'I told my doctor I was against antidepressants but that prescription saved my life'
The number of Irish people taking antidepressants is at an all-time high. This is no bad thing, says Tanya Sweeney
Last week, I had a proud moment. After taking antidepressants for a year, I found myself sitting in my therapist's office. She leaned back, exhaled and said: "you know something? I actually think you don't need me at all anymore."
Well, I couldn't have been prouder of myself if I'd completed a PhD. I'd put the spadework in. After a year of antidepressants and therapy, I'd finally gone into remission with the condition they call 'cancer of the soul'.
A year previously, it was a much different story. Unable to get out of bed, unable to write… things were starting to spiral out of control again. I was high-functioning, still meeting friends and hitting deadlines, but I felt unnaturally tired. And no amount of sleep could shift the feeling.
My doctor suggested a return to medication. I baulked. It meant, for me, weight gain and a low libido, but it also meant that the thoughts and feelings that were razoring my mind to ribbons would, if not recede completely, at least soften around the edges.
People hear the word 'antidepressants' and think a number of things, just as I'd once done. They hear 'zombie'. 'Mental case'. Someone failing at keeping themselves on an even keel.
The truth is, a person on antidepressants is someone with enough clarity (or at least has someone around them with enough clarity) to ask for a helping hand with a condition, just as they might with diabetes or asthma. Like me, they just want to get better, and are often afraid of having a condition so powerful, consuming and possessive that it can prompt you to commit a murder. On yourself.
A significant number of people I know have been prescribed anti-depressant medication - 300,000 Irish people are, in fact. New data suggests that €50million was spent on antidepressants and mood stabilisers in the State in 2002, up €42 million since 1993. I'd wager this figure will be even higher for this decade.
Some professionals have been damning in their appraisal, saying that counselling services are inadequate (they are, not least for non-private patients). RTE's 'Prime Time' this week looked at whether Irish doctors were prescribing antidepressants too readily and whether they did so at the behest of drug companies, which regularly pay for them to attend conferences abroad.
This may sound like we're a nation of casual pill-poppers. Well, if doctors really are over-prescribing, I for one am glad. Anti-depressants have probably saved my life.
Life's hard in Ireland. Things are expensive here. We've a Government who moves significant funding away from mental health expenditure without looking back. Don't think this doesn't affect people's state of mind. Hate the game, not the player.
The very first time I was prescribed medication, my doctor asked me a seemingly innocuous list of questions. Turned out that, unbeknownst even to me, I was at a sky-high risk of self-harm. This scared the life out of me: to feel that I didn't have control over my mind, supposedly, my most private and safe place.
I told my doctor I was 'against' medication. "It would be irresponsible of me and at worst, negligent of me to allow you out of here without a prescription," my doctor said. A half-hour later, I was in Boots, shamed, embarrassed, awaiting judgement from behind the counter.
Four weeks later, I was getting worse: I rang my doctor and we switched brands. Just like the other pill, it can sometimes be a case of trial and error.
A few weeks later, I was finally on my way to recovery. Add counselling, walking and other lifestyle tweaks to the mix and things evened out. It was like a full-time job, schlepping to therapy and walking about, but it was better than the alternative: sitting in bed and having my mind spiral out of control like Charlie Sheen: The #winning Years.
For now, things are great; work is steady, I'm in a happy relationship after years of singledom, I'm out of bed early without too much griping. I'm planning holidays, picnics and parties. It may not last forever, but it'll do for now. A year ago, I genuinely thought these moments would never again be for me.
Antidepressants aren't for everyone. My doctor suggests counselling, meditation or plain exercise to others, with nary a pill in sight, because the condition varies in all of us. That's why keeping in touch with a good, understanding GP is paramount.
Depression can manifest in countless guises, and there are no hard and fast rules. Medication isn't the quick fix. The only solution, really, is to acknowledge the condition for what it is. Only then can you start to look for your right way forward.