Despite great strides in mental health awareness, using anti-depressants is still too often seen as drastic action - or a mark of defeat. Photo: Stocksy/G.FOCHESATO
I first started taking antidepressants when I was seven. I couldn't stop thinking about terrible things, and pressing my eyeballs until they hurt, and touching the floor three times before I could sleep, convinced something horrible would happen if I didn't. A strange man asked me to tell him all about it, and he showed me a picture book about an octopus with something called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I swallowed little pills daily to make the bad thoughts go away.
At 14, moody and withdrawn, I was once again carted off to the psychiatrist, who said I was depressed, like I didn't already know. I kept swallowing the pills.
One day I was taking the pills, and the next day I wasn't, though I don't remember when I stopped. For over 10 years, they were not in my life, and I thought I was okay.
Two months ago, I started taking them again. Looking back, I should have done it years ago.
In late 2013, I was stuck in a job I hated, my four-year relationship was silently decaying, I loathed my body and my OCD was flaring up, beaming horrific thoughts into my head that wouldn't go away.
The following year, the relationship ended, I started a job I hated even more and staved off my loneliness with empty sex, short-lived flings and alcohol – it was easier than facing reality.
After my contract ended in January 2015, I was unemployed for six months and felt listless. I landed a dream job and then lost it. I became overly dependent on my boyfriend, desperately craving a level of support he couldn't provide. By December, we had broken up and my OCD was at an all-time high. I spent days numb in bed, now heartbroken as well as depressed.
"I don't want to die, but I don't particularly want to be alive, either," I flatly told my therapist.
I had been seeing him for two years, but we had never discussed medication, and it was only in January, when it became evident I had hit rock bottom, that I tentatively floated the idea. Two weeks and one GP visit later, I was holding the familiar purple packet for the first time in over a decade.
I'm lucky that I've never been surrounded by people who stigmatise mental illness. Many of my friends struggle with depression, and my ever-supportive parents not only saw the signs back in 1996, but acted - taking me to the psychiatrist for the first time.
Despite this support, I hesitated for so long to go back on antidepressants because (against my own better judgment) I felt like it was admitting defeat; taking a step backwards after years fighting on my own.
Why are we so afraid to seek help? Societal attitudes towards mental health have vastly improved in recent years, and there are shiny days dedicated to looking out for our mates' emotional wellbeing. Mental illness is not uncommon, affecting one in four young Australians. Free services like headspace and Lifeline mean that counselling is not restricted to those with the financial means, and we're privileged to have one of the world's most affordable healthcare systems.
Yet sometimes we're our own harshest critics, stubbornly refusing to admit we are struggling until our darkest hours are upon us. For me, it was a mixture of shame and ego, but coaxing myself out of that allowed me to properly begin again.
So far, the transition has been smooth. I'm in much better spirits generally – whether it's a result of the medication, or my new job (and writing this column!) which I adore, or being happily single for the first time in almost a decade, or a combination of all of the above, I'm unsure.
What I do know is that my head finally feels clear. Though antidepressants aren't a fix-all cure, they can certainly provide a push towards the mental stability we all deserve.
I can't remember the last time I cried so hard I couldn't breathe – a daily occurrence in past lives. Recently, when asked how I was doing, for the first time since I can remember, I replied, "Really great, thanks" – and I meant it.
It's not without its shortcomings – the drug I'm on, Zoloft, is infamous for sexual side effects, changing my libido from hormonal teen boy to pot plant (they don't call 'em anti-d's for nothing). Orgasms? Tell her she's dreaming. Surprisingly it hasn't bothered me as much as I thought it would – if anything, my productivity has increased – and if it doesn't even out in a few months, I have the option of switching meds.
The most empowering thing about this decision is that it was mine. When I took antidepressants for the first time as a child, it was not my choice. This time, I recognised that I was drowning and extended my own hand to save myself.
If you need support or information, call Lifeline 131 114 or BeyondBlue 1300 224 636.