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Antidepressants: a user’s tale

Image: Loss, a sculpture by Jane Mortimer featuring a stone figure curled with its knees pulled up to its chest.

CW: depression, very briefly referenced suicidal ideation

I’ve been through periods of intense depression a couple of times in my life, beginning in my mid-teens when I would skip classes at high school and spend my time in the nurse’s spare room, crying to myself in the dark and plotting ways out. She used to use the metaphor of the mind being a glass which would sometimes become filled up with depression and anxiety and spill over, and, well, I felt like I might as well have been standing underneath a waterfall. At home I developed the trick of crying quietly so my family members wouldn’t hear me through the walls and question how I was, because I felt too tired and embarrassed to coherently explain myself and face the judgement which I had imagined that they would then have. Starting university flared up the worst demons in my mind once again, as I felt like a complete fish out of water; an imposter where I ought not to be. Then, during the virtual Trinity term last year I barely left my bed and lived off a diet of toast as I slowly lost the will to live. It wasn’t fun. 

As a consequence of that experience, my college’s welfare team suggested that I try antidepressants. At first I felt a little apprehensive, as if it was a tacit admittance that I was officially ‘broken’ in the head. In hindsight, this was a ridiculous thought to hold, as it wouldn’t occur to me to hold such stigmatising views about anybody else who took medication for their mental health issues. I suppose I’d tried stubbornly to tell myself that I wasn’t that ‘bad’, that others have more serious mental health issues than I do and I’ve made a fuss over nothing. Stiff upper lip and all that. 

That being said, I was reassured that many students are on medication, and that many of them find that it helps. Of course, that raises questions and concerns about the mental health crisis which is rampant at universities, but regardless I concluded that medication was worth a try in case it did make my situation a little more manageable.

I’d tried stubbornly to tell myself that I wasn’t that ‘bad’, that others have more serious mental health issues than I do and I’ve made a fuss over nothing.

Telling my parents was something which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. Letting them know that I was suffering with my mental health felt like telling them ‘hey, your only child is an absolute mess’, which not the news I would assume that they would want to hear. 

Yet I know that so much of this is nonsense. Again, if one of my friends told me that they were struggling I wouldn’t have this opinion at all, but because my brain is the way it is I’m prone to cynically judge and question myself at every opportunity. I know that depression is just an illness like any physical equivalent, and there ought to be no shame around it, but I find it so difficult to apply this logic to my own mind. 

Finding university support groups and other students on antidepressants was a huge reassurance. Over the next few weeks, I got clued up on possible side effects and problems I might encounter as my body adjusts, and how to manage my expectations of what the medication actually does to help my general mood. But above all, I learned that I wasn’t alone, and how I felt was perfectly valid. It gave me the strength to finally open the box of sertraline (a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant) tablets which I had stashed in my bedside drawer for a month.

I learned that I wasn’t alone, and how I felt was perfectly valid. It gave me the strength to finally open the box of sertraline tablets.

The first few days and weeks can be a weird experience, and weirder for some more than others, but I was thankful that my body eventually settled down and I can take the medication without many noticeable side effects. In terms of my mood, I do feel more stable; I have the energy to get out of bed during a global pandemic (which is no mean feat), have fewer anxiety attacks than I used to, and I’m even able to take proactive steps to improve my mental wellbeing in the long term.

That isn’t to say that sertraline is a wonder drug which solves all of my problems in one magic gulp. I still have blips where my black cloud hangs over me for longer than it usually tends to, albeit less frequently and acutely than before. However, what I have found (and I won’t rule out the possible placebo effect) is that they are a useful tool, at least in the short to medium term in which I’ve been on them. Perhaps, in a few months or years, my mental health won’t require additional support in order for me to function on a day to day basis. Until then I am on sertraline, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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