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Friday, 6 April 2018

A Year on Anti-Depressants

A Year on Anti-Depressants: My story of depression, anxiety, medication and University



WARNING: This post contains MULTIPLE TRIGGERS, including mentions of severe depression (obviously), self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and everything that might fall under that umbrella. If any of this could severely hurt your mental health, please do not read this post. This is me telling my raw, uncensored story, so please proceed with caution!

If you're still here, first and foremost, go make yourself a drink, cause lord knows I would.

Secondly, thank you. The fact that you're reading this means that you or someone you love might be going through depression, and you're considering seeking help. Trust me, I know the feeling of being terrified about what happens after the diagnosis, and I am incredibly proud of you for making it this far.

No, I'm not coddling you. I just wish someone had said these exact words to me.

Alrighty, so today's post is obviously personal, but I'll try to keep it fairly light - prepare for some dark humour, because that is the crutch I rely on.

So, depression. The big D. I'll begin by explaining my perspective, so there's no confusion about which "side" I'm on.

I studied the brain for three long years, the same three years that my own brain struggled the hardest. Mental illness is very real, it's not just a cry for attention, and it definitely has physical symptoms. I'm 100% for medicating mental illness, because I'd probably not even be alive to share this post without medication.

Yes, there are non-medicated ways to cope with mental health issues - anxiety and depression, especially - but I recommend getting help only from trained professionals. And more often than not, that kind of professional help is way out of anyone's budget.

So, yes, I'm on little white and orange pills that help me stay alive, and no, I do not intend to get off them without professional help. I do still have bad days, and anxiety still colours some areas of my life. I know now, though, that I have the power to step away from situations and people that threaten my health and safety.

As someone who spent most of her life trying to please and impress the entire world - just so I could feel worthy of existing - I now fearlessly and shamelessly cut out the people who push me away from the woman I want to be. Because no one has nearly as much right to my life and my time as I do.

Now that we have a precedent, let's jump into the story.

Of course, I've shared all the emotional bits before, and if you're on my e-mail list, you've already read most of it in the second e-mail of the welcome sequence. I won't repeat myself, but if you haven't come across it at all, you can check out my e-mail list by signing up at this form:






   


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So in January, 2017, I was officially diagnosed with moderate to severe anxiety and depression. My GP, an honest-to-god miracle worker, suggested that the depression was likely a result of life-long undiagnosed anxiety, and I completely agree. Anxiety has been in my family for generations, going undiagnosed because no one really believed in mental illnesses apart from paranoid schizophrenia.

The real struggle was actually seeing my GP in the first place, that was probably the bravest I've ever been in my life. You see, very often anxiety comes with a massive side order of Impostor Syndrome. Not only was I terrified of literally everything - loneliness, crowds, heat, cold, authority, freedom - I was also convinced that my fears were normal and that I was making a mountain out of a mole-hill.
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What if I went to the GP and learned that I was being overly paranoid? What if I was fine and ended up looking stupid because I actually thought my tiny problems were serious? Was I being a "special snowflake," ungrateful of all the luxuries in my life that someone else would give anything for?

But then my grades plunged. And as a life-long straight-A student, that was all the push that I needed. The next day, I was at the student health centre at University, my first healthcare appointment that wasn't about birth control. And thankfully for me, my GP happened to be a director in the mental health field for that particular centre.

So I told her everything, and walked away with my first prescription for Citalopram and another one for something to help me sleep. And so began the long and arduous task of finding the perfect cocktail that kept me alive, but also took the edge off.

Here's the thing about being diagnosed with anxiety and depression - they pretty much contradict each other. This is a very loose explanation, but anxiety tends to have you all riled up and worried about every little thing, while depression has you in complete dysphoria, uncaring of anything at all.

Anxiety has you running from a tiger that doesn't exist. Depression has you lying on the floor, hoping the tiger will eventually get you.

The cherry on top? The biggest side effect of an antidepressant is, you guessed it, anxiety.

I was told to take the Citalopram - the anti-depressant - in the morning, and Zolpidem - the sleeping pill - at night. That first night, I had a horrid reaction to the sleeping pill. There was actual hallucination - the windows were rattling because the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting, and the fire alarm was wrapped in purple felt. I gave my unsuspecting room-mate a good scare, had to be dragged from my chair to the bed, woke up and had to be walked to the toilet and back, and then threw up in the wash basin. It was amazing.

So I was told to only take half the sleeping pill, and definitely not to get out of bed after taking it. Here's the thing: eventually, the hallucinations were limited to the text floating off my phone screen, the birthday cards on my soft-board coming to life, and my room-mate's duvet constantly rolling off the bed. Eventually, it became a game I played with myself.

Later, I realised, that was the beginning of the addiction spiral.

I'm honestly so grateful that my GP saw the signs and took me off that pill right away, because I was told to take it three nights a week, and I was already taking them every night - I rationalised it as being unable to sleep without it. Truth is, I just enjoyed the high.

On the other hand, the morning anti-depressant had me feeling groggy. When I was working on my research project. It involved slicing tissue in a cryostat - to put it mildly, there was a blade sharp and heavy enough to cut through a marble counter, in a - 30 deg. C. cabinet. I didn't realise just how hazy I was until my glove froze-stuck on to the actual blade.

And I was still depressed - in fact, the depression was worse. I preferred being alone a lot more frequently, didn't eat nearly as much as I used to, never left my room unless it was for a lecture, and couldn't focus on a single thing.

