It’s an odd statement, but I feel immense gratitude to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
After 12 years going in and out of depressive cycles with absolutely no idea what was wrong with me, the dominant feeling upon receiving my diagnosis of moderate to severe depression – was relief.
I was 29 years old and the narrative I’d formed about why I couldn’t consistently achieve like other people was as follows: I’m weak. I’m pathetic. I’m lazy.
So… to learn that I had actually been unwell was strangely reassuring.
After a few months adjusting to Prozac, my mood evened out and I embarked on a beautiful period where I got to feel ‘normal’. The extreme lows that had characterized my twenties disappeared. I found myself saying “Oh… so THIS is why other people cope with life”.
In the years intervening, I have had two prolonged periods off anti-depressants altogether and have only changed the type of anti-depressant I take once. I have been fortunate in that regard; whilst SSRIs have had some unpleasant side effects, overall the benefits have far outweighed the disadvantages for me.
Which is why I am grateful for the difference they’ve made in my life for the much of the past 20 years.
I have learnt a very important lesson about anti-depressants, and it’s this: Using ONLY medication to treat your depression is like going camping in the Great Mountain Ranges with only a tent.
At first it’s reassuring because hey- you’ve got a tent!- but you soon realise that there are some other resources critical to survival on this journey called life.
Those resources are many and varied; for me, I TRY to supplement medication with adequate sleep; working part time; mindfulness; movement; sunshine; gratitude; diaphragm breathing; posture; laughter; singing and nature.
Absolutely central to my well-being though, is the strategy I want to discuss below: Counselling.
Although genetics have certainly contributed to my predisposition to depression, other life factors have also played a part. I have used counselling to try to help me understand and explore what role these ‘other factors’ have played. Some of them are issues I’m facing in the here and now – for instance relationship pressures; and others are historical – for example, childhood trauma.
So why do I think it’s worthwhile ‘digging around’ in emotional issues to help me navigate my way back to mental well-being?
Well, the analogy I use is this: Imagine you’re in a pool, arms above water level, trying to use both hands constructively to juggle the demands of life: children, aging parents, career, financial worries…you name it. Childhood trauma, unresolved anger, suppressed grief…all these things are in the form of an inflatable ball underneath the water.
For a long time, you’ve used your legs, your body weight, your amazing balance, to keep that ball (those balls?) from bouncing up above the surface while you simultaneously juggle five, six, seven different plates. And for a long time, it’s worked. You’re so adept at it, in fact, that you don’t even realise the ball of unresolved (insert emotion) is there.
But guess what?
Keeping unresolved emotional trauma below the water line is not sustainable long term, and it is draining. I once heard that emotions are time travellers…either you let them out when you first feel them, or they tuck themselves away, just below the surface, just waiting for their ticket out. They present right through your life at inappropriate moments, in disproportionate ways, until you finally address the original source of the feeling(s).
For me, some of my depression episodes were triggered by unresolved, suppressed emotions. It may not have directly caused my downfall; but keeping those balls below the water line DID drain me of energy; and low energy made me susceptible to depression.
I say all this now but trust me- I learnt it the hard way.
18 months after first going on SSRIs, I found myself sitting on my kitchen floor, feeling worse than ever. I was still on medication – so why the hell had it stopped working?
I now know that the fact that I was extremely depressed again after 18 months on antidepressants is not unusual. In Lost Connections, Johan Hari quotes research suggesting 65 to 80% of people who go on anti-depressants are depressed again 18 months later. Did you hear that??? 65 to 80%!
A visit to my counsellor helped me see that aside from taking that little tablet every day, I hadn’t changed a SINGLE thing about my life.
Not. One. Single. Thing.
So…where are you at right now? Take a minute to self-assess.
Like me, have you had a cyclical relationship with depression over many years? If so, what have you done OTHER than take anti-depressants (change anti-depressants, increase dosage of anti-depressants) to manage your well-being?
Or are you experiencing depression now for the first time ever? If so, PLEASE take care of yourself. You don’t have the years of experience to manage this that we ‘lifers’ do.
If all you’ve done is been to your GP and gone on anti-depressants, I want alarm bells to be going off in your mind right now. Stop. Assess. What changes can you make in your life to help you recover? What resources other than a flimsy tent are you going to take on this camping trip?
Anti-depressants play a critical role in managing mental health challenges, but don’t let them give you a false sense of invincibility.
Depression is a killer. Get some help to deflate those balls before they bounce up and hit you in the face.