Happy pills – and why I took them

Let’s talk about coping.

You guys know that in January, I was struggling. I have written a lot about the incredible amount of support I had from my family and friends, but I haven’t talked much about the helping hand I got from pharmaceuticals. Ha! What? Yeah.

It’s time.

Every week, every single week, I get emails from women in the exact same situation I found myself in last winter. It is surprisingly, heartbreakingly common.

Each time, I write back and I talk about what helped me, and when I do that, medication is always on the list. Despite this, I’ve never really written about it here and I think it’s time to do that. For my own edification, as well as for those who might not email me directly, and end up reading this blog and thinking that I sailed through this fucking nightmare just by holding hands and thinking happy thoughts.

In January, I sat down with my mom and my aunt – both retired nurses – and talked about medication. I had lost weight, I was sleeping a handful of fitful hours a night, and I spent most of my days curled up in bed crying while Olive watched movies and patted my back. Something needed to change.

I went to the doctor and came back with two prescriptions – I’ve talked about the sleeping pills before. I’ve never mentioned the anti-depressants.

It’s a testament to the incredible stigma around mental illness and depression that I was too afraid or ashamed to. Here I was, my life suddenly and savagely cut off at the knees, and I was crawling around insisting I didn’t need a goddamn crutch.

If it wasn’t for Olive I’m not sure I would have asked for them, or taken them, but I couldn’t stand her watching me while I cried, asking “Why you sad, mummy?” or giving me sticky little hugs and patting my neck, “It’s okay, mummy.” It broke my heart. I didn’t want her seeing me like that, remembering me like that. So I took them.

The sleeping pills were an easy choice – I wanted nothing more than to sleep, for days. Taking that pill every night was the best part of my day. The anti-depressants scared me. This was my brain, my moods. I didn’t want to lose touch of things, I didn’t want to sail through life in a chemically-induced happiness coma. I had no idea what they would do, and I was terrified that I would lose myself.

What actually ended up happening, is that everything just softened a bit. I still felt pain, sadness, anger – it was just dulled enough that I could hold it at arm’s length, see it, and deal with it rather than drowning in it or being dragged under by it. Anti-depressants helped me wake up in the mornings, get out of bed, and be a mother to Olive. I was able to hold off crying until she was asleep every night, and eventually I went whole days without crying at all.

I have mixed feelings about chemical interventions like this, and I struggled with it a lot. I would stand there looking at that tiny white pill, feeling like I was cheating. I talked to my counsellor and asked if it would prevent me from processing things properly, I discussed it endlessly with my sister Hilary, who was living with me at that point. One day she said something incredibly astute.

I had been talking about whether I should be trying to tackle things from a more natural approach, St. John’s Wort and yoga, all of the natural methods of treating depression while also railing against Big Pharma, the whole nine.

Hilary looked at me and said, “Depression is an incredibly Western disease. Never before has the world seen a population with more people experiencing depression, and experiencing it in such an severe way. Natural approaches are great, but they won’t come close to tackling this. Natural cures for this type of depression and this severity, simply don’t exist –  because they didn’t have to. This is a Western disease, and it needs a Western cure.”

This small conversation shifted my whole outlook. I had to look at what was. There was no point in turning my back on something that was helping so much, simply so that I could say I wasn’t getting help. Anyone who saw me in November and December could tell you in an instant that I wasn’t coping – couldn’t cope– by myself, so what was better? Being a shitty mother and a half-life human being all on my own? Or being able to rise through it with a little help?

So I came to terms with the crutch. I decided that I would gratefully accept the stability it provided until my life could provide it for me.

As time passed, however, it felt more and more disingenuous. People would tell me how well I was coping, and how happy I seemed, and it felt like I was accepting compliments I didn’t deserve. This wasn’t the case – it was still me coping. but I wanted to see if I could do it myself. In late summer I decided to try going off of the medication.

Because of my kidney disease though, I’m no stranger to the “I’ve been taking my pills and I feel great! I feel so great that I don’t even need these pills anymore!” cycle, so I consciously kept note of my moods for a few weeks. I noted the highs and lows, the natural patterns of rise and fall in my emotional state. I wanted to make sure of two things: 1. That I wouldn’t unknowingly plunge back into a depressed state, and 2,. That I wouldn’t panic, blaming my unmedicated state the first time I had a bad day.

Before I stopped taking them, I decided that if I went back, if I became that shadow person, I would start taking the anti-depressants again. I decided that I would take them for as long as I had to, to continue being a good mom to Olive, a good friend, sister, daughter and employee. I swallowed my pride and admitted that if it turned out that I needed help forever, I would gratefully accept it. I made peace with the pills. I’m glad I got to that place, it helped me let go of my fear of anti-depressants, and if helped me to understand those who are on them for the long term. Sometimes you need help. Sometimes it would be self-destructive not to take it in any form you can get it.

I have been off anti-depressants for about six weeks now, and I’m still here. I’m still smiling, I’m still happy. I wasn’t the pills, it was me. I felt like crying when I realized this – tears of relief.

