When someone sees me taking my daily anxiety medication and asks me what they are for that is my reply. I don’t know if it is the fact that I am from the island of Ireland, or if it is some deeper dysfunction, but this reply is typical of my propensity to self-deprecate. In my head, these kind of comments are an attempt at diffusing the awkwardness of the situation by making the focus of the conversation my blunt answer rather than the fact that I have to take medication to stop my own brain from attacking me.
The truth is, that even though I live my anxiety in a very public way, I still have some stock in the idea that needing medication for a mental health condition is shameful. That, of course, is a lie. If taking a paracetamol for a headache is fine, then taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor to stop me having panic attacks whilst driving in traffic is also fine. When we are ill, we treat the illness. Sometimes that requires a pill.
I am writing this short section because I am convinced that many people I know should consider being on medication for their mental health, but either through stigma or fear of the unknown impact it might have upon them, they have avoided the conversation with their doctor. I believe that the only way to undermine a stigma and fear is by truth-telling. So I will give you the warts and all low-down on my experience with ‘meds.’
Firstly, I should have been on these pills years ago. They have made an incredible difference in my life. Since I have been taking one pill a day, I am more stable, settled, positive and calm than I had been in perhaps 15 years. If I can describe the way these pills have affected my day to day life, I would way that the lowest lows of sadness and the highest highs of chaotic anxiety have been shaved off. It is as if the range of emotions I experience, the boundaries of which had reached into destructive spaces, has been narrowed between much healthier boundaries. My body is physically less tense and my thinking is much more clear. That’s the positive side and if your doctor recommends you take medication for your mental health, seriously consider taking their advice. My experience is that it has almost exclusively been a good thing for me.
I take one pill a day of a medication called Citalopram. I have been taking it for just under 18 months. I take it with breakfast every day except on the days I forget to. If I forget one day, I don’t notice any ill effect. That takes some pressure off. I have regular reviews with my GP about how I am doing with the medication and whether they think I am on the right dosage or not. It is like taking any other medication in that regard.
When I first started taking the drug it had three negative effects which lasted about 3 weeks. These may not be universal, I am not a doctor or pharmacist so wouldn’t claim to speak with authority about side-effects, but these were my experiences.. All three of these side-effects were extremely manageable and did not impact hugely upon my day-to-day. They also seemed to ease very quickly as my body got used to the medication.
The first side-effect was that I was prone to suddenly overheating. I am unsure why this was but ‘the sweats’ were very sudden and very real. They were especially bad in bed at night. I drank more water and wore lighter clothing. Within a month it stopped happening. The second effect I noticed was that for the first few weeks of taking the medication my hands shook slightly. I was the only person who noticed, and it passed within 21 days. It may not have been connected to the medication but it coincided with starting taking the pills.
The final effect was drowsiness. At about 2:30 pm every day I wanted to nap. There were days when I first started my medication that I felt I was going to fall asleep on my laptop as I worked. Again, as with the other three early effects of the medication, this seemed to normalise again within a few weeks.
I write this because the stories we hear about the impacts mental health medication has on people rarely include stories like mine. There were initial effects, they were not debilitating. Of course, for some people on some higher dosages, or on different medication the effects might be vastly different in symptom or impact, but for me, the impact was very manageable.
I did not put on weight. I did not lose weight. I stayed the same, 102 kg, give or take the weight of a large pizza or pint.
The only long term impact that taking medication has had on me is that at times it is close to impossible, or impossible to orgasm. I’m sorry for being so blunt, but I think honesty about what you might expect is important in braking a stigma.
Almost unlimited sexual stamina? The Holy Grail right? Wrong. It has been at times incredibly frustrating to the point of causing almost as much anxiety than my initial anxiety condition. However, if I had to trade off the way I felt every day before taking the pills off against the moments of frustration the pills have caused in our bedroom, there is no comparison. I would choose to take the pills every time.
Again, I am only telling my story here, and this one lasting side-effect may not happen to everyone, for some it might be worse, for some it might be better, that is for a GP to advise on, but I share it because of people know what they might experience they are more equipped to seek help.
If you have recognised that you are unwell I cannot recommend a conversation with a GP highly enough. I had my conversation with my GP because I reached a point where I was not coping at all. I knew I should have had it much earlier. It came to the point where I had two panic attacks whilst at work. The reasons I didn’t go to the doctor were fear of the unknown, fear that the drug would remove my personality and that I didn’t want the stigma of taking ‘crazy pills.’ Each of those were genuine and legitimate fears but were based on things that were worth overcoming or lies.
Please talk to your GP. You are worth so much more than spending your days feeling miserable. You deserve to be helped. You deserve to recover. You deserve to be free is your pain.
I’m happy to answer any question about my experience with medication. Send me a message on twitter @davemagill and we can talk.
This is a chapter from my book The Voices That Haunt Us. It’s the story of living with mental illness and what I’ve learned. You can find it on Amazon.