A few years ago I briefly stopped taking my anti-depressants. It always feels positive to stop taking a long-term medication, but mostly I was just pleased about my return to 'normal'. I now operated with the masses, coping with everyday life without the need of chemicals. I proudly informed my friends of my rising from the ashes of anxiety like some kind of smug phoenix. The pills were working, so I stopped taking them. Don't ask me to rationalise the logic behind that thinking.
The situation wasn't helped by the guy I was with at the time. He was shocked when he found out I was on anti-depressants and overly-supportive of me being Prozac-free. An old-school (make that prehistoric) thinker who believed that managing mental illness was a case of getting your act together, he suggested in not such subtle ways that taking anti-depressants was in some way cheating at life, and I just needed to get a grip.
However, there's no one to blame but myself. I didn't stand up for myself or my anxiety, ultimately because I was still embarrassed to be on anti-depressants. I believed coming off them would be an achievement, regardless of whether or not I still needed them. I can't imagine a diabetic being so eager to stop taking their insulin, or a patient swatting away painkillers after an operation because they don't want to appear 'weak'.
I started going to therapy in a bid to sort out my issues without medication. Unfortunately, without the help of my pills, our meetings quickly dissolved into an hour of me crying and panicking, rather than actually being able to objectively reflect on my behaviour and make changes. At my therapist's suggestion I went back on my anti-depressants and slowly, with my yo-yoing moods stabilised by fluoxetine, I was able to make strides in my cognitive behavioural therapy and tackle my anxiety at its roots.
CBT was phenomenal. I still do exercises when I'm struggling, and I have come to terms with the realisation that I need a little extra help occasionally to handle difficult situations. I understand the concern around doctors' apparent willingness to prescribe anti-depressants without exploring other options. For most people struggling with mental health issues, talking to a professional so you can explore the source of your problems in a supportive environment is crucial. But the simple fact of the matter is some people need medication to get them to a place where they are mentally capable of doing that.
I believe our embarrassment and silence around mental health problems is far more damaging than a doctor's freeness with the prescription pad. When I was first prescribed Citalopram in 2008, the tablets sat unopened in my bedside drawer for months as I slipped further into distress, for the simple reason that I was afraid of them. Not wanting to have a frank discussion with my doctor, I turned to the internet for information, which of course was full of tales of nasty side effects. More than anything though, I was scared of what it said about me if I was on them. That I was damaged, a feeble individual who needed medical help just to function at most people's base level. When things finally hit a peak I reached for the pills in desperation and in the following weeks, as I steadily approached a place of calm, the relief was monumental.
A couple of years ago a guy I was dating revealed to me that he had started taking anti-depressants as he had been struggling with his mood. I told him this was nothing to be ashamed of, that I was on pills myself, and how admirable I thought it was to tackle these problems head on. Inside - and I am horrified to admit this - I was a bit scared. Oh God, was he a depressive? Was I going to have to deal with long periods of silence or moodiness, trying desperately to make him smile and forget the 'nothing' that was distressing him? I knew this reaction was outdated and inaccurate, and I reflected on this with disappointment as I took my own anti-depressants the next day.
Why had I reacted so lamentably? Perhaps because the stigma around mental health issues is so ingrained and insidious that rather than reflecting on the past few years of my personal anti-depressant use and what it really means - that I take medication for a medical issue, pretty straightforward really - I went to a place of doubt, fear and judgement instead. Maybe there's a touch of sexism in there too - was I subconsciously expecting a man to be 'stronger' than I was?
Is it any wonder then that the statistics around male depression and suicide are so scary? With the connotations anti-depressants carry is it any surprise that husbands, fathers, men of the house, are scared to take them for no other reason than what it might say about their masculinity? We take something for pain in every aspect of our life, from a broken leg to a niggling headache. Why are we so adamant that our mental health doesn't deserve the same support from time to time?
As long as we support this judgement with our silence, we stand little chance of breaking the stigma around anti-depressants. Those of us who have experienced first-hand the positive effects of medication should not be embarrassed to proclaim its virtues. I am still on fluoxetine. I suppose I may come off it one day, just as I may no longer need the medication I take for other health problems, but right now, I have accepted that I am one of those for whom the capacity to cope doesn't come as naturally as it does for others. That doesn't make me weak. It makes me different. And I am incredibly grateful for my monthly prescription.