That's the irony of medicating depression - it always gets worse before it gets better. Luckily for me, I'd studied this, and knew exactly what I was getting into, and that I needed to get through the initial "settling in" period. Did that stop me from thinking all the horrible things depression makes you think? Absolutely not.

There was a silver lining to this all though - my anxiety was gone almost immediately! And it was only after it left that I realised just how bad it really was! I woke up one day and suddenly, the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders. Of course, it was replaced by complete apathy, but still, it was nice to be able to breathe. I didn't even realise how much I'd been held back by irrational fears until I wasn't anymore. Suddenly, I could go grocery shopping, and check out University buildings I'd never been to, and meet people I'd never met before, and smile at the baby in the grocery store.

So I kept up with the medication. And they doubled up my dose. And then the anxiety came back. So they put me on a different antidepressant, and changed my sleep meds. And the cycle began again.

Thankfully this time, there was no hallucination, but it was still Diazepam - the stuff that far too many people are addicted to. And then the anxiety went again, but the depression got even worse. Somehow, there were large cuts on my forearm and both sides of my hips. All of my clothes were too loose because I wouldn't eat, and then too tight because I'd binge every weekend. My research project was a mess because my notes were a mess because my room was a mess because my brain was a mess.

And the addiction switched from sleeping pills to pain. It wasn't some weird, sadistic self-hate thing - my internal monologue did the job well enough anyway - but it was more of a need to feel. You see, I was in a lot of pain, and without the veil of anxiety, I could actually see that I was in pain. But there was no reason to be in that much pain, and I couldn't find the source of it. So it made perfect sense to my broken brain, to give myself a source of pain so that I could tell exactly where it was coming from. And then one cut became three, and then ten, and then forty, until I could no longer wear short sleeves without inviting an intervention from the incredibly supportive people around me. There was simply no time for that.

So my GP doubled the dose again, and I couldn't go to the kitchen to make myself a meal, because my flatmates would be there and I absolutely could not be around people. I cried myself into breathlessness, which led to a panic attack, which led to more breathlessness. And that was just a regular Tuesday.

You don't want to know just how many nights I went to bed, wishing never to wake up, so that everyone around me was free from the burden of my selfish existence. There were multiple iterations of suicide notes, each convincing me that this was going to be the last one.

So she gave me a second, unconventional anti-depressant which indicated drowsiness as a side effect. Being the genius that my GP was, she made sure it was entirely non-addictive too.

So I was on 100 mg of Sertraline in the morning (bear in mind, I started with 15 mg of Citalopram just two months before) and 15 mg of Mirtazapine to put me to sleep. The anxiety came back briefly, because of the incredibly high dose of the Sertraline, but the Mirtazapine was able to counter it effectively.

And then, days before my 22nd birthday, the fog broke.

I woke up, and my first thought wasn't "ugh, this wasn't supposed to happen". I opened the bedroom door quietly - my best friend was still asleep - and went to the kitchen, actually hungry now. I took a sip of my coffee and my eyes welled up immediately, because it was there. It was warm, and aromatic, and strong, and caffeinated, and it was right there in the moment with me! When the toast popped out, warm and crisp, I felt the crunching in my mouth. The sun was up, and the warmth was on my skin, flooding its way into the frozen recesses of my mind.

I was alive.

It doesn't bother me which side of the medicated-moods argument you're on, because I know that those magic pills saved my life. And my grades. I graduated that July with Honours, and my parents were right there, and I cried because they were happy, and because my best friend graduated with me, and because one of my course-mates jumped off a bridge a few months before and couldn't be there to receive her degree. I cried because it was entirely too warm in that hall, and I could feel the warmth. And my graduation gown was way too large, and incredibly expensive to rent for a few hours, and I tumbled down the stairs from the stage and landed on my butt, and the pictures were amazing, and it was a sunny day, and there were so many people.

And I was happy.


***

Sertraline is a selective Serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), and is used to treat depression, OCD, PTSD, panic disorders and other illnesses related to too little Serotonin in the brain. For my 22nd birthday, I got a tattoo on my right forearm, a few centimeters from all the scarring, of the Serotonin symbol that saved my life.

Mirtazapine is the most potent of Tricyclic and Tetracyclic Antidepressants, which works as an antagonist on receptors for Serotonin, Adrenergic and Histamine receptors. It is classed as an atypical anti-depressant, and is usually indicated for severe mood disorders, including anxiety, OCD, major depression, PTSD, as well as insomnia.

Please do not take any medication without professional help and a prescription, because it will hurt you. And please do take any medication that has been prescribed to you, and if you have unfavourable side-effects, please discuss it with your GP, because more often than not, side-effects can be dealt with. Going off medication without the permission of your doctor or prescription nurse can be very dangerous. 

TL;DR: stick to the script, don't take anything you aren't told to, and don't stop taking anything you were told to take.

***

I'm always open to talking about mental health, answering any questions about my experience, and just to listen if you need someone to talk to, so hit me up on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or via e-mail. I promise you an honest, judgement-free, 100% confidential conversation. Depression works by isolating you, and then feeds off your isolation. Please remember to always reach out to those you love, or even anonymous helpers.

Thank you so much for being part of my story today, and if life is difficult right now, I promise you it won't always be this way.

All my love,

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A Year on Anti-Depressants: My story of depression, anxiety, medication and University

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