Wind blow me away
Rain make me solvent
With this world I cannot cope
With myself I cannot cope
Dream or death the only escape
I wrote these words in 1999. I’d been diagnosed with post natal depression and as part of my therapy I’d been urged to keep a journal. Two years later, I would begin to realise these words and others like them were not born of a naturally occurring mental illness so severe and unendurable that it would drive me to perpetually try and end my life. Two years later, I would begin to realise, to my sheer horror, that it was something else altogether.
I had been given the diagnosis shortly after the birth of my first and only child. After delivering the news, my GP referred me for an inpatient stay at the mother and baby unit of a general hospital: a place where I could get some respite, some counselling, and coaching with mothering. He also handed me a trial pack of antidepressant drugs - an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) similar to the well known Prozac - explaining I would be given some more at the unit.
With no history of depression or any other mental illness I was reluctant to accept this diagnosis. I was even more reluctant to take the drugs. Sleep deprived, exhausted and teary, I was feeling overwhelmed by all that new motherhood entailed - but did that mean I was ill? “You have a biochemical imbalance in your brain”, the doctor told me, apparently resulting from a deficiency of serotonin. “All the drugs will do”, I was assured, “is correct this deficiency”.
With some further gentle coaxing at the hospital I soon came around to the belief that perhaps I was suffering a bout of mental illness with a physiological cause that would be readily corrected by medication. Though still a little uneasy that the conclusion had been drawn in the absence of any physical testing, I ended up welcoming the relatively quick and efficient relief I was promised this pill would provide.
Within days of taking this drug I was having disabling panic attacks. Not long after, yielding to an all-consuming and inexplicable urge, would start to self-harm. Confused and frightened by this alien behaviour, I begged the medical staff to do more to help me. Apologetically it was explained that the antidepressant had not yet had a chance to take effect, that relief could still be weeks away. To help in the meantime I was co-prescribed anti-anxiety medication and shipped off to a psychiatric unit, where my antidepressants were doubled.
Violent suicide attempts soon ensued, and by the fourth month after my initial diagnosis so did electric shock treatment. My partner and my family, at their wits’ end and terrified, were led to believe my condition had progressed to something worse than depression.
Desperate for answers as to why this was happening and without any satisfactory explanations forthcoming they eventually conceded that perhaps there were none. This was what mental illness did. Ambushed the unsuspecting. Ravaged formerly stable lives.
Two years had passed since my initial diagnosis and I was now taking six different psychoactive medications including antidepressants, tranquillisers, antipsychotics, and mood stabilisers. A psychiatric hospital was my second home. My arm now heavily disfigured, marred with the scars of repeated, self-inflicted wounds, I had also developed mania. With so many symptoms - agitation, anxiety, depression, severe mood swings and extreme personality changes - the many doctors who by now had been involved in my case at one time or another, proffered a myriad of varying psychiatric diagnoses. Adjustment disorder said one, a personality disorder said another, bipolar mood disorder said the next.
A BBC documentary saved me. A BBC documentary that questioned the safety of SSRIs and the possibility that in some people, they may actually cause the very symptoms they are prescribed to treat. I sat transfixed to the TV screen as I heard one young man featured in the program explain that shortly after starting his antidepressant he began to self-harm. He’d never done such a thing before. Upon stopping the drug the behaviour disappeared.
Remembering my first episode of self-harm all that time ago, I gasped as the realisation dawned on me: I’d only begun to do that after I’d started on the drugs.
What was to become a life changing decision was made then and there. The medication had to go. This would be no mean feat. With so many different drugs, and diagnoses the calibre of bipolar mood disorder, my current psychiatrist would read my ceasing treatment as a sure-fire sign I was launching into mania. Knowing all too well what would follow - hospitalisation and forced medicating - I had no choice but to wean myself in secret.
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