Depression and self-harm
This brief chapter of my life – which didn’t feel brief at the time – is hazy in my memory. I was in Junior Certificate year, fourteen years old, when I began to spiral destructively into what I later realised was depression. It was the self-harm that did it, that pushed me, and my family and friends to consider the daunting option of outside help.
At first I went to a holistic healer who tried to explain how I ought to channel negative energy from my toes out through the top of my head, and at the end of the session gave me a massage that made my arms develop pins and needles. As a very sceptical non-spiritual teenager, I went away confused and emotional, adamant never to return.
Next came the school counsellor, who made a desperate attempt to determine the cause of what I was feeling. From daddy issues to not being challenged enough in school: you name it, she tried to use it to explain away what I was stubbornly convinced was unprecedented, sporadic, clinical depression.
Eventually I was referred on to my GP when Miss Guidance Counsellor realised she was in over her head and that I had no intention to cooperate. I was having none of it when the doctor suggested to try meditation, deep breathing, exercise, or what have you. I had done my research and I was there for one thing, and one thing only: medication.
Here’s where the doped up story begins. I started my Prozac course in February, not long after turning fifteen, under the close, watchful (and to me, prying) eye of a psychologist who had an accent that I could not understand whatsoever. I was a good girl, and did what I was told, taking it regularly every morning, despite how repulsive the taste was, which I still remember to this day.
Medication made me numb
I watched out for any side effects. Depression had been causing physical exhaustion in me for quite some time, but as soon as I took the medication, I was an even more real feeling of drowsiness and lethargy that became a daily battle in school. The main thing I noticed, emotion-wise, was that I couldn’t cry. It was like the medication numbed my numbness and dulled any strong emotion I would have felt. This way, I was “under control”.
I couldn’t experience severe sadness or severe joy. It was as if I would notice something that should upset me and recognise that I should feel upset, but I just wasn’t. I’d lost touch with stimuli, and was desensitised from their effects and the impulses I would normally have had in reaction to them. Likewise, I would hear or see something wonderful that should make me euphoric, but I just wasn’t. I couldn’t manage much more than a shadow of the emotion itself.
My mind was so quiet, my thoughts so slow and infrequent, that it was practically zombie-like inside my head. I also couldn’t cry, which I, as a very sensitive person, found truly terrifying and frustrating. I was very aware of the feeling that my emotions were being monitored. Our emotions are one of the few things in life that we ourselves solely own. To have medication influence and warp them is disturbing and disconcerting.
If I were to forget to take my medication for any reason, a surge of emotion and feeling would consume me and I would cry inconsolably for hours. It was as if a floodgate had opened, and all of this natural feeling (albeit caused by a chemical imbalance) was being suppressed. Less suppressed – more like suspended. It was as if I were a passerby on a park bench, watching my emotions float by like clouds, feeling disconnected from them entirely.
Prozac induced not a state of contentment, nor happiness, but one of “okayness”. This okayness was only a slight improvement from the nothingness I’d been experiencing up to this, though. My overall perception of the world didn’t change; I still saw little or no brightness or hope in that which surrounded me. My coping methods didn’t improve. I still felt the itch to cut and self-harm just as strongly.
In the end, my relationship with self-harm was ended purely because I could see the toll it was taking on those around me. It hurt me to see those I loved cry – much more than self-harm hurt me physically. The Prozac had very little to do with my quitting, I do believe, and I had several relapses with self-harm long after my depression had passed.
A little extra push
I started to recover a few months into my medication course, and it’s debatable, I suppose, whether it was due to the medication itself taking its toll, or to my attitude changing independently. I think it was a combination of the two. The Prozac alone didn’t help me to realise that I actually wanted to recover, but once I realised that, I believe the Prozac gave me that little extra push to achieve it.
That push was all I wanted, and as soon as I felt it, I improved quite rapidly. But with that rapid improvement, I was starting to notice the inconveniences of being on medication more and more as the days passed. I couldn’t stay over in a friend’s or family member’s house without bringing this obvious, suspicious bottle with me. I would try to disguise it for fear of being questioned. I hated the feeling of reliance and dependence, especially when I felt I was finally “coping” and recovering.
I began to grow restless on the medication and wanted out. I didn’t want it to get all the credit for my recovery when I felt I was doing the vast majority of the work on my own. So I did something very ill-advised: I stopped my course short. I was told I was to stay on the medication for between six to nine months, and if I remember correctly I stopped taking my medication at around the five month mark.
I felt fine once I got used to being independent of it, but hated having to lie to everyone that I was taking it. When six months finally came around, I told the doctor that I felt ready to stop. He wanted to lower my prescription and wait another few months. I was upset that the doctors were undermining me and not taking on board how I knew I felt, all while I had already stopped taking my medication and had suffered no bad experiences. So my lie continued, and eventually, before the year was out, I was officially free from Prozac.
I don’t remember my exact dosage. Nor do I even remember whether it was a particularly strong one or not. What I remember is a blurring of the days into a soft-spoken, muted mental state. I remember the aftertaste. I remember people watching me warily as soon as I went on the medication for any side-effects, and then watching me even more closely when I came off it, checking that I wasn’t going to snap or relapse. I remember being ashamed to admit to anyone that I was on medication, and how people would look at me differently if they found out. Looks of curiosity, pity and suspicion that became so familiar to me in that period.
However, I also remember the relief and pride on my friends’ and family members’ faces when I had finished my course and they saw I really was feeling better. I remember having my first guilt-free sip of wine after I’d come off the medication, not having to fear side-effects any longer. I remember throwing my last bottle of Prozac into the bin with a feeling of pride: it was all over. Of course it wasn’t “all over”, but it was the beginning of the end of my depression. For that, to some extent, I have anti-depressants to thank.
Illustration by Mubashir Sultan