Depression felt like insanity…and sometimes I liked it

‘The edge of madness’, ‘three steps from the asylum’ and plain old ‘bat-shit crazy’ are just some of the ways I’ve heard clinical depression described. Taking a stroll with the black dog is often summed up as an experience akin to losing one’s marbles. In an age of over-inflated political correctness and extreme liberalism, is this really acceptable? We’re not supposed to align mental illness with insanity…are we?

Except during my long walk with the black dog I’d say I regularly felt disconnected from reality. Completely insane, in fact. And, controversially, sometimes I even enjoyed the madness.

Feeling terrified all the time is bloody awful – but my experience of depression has been that the raw, visceral parts have been interspersed with pockets of feeling more disconnected than afraid, where the external world becomes more surreal than it is frightening. At the height of my ‘madness’ I can recall spending around an hour totally transfixed by an acute realisation of just how awesome doors are. Sixty entire minutes on the wonders of wall openings.

Sometimes having depression has felt like being off my face on drugs. Pretty much always in a very bad way, but occasionally my short-circuited brain chemistry did produce some strange and spectacular moments – like the woodland jog that felt like an ethereal trip through another world or the Central Line tube train that seemed as though it was rattling towards the centre of the earth while I looked on from behind an impenetrable glass wall. Don’t even get me started on my weird reactions to rainbows. And yes, doors.

I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve always been a bit disinterested in illegal substances. People take class A drugs to go on holiday from reality; I used to be able to do it all by myself.

Depression and anxiety are undeniably terrible things to endure. Mental illness is no joke. But i’d be lying if I said there hasn’t been any positive edge to my experience at all. The wild ups and downs of poor mental health coupled with the ever-present sense that you’re about to fall off the sanity cliff have been terrifying but it’s certainly never been boring. The creative well never ran dry while riding a wave of anxiety-induced adrenaline – I’ve produced some of my best writing and captured some of my favourite photographs while in the throes of what felt like insanity. I’m no Virginia Woolf but some of my best ideas and artistic endeavours have been borne from a dark place.

Make no mistake this is not advocacy for mood disorders – I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy. Depression is a complex and dangerous condition; and certainly not worth going through just to experience a couple of epiphanies while staring at a leaf. I’m just grateful that for all the darkness and despair throughout my epic journey with this rightfully maligned beast, there have been occasional moments of wonder. Rare episodes of fantastical rapture that I can look back on from time to time, and realise – it wasn’t all bad.

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Am I hooked on happy pills?

‘Well I’m happy for you to stay on them…’ My GP peered thoughtfully at me over the rim of his glasses. ‘I’m also perfectly fine with you coming off them. I’ll set our review for a year’s time shall I?’

And thus passed the annual antidepressant prescription review, like so many of its predecessors, proving about as useful as a chocolate teapot – and that although it’s so very easy to start taking happy pills, getting off them is another story.

Happy pills. antidepressants, SSRI’s – whatever you call them – used to be the preserve of those teetering on the edge of psychosis. These days everyone’s on them. There’s no doubting that some people in the throes of serious clinical depression really need support from medication – and drugs like paroxetine, citalopram and zoloft provide a chemical lifeline to those nosediving into a serotonin-deprived abyss. However there seems to be a worrying trend towards over-prescription. Medication being handed out like smarties for the mildest cases of the blues – and patients consigning themselves to years of pill popping.

The NHS prescribed record numbers of antidepressants in the UK last year and a recent study by women’s campaign group Platform 51 found that nearly half of those using antidepressants have taken them for at least five years, while a quarter have used them for ten years or more. The statistics are frightening, but actually being part of these numbers scares me even more. I’m eight years and counting.

I have been on and off antidepressants three times now. Having never been able to tolerate more than the lowest possible dose of my particular brand of synaptic rocket fuel, I still have absolutely no idea if they help me at all. Literally none. However the emphatic explaining away of my anxiety, depression and fatigue symptoms with ‘serotonin deficiency’ has consistently led me back to a GP-endorsed SSRI prescription.

I do know that the first two weeks of cranium electrics, nausea, sandpaper mouth and night sweats feel like a grenade has been dropped into my soul. And that once these side effects have tapered off it’s impossible to benchmark what effect the antidepressants are really having. I’m just thankful to have survived. I’m told the ‘therapeutic benefits’ of my medication can be expected to kick in after six weeks or so – but at this point I’ve usually been working so hard at getting better through exercise, meditation, healthy diet and general avoidance of stress that any number of things could be bringing me back to wellness. Drugs have always been just one aspect of a very holistic treatment plan for me and I’ve never been sure of the part they’ve really played in my wider recovery story.

