I was first prescribed antidepressants four years ago, during a crippling bout of depression and anxiety.
I had resisted them for as long as I could. A part of me felt like there was something authentic about my tortured and despairing self. Like my haunting thoughts and feelings were actually the truth, and everyone else was under a spell. I had always identified as someone who “thought too much” and approached the world very critically, so something about this sustained sadness felt very much like me.
In going on medication, wouldn’t I just be denying my true self? I thought that perhaps bouts of paralysing depression and anxiety were just part of the human condition, and something didn’t feel right about ‘curing’ it with medication.
But the reality was I was spending all my time in bed. I couldn’t write a sentence and it looked like I wasn’t going to finish my University degree. I was filled with hate and anger and was stuck in a toxic cycle that I felt completely unable to free myself from.
I'd been seeing a psychologist for months, but things were getting worse. So my mum took me to the GP and they prescribed me antidepressants on the spot. I didn't want to take them, but I did.
The next morning I woke up feeling like there were electric currents surging through my body. Whatever was in my head didn't feel like my brain. I went to the bathroom and threw up. Then I fainted.
I spent the next three days on the lounge being sick. When the car pulled up in the driveway one afternoon, my heart nearly exploded out of my chest. Every sound was amplified. I was constantly nauseous and had an awful taste in my mouth. It was hell.
When I went back to my doctor, he suggested that I'd just fallen ill with flu, and the symptoms were unrelated. He told me that the only side effect should be feeling a little more sleepy than usual. The warning on the packet of the medication, and the accounts I'd found online, told a very different story. My experience was far from the exception. (Post continues after gallery.)
I had been prescribed far too high a dose of the wrong kind of medication. I was then put on Venaflaxine (Effexor), which I cannot deny absolutely changed my life.
It was like I got a jump start. My sleeping patterns changed and the negative self-talk quietened. But the biggest change was a sensation I felt returning. As I stood at work one day, I felt butterflies creep back into my stomach - good butterflies. I suppose it's anticipation or vitality. I had rediscovered my zest for life.
With that said, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication come with a whole host of side effects we don't talk about. Some of them can be extremely debilitating. We need to destigmatise the use of medication, but also be honest about the fact it's not a magic cure. Medications work differently for different people, but here are the things I was never told:
1. Going on them won't be easy.
It can take between two and eight weeks to feel the effects of antidepressants, so there won't be any immediate results. Some medications, like Venlafaxine, can induce some bizarre sensations, like brain zaps or muscle spasms. You might experience nausea or headaches, so most medical professionals advise that you don't go on them during a period where you really can't afford to take time off.
The nightmares I've had on antidepressants are the worst of my life. They are extremely vivid and often violent. Dr Michael E Thase says that the medication reduces the amount of REM sleep, pushing the dreams until the later part of our sleep. This process has been associated with bad dreams.
Another side effect I've experienced and read about extensively is getting "stuck in a dream" and feeling as though you can't wake up. Lucid dreaming gives the sensation of being trapped, conscious that you are in your dream, but unable to shake it. This can become very distressing.
3. Disturbed sleep.
Because of the drug's effect on REM sleep, there are numerous studies to suggest that they worsen the quality of sleep in depressed patients. Some are activating, while others are sedating, so it's important to know the right match for you. Currently, I could sleep for 14 hours and wake up still not feeling rested. This is common for individuals taking Lexapro, an anti-anxiety medication which I am currently on.
Listen: Robin Bailey and Bec Sparrow discuss how important sleep is, and how to get more of it.
4. Increased sweating particularly at night.
Up to 22 per cent of patients report excessive sweating after taking antidepressants. Many also encounter intense night sweating.
5. Decreased sex drive.
Most people are aware that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can cause impotence in men, but it can also have a severe effect on women's sex drive. Many people on this kind of medication have difficulty achieving orgasm, some only for a few months, and others for as long as their on it. It's important to note that if this is a side effect, there are many other medication options to explore.
6. Dry mouth.
Many patients report having a dry mouth, particularly in the morning.
7. Having thoughts and ideas that don't seem like your own.
This side effect is a really hard one to explain. Some people describe feeling as though they are thinking someone else's thoughts, or like they're not quite themselves. I remember feeling impulses that I'd never felt, and having ideas so strange I had no idea where they'd come from. (Post continues after gallery.)
8. The big one: Withdrawals.
I was never warned about how absolutely debilitating withdrawals can be. When I changed from one type of medication to the other, I had to take time off work. I felt extremely dizzy, and was experiencing severe brain zaps which felt like electric shocks. I had shakey hands, my vision was blurred and I couldn't concentrate. I felt like I was going off something like heroin and there was nothing I could do except wait it out.
Some medications are renowned for causing particularly bad withdrawals, and others have barely any. It also depends on the person.
Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication will not be the answer for everybody. But it is a treatment option that has changed the quality of life of millions of people.
I doubt I'd be where I am without the medication I take everyday. I've been told by doctors and psychologists that I might not ever be able to go off it, and at the moment that's not my aim. It don't feel as though it's changed who I am, I just feel as though it allows me to live my life without being crippled by sadness or anxiety.
The choice is up to the individual, but they deserve to know what they're signing up for.
If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636. If you're thinking about using medication for mental health issues, consult with your doctor first.