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Mental Health

My Experience With Antidepressants, and What I Wish I Had Known When Starting Out

Trying to make the decision about whether to see a doctor about starting antidepressants can be overwhelming and emotionally taxing. It can feel really isolating, and if you’ve internalized our culture’s messages about self-diagnosis (like I had), you might be second-guessing whether your experience of depressive symptoms is really that bad at all. If you’re feeling worried about going to the doctor and potentially starting a new medication, I hope that reading about my experiences with antidepressants and the lessons I’ve taken away will help you feel more valid and less alone!

I’d like to start off by saying that this article is based on my personal experience, and that I’m not qualified to give medical advice! Everyone reacts differently to different medications, and my experiences with specific types of medication almost certainly won’t be your experience. Some people aren’t able to take antidepressants for a variety of reasons or may choose not to—both also extremely valid options. Talking to your doctor is the best way to evaluate if a medication is working/will work for you.

That being said, here’s my story! I’ve been on two different types of antidepressants and had two radically different experiences.

The first time I started antidepressants was when I was 20, and it was a less-than-ideal experience. I’d been experiencing depressive symptoms since I was a teenager, but things had gotten a lot worse since moving out from my parents’ house. I had the sense that something was wrong, but I’d been second-guessing myself for months, thinking that what I was going through wasn’t that bad and that I must just be weak for not being able to take care of myself or feel anything other than a sense of hopelessness. I didn’t have a family doctor at the time, and finding one in Vancouver was a tall order.

Finally, I hit a point where things became unbearable and I dragged myself out of the house to a walk-in clinic nearby. In the appointment, the doctor made me explain in emotionally excruciating detail what was wrong, and later in the appointment he was a misogynistic asshole. But he did prescribe me a low dose of an SSRI, which I started taking immediately. At subsequent check-in visits to the walk-in clinic (with different doctors each time), I got higher doses of the medication until I felt like it was mitigating my symptoms enough for me to function. I experienced pretty uncomfortable side effects: nausea, lack of appetite, feeling empty/emotionless, lack of sex drive, and withdrawal symptoms if I didn’t take it at the same time every day. But while I felt physically bad, I didn’t feel emotionally horrible like I had before I started the medication, so I stayed on it for about a year and a half. At the end of that time, I felt like I had gained enough coping mechanisms to maintain stability in my life, and after stopping the medication all my side effects stopped too.

 

What We Can Take Away

Obviously all that sounds not great! This story isn’t meant to scare you off the idea of medication, but to empower you to learn from my experience. 

First, your experience of depressive symptoms is valid. A therapist once said to me that feeling okay and not horrible is many people’s baseline experience of the world, and sometimes people experiencing depressive symptoms need an extra boost to get there, and that is 100% okay and very common. Any prolonged experience of depressive symptoms is a valid reason to seek out the treatment of a doctor or therapist (or preferably both)! Here’s a resource to search therapists in Victoria where you can filter results by their therapeutic focus, gender, price, and more.

Second, the doctor. I would really suggest having a family doctor if you plan on discussing antidepressants as an option: someone you trust won’t retraumatize you by making you justify your experiences and who will believe you. A doctor should believe what you’re saying, and if they don’t, that is WRONG and you should get a second opinion. They should also keep the conversation at a factual, non-emotional level (crying in the office is not a prerequisite for a prescription). Also know that you have agency in the patient/doctor relationship; a doctor can make suggestions, but if you don’t feel comfortable with something from an informed perspective, you don’t have to do it. Alternatively, you can also inquire about different avenues of treatment. Finding a family doctor can be really hard, and if you don’t have one, I’d recommend checking out Cook Street Village Medical Clinic. They have a doctor schedule so you can see the same doctor every time (so you don’t have to re-explain your situation), offer telemedicine, and anecdotally I’ve had only good experiences there.

Lastly, side effects! My side effects on SSRIs were pretty gnarly (and rare) if I’m honest, although they’re a very common type of antidepressant to be prescribed, and other people I know have had good experiences on them. It’s normal to feel strange in the first few weeks of starting antidepressants and as you subsequently up your dose as needed. I’d liken my experience to feeling pushed back from reality or spaced out. That should subside as your body gets used to the new medication. Other side effects are normal too, but I think a good rule of thumb (based on my experience) is to think of side effects vs. the medication’s benefits on a balancing scale—if the side effects are causing even moderate daily discomfort, that medication is likely not worth it.

What I didn’t know when I started out is that there’s more than one type of antidepressant. If one doesn’t work for you, there may be another one that does. And while the process of trying to find the right one can be exhausting, finally finding it can make a huge difference to your day-to-day life. I’m currently on an SNRI and it works wonders for me (I can get out of bed, woohoo!). The only symptom I have is mild dry mouth, which I’ve made my peace with because at least now I’m drinking more water. I finally feel like myself, and I’m able to focus my energy on therapy and the things that are important to me rather than solely on survival.

It can be so scary to begin your journey toward treating your depressive symptoms, and whether or not you and your doctor decide medication is the right route for you to take, I hope reading about my experience helps you feel less alone and encourages you to seek out help if you need it.

Amanda Proctor is a third year Writing student at the University of Victoria and a poetry editor at This Side of West, the Writing undergraduate literary journal. She lives on the unceded traditional territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples. When she’s not writing, she’s probably baking cinnamon buns or trying to teach herself about astronomy. Her work can be found in The Maynard and SAD Mag.
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