What I have realized, and why I wanted to write this, is that knowing yourself is half the battle. I am not trying to push anti-depressants, it’s an intensely personal decision (as I quickly discovered, and realized again and again when I was too ashamed to tell people- even some of my closest friends) but I thought that it might help to read the thoughts of someone who’s been on both sides of the fence now.

I believe wholeheartedly in natural approaches in all aspects of life – but this experience was sort of like Olive’s birth. I went in hoping to pop her out in a candlelit pool in my living room and ended up strapped to an operating table having a c-section because I wouldn’t have survived – we wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

I’m very glad I did.

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  • Reply Livia September 30, 2015 at 10:05 AM

    This is so good. This is so important.

  • Reply Rima September 30, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    You are so brave, madeleine.

  • Reply Joanne September 30, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    I think you should be proud of yourself for getting yourself through a difficult time. And it doesn’t matter how you did it. By the way, you are a very good writer!

  • Reply jamie September 30, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    something occurred to me while reading your post, which is that, when you have a really terrible accident, like breaking a rib, or something where there’s lasting, intense pain, you don’t just deal with the pain, you take pain meds to make it tolerable. i think what you did is no different. especially because it’s not like you chose a pill in lieu of taking good care of yourself. a lot of people have lethargy & depression because they eat crappy processed food, don’t live consciously, drink too much, pop pills haphazardly, etc, and that kind of disconnect from one’s self is a whole different approach to life than yours. that would be unsettling, if you lost your body’s and mind’s ability to maintain homeostasis so you were constantly medicating to chase down some elusive balance, and adding new medications to treat other medications’ side effects, producing yet new side effects and so on. but you are still seeking your own natural equilibrium and in this case there were giant turbulent waves you needed a little extra help to calm so you *could* keep up your own ability to balance, in the context of keeping the rest as natural as possible. i think that approach is different than the concept of a “crutch”, except, that’s a poor analogy, really. because it *was* just like an actual crutch, something you use while your leg is broken, but ditch as soon as your leg can bear weight.

    and P.S.: don’t worry about olive seeing you cry. when olive goes through her own heartbreak (maybe losing a friend to disease or suicide), you’d want her to have permission to cry her eyes out, and never feel she has to hide it or keep it under control, right? i remember times when my mom would cry, it touched me deeply, connected me to my own empathy like no other experience in childhood. which makes sense if your mom was your closest emotional bond like was the case for me. it was profound how much i could feel my mom’s pain, and how much i wanted to be with her and absorb all her sadness, and how just seeing her sad could make me cry even without knowing the reason for her sadness. i’m not saying you should completely fall apart and cease to be able to parent, which is what i think you were trying to avoid, and that makes total sense. but try to remember that when you give yourself permission for open emotional expression, you’re implicitly giving olive permission, and she’s learning emotional competence, that really big emotions are part of life. that we go through hard stuff, really hard stuff, and we’re there for each other, never needing to go it alone & keep it to ourselves. one of the main lessons i’ve taken home from the really great parenting books i’ve read is that you kind of have to learn to treat yourself the way you want to parent, because however gentle and non-judgmental of yourself you can learn to be will really rub off on your kid. so if you can’t give yourself permission for your own sake, don’t worry, you can reassure yourself it’s totally altruistic, because it’s for the kiddo. 😉

  • Reply depressed | Piwo z Lody September 30, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    […] that is why I am sharing this blog post. Because I am none of those things and sometimes getting help is the most well-adjusted, strong, […]

  • Reply Jennifer September 30, 2015 at 11:06 AM

    Your posts really help me understand what my friend is going through, thanks for sharing!

  • Reply James September 30, 2015 at 11:49 AM

    Being a parent is a lot about doing whatever you can to make life as good as possible for your little one. You absolutely did that and should be proud of yourself both for accepting the help and for managing to come back off them again when you felt strong enough. Much love being sent your way…

  • Reply lindalw666 September 30, 2015 at 5:55 PM

    that’s sort of how I felt, depression made me feel as if I were in an ugly and hostile environment, but I don’t feel anything like that now. I think my meds made me useful again! I would like to be able to remain with my same exact dosages for a long long time.

  • Reply becklist September 30, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    I love when people bust up taboo subjects. Right on!

  • Reply EmKa October 1, 2015 at 1:55 AM

    Thank you for spreading the word, that depression is a disease, not just a mood which can be beaten by happy thoughts. Greetings from Germany!

  • Reply Sam Pereira October 1, 2015 at 9:41 PM

    Thank you Madeleine. It’s incredibly important that we kick the shit out of the stigma attached to mental health. I once had very mild depression that I was able to manage with some St Johns Wort and some serious effort on my part. I was close to the hole. I looked in. I dipped my toe in. I can see how anti depressants are often absolutely necessary, and how sadly, sometimes even they don’t work. We do what we have to, to take care of ourselves, and the people we love. Good girl. And lift your head up… you can’t know how many people you’re helping. x

  • Reply MJ October 6, 2015 at 5:38 PM

    I applaud your bravery in being so vulnerable with the world. You are making a difference!

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