Bryony Gordon: 'I only got through Christmas thanks to antidepressants'
Antidepressants provide a valuable lifeline for which we should be incredibly thankful - I can tell you from experience.
The song that has been playing in my head all week is by the late, great Andy Williams.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, he sings to me, as I brush my teeth and hang up the washing and try to remain calm as my two year old lies down on the pavement screaming, refusing to sit in the buggy. It’s the hap-happiest season of all, with those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call… There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near... It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Except, for many people, this isn’t a hap-happy or wonderful time. Not at all. I was reminded of this on Wednesday morning when I read the reports about the effectiveness of antidepressants. A big thank you to the British Medical Journal for publishing that festive gift. Researchers led by a team at Danube University found that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors - as antidepressants are also known in the trade - were no more effective than so-called talking therapies. Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the study only confirmed what many had been saying for some time. “Both antidepressants and talking therapies such as CBT should be offered for patients with depressive illnesses.”
And very suddenly, as if taken by a ghostly figure with a head of blazing light, I was transported back to my Christmas Past. Specifically, last Christmas, a period that in my head still has a foggy, blurred quality to it, and not because of all the parties I attended. No. It has this quality to it because I was experiencing one of my depressions. The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I have had since I was 12 went from bearable to suddenly, acutely, bad.
I became preoccupied with the safety of my family. I was convinced I had to say phrases to to keep them alive. I was terrified I would pour bleach into my daughter’s milk, or my husband’s glass of wine. At night I would sit in darkness on the floor of my child’s room for hours, listening to her breathing as she slept. On Christmas Day I took my antidepressant and three diazepam and got through proceedings with a drug-induced, rictus grin on my face. “That’s awful,” you might well be thinking of my medicated state, but it wasn’t, actually; not compared to the alternative.
The doctor, when I had gone to see her a week before the big day, had been kind and supportive and suggested a prescription of the anti-depressants I have been on and off since I was 17. I gladly took them, because when you are in the fog of mental illness, a minute seems like an hour, an hour like a day, and you just want something, anything, to take the edge off the way you are feeling, or the way you aren’t feeling, as is so often the case with depression. Of course my doctor offered me talking therapies, but with the caveat that there was a very long waiting list. She handed me a list of CBT practitioners I could call and pay for immediately, which I was fortunate enough to be able to do. Not everyone is quite so lucky.
This is the state the UK's NHS is in when it comes to mental health services. For all David Cameron’s proclamations that it has parity with physical health, it doesn’t. This is why it annoys me that there is still a stigma attached to taking antidepressants, when in actual fact they provide a valuable lifeline for which we should be incredibly thankful. It’s all very well talking about the benefits of, well, talking therapies, but if they are not readily available then such findings are worth next to nothing.
This is where organisations such as Rethink Mental Illness become so important. They provide help and support where the beleaguered NHS cannot. And they are especially crucial at Christmas. Like any other month of the year, December can be a lonely and depressing time for some - but somehow, the twinkling lights and the enforced jollity only serve to make it feel more so. The festive period can have a way of making people feel decidedly unfestive. So if right now you are categorically not having the most wonderful time of year, that’s OK. Tell someone. Ask for help. Share not just gifts, but how you are feeling. Because you are not alone, and with support, this too shall pass.