One day, in late July 2014, I decided enough was enough. Anxiety had been controlling my life for over a year. I’d been suffering from regular panic attacks for months, to the point where I was terrified to be on my own at night. My relationships with the people I loved were suffering. I knew that this was not healthy, that it couldn’t go on. This was not the life I wanted. And I finally admitted defeat: I couldn’t do it on my own. So I made an appointment with my doctor, and asked her if there was anything we could do. A short time later, I started taking anti-depressants to manage my anxiety, and I’ve been on them ever since. It was the best decision I could make for myself, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
But taking that step wasn’t easy. I’d been thinking about it for months beforehand, but always decided against it because surely I could cope with this on my own. Going on medication would be to admit defeat. It would mean I wasn’t strong enough to cope with the same stresses everyone else my age was going through. I wasn’t actually sick, right? I was just… tired and stressed. I was feeling down because of my coursework. All I needed to do was just try a bit harder, and learn better ways of managing my workload. Right?
In my mind, going on medication would make anxiety a real thing. Back then, I didn’t want to admit to myself that something was actually wrong inside my head. I’d definitely internalized some of the stigma towards mental illnesses that is, unfortunately, present in our society. Being mentally ill was shameful. Going on medication for it was shameful. It wasn’t something I needed to do, I thought. Whereas if I’d developed a long-term physical illness, there would be no shame in admitting I was unwell, and seeking medical treatment for it would be the logical next step to take.
Six months on, I’m here to challenge the idea that mental illnesses can be cured or managed simply by “trying harder”. We’d never say that someone with asthma became an asthmatic because they didn’t try hard enough not to be an asthmatic. But for some reason we’re really weird about mental illnesses and see them more as personal failings than the diseases they really are. When you have a mental illness, you are sick. I am sick. And there is absolutely no shame in not being able to fight your disease on your own. When people are sick, and they’re not getting better, medication is absolutely the right course to take.
However, a word of warning to those who are considering starting medication: sometimes, anti-depressants can make things worse before they start to make things better. I was among the unfortunate people who experience a worsening of symptoms before they notice any improvement. In fact, the first week I started the meds was absolute shit. My anxiety got worse, I became depressed, I was severely out of it and was having panic attacks even more frequently. I was uncapable of doing much more than sitting on the floor of the shower and crying. The high point of that week was sitting in my flatmate’s bed playing a sushi game on miniclip and realising that this was the most lucid I had been since starting the drugs. But please don’t let that scare you off. I was on the extreme end of initial reactions to the drugs, and it’s unlikely that you’ll experience the initial downbuzz with the same severity I did.
What’s more: even though it was one of the shittiest weeks of my life, it was 100% worth it because when the medication finally started doing its job, I noticed such a massive improvement. I’m not exaggerating: pre-medicated Beth and post-medicated Beth were like two completely different people. The meds didn’t get rid of anxiety, but they just made it so, so much better. Life suddenly seemed like something I could actually do, and I’ll never forget how great I felt for those first few weeks after I came right. It was kind of like I’d been in a cave for the past year and a half, and was just coming out of it and experiencing the world outside for the first time in so long. So I would go through all that again in order to reach the place I’m at now.
I’m obviously hugely in favour of the medicated route for treating mental illness. However, I want to make clear that medication is not an instant fix for anxiety (or other mental illnesses). It won’t make your symptoms disappear, but it will make them so much easier to manage. One thing that I only really realised a few months after starting the anti-depressants was that if I wanted to continue getting better, I’d need to play a more active role in my recovery. But the anti-depressants definitely gave me that boost I needed to get to a position where I was able to realise and act on that.
The anti-depressant I’m taking is sertraline 25 mg. Sertraline is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). SSRIs help with depression and anxiety disorders by blocking the uptake of serotonin, a chemical which contributes to controlling our mood, in the brain. I’m currently at the lowest possible dose of sertraline – when used to treat depression, the dosage will typically be much higher than for anxiety disorders. I take one tablet every morning.
For times when I’m feeling panicky, or my anxiety is more heightened than usual, I use a beta blocker called propranolol. Propranolol helps me by reducing the yucky physical symptoms I experience when I’m really anxious, which calms me down and allows me to think more clearly and rationally. I talked about this drug in my earlier post on panic attacks, which you can read here: https://bethrust.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/panic-attacks/
There are plenty of options out there if you’re looking at going down the medicated route. And everyone’s different, so you may find that a different combination of drugs works for you. You might have to go through a period of trial and error until you find the right meds, but if you make an appointment with your doctor, they’ll be able to talk you through the options and help you find a drug that works for you.
If you do decide to start on the meds, be sure to tell those around you about your decision. Explain to them why you’re starting, and let them know that it could be a bit of a rough ride in the beginning, and they will be able to support you through. I was very lucky to have an amazing support network when I first started my anti-depressants, and I will always be grateful to the people who were so understanding and helped me through that first shitty week.
Where to from here? I saw my doctor on Friday and she said that I was looking so relaxed and healthy, which was really encouraging to hear. She’s keeping me on sertraline for at least the next six months, after which time we’ll look at how I’m doing and we might start to take me off them. In the long term, my goal is to be medication-free, but I am absolutely happy to stay on them in the short term because they have just made living with anxiety so, so much easier. I’m currently looking into different therapy options, currently in addition to medication but perhaps eventually as an alternative way of managing my illness. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been back in Wellington this week, and uni starts tomorrow. Somehow there’s already so much to do though – both in terms of coursework and also just general life stuff (e.g. organizing the flat). I’ve also been kinda crazy busy catching up with people, but it has been so much fun. I’m feeling really happy and positive right now, so I’m hoping I can take that attitude into my studies this year instead of crumpling under the pressure of readings, assignments, deadlines and so on.
I had fun redecorating my room a bit earlier this week, and making it feel like a nice space for me to be in.
Here’s a pretty diffuser I bought to make my room smell nice, feat. dlt wine bottles cos I miss work. I’m not an alcoholic I promise, just a filthy filthy hoarder. This diffuser is actually pretty shit. The smell is nice, but not even remotely strong, so I can only smell it if I get my face all up in the bottle. Pretty disappointing, but it was el cheapo, so I guess you get what you pay for. I might have to swap it out for a better one at some point.
Here are my fairy lights. I had these in my room at home all summer, and I’ve just put them up here. I really like having them above my desk and putting them on in the evening. It gives my room a very warm, relaxed glow.
Last but definitely not least, here’s Manukura (Manu for short), the white kiwi I got when we stopped in at Mount Bruce on the way down here to visit the real life Manukura. My Manu is so soft and adorable and yes, I am emotionally 12 years old and I always will be. No shame.