This week, I have been medication-free for a year.
I had something of a colossal breakdown in the summer of 2010, which resulted in my being signed off work for a month, and eventually taking voluntary redundancy. I scared a lot of people, lost a lot of weight, and developed a fairly ridiculous drinking habit (Pisang Ambon, anyone?) I tried a few different medications before finding one that seemed to take the edge off it, and after a couple of months things settled down.
When I fell pregnant and it dawned on me I would have to come off the medication, I was seized by panic. I knew there was no choice but to come off it, but I was petrified I’d end up going back to the comatose, suicidal heap I’d been before. I came off the medication, and between the withdrawal, the usual first trimester hormones, and problems with S’s father, my first 12 weeks of pregnancy were something akin to hell. My GP was keen for me to go back onto the medication as soon as I reached 12 weeks – apparently after that first 12 weeks it’s not such a big deal any more. I had an appointment with her, where she told me: “you can go back onto them, and only a small amount will get to the baby. It’ll only have a bit of withdrawal when it’s born, which will probably just mean it cries a bit more and you probably won’t notice that. Or if you’re breastfeeding, the drug will still be passed to it through your milk, so it won’t have any withdrawal.” I was horrified at this concept – I’d read articles previously about antidepressants and the argument over their being given to children and adolescents; the argument against that use was that a child’s brain is not fully developed, and antidepressants affect the way the brain works. The thought of feeding my baby a brain-altering chemical as it developed inside of me made me sick, and I refused point blank to go back onto the medication. Also, once I’d gone through the pain of coming off them once, I didn’t want to then go back onto them, knowing I’d have to go come back off them and go through it all again at some point. And so, instead of medication, I agreed to regular appointments with my GP (so she could check I wasn’t going mad, and do that ridiculous depression questionnaire they do), and to go back to the Community Mental Health Team for counselling. Both were rather useless when it came to day-to-day functionality.
Looking back, I would say the last 12 months have been some of the hardest in my life. This is not only because I was unable to fall back on self-destructive habits that had seen me through in the past (over-exercise, self-harm, weird eating habits, drinking, sleeping pills), but also because I was wracked with guilt over my responsibility for the life growing inside of me. Because of my situation I felt I had let the baby down before it was even born. Every decision I made now had to take into account how it would affect my unborn child. A lot of those decisions were, in hindsight, not the best ones – especially those involving S’s father.
At 30 weeks I lost weight two weeks in a row because of the stresses I was facing. I moved house at 33 weeks, and S was born at 35 weeks, when I had a chest infection. We were kept in hospital for 11 days, and when we came home the roof had leaked and we couldn’t spend our first night at home. Once we were home, I faced pressure in my relationship with S’s father, and looking after his 6 children at his house. I remember the health visitor sitting on my couch one day and saying to me, “you have to look after yourself better because you’re at quite a high risk for post natal depression.” I burst out crying and told her I thought I was already there.
I stuck to my guns though, and refused time and time again, often through floods of tears, to go back onto the medication. S is now nearly 6 months old, and I have to say I’m really quite proud of myself. I know that the medical profession advises it’s perfectly safe to use the antidepressants I was on after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and I know that nobody would have thought any less of me if I’d gone back onto them at any point between then and now – especially those who had faced the task of trying to deal with me when I was at my lowest. But I know what I am like, and I know that if I had begun taking them again, I would have blamed myself if anything was wrong with S, at birth or at 25 years of age or any point in between, I would have thought back to those pills I took while I was pregnant and breastfeeding.
I didn’t just do it on my own though; I’ve had a lot of help and support, both from professionals, and from my friends. My health visitor and GP have been amazing, going above and beyond what I could reasonably have expected from two over-worked NHS employees, and my friends have reduced me to tears of gratitude and joy more times than I care to mention. People I wasn’t particularly close to before S was born have gone out of their way time and again to help me both practically and emotionally. For that I am eternally grateful.
When I came off the medication, it made me horribly sleepy and out of it, and I had to tell my boss why I’d come off it because he wasn’t too impressed at the desk-snoozing I kept doing. He told me he thought having a baby might just be the thing to sort me out mentally. At the time I thought he was talking utter bollocks, but now I think about it, he appears to have been right. Don’t get me wrong, I do still have bad days when I feel awful and want to crawl under my duvet and hide… but you can’t do that when there’s a baby there wanting to be fed and changed and played with. I’m lucky; I know for a lot of people having a baby can make no difference to their depression, perhaps even make it worse. But for me, so far, I seem to be doing pretty well.
Edit: since this post was published, the safety of using antidepressants during pregnancy has been questioned. It is now not considered as safe as the medical profession thought at the time.