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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

I get by with a little help from my friend

I am fascinated by people’s behaviour. Not in a way that makes me want to study economics and marketing—why spoil the mystery of the reason I went Mac?—but more generally, in that people’s motivations and anecdotes and lives are of great interest.

This is sort-of just a story about me. I am airing the word ‘depression’ in this cleverly constructed sentence so as to avoid any and all possible clichéd introductions: you know, to not make a mountain out of a naked mole-rat. I want to disclaim everything, but I think that perhaps if you get sick of it, you can stop reading. Or you can send in an angry letter, but just know that you ‘adding to the discussion’ still means that I’ve won.

When I was 13, I found some Prozac in my mother’s chest of drawers. I was a little scared, and confronted her with, “I found your Prozac. Isn’t that for depressed people? Are you depressed?” (I had only snooped once before, in mid-December of 1999, and found all my Christmas stocking gifts—at which point it hit me that [REDACTED]. But I digress.) She told me that she was on them as a kind of precaution, that she wasn’t depressed all the time, but that they helped. I didn’t really understand what in the blazes any of this meant, but I think she was crying, so I didn’t really ask questions.

The summer after my first year of university, I was working in hospitality full-time and living at home. I was watching a lot of Ricky Gervais at the time, which is the embarrassing reason I have left this article anonymous. While it’s not strange for an introvert like me to spend an entire weekend in the shower with a musical card, I started to come home from work and go straight to bed, because I was sort-of just done with being out of bed for the day. I couldn’t make decisions. At the beginning, it stressed me out, but after a while I sort-of just went with it.

One of the less sincere but more entertaining ways for me to express what I was like at this time is to rank this city’s various hotspots in order of how well they catered to my uncontrollable sadness and crying needs. In my bed at night: 10/10. In the shower: 9/10. Driving along Jervois Quay in a car with my family: 6/10. At the beach with friends, behind sunglasses: 4/10. In the bathroom at some kind of afternoon event: 2/10. At my hospo job while clearing a customer’s table: 0/10. After a few of that last one, I capitulated to my mother’s requests and booked a doctor’s appointment.

If my initial conversation with my doctor were a deleted scene from an amateur standup set, it might read, “So, why did you decide to come in?” “Well, I’m very sad and my mother tells me that perhaps I should come and see someone and I can’t do anything except go to bed and cry.” “Has anything major happened?” “Well, no, not really, I think I’m just an ex-private-schoolgirl who feels a bit miffed.” “Upper-middle-class people get sad too.” “Ah, yes, but they’re not sympathetic characters, are they?” “We are getting off topic.” “The point is, I have no reason to be sad.” “You certainly don’t seem like yourself. Usually you are so happy and relaxed here, making jokes about how it doesn’t matter that your antibiotics would throw off the Pill because you are #foreveralone.” “Is it normal for a doctor to use a hashtag as a joke in conversation in early 2011?” “Don’t look at me; this is your elaborated yet essentially true memory.”

It is not particularly poetic for me to tell you that when I am being smacked around by these depressive thoughts, I wake up and just want hours to pass without caring what happens in them. I might think something negative as I leave my house and still have it swirling in my head as I arrive at uni 40 minutes later. I could decide to pick up coffee on my way, and stand on a street corner for 30 seconds every time I have to make a decision about which way to go. I am not a writer talented enough to conjure anything other than the impression that I have merely read a book about depression or been in the presence of a dementor, but for that, all I can do is beg your pardon.

I went to a psychologist a couple of times to try to decide whether I might benefit from antidepressants. They are a ‘blunt instrument’, which sort of means that different kinds affect people differently. You can’t really tell at the outset what will work, so if something doesn’t, you are advised to take another happy stab in the dark. This is not The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants—one size does not fit all. Anyway, I got a prescription. All I can remember upon starting to take antidepressants is relief. Within a few weeks, my thoughts began to have logical progression again, rather than being these sort of one-woman spirals of despair and worthlessness. I felt better because I felt less. Of course it was worth it.

I wasn’t overly excited to try them—doesn’t anyone who’s ever read the Listener know that all young people on antidepressants are really (a) ‘going through a phase’ or (b) victims of doctors’ overdiagnosis? Didn’t Lily Allen put in a song that we were all on them and that it was bad? Last week, a Guardian journalist conveniently opined that pharmaceutical companies’ influence over our society means that we “are encouraged to think of our problems in terms of the lucrative solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had.” Unhappiness is often “a perfectly proper response to the state of the world”—maybe we have a “shit job” or a “shit home life” about which it is “hardly inappropriate” to feel unhappy.

You know when you read stuff that irritates you for so many different reasons that when you try to articulate the first thing that is wrong with it, you open and close your mouth five times and your eye twitches?

Some variation on the ‘harden up’ argument surfaces every now and again, and a swarm of commenters go inevitably apeshit. Writing an eloquent response the following day, a GP did us all proud in saying that yes, more prescriptions for antidepressants are written than is perhaps ideal. But given there’s often no clear best response, and the waiting list for cognitive therapy can be months, is it really feasible to ask people to wait?