My uncertainty has always sat in stark contrast to the certainty with which medical professionals have recommended drug therapy to me. All roads lead back to chemical imbalance, it seems. That knowing nod in the GP room when it’s discovered that depression reared it’s ugly head again a year after ditching my medication, the inferred conclusion that being drug free was the chip in the metaphorical mental health windscreen that led to a whole world of shattered glass. Serotonin, you see. And my counter-argument that we’re all still utterly clueless around whether or not the pills actually help me? ‘Well they really can’t hurt…’

Except for some people it seems they can. Hurt, that is. Particularly for those on high dosage antidepressants, withdrawal can be vicious. Dizzy spells, migraines, aches and pains, insomnia. If you’ve watched Leo Di Caprio sweating and whimpering his way through heroine withdrawal in The Basketball Diaries think of SSRI comedown as a vanilla version. Pretty, it is not. Six months easily turns into six years on these pills when kicking the habit is this hard. Then there’s psychological dependency. Even if you’re not chemically hooked, mustering up the confidence to throw out the blister-pack-shaped safety net is terrifying.

At this stage I have no idea what to do and neither, it seems, does my doctor. It’s definitely the easier option to keep mindlessly slipping a small blue pill under my tongue after breakfast everyday. But time’s marching on and with it the ever decreasing likelihood of a chemically unaltered future. Do I really want to remain a slave to lab-manufactured serotonin? Can I put up with the tedium and inconvenience of monthly trips to the pharmacy coupled with the expense of prescription charges? It’s a sensitive subject – a decision worthy of careful, contemplative thought with due consideration for what support might be needed further down the road – and it’s going to take more than ‘come back and see me in a year’ to get there.

Shades of Kefalonia and the reality of recovery

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A restless butterfly whirls about the pine trees; flashes of yellow and white amidst fir-clad branches. Perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Ionian Sea I hear the distant murmur of surf tickling the sandy shores below. My eyes blink closed and, for the first time in what must be years, I feel completely at peace. Everything is OK.

Except it wasn’t OK.

At the apex of my sickness if someone had announced that in three years time I would happily hop on a flight to Kefalonia, by myself, to spend a week at a Greek yoga retreat with a throng of complete strangers, I’d have punched them in the nose. I truly would have believed myself a likelier candidate for space travel and being taunted with such a delicious but unrealistic dream would have infuriated me.

But I made it. Several hundred miles on from a bleary-eyed and anxious morning at Gatwick Airport I’d boarded a plane solo for the first time in years, thrown off the shackles of bad health and opened myself up to a whole seven days of new experiences, growth and, well, just good old fashioned…fun. Nestled in the idyllic paradise of Vigla Village I started to realise what recovery looks like. I allowed myself to languish in the acceptance that illness doesn’t rule my life anymore.

But I got cocky. I came home feeling invincible. I stopped bothering to do any of the things that keep me on the straight and narrow – my healthy diet degenerated, I drank more, rested less. And guess what – I wasn’t, in fact, bullet proof. A few hiccoughs at work, a disastrous romantic encounter and one house move later found me feeling less than fighting fit. Fatigue crept in. A dark cloud swept over my head. I felt awful. Not to mention incredibly foolish for daring to entertain the prospect of a new, symptom-free reality.

I pulled through. A month on as I sit tapping away at this blog, I’m feeling much better having focused on eating well, getting the right balance of rest and exercise and just giving myself time to digest various recent life events. Nourishing myself – body and mind. And simultaneously feeling pretty damn sheepish – at how naive I had been to think that chronic illness can simply vanish into the night.

My health is something I have to manage. It’s not perfect and sometimes I live alongside some pretty unpleasant ailments, aches, pains and difficulties. The ever-present spectre of tinnitus buzzes gently between my ears, intensifying in times of stress and acting as a strange sort of barometer for how well I’m looking after myself. It’s a constant work in progress and never, ever again will I allow arrogance to shake my commitment to staying well.

Fatigue and depression are dual forces of torment and destruction that can ruin lives – but they’re not unmanageable. I can honestly say that despite my struggles, I’m generally in a happy place now.

Joy finds me on a far more regular basis than gloom – and if that sparks hope for even just one reader out there walking their own dark path, I’ll be a very happy lady today.