“But you’ve got a great life, what have you got to be miserable about?” That was the response from someone I told about a year ago that I was (and had for years) suffered with depression and anxiety.
I never really planned on making my condition public or talking about it other than to my close friends and family. So what changed?
Well I had been quietly taking a dose of anti-depressant medication for several years until a regular medical appointment in May 2017. With hindsight that period was one of my ‘good’ ones. At that appointment it was suggested I should probably start to wean myself off the medication I was taking. I agreed as I felt things had improved quite considerably.
What followed can only be described as a series of events which I never want to repeat again. These are not the sort of medications where you can go ‘cold turkey’ – you need to follow a careful plan of reducing the dose gradually over several weeks and months. The lawyer in me drew up a calendar and chart, carefully monitoring when I should take a tablet, then miss one. At first, I thought this was all rather easy. What was all the fuss about?
I then had a planned operation (totally unconnected to any of this) which went well and other than a wound infection, healed and caused no further problems. The operation served a good purpose as it took my attention away from the withdrawal. I had something else to think about.
Once the operation and the joys of changing dressings passed I started to notice something strange. My heart was racing constantly. I was vomiting when I woke up in the morning. I had these weird ‘zapping’ sensations in my head, like I was being electrocuted. I felt really quite unwell. At first I put it down to the fact I might have some lingering effects of my wound infection and it was a very hot period in London and I’m not a big fan of the heat. But it continued. And it got worse. Much worse.
I decided it was time to go and see a doctor. I explained my symptoms. I was suffering from classic withdrawal symptoms from this type of medication. I needed to ride it out or start increasing the dose again to stave off the withdrawal symptoms. Having already invested two months in the withdrawal, I thought I should carry on, regardless of how bad I felt. Perhaps that was a mistake, I’ll never know.
More weeks passed and things did start to improve on the physical side. Some of the zapping stopped and my heart didn’t race as much. Good. That’s progress. Wrong.
I had a long planned week in Wales in the middle of September. I noticed on the mental side my old symptoms quietly beginning to return. I wasn’t interested in anything. I didn’t really want to leave the house. I didn’t really want to leave my bed. With hindsight, posting photos on social media of me doing things was a way of diverting attention away from me not feeling great. I just hoped no one asked “How are you?”.
Back to London I went. I remember spending the train journey obsessing over some small domestic issue (I was having a new oven fitted) but I was fixated on it. Obsessed. One track mind. What if it didn’t fit? What if I couldn’t cook food? What if? What? What? Why? When? I was aware the depression and anxiety was all coming back.
In a more reflective moment in late September 2017, I wrote the following in my notebook “Perhaps its just because the emotions are more real now because the medication has finally gone out of your system”. Nice one, Dr Rees.
You get the idea, I’m sure, of where this is going.
September turned to October and my depression and anxiety was now back. It was a troubling time. I remember thinking, what on earth do we do now? A failure. Can’t function. Can’t enjoy anything. What’s the point?
The first week of October 2017 is one I’ll remember for a long time. As the week progressed I could feel things deteriorate before my very eyes. Each morning I got up (even at the weekends) I was sick at the prospect of the day ahead. I got ZERO enjoyment from anything, I remember painful social events where I’d put on my best game face whilst I was slowly disintegrating inside.
On Friday 6 October 2017 (my father’s birthday), it all reached a head. I woke up thinking I was deteriorating at such an alarming rate that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Terrifying. I went to work and I remember being in a large meeting, hoping that I wouldn’t have to say anything. It was a meeting I’d been to many times and when I was well never even made my heart rate increase. I returned to my desk and broke down in tears.
I felt like a failure. I’d failed without the helping hand of my medication. How pathetic, I thought.
This was now an emergency. I couldn’t see an NHS GP that day or for at least a week, so I paid £50 to see a private GP that very afternoon.
It was clear to me, even at that point, that a mental health emergency was not treated in the same way as a physical health emergency. That made me angry. From the tweets I’ve received since starting to talk about this issue, it seems the NHS treatment available for mental health varies massively with those with major conditions waiting months, if not years, for treatment.
In Part Two I’ll pick up what happened in my initial recovery. How I thought things were going to plan until another major setback nearly derailed everything.