Antidepressants: My Waterwings

2010 was the summer that dreams are made of. The days were long and bright, my office emptied before 4 p.m. each day as people snuck off to skip along the beach with their socks off, and everyone’s evenings were filled with boisterous barbeques, with each night ending with a round of beers as the sun slowly went down. Or so I hear. Because the truth is, I remember next to nothing of 2010.

For me, 2010 was the Year of the Failing Antidepressants, etched in my memory as a vague fuzzy haze of desperation, and not much more. When I went to the doctor for the first time, I struggled to even convey what was wrong because whenever I opened my mouth, a long scary wail would come out. Have you ever tried to talk when you’re in full wailing mode? I don’t know how parents manage to make any sense of what their crying kids are saying, because I basically sounded like “I-i-i-i-i-i-I wah-wah-wah neeee-e-e-e-d wah-wah-wah heeeeeellllllpppp wah-wah-wah-wah” and then I’d just lapse into hysterical crying. Good times.

Anyway, the doctor eventually managed to decipher my wails and gave me a prescription for some antidepressants. Then I went on my merry way home, confident that this would help me to tone down the old Italian wailing lady routine.

Alas, the unfortunate thing about antidepressants is that they take a good four to six weeks to start working. So you don’t know for a month or more whether or not the antidepressant is actually doing anything. And if you reach the hallowed six-week mark and nothing is happening, your doctor will usually just increase the dose and then you have to wait to see if THAT works.

It’s only then that you’ll be put on a new antidepressant, and then you’re back to good ol’ square one—waiting to see if this one will be the one that works. What this means in practice is that if you’re really unlucky, you can spend months suspended in Depression Land, desperately wanting to leave, but having to hang around. It is mother trucking awful.

I couldn’t work for all this pill-trialling time, because I was too terrified to leave the house. I had a constant radio in my head telling me that I was worthless, a failure (and so on, and so on) and it paralysed me with fear. I was so worried about letting my team down, but I couldn’t get out the front door without falling back into wailing mode. From what I can vaguely remember, my days were spent either walking up down the corridor getting my cry on, or sitting on the couch, staring listlessly.

The most terrifying thing for me in that particular depressive stint was when I realised that I couldn’t read anymore. I’ve always been a fast reader, and I inhale a couple of books every week. Manfriend has long since banned me from reading any internet page at the same time as him, as he’ll be just starting on the first sentence when I swoop in and try to steal the mouse so I can scroll down to the bottom of the page. So imagine my horror when my counsellor gave me a measly A4 sheet to read, and it took me more than ten minutes to plod through it. I could see that my old friends—words—were there, but it was like my brain was going through a Windows update or something—I couldn’t process them.  I actually had to put my finger under each word and spell the words out, like a 5-year-old.

I lost all joy in anything. I think the stereotypical idea of depression is someone who’s heartbreakingly sad, and that’s seen as the worst part of it. But the worst part of it for me was losing any sense of pleasure, at all. My reading had been taken away from me, and slowly everything else was, too. My family would ring and instead of the usual flush of joy from talking to them, I’d just Italian lady cry down the phone, or I’d go and hide under my desk until the phone stopped ringing. When someone made a funny joke, I’d stare blankly at them, and then when I realised I was supposed to laugh, I’d contort my face into this weird deranged look that I could only hope bore some vague resemblance to a smile.

But the clincher was when I lost my love of food. I have always always loved food. Ever since I can remember, my favourite part of any day has been when I get to eat. I pretty much live my life for the next meal, and if you feed me, I will be yours for life. But when I was depressed, food just became a necessary chore, something I did because I knew I had to do it, not because I had any desire to do so.

My wonderful bestest friend Kath would coax me to eat each night with her amazing cheesy mashed potatoes, and I would just robotically eat my way through the Artist Formerly Known As Amazing Food. I had to force myself to slowly lift the fork up to my mouth, to open my mouth, to chew, to swallow. It was like being a zombie—I was alive, but I’d lost the things that made my life worth living.

So my time off work wasn’t really the glorious time in the sun reading books that it could have been. Later, people would say kindly meant things like, “It must have been so nice to get some time off to recuperate!” But when you’re severely depressed, time inside your cray head is pretty freaking awful. It’s like staying at home with a bully that you can never satisfy—you try to go out and they tell you you’re disgusting and should stay at home. So you stay home, and then they tell you that you’re a failure for not going out, and who would want to see you anyway? Hanging with depression is…depressing.

The required four to six weeks finally passed and I was still cranking the Italian lady routine. So the doctor admitted defeat on that particular antidepressant, and I got put on another. And then the next stretch of waiting-and-seeing began. Unlike the first antidepressant, this one did actually seem to do something—it ramped my anxiety up to the next level. My daily wailing in the halls act was put on double speed, so that my pacing was now a cracking gallop up and down the hallway, and my wailing was bordering on hyperventilating. I had to cut my nails really short because otherwise I’d look down after a wailing session and my whole chest would be covered in big red scratches. I couldn’t sleep, and my nights were basically just marathon sessions of me rolling around and around in my bed. So after a month of my speedy-cray routine, that was the end of that antidepressant.

We had to apply for special funding at that point to try out one of the restricted medications, because I turned out to be one of the lucky sods with treatment resistant depression—which is just a fancy name for “nothing is working.” Eventually the funding came through, and I was back to the waiting game. Slowly, my galloping decelerated to a pace, and then it began to peter out, and I got back to my old mate “staring listlessly mode”—which by that point, seemed pretty freaking fantastic. Living my life staring blankly seemed infinitely better to me than galloping frantically up a hall day in and day out. Slowly I started to feel calmer—not good, but less desperate and terrified. And then one morning I woke up and it was like my brain had switched back on again. The Windows update had finally finished.

