With a little help from antidepressants

Love this blog…
A great insight into a very difficult world…

Under Reconstruction

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This month, The American Recall Center is encouraging conversations online and offline about medication safety (check out their post on the newly-discovered side effects of Xarelto). Judy, their awesome Outreach Coordinator, got in touch recently asking if I’d be willing to write about my own experience with medication. I realized I’ve hardly (publicly) talked about the role of antidepressants in my road to recovery, and so I thought this would be a great place to start.

I’m currently taking Lexapro (or escitalopramdaily, and there are a couple of things I wish I’d known earlier. Owing to my own stubbornness, compounded by my ignorance about the nature and effects of antidepressants, I waited till I was almost 6 months into this current cycle of depression before obtaining a prescription. These are some valuable things I’ve learned over the last 3 months:

Antidepressants are not magic pills that will “make us…

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The thing about labels…

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Labels are great and we’d be pretty stuck without them. Years ago I went on a camping holiday and shared a caravan with a few other guys. In his incredible wisdom and bid to be hilarious, one of the party decided to remove all the labels from the tinned food. Needless to say that dinners for the week were truly potluck, and pretty awful. The thing with a tin of baked beans is that you know what you are getting; a cheap, tasty, quick solution which later results in flatulence!

So generally, labels help us to identify things which makes life just a little easier to navigate. The problem is that when it comes to people, and in particular, descriptions around our mental health, things get a whole lot more complicated.

If I say the word “schizophrenia” for example, this may well bring up a massive variety of emotional responses depending on the reader. Unlike the tin of beans which is almost entirely possible to predict, such diagnoses and experiences of them will vary massively. When we hear the term “schizophrenia” many of us will jump to the latest news headline involving someone who suffers with the condition. Others will automatically think about psychotic conditions such as hallucinations, hearing voices, delusions or paranoia. And all of the above are just a fraction of the many ways of experiencing the world which may lead to such a diagnosis. Once someone is given a label, then it is often the case that their entire persona can be open to interpretation, based squarely on an individual’s own preconceptions and attitudes around the label.

I’d like to clarify at this point that I am not anti-labels or diagnoses. They can really help us in terms of beginning to understand the kinds of ways in which people may suffer. The problem is that I can easily be led to view people in the way I view baked beans. I think I know what I’m getting, I make assumptions and foster beliefs based upon very limited information. Most of us would hate to think that we do this, but it’s actually pretty normal to do. There is a great song in the puppet musical Avenue Q called “We’re all a little bit racist,” which highlights how we all make assumptions about people based on limited information. Give it a quick Google, it’s well worth a look and is very funny.

A mental health diagnosis can only ever be a clue about some of the ways in which a person may experience life at times. It’s not a description of the person. I often wonder how it is that when talking about mental health, we often embody the diagnosis in a way we don’t do for “physical” conditions. For example, I’d say something like, “I have the flu”, I wouldn’t say “I am the flu”. But for some reason it is common to hear phrases such as “He’s bi-polar” or “She’s depressed” or “They’re a schizophrenic”. It’s less common to hear a phrase like “He suffers from depression”.

Suddenly the label becomes an identity which we can place upon others and which is all too easy to place upon ourselves with incredibly limiting consequences. That’s not what a label is for. The label is there to understand roughly how a person experiences things, and helps us to begin to find ways of improving that experience.

It’s an old cliche that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s really helpful in this case. Sure, with the beans we know exactly what we’re getting. With a book, the cover only gives us a tiny clue as to the story that lies within. The cover can never express the richness, the variety and the mystery of the story.

Let’s do more reading.

Taboo

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Woman zippering mouth closed

Seeking help for our emotional wellbeing can be difficult. What good can it do anyway? It’s not as if it’s going to change anything. What’s done and all that…

There are many reasons we may put off seeking specific support for our emotional wellbeing/mental health. But perhaps at the crux of the issue is our abject fear of being found out, as showing ourselves as something other than having it all together; as being weak. At work we keep quiet for fear of being seen as not up to the job. In the family we remain silent, after all, everyone else seems to manage. In our faith community we don’t speak out for fear of being seen as not having enough faith in…
The idea of actually saying what we are feeling or thinking, of being honest about our innermost thoughts is probably an alien one to most of us. The alternative? We hold onto it. We deal with it alone. Sadly for many of us this leads eventually to suffering it too. Instead of processing those things which can be difficult, we turn inward, go over and over the problem, until eventually the anxiety hits crisis point.
Numerous studies on our mental health have shown that being in community, maintaining healthy and active friendships and generally being connected to the world around us are all an essential part of maintaining our mental and emotional wellbeing.
For whatever reason, we don’t seem to work well in isolation. Is it truly a sign of weakness to admit to what’s difficult? No. This attitude only serves to maintain the taboo around our mental health.

The truth is that in sharing our struggles with another/others, we begin to find resource and ultimately strength. In accepting our weakness, we move towards embracing our humanity, and begin the journey of healing.

We’re all a little bit mental

We’re all just a little bit mental.

There, I said it! It’s possible that many of us may be offended or insulted by such a statement. The revulsion to such a statement may well be routed in our assumptions about what the term “mental” or “mental health” actually means.

For many of us the concept of mental health is one of alienation or separation from the “general public”. Perhaps to have mental health makes one markedly different from average Jo, or makes us more likely to:

“Dance around the podium, strip naked and squawk like a chicken”

(A Beautiful Mind, 2001)

Perhaps our attitude around mental health can lead us to use words such as “crazy” or “cuckoo” when referring to others or even ourselves in relation to mental health. It is easy to understand how we continue to hold such strong attitudes around the subject.

Sure, we have moved beyond the days of the “lunatic asylum” and if asked I’m sure we’d all communicate a level of acceptance and understanding towards those who may struggle with their mental health.

But what if we began to struggle? What about those times when we get so bound up with an important decision that we can’t see through the anxiety and our head feels like it’s in a vice? What about those times when life just doesn’t seem to be holding anything for us, when we struggle to get motivated around anything and simply fall into a dull kind of begrudged auto-pilot? We might well tell ourselves to “pull it together” or believe in statements such as “I shouldn’t be feeling like this”. We may well struggle to speak about such things for fear of being judged as weak, or even worse, be given some kind of mental health diagnosis!

But the fact is that mental health is a continuum that we are all on. The perceived chasm between physical health and mental health is such a damaging one. We wouldn’t think twice about taking a Lemsip to help with a cold, or go to the hospital to fix a broken leg. We are also cognitive and spiritual beings, and therefore our head space, our spirit, our soul, our emotions, our thinking our awareness or whatever else we may like to call it, is also subject to fluctuations in health. Still, we remain reluctant to treat it!

Mental health is not the sole domain of those we read about in the papers, or see incarcerated in institutions in the movies. We’ve probably heard the now old Department of Health statistic, that at least 1 in 4 of us are likely at any time to be suffering with poor mental health; I believe the truth is that we are all likely to suffer from an experience of lesser mental health at some point. Most of us go underground with it, and ride it out until somehow things improve.

And things can and do improve. If we can genuinely admit that actually, we all sit somewhere on the spectrum of great to poor mental health, and that this is constantly moving from life season to life season, then maybe we can begin to learn not to fear the term “Mental Health” but instead embrace it.

If we began to take our own mental health more seriously, perhaps we’d all begin to look after it a little better; learn to talk, avoid isolating, get involved, get active and so on.

But all the time our metal health remains in the closet, my guess is that we will continue to fear and to suffer it.