This week is a sobering anniversary for me: as of March 27, two days ago, I have been back on antidepressants for one whole year. That’s a new personal best/worst.
You may not know what an antidepressant actually is or what it does, but you can Google that. Here’s what it feels like to take them. Imagine some of the things that put you in a bad place: illness, lack of sleep, a fight with a loved one, a bit of bad news – whatever makes for a shit day. It makes you feel off kilter, like you’re not yourself, so you probably do a few things to correct it. You take a Lemsip, get an early night, talk it out with someone, or just give yourself time to chill out. If you’re depressed, your bad day happens all by itself, and your medication is what helps put you back on an even keel.
You still have peaks, troughs, good days, bad days, and really bad days. You feel and think all the same things. There’s no roadblock before your depressive thoughts, no feeling of artificial calm. You don’t feel drunk or drugged or drowsy. You feel the same, except that you level out at an emotional altitude that feels more comfortable. You feel more like yourself.
Antidepressants are not a cure. They’re not numbing, nor do they give you a high, and they absolutely, categorically, do not change you.
And I’ve been taking them now for a year, which comes with some complicated feelings, and has got me thinking about everything it means and doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean I’m the most unwell I’ve ever been.
The first time I relented to a prescription for antidepressants, I had been severely depressed for nearly two years, and to medicate myself felt like a defeat. It wasn’t until that medication helped me make some drastic changes that I realised I was outrageously, dangerously wrong. Doing something to help yourself is never a defeat. It’s empowering, and simply knowing you made a good decision is sometimes enough to start making a difference. The only reason I’m now at twelve months and counting is because I was vigilant this time around. I recognised the signs early on and I acted on them, and that makes me want to embrace this anniversary. For one whole year, I’ve been taking care of myself.
It doesn’t mean I’ve been sad for a year.
Within the last year, I have been happy, and I have felt like myself, but never for long enough to consider phasing out the antidepressants. I can’t tell you how tempting it is sometimes, when the sun is out or I’m feeling great about myself, to pronounce myself well and set about putting this episode behind me. I’m so ready for that day, but then I take a turn and I’m reminded what the consequence might be if I jump the gun. It’s a major reason I can’t let this one-year thing scare me – there’s no reason to rush.
It doesn’t mean I’ll never come off them.
For a long time, I thought my tousle with depression was in my past; a blip on what was otherwise sure to be a happy and healthy life. Even when I relapsed in my final year of university, when I was writing my dissertation and putting myself under intense pressure, I told myself anyone would be depressed under the circumstances – this one doesn’t count. Only recently have I come to realise that it may be a part of who I am, always.
I’d love to tell you I’m okay with this; that I’m learning to accept it. But I can only hope that will someday be true. As it stands, I still get really fucking angry about it sometimes. I can’t consolidate the person I think I am and the woman with depression, and I don’t want to. I guess that’s the way with all chronic illness, mental or physical. There’s a lot more to be said along this vein, so look out for a future post on the subject.
One thing I do know is that I can, and will, be depression-free and off the meds, even if another episode is just one faulty step ahead.
It does mean something’s got to give.
My circumstances are difficult right now. Excessive amounts of uncertainty have always been a big factor in my low periods, and right now I don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone the rest of 2016. It feels like I’m in a transitional period with no forward momentum – I’m stuck in gridlock, and my depression is just loving it. It’s a difficult cycle to break, but as long as I can stay afloat, protect my house of cards, and stay open to change, then change will come. It’s a hopefulness I never imagined I could have my first time round the track, and one I know I couldn’t maintain right now without medication. So I’m not going to stress over my first full year on antidepressants. I’m going to let this anniversary pass, and try to be okay with it.
And readers! If you think you could benefit from medication, please don’t be afraid. There’s a lot of stigma around antidepressants that has no business being there. I can’t tell you if you’re a good candidate, only a doctor can, but if you have any questions, visit the contact me page and I will try and answer them.
My social life and I have a complex relationship. This is only in part down to the ebbs and flows of my mental health. The rest is thanks to my dread of sitting down at the pub next to someone I haven’t seen in a while, or have never spoken to at length before, and hearing these four little words: ‘What do you do?’
Other variations include ‘what are you up to these days?’ and ‘are you still at [that job you took to earn some money during your gap year, six years ago]?’. I feel my heart sink, and it shows on my face. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of everything my life and career is and isn’t right now, and it’s not the fear of silent judgement that makes me clam up. It’s the opposite – it’s expectation. It’s who the person thinks I am versus what I have to show for it.
I find myself forcing a positive spin. Yes, my landlord is my mum, and she gives me hugely forgiving mates rates. Yes, I’m probably looking like less of a hot prospect to employers with every passing month. And yes, the novel I’ve been telling you about sits on my bedroom floor under a heap of plot notes, statements from student finance, and a Buffy boxset, because twenty-odd agents turned it down. But I’m not worried, I’ll tell you (even though sometimes I really, really am). I’ll start on about the new novel, the one I’m feeling even better about, and bulk it out with titbits of work opportunities on the horizon (mainly hypothetical).
