When The Drugs Don't Work
As I opened my bedside drawer the other day I was struck by quite how many empty prescription packets I’d accumulated - evidence of quite how many pills I’d popped from their blister packs in my attempt to aid the survival of the worst 5 months of my life.
It’s been a huge drug-filled learning curve and one that I thought might be worth briefly sharing as I know starting medication for anxiety and depression can be a big step. I’ve been given the choice before in my life, but this time was different as I knew I didn’t really have a choice. I needed anything at all that could help. Counselling on its own wasn’t enough for me - certainly not in the first few weeks.
I should start by saying that none of this is intended as prescriptive advice - I am clearly no professional - it’s really just sharing my own experience in the hope that it can help break down any stigma of needing and seeking help, be it counselling or medication, for our mental health.
I was taken to the emergency doctor by my Mum and sister-in-law immediately after Michael died. I could barely talk, walk, see or hear - every sense severed. My body wanted to shut down with sheer shock and terror; my mind wanted to shut down with sheer loss and devastation. I alternated between a silent trance like state - where noises and people swirled around my physical self - and a bewildered one where tears quietly fell down my face as I asked again and again if it was real; if it had really happened; if I wasn’t just trapped in the middle of the worst imaginable nightmare.
But it was real. And I really needed help from my doctor.
I was first prescribed a drug called Diazepam, a type of tranquilliser; I think once known as Valium. It wasn’t a dose to knock me out, but enough to at least smooth off a tiny a bit of the razor sharp edges of my pain. I remember literally wishing the minutes away until I could take another - all being carefully administered by my family. I was also prescribed a drug called Zopiclone - basically a sleeping pill. Again not a high dose, but enough to send me off into some form of sleep each night so that my body could at least try to begin its long, arduous task of trying to repair itself.
The problem with both drugs is that with prolonged use the body can easily become dependent, so after a few weeks my GP discussed my options for longer-term, less addictive, medication - I was already seeing him on a weekly basis at this time so everything was being carefully monitored.
I actually ended up trying two different types of anti-depressants. Unfortunately, the side effects in the first couple of weeks with both were too much for me to personally cope with. I felt sick, my appetite was even worse than before, my palms were constantly sweating and I could barely sit still. I became hyper-anxious, and even though I knew this would probably settle down, I felt I just couldn’t cope another day. My emotional reserves were already so very low and they just didn’t suit me. Thankfully, with both episodes, my doctor agreed it was best to stop and reevaluate.
Someone described to me that finding the right anti-depressant is a bit like bit like finding the right pair of shoes - you sometimes have to try a few pairs until you can get a really good fit. And my shoes just weren’t fitting! Several friends have opened up to me about their own medication since this experience and it’s been good to hear that for most the initial side effects with taking the same drugs as I was prescribed were pretty negligible. And, more importantly, most have found the medication to be effective in helping with their depression.
If I’m honest, I felt a big failure at the time for not being able to make it through the first few weeks of my body adjusting. I just didn’t really understand why I couldn’t persevere but at least I knew I was still helping myself by avidly continuing with my counselling. My GP did offer me another anti depressant - this time from a different group of drugs - but I have to be honest and admit I was again deterred by the potential side effects. This time it was weight gain. I know it might sound a ludicrous concern in the wake of everything that was happening to me but as I explained to my GP - my self confidence and self esteem were already at rock bottom. The only thing I was achieving each day was to get up, shower, get dressed, do my hair and put on a bit of make-up. It was a ‘costume’ that allowed me to vaguely function now that I’d reached the stage of at least getting off the sofa. I guess I felt I still knew myself well enough to believe that possibly gaining weight at that time would probably diminish my self confidence even further. And I also knew I really needed to cling tightly to whatever I had left of ‘old Sam’. Even if that wasn’t much.
So what next?
The answer for me was prescribed by my psychiatrist. Initially as a week long course before bedtime, he recommended I take a particular type of beta blocker - called Propanolol - that has been shown to help with symptoms of PTSD. In my crude explanation, taken before bedtime as a specific dose for a set period of time, this drug can help transmit the trauma messages over to the correct side of the brain during sleep so that the trauma isn’t replayed constantly each day. About as over simplified as I can make it! The great thing with this drug was that one, it didn’t have any bad side effects for me and two, it can also be used longer term in low doses to treat episodes of anxiety. So, that is what I now use as my emotional crutch. I always carry them with me and although I don’t take them daily or even that regularly, I feel a kind of confidence in knowing they are there as part of an emergency handbag first aid kit.
Unfortunately, I have found that sleep continues to be my enemy since Michael died so I do still also have some emergency sleeping tablets that I try not to take unless I’m really desperate. I do sometimes get anxious about not being able to sleep easily anymore, but I figure that’s okay given all that I’ve been through.
And that is basically how I cope. I still haven’t ruled out retrying an anti-depressant - especially when I feel like I’ve had a few consecutively bad days - but for now I seem to tick over, day by day, night my night, with my emergency drug stash and my counselling. The next stage for me will probably be developing and exploring other, non-medical, ways of supporting my mental health. I’ve already embarked on an exercise programme at my local gym, which I’m actually (surprisingly!) loving and there are many, many more little things I can do to hopefully make life feel better; but it’s obviously had to be a case of one step at a time.
And that’s the thing; good mental health is not a race. The whole point of writing out this journey is to demonstrate the amount of time and energy we sometimes have to put into looking after ourselves. It would be amazing if we could just go to the doctor and come away with a magic happy pill, a quick fix, but sadly that is probably beyond anyone’s capability. I’m a huge advocate of talking therapy and a huge advocate of being prepared to consider and try different ideas and medications until finding the right fit; which can inevitably take time and patience. We are all so different and as I’ve unfortunately had to discover, one size really doesn’t fit all.
The Even Keel Foundation cannot give medical advice so if you have any questions about medication or any other medical concerns, then please arrange to see you GP. The Even Keel Foundation is not a crisis response service. There are however many people you can talk to. Please visit www.theevenkeelfoundation.com/helplines for a list of organisations that are there to listen and help in confidence to any worries you might have. Or you can call The Samaritans 24 hour helpline on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d feel more comfortable texting someone then you can text SHOUT to 85258