The black dog of depression had stalked Andrea Hubert for decades, but she’d refused to take antidepressants. She tells Standard Issue what changed her mind – and what happened next.
Mid-February, 2015. King’s Cross station, 1am. It was pouring with rain, my shoes were distinctly un-waterproof, and I couldn’t get a cab. So far, so British, but the reason I remember it so clearly – the reason it was such a remarkable evening – was that despite the perfect pathetic conditions, I wasn’t crying, turning it into a tragic metaphor for my life, or listing it as one more reason to kill myself. For some, that may be a normal reaction to rain and transport woes. For me, after 18 months (and 25 years) of flailing helplessly in poisonous metaphorical mind treacle, it was a revelation.
The reason? An antidepressant that’s my new best friend. This is the first time I’ve taken antidepressants, despite having had depression since the age of 12. I’m now in my 30s and it took a very long time for me to make the choice to swallow the first of these surprisingly un-bitter pills. Medication for depression was fine for other people (crazy people), but I was living with mine, and doing just fine – if ‘fine’ meant constant, relentless misery.
Let’s skip adolescence; nobody enjoyed that, depression be damned. But in adulthood, I’d have weeks where I felt passably normal, and many others where I’d be shivering at the station on my way to work; I’d regard the horribly crowded train approaching the platform with internal panic, and think the question, “Should I try and squeeze on, or would throwing myself in front be a whole lot easier?” was an entirely logical response to the pressures and anxiety of rush hour. These ‘black cloud’ weeks grew more numerous, and the tolerable weeks, in which the undercurrent of suicidal ennui was just a low buzz instead of an all-consuming virus, grew fewer. I stopped seeing friends, stopped making beautifully believable excuses, stopped picking up the phone, and eventually, a few months ago, stopped getting out of bed.
“I adore my unflinchingly supportive mother, but her advice was akin to asking a diabetic to will away their need for insulin by meditating, or telling a PTSD sufferer to take up the banjo to take their mind off it.”
So why didn’t I just take the damn pills? My childhood certainly didn’t help: my courageous mother moved to England from South Africa in her early 20s because she disagreed with apartheid; she raised three children while her husband worked insanely long hours, with absolutely no family support or money for childcare respite. I often asked her how she hadn’t become depressed. After a quizzical stare – during which I’m sure she must have been asking herself, “Did I really grow you?” – she would explain to me, with no irony, that depression was “all in the mind”, and that I could overcome it by ignoring it, or pretending everything was fine until it miraculously just…was.
This was terrible, damaging advice. I adore my unflinchingly supportive mother, but this advice is akin to asking a diabetic to will away their need for insulin by meditating, or telling a PTSD sufferer to take up the banjo to take their mind off it. Mine is a chemical imbalance; and that’s not my fault.
Rather portentously, I was prescribed antidepressants about 10 years ago, during a breakup-induced spell of darkness that lasted more than a year, and which at the time I assumed was normal. But I never took them. I was far too suspicious of how easy it was to procure them: all I’d had to do was tell my doctor I wanted to drive into a wall. She cocked her head in some semblance of sympathy and said, “Oh dear. That’s not good, is it?”
“I’m better than this,” I thought loftily, departing in what I imagined to be sweeping disdain of a medical profession who would never understand me, conveniently forgetting a lifetime of self-harm, anxiety, self-loathing and turning misery into jokes. Oh, and that time that I went on a geography field trip, saw a man’s body floating off notorious suicide spot Beachy Head and thought, “That’ll be me one day.”
It’s not that I’ve got a problem with pills. Historically, I’ve had my fun. Yet when it came to antidepressants, the self-diagnostic nature of it all was offputting. Secretly, I was waiting until things got so bad I was forced to do it, when someone else would make the decision for me – the adult equivalent of the rare days when my mum actually told me to take the day off school. But that’s what’s so tricky: you’re the decider, but you’re in no good emotional state to decide. And then, when you take them, you decide if they’re working, you decide if you need a higher dose and you decide when you’re better again. For most normal adults who don’t have a voice in their head telling them just how much they have in common with a bloated corpse, making decisions about your own welfare is not a monumental challenge. For me, it was the most desperately lonely moment of my life (and I’ve left a threesome to cry in the bathroom).
“Intellectually, I know there’s nothing wrong or weak or defeatist about taking medicine for an illness. Why wouldn’t you take the medicine that stops you being sick?”
