This article was extremely difficult for me to write. Please respond kindly and respectfully.
Trigger warnings: mental illness, self harm, suicide ideation, hospitals.
From that awful Facebook meme that insists a forest is an anti-depressant while showing a photo of actual medication with the caption ‘this is shit’, to Lily Allen’s “Everyone’s at It”, a song which actually compares Prozac to crack, it’s clear that not everyone out there supports those of us on mental health medication.
My own left wing, hippy dippy parents are against it, citing problems like addiction, and the negative effects that long term usage has on the body. Of course, these are the same parents that didn’t let me have the MMR vaccine because they were concerned that it might lead to autism. Several years later… and I’m writing for a blog entitled “Seeing Double, Understanding Autism”. Yep . I’m autistic, as are people on both sides of my family. That avoidance strategy clearly didn’t work. And even if it had, I can honestly say that I would much rather be an Aspie than die of a contagious disease like measles, mumps or rubella. Not all medicine is bad. Some actually stops people from dying. My name is Gwen Greenwood, and four years ago, antidepressants saved my life.
To explain just how necessary this treatment was, I’d like to take you back to when it was first suggested try a course of anti-depressants. I was sixteen. I had been self-harming for around a year, and thanks to long sleeved tops, my insistence that I’d much rather than go outside in the sunshine and the fact that reclusive, sneaky behaviour is relatively normal for teenagers, I’d gotten away with it. Nobody knew the extent of my addiction until I accidentally cut deep enough to require stitches. My mother drove me to the hospital in a silent, white knuckled rage, and I told her everything.
After I’d been stitched up I had a brief chat with the on-call Psychiatrist, and was referred to the local CAMHS (childhood and adolescent mental health services) unit. We talked about the relief that cutting brought to me, and terms like ‘depression’ and ‘academic related stress’ were thrown around a lot. When we discussed my options, the first thing that came up was a short-term course of anti-depressants. I said no straight away. After all, my hippy dippy mother, still white knuckled with rage, was sat right next to me, and in her house DRUGS WERE BAD. (Apart from small amounts of cannabis, which Mum’s friends still insist is good for you as long as it’s home grown and organic).
So despite being very ill, I didn’t take the medicine I’d been prescribed with. I did opt for a year of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped a lot in the short term. My self esteem went up, my grades improved and things no longer seemed quite so overwhelming. But my mental health was still fragile, and if things got bad, I still self-harmed. When I was nineteen, things got really bad. At first I just cried for long periods of time, or walked around in a kind of numb haze, perpetually exhausted and unable to taste my food, speak to the people around me or recognise whether the weather was hot or cold. The only thing that offered me any respite from this numbness was cutting. Then the panic attacks and the paranoia started. I found myself screaming and screaming without understanding why or being able to stop (sorry neighbours!). Eventually I had a complete breakdown, and after a near suicide attempt, was escorted to Hospital by three police officers.
At the time, I was convinced I’d be committed, and the next year of my life was going to resemble a scene from Girl Interrupted or The Bell Jar. Luckily, when my parents arrived I was discharged from the hospital, and sent home for a long rest. The knives, glass and pills were locked away. I was referred to Bradford’s Mental Health Crisis Team. Their role was mostly just to get me through the day, and to refer to me to services that could provide a formal diagnosis and support. I was sent to Somerset House, where after one of the shortest appointments of my life, a psychiatrist prescribed me with two types of medication: Prozac, and an antipsychotic called Quetiapine.
My house was no longer a DRUGS ARE BAD household. Nobody knew how to deal with my meltdowns (least of all me) so I took my medication as prescribed. Prozac in the morning and Quetiapine at night, or during a severe melt down. I got lots of rest, cut down on caffeine, did art therapy and exercised as often as I could. I went for long walks in a forest every day. And yes, I did find peace there. But these walks were not an adequate substitute for my medication. In fact, if I hadn’t taken my anti depressants in the first place I would have been far too ill to leave the house, and could never have enjoyed my quiet time alone with nature.
Gradually, I started to heal. I took my meds, stopped self harming, and the time between each panic attack grew longer and longer. I don’t think they’re ever going to stop altogether, but that’s fine. Thanks to my medication, I no longer made plans for my own death, or felt like dying was the only way to find peace and escape the pain I was in. Citalopram helped to numb that pain, enabling me to focus more on the world around me and find enjoyment in the smallest things, like listening to a catchy song, getting lost in a book or sitting next to an open fire. A few years later I have a good job, good friends and my mental health is better than it’s ever been.
I firmly believe that anti-depressants saved my life in 2013, and ensure that I have a high quality of life to this day. I still take 20 mg of Citalopram (a drug that’s similar to Prozac but doesn’t cause dizziness or dampen the users sex drive as Prozac often does) but I’ve given up the Quetiapine because I just don’t need it anymore. I’m happy. Could I have avoided having a breakdown altogether if I’d just took accepted my medication when I was sixteen? If I’d taken anti depressants in the first place, would that have prevented the need for anti-psychotics later on? Maybe…
All I know for sure that anti depressants are what enabled me to recover my mental health. But citalopram’s not for everyone, and it’s not a miracle cure. One of the reasons medication was so effective for me was that I used it alongside other lifestyle changes, such as more exercise, art therapy, accepting support for my autism and completing my uni assignments from home, where my family could provide support and closely monitor my mental health. Each of these strategies was equally important to my recovery. I’ve just chosen to focus on medication in this article because I think it’s the most controversial form of treatment. I’m not weak, my body is not polluted and I don’t consider myself a drug addict just because I take anti depressants. Prozac is not crack. It’s a life saving medication.
What’s your experience with mental health and anti-depressant medication? What self-care techniques do you use when you feel your health deteriorating? Let me know in the comments.