This time of year can be extremely challenging for those who deal with depression or anxiety. The hypersensitivity of those afflicted can easily be turned into isolation, as the sunlight hours become less and less heading towards the winter solstice. Historically, I find myself slowly edging into a depression around November and some times need to make adjustments with my doctor to make life more enjoyable. I was watching a short interview with Stephen Fry today with the BBC, where he spoke about his own Bipolar 1 diagnosis (which he is on medication for), and his cocaine addiction that controlled his life for many years. I thought of just how many times he must have had to make adjustments and go through the sometimes brutal experience of switching antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
If you follow basic medical statistics these days you would be blown away by just how many people are prescribed antidepressants around the world – I presume there will be a large proportion of you reading this post today that have had your very own personal stories with these drugs. Now, for many people like Mr.Fry, the driving force behind his drug and alcohol abuse was primarily to bring comfort to his emotional and mental stability. This happened to be the same motivating factor in my own life to self-medicate prior me taking the leap of faith into sobriety in 2010.
When you are first diagnosed by a professional and it is made apparent that medication might be the best solution to help balance things out, it is simply a trial and error period that lays ahead. If you are depressed there are a few types of drugs that can help you get back to feeling that life is worth living again, and those can look like Zoloft (SSRI), Effexor (SNRI) and of course, Wellbutrin (Aminoketone). If you have anxiety disorders there are other types of drugs that can be prescribed ranging from all of the drugs listed above, to atypical antipsychotics like Abilify and Seroquel. We could spend all evening going over every disorder and potential helpful medication, but that would be dreadfully boring, so let’s just focus on depression and anxiety medication and the troubles associated with them.
The problem with these antidepressants is that they impact people completely differently, and doctors make recommendations based trials and studies that have concluded that their drug works to improve things within a certain range. Say for instance that a typical SSRI was shown to have a 70% success rate. What happens if you fall into the 30% category that it doesn’t work for? Do they simply not work, or are you then stuck in side effect city, where you get to wrangle with a wide spectrum of wonderful problems like: nausea, weight gain/loss, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea, sleepiness or insomnia, tremors, dry mouth, irritability, suicidal thoughts, and of course the most commonly know side causes people to stop taking their medication = sexual dysfunction (basically chemical castration for many people)? Let’s not even get into the possible long term side effects these powerful drugs can have on your body after years and years of use.
The other thing you need to consider is that many of these drugs can take 5-6 weeks before they start working the way they should, and for the weeks that you titrate up to the recommended dose the experience can be unbearable and can make you want to throw in the towel before you even get to experience any relief. The other common experience could be that one drug works and takes away your depression but heightens your anxiety levels. What do you do then? The options here aren’t very exciting either. You can stop taking the medication, in which case you’d have to allow weeks and sometimes months, depending on your sensitivity, to come off the drugs. Then you might try another drug to help ease the suffering and go through the same cycle crossing your fingers in hopes that this one might work. It might also be offered for you to take an additional medication to deal with the anxiety which may or may not work.
Not to worry though, because I’m sure your doctor will be able provide you with the utmost of care as they sit down and hash out a plan during the typical 10-15 minute appointment they book you in for, right? And yes of course, many of you might be saying to yourselves: what about natural remedies? The sad fact is that this doesn’t work for everyone. If you are anything like me, the absolute last thing on the remedy list was to take pharmaceuticals, but after trying every combination of meditation, fish oil, mineral/vitamin, C.B.T session, light therapy, 12 step program, exercise routine, tanning salon, spiritual/religious devotion, self-help book, journaling exercise and you’re only provided you with minimal relief, pharmaceutical intervention is basically your only option left, next to a miracle from the heavens (I have prayed and still pray for this on countless occasions).
After reviewing some of the challenges people face while attempting to get better, is there any question why people start self-medicating? Feeling defeated after several attempts at medication, it’s common for people to simply give up and return back to using things that they know they can count on working and bringing immediate relief. For many individuals it is the simple decision of which is a worse experience. Do you either A) become more dependant on alcohol/drugs than you would like and at least have some mild degree of perceived ‘control’ of your state, that is until the recreational use turns into full blown addiction, or B) be the guinea pig in a wild journey of ups and downs attempting to find a drug that may eventually might make your life a little more manageable? Keep in mind that there has yet to be an antidepressant offered that didn’t have at least some form of mild side effects. People tend to just settle with the medication that is the least offensive and then eventually habituate to their newly altered chemistry.
I know this sounds fairly gruesome, but I think it’s something that needs to be expressed and shared with loved ones as one of their own family member or friend sets off on their very own recovery journey. Many people do eventually find their very own combination of remedies and then go on to live very successful and happy lives. Let’s not forget that it was only a short while ago where people suffering from mental illness were locked up, and on some occasions even put to death. This is the best time to live with a mental illness, and the I anticipate that the remedies will only get better and better as more funding is allocated to the fight for a cure.
Do I want you to feel bad for those afflicted? Yes, absolutely I do! But more importantly, I want you to understand the lengthy ordeal people are forced to go through to get healthy. It is an exhausting process that can create a lot of undue suffering. So next time you hear a friend talking about their mental health, sit back and think about how courageous and strong these people really are.