Last Thursday was a little red-letter day for me – I took my last anti-depressant tablet. There, said it. For the last 18 months I’ve been on the happy pills.
A few people already knew, but it’s not the sort of thing you generally shout from the rooftops about. Depression, mental illness and the like is, despite its awareness growing in the last few years, still something of which to be ashamed. You just don’t talk about it, no matter how much people say it’s OK to come out of the closet, so to speak.
But, now I’ve stopped popping the pills, I thought it might be an idea to explain my experience of taking them.
I started taking citalopram at the end of October 2010. Those who do know me will know the kind of year I had that year, and I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that, by that time, I had hit bottom and was struggling to get myself back up.
I had always said that I would never want to take anti-depressants. For me, they always seemed like an admission of failure – that I wasn’t strong enough, smart enough, whatever enough, to deal with problems on my own.
But I knew after waking up on the couch and not able to get up one Sunday afternoon that I needed help. What that help entailed, I really didn’t know – but medication was something I was prepared to consider.
I have to say my GP at the time was great – he understood what I was saying to him, and I was as honest as I could be. We talked about medication and he was happy to put me on a course of tablets straight away.
Now this flies in the face of much talk over the last few years about how we have become a nation of pill-poppers. The number of antidepressants prescribed by the NHS almost doubled between 2000 and 2010, and rose sharply as the recession bit.
The increase was thought to be due in part to improved diagnosis, reduced stigma around mental ill-health and rising worries about jobs and finances triggered by the downturn.
But doctors warned that some people are being put on the drugs unnecessarily, especially those with milder symptoms of depression, partly because there is too little access to “talking therapies”.
“I’m concerned that too many people are being prescribed antidepressants and not being given counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, because access to those therapies, while it is improving, is still patchy,” said Professor Steve Field, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, which represents the UK’s family doctors, in 2010.
From my perspective, I have tried counselling before on a long-term basis, and was determined to go back to see my counsellor soon after starting the course of citalopram.
So, on a sunny, wintry Saturday afternoon, I went to the chemist and got my first prescription sorted.
There was no hallelujah moment as I popped the first pill. The first couple of days, I did notice a light-headed, slightly euphoric feeling – no problems there then!
But aside from those first few days, I honestly didn’t feel any side effects. What I did notice was over the first few weeks, my mood stabilised and I seemed to have more energy. I was feeling more like my old self.
I was also trying to take care of myself more – something I had singularly failed to do for most of that year, as I tried to, instead, look after everyone else around me.
So, I was down at the, now closed, Bishopsworth swimming pool, trying out a bit of yoga, and eating for all I was worth (I had slipped down to a pretty unhealthy nine stone).
I genuinely felt, and still do, that the citalopram helped stabilise me, and gave me the chance to help myself.
As I got myself back on my feet during 2011, I kept on going with the tablets. There was a fear factor in coming off them to be honest. When I moved to my current home in the city centre last summer, I didn’t get round to registering for a new doctor in time before my latest pack ran out. I went cold turkey for 48 hours and I felt anxious, uptight and ready to snap.
This was not a good sign. Was I becoming addicted, even though SSRIs (the scientific-type acronym for the class of drug) are not supposed to be physically addictive? It worried me and I kept taking them for longer than I was aiming for.
The aim was always to stop at the end of last year, but I was scared off stopping.
The goal of stopping has not been helped by the fact I have seen four different doctors in the last 18 months. Each one has been happy to keep writing the prescriptions. Each time I have talked about coming off, but there has been no urgency from any of them to stop. It seems the NHS, in the form of GPs, is actually more than happy to keep doling out the pills, rather than use “talking therapies”.
Not surprising really, my first GP put me on the list for NHS counselling… there was at least a three-month waiting list to even be seen for the first time. Easier just to keep popping the pills, unless you’re in a position to spend £35 or £40 a week for a private counsell0r. I wasn’t.
But I finally took the plunge and told my latest GP I was stopping back in March. The 20mg dose was halved for a month, and now, I am free.
I’m writing this on Sunday night, 84 hours since the last tablet. I’ve felt kind of flat today and have had a “sad” look on my face. Is this the withdrawal of the tablets, or am I just exhausted after two months of constant work?
Who knows? The GP has said he’s happy to write me out a new prescription if things don’t go well. But that can’t be right, can it?
No, the happy pills are there for a short-term boost – something to help you help yourself. You can’t rely on them to do everything for you, personal responsibility has to take over.
So that’s what I’m doing now, looking after myself with no crutches. All I can say is, they helped. Anti-depressants aren’t evil, or they weren’t for me anyway, and they have their use. So if you’re struggling, just know that you can be helped if you’re prepared to help yourself along the way too. Good luck