In short, I find myself turning the conversation to how I do define myself, because my employment status is not it. And I may be an extreme example, but I can’t be the only twenty-something – or even thirty-something – who feels a chill when they hear the words ‘what do you do?’. We are, after all, the infamous millennials. Job security and full-time employment are foreign concepts to legions of us, a degree no longer guarantees a better career or higher income, and there is a high chance that when we compare ourselves to our parents at our age – with their family and their mortgage and a couple of promotions under their belts – we feel like embryos. Embryos with debt, and slowing metabolisms.
One of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of this juncture in life is that we are all finding success and carving out our places in the world at drastically different rates. I have friends who are forging careers in accounting and publishing and civil service, and I have friends on – *shivers* – zero-hour contracts, for whom ‘what do you do’ can only be answered with a host of disclaimers and footnotes. Either they’re tripping over each other to work for free in thankless, hyper-competitive fields like the media industries; they lack the funds for training or to set themselves up in business; or, perhaps worst of all, they plain don’t know where they’re headed.
And hey, it’s all good. If you fall into the latter camp, I hope you’re not agonising over where you’re at every minute of the day. Because you don’t need to. You can’t compare yourself to others, because you are incomparable, and as Mary Schmich and Baz Luhrmann say, don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But if you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted with those words, that niggling desire to sell yourself as interesting and interested, aspirational and headed somewhere, is a big fat bummer.
But, I have a solution.
‘What do you do?’ is not the conversation opener for our generation. Its day is done. Let’s do away with it now and let those who love to talk about their careers – and power to you! I’m all ears – be the ones to bring it up. The rest of us can quietly feel better about ourselves. To aid in this process, below are some suggested alternatives:
‘Tell me, in your own words, how you define yourself.’
‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’
‘What’s the fattest thing you’ve ever done? Okay, I’ll go first.’ (proceed to tell them about the time you ate an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting, on a casual Tuesday afternoon, while your mother looked on, appalled)
‘There’s a high chance our interaction is headed this way anyway, so I’m going to go right ahead and start playing you my favourite wiener dog videos.’
Feel free to add your own.
Feeling like you have your shit together is a house of cards. It’s comprised of the ways you judge whether you’re adulting successfully. The foundation is maybe your job or your stable relationships, on top of which sits your bank balance, perhaps, and your holiday plans, then your achievable fitness goals and your unintimidating to-do list, and so on. It’s whatever supports your self-worth and your sense of inner peace. If the structure is sound and has many storeys, then you can stand at the top (this is where my clever analogy starts to break down – don’t try to stand on a house of cards, just go with it) and look down on your life and say to yourself: ‘yes, I have my shit together’.
Poor mental health is your obnoxious younger brother who wants to scatter your cards purely because you worked so hard to assemble them. Sometimes you can protect your card house pretty well, but the rest of the time your safest bet is to build it smaller, and stack it with less important cards; lower the stakes.
For me, right now, having my shit together means a few very easy, low stake things. I get up between 8.30 and 9.30. I drink a glass of warm lemon water and it wakes me up (says science. I feel like the gallon of tea I chase it with probably helps). On a good day I rattle off 500 words – my daily target – give myself a high five and make porridge (side note: my love of porridge is legit ruining my life. How am I ever supposed to beat the blues back into remission when the best part of my day, my favourite thing, happens at breakfast? It’s all downhill after porridge). On a less good day I break my target into chunks and reward each with more tea, and eventually porridge if it’s taking that long. Sometime in the afternoon I do some yoga or some cardio (I love this website, because poor people don’t gym), I do some housework, I read, and I write in my journal, and once I’ve done all those things I usually feel somewhere in the range of ‘okay-well-today-hasn’t-been-a-total-disaster’ to ‘that-was-pretty-successful-good-going-Hannah’. The remaining hours allow room for spontaneity, socialising, and Netflix (since I’m being honest, probably not in that order).
A lot can be said for routine, for me anyway. It’s a red flag system. It provides me with a measure, day to day, of how I’m doing, so if anything changes or gets too hard, I spot it early. I’ve had to cut back on what I expect of myself, and as I go through my ups and downs, I reassess and adjust accordingly. When I really have my shit together, I’ve been applying for part-time work (unsuccessfully, so far) and working on other writing projects, but recently, the above is how my house of cards looks.
But then a slump happened.
First I lost the 500 words. That’s the foundation of my house of cards. Being productive creatively has a mainline to my self-esteem, because let’s be honest: if I’m not writing this novel then I really am just an unemployed 25-year-old living with her parents. But one day, just over a week ago, my brain locked me out. It started doing a lot of wallowing and panicking, and it wouldn’t let me back in to talk it through – and I noped out. Then everything else came tumbling down.
Texting back? Nope.
Errands? Nopity nope.
Fresh air? Absolutely not.
Porridge? Well … yes, go on then.
These are things I do to look after myself, to avoid this type of spiral, but as soon as it starts to feel like going through the motions, I realise all over again that how together my shit is isn’t always going to be in my control – and that’s depression. Sometimes I simply can’t try so hard, and maintain this semblance of routine so rigorously.
Something like motivation has started to seep back in in the last few days, and although I haven’t gone back to my novel yet, I did start this blog. I battened down the hatches and waited out the slump, without freaking out the way I sometimes used to. Because it happens. Depression makes your house of cards wobble, and sometimes it makes it fall, and all you can do is take a deep breath, acknowledge it, and start putting it back together.
I just need to find a stronger adhesive than porridge.