A Love Letter to Antidepressants


by Georgia White. This piece appears in Boshemia Magazine: BODIES. 

At the Museum Brandhorst in Munich there’s an art installation, comprised of rows of shelves two metres tall and nearly nine metres long. Sitting on the shelves are hundreds of small multi coloured objects, varying slightly in size. I thought, at first glance, that they were miniature painted cars. The installation is actually one of a series of cabinets by Damien Hirst; the work is entitled In This Terrible Moment We Are All Victims of an Environment That Refuses to Acknowledge the Soul. The objects are pills.

The title is a little grandiose. But when I saw them, I recoiled. I had at this point been a chronic insomniac for nearly a decade; an insomniac who hated pills. Media headlines tended to agree with me: an article on antidepressant usage that appeared in The Spectator earlier this year asserted that the UK has “become a nation of sad pill-poppers.” It’s an ugly term: it connotes overconsumption, indulgence, people too weak to cope with the real world. That a need for medication to manage mental health is treated with a degree of suspicion should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever sought help for anxious or depressive symptoms. There is a kind of rationale behind it: the physical object of a pill intercepts or minimises sensations of physical pain. How can a pill intercept such abstract concepts as sadness or fear?

Despite the glaring evidence, I truly believed I didn't possess an inherently anxious or depressive temperament. When I was still an undergraduate a GP gave me a script for temazepam, a sleeping drug that ironically has a high risk for dependency. I accepted it cautiously, looking at it as only a temporary solution. I didn’t need or want pills, not on a permanent basis.

Meanwhile insomnia was gradually turning me into an intensely paranoid person. The effects of sleep deprivation are probably familiar to everyone. Breathing becomes shallow, the brain reacts to stimuli on a two- or three-second delay. Lethargy ensues. After a time exhaustion places the world in sepia tone; you start to believe you make other people as unhappy as you make yourself. I began to wonder if the world might be a better place without me depressing the place up. I quit jobs, cancelled plans, and avoided thinking about the long term; the long term was for a different me, one who had her shit together. When my temazepam script ran out, I got another. I became socially avoidant, subdued.

Then I saw a different GP, one who visibly flinched when I related my mental health history. She ignored my protests and handed me a script for antidepressants in a very final way before kicking me out of her office. A distrust of antidepressants is not unfounded: they can, after all, have startling side effects or vary in their effectiveness across time and between people. But my persistent aversion to them was fuelled by a belief that my anxiety was a weakness; that if I could only crack the code that everyone else seemed to have worked out, all would be well.

The most striking difference in my post-antidepressant world is that I do not really feel like a person who was broken and is now healed, or a person who was once weak and is no longer. I just don’t shiver anymore when I’m not in danger. Breathing is not something I have to actively concentrate on doing. I don’t break into a nervous sweat before seeing close and trusted friends. I feel like the same person, in a different body: a body I’m not at war with.

I’m not sure when, or if, I will ever taper off antidepressants. Many mental wellness approaches promote a fight-fire-with-fire principle: relaxation and mindfulness apps, support groups, cognitive behavioural therapy. The problem is in your head, so you concentrate on fixing it at the source. I don’t wish to dispute their merits; many people undoubtedly find that that’s all they need. But my experience has taught me that the mind and body cannot be so easily separated, that sometimes the spirit really is willing—it’s the flesh that’s weak.