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I wasn’t healed—I still had to work through the things that were making me anxious, and learn how to cope with my anxiety so that I wouldn’t fall down into the depression abyss again. Antidepressants were my water wings. They got my brain to a point where I could function, where I was in a good enough head space to work on the things that got me depressed in the first place, so I didn’t drown again.

There are a lot of myths about antidepressants, and a shitload of stigma about taking them. I’ve had seriously depressed friends tell me that they don’t want to take an antidepressant because they judge people who have to take them—and that makes me so incredibly sad. Antidepressants are seen as an admission of failure, as something that you have to depend on. But last time I checked, the brain was part of the body. If our body can’t process sugars, we have to take insulin injections. If we have clots in our blood, we have to take blood thinners. So why are we all so hung up on taking something that gets our brain back into gear? There is no doubt in my mind that antidepressants work on my brain—because I can read again. Because I can eat again. Because I can laugh at people’s jokes, and even try my hand at cracking one myself. They’re not a panacea to all your problems—but they do help to get your brain’s chemical mix back to normal levels.

One of the most empowering things I’ve learnt about antidepressants is that as well as restoring the balance of “happy” chemicals in your brain, they also make your brain more “plastic.” Plastic is just a fancy way of saying that they help your brain to make new connections and learn things more easily. So antidepressants can help you to get out of your negative groove, to look at things from a different perspective and realise that maybe there is another way to look at this that doesn’t mean you’re the world’s shittiest person. I mean, taking something that helps you to learn? That is mother trucking awesome! And antidepressants are not like an invasion of the bodysnatchers—you’re not going to take them and suddenly wake up as a completely different person—things will just slowly come back into focus, you’ll stop feeling so sad and tired and distressed—and you’ll eventually make your way to becoming like the old you again.

The other thing about antidepressants is that if you’re not depressed, they won’t do anything for you. So if they work, then you genuinely need them at that point in time. And if you’re a lucky duck, you might not ever need them again. But some of you might need to take them for years, or maybe for the rest of your life. And what’s the big deal about that?

I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want to be dependent on taking a pill every day. But do you know how long it takes me to take my medication? The length of a swallow—not even a second. And that second means that I can go on my merry way and live my life like a normal non-cray person. So if you need some water wings—don’t despair. You just need a little bit of medication to get your brain back into non-cray mode, and then you can swim on your merry way.

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View Comments (8)
  • Hi rebekah! Thank you so much for writing about this. There is so much stigma against depression and the medications used to treat it. My mom actually started crying when she heard that my psychiatrist had put me on them. Very supportive… But they are so helpful. They made the choices I was not able to previously make more possible – removing that barrier. There’s no way I’d be where I am today without them, since it helped me be able to fight the depression which then helped me able to resist the other brain shit. So yep, thanks for sharing and I really love your posts. :)

    • Oh I’m so freaking glad that you got the meds you needed! Sad about your mum, but hopefully we can chip away at the stigma with our not-crying-all-day-ness!

  • Have you considered acupuncture? I had a similar experience with antidepressants and finally tried acupuncture and have had an amazing experience! I know you’re not supposed to just stop taking you meds cold turkey, but I just started forgetting to take it wasn’t top of mind anymore and unintentionally have been off for a month now and feel better than ever! I specifically go to a Five Elements Acupuncture clinic which specializes in anxiety and depression.

  • I know this post isn’t that recent, but I just wanted to say thanks so much for it! It inspired me to get help finally!

  • What a phenomenal post, Rebekah. Don’t you love that feeling when you read something and you think “This person is capturing exactly the way I felt that time” and then “Those were my fears! Those were MY embarrassing, dramatic, emotional, real moments.”

    I had to stop working as well because my emotions started to get completely out of control and I was just crying and freaking out at work which was not the normal me. I stayed at home, I stopped eating (even though I am and have always been obsessed with food), I stopped seeing my friends and doing my hobbies, and worst of all, I COULDN’T READ. People would say they were so jealous of my free time and all the things I could be doing but they didn’t think that many nights I would be grinding my teeth so badly I had to cry with tissues in my mouth between my teeth.

    I had so much anger toward myself. I had been through depression before and I knew that exercise and friends were the key but I would try to swim or run and I would just stand there and not want to do it or wonder what the point was.

    I did NOT want to take antidepressants. I was afraid of them, of admitting to myself I was “one of those people”, I was mad at myself for not being able to solve my moods through exercise and willpower and counselling. I finally went to the doctor and just cried and said that I needed to try something else because I was really afraid I might do something stupid. It took a few months to get the right dose, but when I finally did, it made a WORLD of difference, I WANT to get out and run and swim and exercise and push myself and I feel happy and strong when I do. I feel so happy when I am with friends and family and I laugh much easier than I used to. I keep a journal of my triggers and I try to work on what upsets me and acknowledge them and appreciate that I can pinpoint things to make me feel better. I can’t afford therapy any more but I am working through a CBT book on my own that makes me feel great.

    Even though I am feeling much better, I will probably have to stay on my antidepressants for another year or even longer. The thought scares me a little, but I know that it is worth it, because I feel completely alive again.

    Thank you, Rebekah, for sharing this, and confirming my experience!

  • Can’t believe this is the first time I’m seeing this post! I have severe depression. Before I was diagnosed I used to hide under my dorm room bed to make it all go away. I finally went to therapy which helped but I still struggled just to get up each morning. After 1.5 years I finally added antidepressants to the mix. What a difference.

    I love the water-wing metaphor. I explain to everyone that when most people wake up at worst they’re at 0% but when I wake up I’m at -20%. The antidepressants bring me to a place where I can effectively use coping mechanisms and work through my depressive episodes.

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