How I gave myself a breakdown: a lesson in not paying attention to stigma

Since I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2010, I’ve learnt many, many things about mental illness. But one of them sticks with me more than the rest, and it’s the most simple lesson of them all: when it comes to mental health, everyone has an opinion – and a lot of them aren’t particularly helpful.

According to the charity Time to Change, 9/10 people with a mental health issue say they’ve experienced stigma. Negative attitudes towards mental illness are everywhere – so much so, that half the time people don’t even realise they’re being negative.

Including me. Especially when it comes to medication. I’ve been known to be a horrible little bastard when it comes to medication – but only to myself.

Because it turns out that the narratives about psychiatric medication being unnecessary, or a bad idea, or even outright harmful are actually everywhere, and seep into your psyche even if you think you’re an enlightened, compassionate person. So when I experienced a relapse last year, I didn’t go straight to the doctor and ask to be put back on the medication that had saved me last time. Instead, I did everything I could to avoid it.

The way I saw it, going back on pills wouldn’t be the smart decision of someone looking out for their own health. It would be weak, and a failure, and an admission of defeat. I should be able to get by without drugs. I should be able to solve my problems with therapy, and mindfulness, and exercise, and eating well. The fact that I couldn’t was just further proof that I was a worthless person. Yes, some of that was doubtless the depression speaking, but at the time it was what I truly believed. Antidepressants were a trick. If I took them, all I’d be doing was avoiding responsibility for my problems.

So I tried everything else I could think of. I was unhappy in my job and convinced I was a failure, so I changed jobs. When I found that I couldn’t stop crying for long enough to drive to that new job without potentially causing a rather serious accident, I just took the train instead. When I became so worn down and exhausted that I couldn’t face having to take two trains to get home from the office, I took Ubers. I went to therapy. I went for walks. I tried very hard to sleep properly, even though my sleep patterns weren’t so much patterns as random explosions of crap.

I was not going to let my own brain beat me, because I was not weak. I would defeat my brain through sheer force of willpower. I’d already quit smoking and drinking and eating gluten and buying dresses I didn’t need from Asos. I could quit being depressed.

Except, quite obviously, mental illness doesn’t actually work like that. So rather than defeating my brain, I ended up having a complete breakdown instead.

Which meant, of course, that in the end, medication wasn’t a choice – it was an outright necessity. But I still sobbed in the waiting room after being given the prescription. I still felt ashamed to tell my family that I was back on medication. I still resisted every dose increase that was suggested, doubtless causing my ever-patient GP a fair bit of frustration along the way.

And now, six months later and with all the benefits of lovely venlafaxine, I realise that I was just being a ridiculous fool. If I’d just asked for help sooner, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in that state at all. Maybe I could’ve stopped the wild flailing and started recovery before it became too difficult to go downstairs in the morning. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost all of my summer to a fog of misery and messed-up sleep. Maybe I’d remember all the episodes of Mad Men that I binge-watched from underneath a duvet but can’t tell you a thing about.

Because, as I should have known all along, depression isn’t something you can just haul yourself out of. And sometimes, everything non-pharmaceutical you throw at it still isn’t enough. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I need my daily venlafaxine to get me to a level of functioning where other treatments stand a chance of being effective, but it’s taken me many, many years to get here.

Along the way I’ve worried about what it will do to my brain, and my personality, and whether I’ll just end up living some kind of Garden State-esque nightmare where I’m so buried beneath pharmaceuticals that I can’t feel anything or remember who I am any more and end up yelling off the top of an overturned bus. I’ve worried that I’ll never come off of them, even though I realise now that maybe, that’s OK. But more than anything, I’ve worried about how other people will see me once they find out I’m on happy pills.

And yes, some people do look at you differently when they find out you’re on anti-depressants. Some, but not all. When I eventually resigned from my job so I could focus on recovery, my boss told me to do whatever I needed to do to make myself better and to stop being an idiot and just take the pills.

And she was right.