How not to talk about depression

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I remember an acquaintance once told me they’d given up alcohol and had started attending AA meetings. I’d jokingly said at the time, “I think I need to do that because I drink too much sometimes!” The person looked at me and said patiently, “Lots of people say that. But being an alcoholic is very different...”

I wince now at my naivety. She went on to recount how her body reacted to the smell of mineral turpentine, triggering the crave response for alcohol.  In the nicest way possible, she had held a mirror to my ignorance. The image she’d created of her struggle was shocking. I felt ashamed of my earlier response, but enlightened about the disease of addiction.

I was reminded of this when, during a discussion about medications and weight loss with my personal trainer, I revealed that I was on anti-depressants. As soon as the words left my lips, I wanted to suck them back in. “Why are you on them?” the trainer asked. After two years of being on Lexapro, I struggled to give any sort of acceptable response to that question.

“It wasn’t any particular event,” I started. “I just felt really….” My words trailed off and my eyes stung at the memory of how woeful I had felt back then. “It’s NORMAL to be down,” the trainer with the Good Intentions continued. “I have ups and downs too – everyone does.” And then I remembered why those words sounded so familiar, and why they made me wince.

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Clinical depression is not part of the rhythmic cycle of moods, anymore than it is normal for someone who likes a drink to have a biochemical reaction to a whiff of nail polish remover. I’ve been surrounded by depression for much of my life. My father suffered from it so severely that he was often confined to bed. He was on heavy doses of ‘old school’ medication, which no doubt impacted his energy levels. Watching him and other people close to me under the influence of anti-depressant drugs made me determined never to use them myself. Give me emotions, true affect and life unblunted by chemical suppression, I’d vowed.

I battled through periods of darkness and loss, heroically refusing offers of medication from my GP. I saw psychologists, had acupuncture and desperately tried to haul myself out of a hole that was becoming deeper and deeper with every struggle. 

There was no One Big Thing. But one day I was dealt a relatively minor blow and I just fell in a metaphorical heap and couldn’t get back up again. I was floating alone in a cold, dark and silent ocean, watching life on the shore go on like it always had. I felt remote, removed. The early days of anguish and crying gave way to a feeling of utter emptiness, where everything but the sound of my own thoughts was muted. Every awful thing I’d thought about myself, or thought others had thought about me, played on a Greatest Hits CD in my head that I couldn’t turn off.  There’s a reason why people instinctively turn the radio down when they’re driving and looking for an address. I found it impossible to focus – on work, relationships. I became incapable of making the simplest decisions. I’d wake at the same time each night, my thoughts churning endlessly.

I watched TV stories about people who took their own lives and I remember thinking, did they feel as bad as me right now when they did it?  I wasn’t suicidal, but I spent a lot of time thinking about death and the meaning of my existence.

My capitulation came on my next visit to my GP. I was sent off with a prescription for the little pills I’d sworn would not pass my lips. After a few days, they kicked in. Friends, unaware of my ‘little helpers’, remarked how good I looked. I was sparkling – back to a state I hadn’t felt in years. I started dreaming again. The incessant internal dialogue of negative thoughts was silenced, the CD of bad thoughts, shelved.  

I made decisions. I got on with things and slowly the crinkles in my battered self esteem started to iron out.  I’d feared that my creativity would be stifled without the raw intensity of my emotion, but with a clear head, I more productive than ever.

Where once I was afraid to take the pills, I became scared to go off them, worried that my world would crumble again. But I decided the time was right. I tapered off the medication over a month and kept up the therapy sessions. The sky didn’t fall and I feel at ease again.

It’s not easy to understand depression. But it helps that we’re having more of these conversations in our society, even if ignorance is the first response as it was mine, with my flippant remark about alcoholism. Not everyone will understand, but most people will try.

24 comments

  • "After a few days, they kicked in. Friends, unaware of my ‘little helpers’, remarked how good I looked."

    Sounds like placebo rather than the actual medication. it generally takes at least a few weeks.

    I agree "It’s not easy to understand depression."

    Commenter
    Mayday
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 26, 2012, 8:44AM
    • I've taken Lexapro as well and also felt better after a few days. I don't think it was a placebo effect, but even if it was...it worked.

      Commenter
      JEM
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 9:41AM
    • That's exactly what I was thinking, and more so it usually takes a few trials of different drugs to find one that suits you. Unless of course this person was extremely fortunate in being given the right one to suit her.

      Commenter
      perplexed
      Location
      crovati@gmail.com
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 9:48AM
    • Actually,. the time it takes for Lexapro to kick in varies greatly on the person. For me, the first time took 2.5 weeks, second time under a week and third time a 1.5 weeks. My Dr informed me it could kick in anywhere between days and a month a half.

      Commenter
      Girl
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 9:57AM
    • Mayday, you just read an article (hang on... DID you read it?) which was in part about those who are ignorant to another's personal struggle making comments out-of-turn, and then you proceeded to post this comment anyway? Unbelievable.