As it turns out, finally acquiescing was the best decision I’ve ever made. And I didn’t do it because the level of unbridled shock most of my friends exhibited when I said I wasn’t already on them could at best be described as “insultingly high”. Nor did I do it because it had got to the point where I was too depressed to even muster the energy to wonder if everybody hated me, or diet myself into invisibility – coming from a private school girl, that’s really saying something (even if that something is very, very sad).
In the end, I decided to take them because my reactions to normal situations started ranging from unreasonable to frankly worrying. Because there are only so many times you can cut yourself after the age of 20 without things getting a bit embarrassing. Because I was so, so, so tired of being sad. And because intellectually, I know there’s nothing wrong or weak or defeatist about taking medicine for an illness. Why wouldn’t you take the medicine that stops you being sick?
As far as genuine medical downsides go, my main concern was that I’d be less sharp a writer, less able to handle hecklers, or difficult situations. Given my only option beforehand was sobbing hysterically and clearing any room out of sheer awkwardness, I can’t say that there’s been any marked dip in my ability to talk my way out of things the way I used to before I became too ill to bother. And I suppose the fact that one drink feels like six isn’t brilliant. Then there’s the insomnia, but I’ve resigned myself to broken sleep and a less broken mind. And if all else fails, I’ve bought enough “might make you drowsy” antihistamines to kill a tiny horse.
I am not a doctor (what? But Andrea, you seem so medically wise!) so I wouldn’t dream of giving advice. However, I am very recently out of the initial phase, the part the doctors tell you to “battle through” in order to get to the stage where you don’t feel like every bad thing that happens is a higher power trying to destroy you. So, if you are thinking of taking antidepressants, here are some things I’ve learned:
• You will not be able to sleep at all. But that’s okay, because why wouldn’t you want to be awake to enjoy the drenching night sweats? (They go away, honest – unless, like me, you treat your electric blanket like a lover, in which case you’re very much accustomed to wet sheets and choking on your own body steam on a regular basis.)
• You will feel horrifically nauseous all the time. The thought, “And I don’t even get to have an adorable baby at the end of it!” will cross your mind. Don’t worry – it’s directly followed by, “Thank god for that – I can’t be dealing with someone else’s puke as well as my own.”
• People on forums will write awful, detailed, gory stories of how badly they reacted to the drug you are on. Hopefully the people who have had a positive reaction are out living their new happy lifestyles and thus, not commenting.
“Invest in quality batteries, because trust me, your wrists aren’t strong enough for what’s about to happen.”
• You may or may not hallucinate that you’ve done something horrifically embarrassing in front of someone you once got a bit naked with. Like oh, say, sent them an email in which you’ve written your own aspirational obituary during a fever dream, in which you won several Oscars (Best Supporting Actress, I’m not arrogant) and became queen of a fictional feminist country. I mean, I wouldn’t know – none of this has happened to me, it’s all just very detailed and specific conjecture. What daily burning shame?
• Remember the first time in your 20s when someone didn’t try to cum on your face even a little bit and you were like, “Hello! I could get used to this!”? What I’m saying is, positive feelings will start to creep in. Embrace them the way you would a polite new boyfriend after years of bastards.
• You might lose your sex drive completely for two weeks, and then get it back with a vengeance, leading to some of the most intensely orgasmic masturbation the world has ever known. Sadly, it won’t remain at that heightened level, but I highly recommend enjoying it while it lasts. Invest in quality batteries, because trust me, your wrists aren’t strong enough for what’s about to happen.
• Do take them. Eight weeks on and I couldn’t be more pleased, and proud of my decision. For two years I’ve lived out of boxes because I felt too desolate to buy a cupboard – a sentence that I’m aware is almost irredeemably insane. Last week, I bought one in less than 10 minutes and it felt amazing. Obviously, that’s a pretty pointless example to people who are considering antidepressants but have lived their lives with furniture, but the cupboard is not the point. The point is making a decision and having it be just a decision, rather than a tipping point for yet another hateful rant at yourself for poor decision-making.
Andrea is running a compilation show called Tiny Horse Comedy (16.45pm at Bar 50) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival4273 Views
Andrea Hubert is a comedian, writer and occasional Guardian contributor. She tweets at @ShutUpAndrea but don’t expect much – she expresses herself much better in person.