Here Goes Something
I’ve just taken my first dose of anti-depressant medication. Well — technically, half a dose. My psychiatrist, Dr Z, advised starting small so my body can slowly adjust and hopefully skip any initial side effects. Side effects I’m not going to list because thinking about them isn’t going to do me any good.
My follow up appointment is in six weeks. By then we’ll know if the medication works. That’s if, not will. Dr Z was honest — and has been ever since I started seeing him three years ago. As with the last five medications I’ve tried, we’re rolling the dice here. (They were for ADHD, whereas this is my first SSRI.)
Well. It’s an educated guess, but it’s still a guess. While this particular medication works for others — including my close friend who reported a “night and day difference” — there’s simply no telling how I’ll respond. All we can do is give things a go. And if we’re lucky, and I feel better, we keep going. If I feel worse, we’ll stop and look at option six.
I feel as relaxed as that reads. I know the routine by now. I get the “rules”. It’s an unusual comparison, but hospitals are a bit like casinos. Much of what happens within their walls is up to chance. And I’ve realised what I have in common with a floor regular is the ability to keep showing up as hopeful as any of the times before.
Hope. Ahh. I’ve always said hope bridges the divide between what we know for sure and what we’re sure we want. It also explains why, despite requiring six weeks, I’m sure I felt the effect of my medication within six minutes. It was like a wave broke as my lips came together and a feeling of warmth washed over me.
Sadly, it didn’t last.
I’m writing this two hours later feeling nauseous. But it’s fine. It’s going to take much more than an upset stomach for me to stop this ride. Given how long it has taken for me to try anti-depressants — since they were first recommended to me in 2010 — I’m strapped in and committed to this mission to improve my mental health.
The Road Here
I wrote about my first “dark night of the soul” in my book, Living in Cream.
“The year was 2010, and as much as life was just ‘taking place’ — with a breakup, drifting friends and one sadly passing away, an injury, job rejections, unfulfilling work, and the pressure of finding a career after graduating — being hit with everything at once was more than I could withstand. My walls weren’t just closing in; they came down. I was left seeing the world in a new light — as a world with no light.Paradoxically, this kind of darkness has the ability to make some things very clear, like the fact that you’re depressed.”
It was clear that my depression was shaped by events in my life rather than the unbalanced chemistry in my brain. Back then, I believed anti-depressants were only for biologically caused depression. My Dr tried assuring me medication would still help and even revealed she had benefited from its use. I politely declined. As much as I needed the helping hand, I said I’ll handle it. I still have the decade-old memory to dust off. I was determined to “figure out things on my own.”
And with that decision, my depression became a door…
It led me to discover the worlds of self-development, positive psychology and philosophy. Up to this point, no one — not even my parents or teachers — had ever discussed mental health or resilience with me. With the support of close friends and online communities, I started to learn what I needed.
As detailed in Living in Cream, I discovered philosophies that changed my perspective for the better and empowered me. I laid the foundation of a life of good mental health using positive psychology practices around dance, writing, fitness and humour. And I also became the Boy Under the Bridge — writing openly about my “journey to the brighter side”. Which not only marked my ongoing commitment to self-development but also to helping others along the way.
And what a journey it has been. Johann Hari writes in Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, that our “pain has a message.” I listened to mine. And I allowed it to lead me to a completely new life.
The biggest changes I made related to meaning and purpose. I left the corporate sector (where I had a job marketing expensive cars) and took up an unpaid volunteering placement overseas. This eventually allowed me to enter the non-profit sector when I returned home. I was able to leverage my lived experience and work with Boy Under the Bridge to enter the mental health sector. And last year, I started my formal studies in counselling.
This has all helped. But unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough. Despite the major life changes, the self-care and positive coping strategies, the black dog still trailed behind me. As anyone who has experienced depression knows, it’s loyal like that.
I continued to push on. There have been highs and lows over the last decade, which I’ve gotten through. But the clouds are now a shade I haven’t seen since 2010. We’re in the middle of a pandemic — I’m out of work and only allowed to leave the house for one hour a day. I no longer have access to the things that keep me well such as my friends, meaningful work, weight training and time in nature. So compared to my first bout of depression, there is a lot outside of my control. I don’t have much to work with.
I Don’t Know What Else to Do
As I said to Dr Z, I’m just f****** exhausted. The last decade has taken a toll and this year has been the tipping point. I know this storm will pass. They always do. But I just don’t have it in me, or the time, to lie in this lull as life passes me by. I’m not 22 anymore; I’m 32. So I’m returning to the conversation about medication… but with some key differences.
I now know about mental health conditions and what contributes to good mental health. I know that the cause of depression doesn’t just strictly sit in either one’s environment or brain chemistry. It can be both. I also recognise that medication is neither a cop-out nor a cure-all. It won’t “rob me” of the chance to “do the work” and develop as a person or numb me from feeling altogether. The intention is to lighten the load as I keep pushing forward. And if I do feel “like a zombie” as some users report, then I’ll change medication. There’s a lot of fear-mongering about the intentions of “Big Pharma” — which I once believed — but Dr Z has assured me I have complete autonomy of this process.
It is scary. There’s a long list of side effects that may lurk in the shadows. But I’m remembering to take things one day at a time. And to not get lost in the experiences of other people. As Dr Z explained, “if you look for it, you’ll find it.” There are all kinds of stories out there. All I can do is focus on my own experience, which I am doing through this medication tracker document. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So the more data I collect the more informed my decision in six weeks will be.
It’s expected that our minds jump to the worse case scenarios — after all, depression and negative thinking, right? But there are also benefits to be had. They’re just not discussed in the same detail in the pamphlet that accompanies every set of pills. And hopefully, despite the side effects, these positives outweigh everything else.
I’m not necessarily expecting a night and day difference, rather some difference. I want that lingering low-level sadness to be shaved back. I want the volume of my critical inner-voice to be turned down. I want to wake up feeling refreshed. While I’m doing my counselling placement, I want to be completely present with my clients– in the room with them, not in my head. And particular against everything going on, I want to feel more optimistic about the future. In psych speak, I want to break out of Beck’s cognitive triad — those negative feelings about myself, the world and the future. Put poetically, I just want to feel the sun when it hits my face. Rapping it now: I no longer want to just survive, I long to thrive.
I’m Not Giving Up. I’m Giving Myself a Go.
I’m not swallowing my pride; I’m keeping it. There’s nothing shameful about medication. Writing this entry has corrected my views and reminded me of how far I’ve come, and how deserving I am to go further in my health and happiness. As we all are!
You’re here too. And I want to thank you for accompanying me on my first day. While this is my “diary”, I do value your input. I’d love to hear about others’ experiences with anti-depressants and depression. It doesn’t have to be in detail. As I’ve said, everyone rolls the dice to see how they respond to medication. But as I’ve discovered over the last decade, the support and even simply the presence of others always make a positive difference.
See you in two weeks.