      FYI, I have taken several anti-depressants on and off over 15 years and whereas some do take a week or two to 'kick in', some don't work at all and still there are others that have taken effect within 48 hours.

      When you are taking an anti-depressant and it begins to work, you know it! There are many side effects. For me, after only a day or two I notice that the pills have a positive effect on my mood -- but they also cause headaches, the inability to sleep or overwhelming drowsiness, nervous energy, teeth grinding, dry mouth, nausea, diarrhoea, sweating, changes in appetite and sexual disfunction!

      Obviously not everyone has every symptom, but when you notice a huge improvement in your state of mind, combined with agitation, dizziness, nausea or sleeplessness you can tell that it is the combined effect of your medication. For me the most noticeable and usual (despite changes in medication from Zoloft to Cipramil to Efexor-XR to Lexapro etc) are the migraines, which disappear after about a week and a half.

      Mayday, before you make a huge, sweeping assumption that it 'sounds like placebo', because you've heard that it 'generally' takes longer than the writer states (as is their personal experience) for medication to work, maybe you should re-read the section where the writer describes ignorant people talking about shoes they've never walked in...

      Commenter
      Say what?
      Location
      Sydney, NSW
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 10:03AM
    • During a completely non-functional period some years back I had a psychiatrist prescribe a few different antidepressants, resulting in worsening mood, zero appetite (weighed 54kg at 175cm) and dry mouth, inablilty to sleep, anxiety, terrible migraines at least twice a week etc. I became absolutely desperate for some relief from both my mood and the side-effects, and a sympathetic GP gave me a sample of Avanza. Within a couple of HOURS of taking the first pill I felt sleepy and hungry and completely distracted from the depression that had dogged me for several months, and back pain I'd had for almost a year went from being almost overwhelming to seemingly irrelevant. In theory it shouldn't be possible. It made me feel more 'normal' than I had in years. I switched straight from whatever I was taking at the time (probably Cipramil or Zoloft) so I can't relaly put this down to the placebo effect. I guess it was just the right one.

      Commenter
      Maybe, maybe not
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 12:38PM
  • I had a discussion about this the other day. My boyfriend had a friend on facebook who suffers depression and he posted that he was going through a bad patch. I was flabbergasted at the number of people who said things like, "We all have bads days. You've gotta have bad days to appreciate the good ones." Far out.

    My bf was one of the few who didn't say something that, but he's suffered from depression, so he knows it's not the same as just feeling a bit sad about something that happened.

    Perhaps the common use of the words 'depression' and 'depressed' means that its true meaning has been diluted? "He didn't return my call. I'm so depressed!" - similar to how we often say we love or hate things when we don't really; we just like them or dislike them.

    Commenter
    JEM
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    October 26, 2012, 9:50AM
    • This was amazing to read, thank you so much for sharing your story Ellen.

      I work at a university and I've recently been in a group having training about how to talk to students about depression and possibly suicidal thoughts. It's been really interesting and really difficult - I couldn't actually let the words "are you thinking about suicide?" out of my mouth. But sometimes you have to ask the tough question, to take steps to get people help. Thank you again Ellen, for helping people understand a little more about how to communicate about depression.

      Commenter
      JessB
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 10:12AM
      • Depression is not something I would ever have associated with my own life, I was the most happy, bubbly person you could meet.... until it hit me hard earlier this year as a result of extreme stress from my workplace. It was enormously debilitating and it made me understand exactly why the words 'Black Dog' are used to describe it - so very apt. As with Ellen I wasn't suicidal but bleak thoughts were in my mind constantly, I questioned everything about myself and lost myself in awful, unhappy, unhealthy thoughts. I, like Ellen, didn't want the drugs, I felt it would change me as a person, I was given the prescription but never filled it, instead I chose to leave the situation that was the root of the problem, that along with an absolutely fantastic therapist has helped me pull out of the depths I was caught in and I'm making my way back to the person I once was. I wish more people understood just how debilitating this disease is and just how prolific. Whilst I consider myself one of the lucky ones I realise it could've been much worse and I hate to think where I would have ended up, but I was so fortunate to have a supportive family and therapist and medical intervention if I'd needed it. I'm grateful to be where I am today but I'll always remain conscious of the fact that it can hit anyone, anytime and it should never, ever be considered flippantly.

        Commenter
        SSJ
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 26, 2012, 10:21AM
        • Thanks for sharing SSJ, I too chose to leave the situation because like you I "didn't want the drugs, I felt it would change me as a person"

          I know two people who have been on anti depressants for decades and they are no better than when they first started feeling depressed.
          Both continue to live in awful relationships which only exacerbate their problems and then there are side effects such as big weight increases and sleep problems, never mind the change in their personality.

          My experience with anti depressants was not something I would like to repeat.
          Being proactive by eating well, regular exercise and sleep as well as not taking too much on has for me proved far more effective in managing my mental health than pills.

          Commenter
          mayday
          Location
          sydney
          Date and time
          October 26, 2012, 12:02PM

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