The journalist was making the point that not all such unhappiness can really be clinical, which is valid. If I were more benevolent, I would decide that he was really just trying to forge friendships between his haters in their unanimous “you’ve clearly never had a mental illness, thanks for undermining mine” backlash. To me, his conflation of “unhappiness at your lot” and “a vulnerability to destructive patterns of thinking to which you may or may not be genetically predisposed” broadens neither people’s understanding of mental health generally nor their knowledge of their own mind. Which are perhaps both far more deserving of address.

It is easy now for me to be flip and make jokes about it. I’ve forgotten many of the details of the time. In the last few months, however, I have thought a lot about antidepressants. By late 2012, I was taking them less regularly, and eventually not at all. Obviously Not Medically Advised. My logic was that I had been vaguely stable for ages, pretty happy of late, and that the series of unfortunate events that had precipitated my initial decline was not going to recur. Retrospectively, this seems to me very naïve.

I began to find it increasingly difficult to regulate my mood earlier this year. I became anxious that I didn’t know how I was going to feel in three hours’ time, and I stopped committing myself ahead of time. I wanted to avoid going into work, because I thought I was incompetent. When I did try my hand at tasks, the slightest slip-up would leave me hissing inside that I knew all along that I couldn’t do it, that they all thought I was stupid, that they were wrong to employ me and that I didn’t deserve to be there. I was happily committed to putting lots of energy into school. But I couldn’t think. I spent hours frozen at a computer, writing things down but retaining nothing, collating things but experiencing no original thought, and sitting back every few minutes, feeling my heart beat in my throat and knowing that I was bound to fail and my future entailed nothing but disappointment. All I wanted to do was learn stuff, and I couldn’t even do that.

I don’t want to be that girl at the party who’s like, “I sunk into a dull headache of my own incompetence”, but I pretty much sunk into a dull headache of my own incompetence. Everyone else around me seemed able to cope with much more than was crippling me. Eventually, numbly convinced of my own worthlessness, I decided to resume taking medication. Again, within a few weeks, I felt a profound sense of relief. The fog in my head gradually cleared.

Sometimes, I consider getting angry at myself over the notion that every time I feel sad for more than a transitory period, I seemingly just take the easy way out by hopping on some pills. Am I always going to do this? Will I be able to stay off them eventually? If I do want to stop, am I belittling those who remain on them? Perhaps what these tablets—with, of course, the aid of intermittent cognitive therapy—make it possible for me to do is dismiss any given destructive thought that I may have as irrational and false. I still think it, but it doesn’t really wash over me like it has done in the past. This is sort-of great, because it means I can do normal things like go to uni and to work and to parties and get rejected and cook dinner and plan the future and write vaguely coherent and extremely personal things in my local student magazine. I mean, if I’m not mistaken, I’ve just strung a fair few sentences together.

It makes me angry when people tell me that, “I get depressed sometimes, and I don’t want to go on antidepressants, because I don’t want to be dependent on anything.” Everyone has a different calculus as regards their own mental health. That one happens to imply that I am somehow weak and have a low threshold for throwing up my hands and asking for chemical help, but still, it’s super valid! I have to stop getting angry about this, and instead, think: I find them beneficial, so I’m going to take them for the foreseeable future. I hope that we can still be friends—unless you didn’t get the Easy A reference I made earlier, in which case I don’t care about being your friend.

I know that you didn’t ask about side effects, but antidepressants have given new meaning to the phrase, “I just can’t be fucked with depression.” Sadly for the craft of writing, this is all too literal. I have not used university as the setting for my sexually formative years (the bedrock, if you will, but if I were you I wouldn’t). Not really having had much interest in such experiences before, I now cannot tell whether antidepressants have curtailed a pre-existing sex drive or whether I just don’t really have one. I mean, I felt something down there a half-hour ago, but it turned out I just momentarily shifted over the seam of my jeans. Obviously, I enjoy a GIF of a woman biting a pillow as much as the next person, but all of this sexposure (tenuous portmanteau—hasta luego, future career at The Economist)—has given me a not-insubstantial insecurity over whether, with my disinterest in sex and inability to regulate a mood on my own, I am ever going to be worth pursuing.

Ultimately, it might be as simple as the current balance of convenience favouring me taking these pills to help regulate my mood in the medium term. Conversely, I may find myself on them for a long time, if I consider my occasional derailment to be more than that expected of adult life. The successful outcome will see me being okay with things either way, I suppose. It is difficult right now to ‘push myself’ to be the upstart millenial that I know I can be when it’s fresh in my mind just how exhausting a loss of what feels like all control is.

A cheap ending would hypothetically see me going back to the anecdote with which I began, and extolling the virtues of my new-found closeness to my mother by virtue of experiences of hers that I have come far closer to understanding. Ideally, I’d have been more understanding at the beginning when she tried to explain her use of antidepressants to me, but the ‘learning-by-doing’ thing works too, I guess. Let’s go out on a limb here and say, I don’t know, the moral of the story is, if you’re going to hide one of either your kids’ stocking fillers or your Prozac, it’s better for them in the long-term if you choose the former.


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