar.

Dealing with others’ attitudes

And now as I face into a stressful period of my life, my GP suggests that I should increase the dose. Approaches the subject in exactly the right matter of fact tone which should be used to make such a suggestion. There is no judgement. And there is certainly no pity. Just an objective observation that if things are about to get a little tougher I might want to launch a pre-emptive strike against the enemy within.

And I genuinely cannot decide whether it is irresponsible on my behalf to follow her suggestion. Or irresponsible not to. Because for as long as I have been on antidepressants, my taking them has been shrouded with guilt. That I caved and went on them in the first place. And that I haven’t yet come off. Together with guilt’s powerful younger sister shame. Shame that I require a chemical crutch just to make it through the day.

I don’t discuss what I take. I don’t actively hide it but I don’t advertise it either. The mischievous child in me would truly love one day to react when a colleague, acquaintance or friend mentions how they’re looking forward to their glass of wine that evening after ‘the day they’ve had’, to pipe up and share how glad I am I took my SSRI this morning. Oh, to see their face. But I won’t. Yet. Because there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

And that is why I cannot bring myself to put my name to this article. Because, like it or not, there are attitudes out there. People do have negative reactions to any such admission. Green ribbons, or not. And for now, at least, I need to protect myself. Even if the greater good would be better served by my taking a braver stance. It is the way it is, for now at least, and silence, anonymity, Joe Blog-dom, is safe, even if it is an isolated place.

Antidepressants have helped me build a bridge

But I do want to say that antidepressants have undoubtedly been my friend. They have helped me build a bridge between two opposing worlds and the value of that path cannot be underestimated. When I couldn’t see the wood from the trees antidepressants gave me a starting point from which to map out my recovery. They were the buoyancy aid that stopped me going under and for that I will always be grateful.

Equally, I will always be angered and insulted by the judgements of others about what taking antidepressants means. They are not the only answer. But they are a bloody good start. Those who say that we have to treat the root of the problem and change the world and not the chemicals within our brains, I take my hat off to. And wholeheartedly agree. But in an imperfect world, antidepressants are an imperfect solution. And I, for one, think an imperfect solution is better than none at all.

The author is an occasional writer who has the utmost of admiration for those writers who are braver than she is. Perhaps someday she will join them and venture out of the mental health closet. But for now at least, fear and shame keep her in there.

The author is an occasional writer who has the utmost of admiration for those writers who are braver than she is. Perhaps someday she will join them and venture out of the mental health closet. But for now at least, fear and shame keep her in there.

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