Talking about my own mental health is pretty damn scary. But I’ve found in the past that it can also be really rewarding and I love starting conversations with people about mental health and self-care. I talked a while back about being diagnosed with depression two years ago (you can find the post here). But in that post, I didn’t really talk much about my treatment, which first involved just therapy (CBT in particular) and then, at my therapists recommendation, included taking anti-depressants.
I’ll admit that by the time I started my anti-depressants, I was already wary of them and had heard a tonne of horror stories. A lot of my close friends had felt suicidal taking certain medications for depression and anxiety, and had been on them for years. So when my lovely therapist suggested trying medication to support my recovery, my initial reaction was fear. But my best friend, who has been on medication for her mental health for a while, gave me some amazing advice that has stayed with me to this day: “Recovery is like a ladder, and you’re at the bottom when you have depression. Sometimes therapy isn’t enough to get you all the way up the ladder, sometimes it isn’t even enough to get you onto the first rung. The anti-depressions help you onto that rung so that therapy can get you to the top of the ladder.” And now, I can say that I completely understand that metaphor. I feel like I’m at the top of the ladder.
I was only on a low dosage of citalopram, of two lovely little pills (perfect for me as I can’t swallow big ones) that I took once a day. I was really lucky in that I didn’t suffer many bad side effects apart from memory loss and feeling suicidal in the first month or so as my body got used to the medication. I was warned about the initial potential feelings of suicide before taking the drugs though, and I’m really glad that I told my close family and friends about it so they could help me through it. The memory loss didn’t affect me much day-to-day, but it definitely affected me during exam season when I found myself struggling to revise and retain information like I never had before.
I kept on with my medication for 15 months though because the positives far outweighed those two negatives. Citalopram allowed me to get my life back. I could finally sleep during the night *and* actually get up in the morning! I had the strength to combat my negative thoughts *and* dress myself everyday. I generally felt less anxious and more positive about my life and where it was headed. I firmly believe that this was due to the combination of CBT and my medication. The doctor who prescribed the citalopram for me advised that I needed to keep taking the pills every day for a year before stopping them, to ensure that my depression was being properly treated. I gave it a little longer than this but ultimately made the decision on my own to stop renewing my monthly prescription just before my final exams for my Masters degree.
I won’t pretend it was all butterflies and roses – it was still hard to come off my medication. But I had faith that I could do it. I was three-quarters of the way up my ladder, and I could see that the top was in sight! It felt like the right time for me and I wanted my memory to be better for my exams, so I took the plunge. There were a few times over the next few months when I considered going back onto anti-depressants because I would have some really “down days”, as I’ve come to call them. Days when I go back to swimming in negative thoughts of self-hatred and low confidence in my abilities. But I’m fortunate that these days were few and far between, and I quickly went back to feeling well again.
These down days, in the first 8 months after stopping my medication, were almost always while I was on my period. Now I’ve been having periods for over 10 years now so I know what a normal Sarah period mood is like – grumpy, bitchy and sarcastic as hell. But then there was suddenly an added element of self-pitying, doubting and hating that reminded me of how I felt before I started taking citalopram. I went to the doctors about these strange periods a couple of months before I left on my trip, and they offered me anti-depressants again, but just for my week a month that I was on my period. I decided to think about it and monitor how I felt before jumping straight onto medication again. I realised that though I was more prone to negative thoughts on my period, I wasn’t acting on the negative thoughts like when I was depressed and I could still function in my day-to-day activities. I also realised that each period was better than the last one.
6 months into my trip, and my periods are almost back to normal – I’m just a slightly grumpy troll once a month, instead of feeling ill again. I’m really enjoying travelling and feeling stress free. I honestly recommend travelling if you haven’t yet had a break from the world of academia and work. By travelling, I don’t mean having a schedule, bouncing around quickly from one place to another and feeling stressed by foreign things and having to be somewhere at certain times. Instead, I advise going slowly, without pressures and time constraints and just go with the flow. Not having concrete plans is really freeing, and I think it’s allowed my brain to reset. I feel much more able to cope when things go wrong because I have a different attitude, and instead of going straight into panic mode, I can step back and think clearly about what to do to fix it.
It sounds silly to say so bluntly, but I’m also just really happy and content with my life and with myself now. It’s not like I ever had a huge eureka moment when I was suddenly better and wasn’t depressed anymore, it has been a very gradual process with ups and downs. I can, however, say that I feel more myself than I have since when I was a teenager. I feel pretty great generally. When I look back to just two years ago, I feel almost like a completely different person!
Everyone’s recovery journey is different, and I think I’ve been lucky in that I caught my depression quickly when it got quite bad, and I had lots of people supporting me. I was also lucky to get put on a medication that worked perfectly for me, whereas many have to try different anti-depressants before they find the one that fits them best. I also didn’t have too many bad side effects. To be feeling like this two years after feeling at my worst makes me feel so fortunate.
Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long your tunnel (or your ladder) is.