Last week after the announcement of Chester Bennington’s death a friend posted a brutally honest update on Facebook, saying their antidepressant dosage had been increased and they were suffering with the side effects. This post was not to garner sympathy but rather to encourage people to talk about their mental health – because still, so many of us don’t.
There is a stigma still around “admitting” one is on antidepressants, but the side effects are spoken of even less. There seems to be this assumption that once you pick up that prescription, you’re “getting help” and therefore on the road to recovery. While that may be true, the side effects are something that can be just as painful as the original illness.
For me, the side effects of antidepressants almost killed me. When I first went to my GP with symptoms of depression, I was given Prozac – a drug I had taken before; a drug Elizabeth Wurtzel hails as her saviour. It wasn’t my saviour; it made me worse. I stopped eating, and what little sleep I had been getting vanished. It was the most brutal form of torture, and because it was very much all in my head, I didn’t know these were side effects; I thought I was just broken.
Eventually I went back to the GP, initially to say the Prozac wasn’t working. The doctor said that Prozac was not the right medication for me, and gave me a prescription for Sertraline (perhaps more commonly known as Zoloft). Again, this is a very commonly used (I hesitate to use the word “popular”) antidepressant taken by millions of people. I was advised to stop taking the Prozac, wait a week for it to vacate my system, and then start taking the Zoloft.
That week was pure hell.
If the Prozac pushed me to the edge, coming off it sent me over and into the abyss. I can’t even explain what went on, because I don’t remember a lot of it – but I do know that I very nearly ended up dead. I didn’t eat; I didn’t sleep; I didn’t talk to anyone. As well as actively planning my suicide, I became very reckless with the other medications I was taking. I had stockpiled various pills over the years and began taking them. A lot. I remember one morning taking a sleeping pill at 7am to try and get to sleep, but it didn’t work so I got dressed and went to work instead, sitting at my desk practically comatose and shaking as I tried to drink my coffee. I was a mess.
As the Sertraline began to take hold, things changed – but I wouldn’t necessarily say they were better. It’s interesting to note that while I was dealing with the symptoms I had before medication, and while I was on Prozac and losing my mind, I managed to hold down a job. Most of the people in my office were unaware of what was going on, and I was at my desk most days for at least a couple of hours. When I switched over to Sertraline, that was when my manager pulled me into a meeting room and practically begged me to go to the GP and get myself signed off.
I went mad.
The thing about side effects from antidepressants is that you don’t know which thoughts are you, which are the ilness (depression and anxiety in my case; not a winning combination), and which are side effects of the drugs. Most of us assume that since they are thoughts in our own heads, they are just us – this is just who we are and how we think now.
I became more reckless with the other medication I was taking: sleeping pills; high strength pain killers; at one point I got my hands on an antipsychotic medication (don’t ask how) and genuinely lost two days (I think I was in bed for all of it but really, who knows). The two main side effects I experienced were suicidal ideation – so I was obsessed by the thought of killing myself – and a lack of filter when talking. These two combined to mean that my only topic of conversation was suicide, and it didn’t matter who knew it. I had a vague feeling at the back of my head that perhaps this was not appropriate conversation – but I couldn’t stop myself. I had to talk about it, because it was the only thought in my head.
After a while I went back to the GP and saw yet another person who told me I was actually on a low dose of the Sertraline, and suggested we increase it. So we did. As well as this, I started doing numerous little things to try and get myself well again, including taking lots of supplements. Eventually the suicidal ideation abated and I was able to live some semblance of a normal life – but by that point the damage had been well and truly done.
I had taken voluntary redundancy from a job I had been in for six years, and spent the summer on garden leave, mostly drunk in a pub garden. I had permanently scarred my body in numerous places, and I’m fairly sure the prescription drugs I was experimenting with did some damage internally. I had alienated lots of my friend who had either grown weary of my constant suicide chatter or were too scared to talk to me. I had met new friends and alienated them too. I had worried a lot of people. One of the many reasons I named my child after Big S is that despite living a couple of hours’ drive away and working full time, she was one of very few people who stuck by me through all of this, regularly driving down to visit me, bringing me back to her house for a few days here and there when she could. At one point she even got hold of people local to me and had them come to my house to check on me when she couldn’t get hold of me.
If you talk to someone about their physical illness, whatever it might be, they will tell you about the medication they’re taking and the side effects it has – and you might nod in sympathy and say how terrible it must be. All medication has side effects, and the higher the dosage, the worse the side effects in many cases.
With antidepressants, we already don’t like to “admit” we’re taking them, and once we have there’s often a stunned silence or garbled attempt to change the subject. If you’re already “mad” nobody really wants to know about how the side effects of your medication are making you even more so. Nobody talks about it, and so it gets worse.
So let’s talk. Let’s make a point of telling people how we’re feeling in a truthful manner, not the standard “yeah, I’m good thanks; you?”
You might think that when people ask how you are they don’t really care to hear a truthful response; you may well be right. But I guarantee you that if I ever ask how you are, I want to know the answer – and I want to help you, if I can. I know I am not the only one. Anyone who has been through that level of mental torture will do whatever they can to help someone else through it.
If you don’t feel you can talk to someone you know, please call Samaritans and talk to them: call 116 123 in the UK and ROI or email firstname.lastname@example.org