I went on antidepressants and the world didn’t end
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In Australia, it is estimated that 45 percent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety.—Beyond Blue, 2015
I thought it would be the end of the world. Well, the end of my world as I knew it, anyway. I thought that going on antidepressants—indefinitely—would mean that I had failed. Failed at life, failed as a human being, failed to cope with my sensitivity and emotions, and failed to properly utilise my numerous mental-health tools. Things like psychotherapy, daily meditation, spiritual awareness, a healthy diet, regular exercise, supplements, every physical therapy I could find, and even regular ‘thought policing’ (noticing, debunking, dismissing and reframing my negative thoughts)—to try to rewire my brain. I had muddled through life for many years, drawing on these powerful tools when I needed them, with relative success. But in mid-2017, I found myself on a 7-week holiday in Bali, in tropical paradise, in a mental health spiral I couldn’t climb out of.
The dream holiday that wasn’t
It was supposed to have been a dream getaway with my wife and three-year-old daughter. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an extended holiday and unplug from our daily life and Western culture. And in some ways, it was: for seven weeks I had no responsibilities, nothing I had to do and nothing I had to worry about. Yet, I was crippled with overwhelming anxiety, depression and daily headaches. So much so that, on many days, I didn’t even leave the villa. I lay in bed on pain killers trying to untangle my head, or in the TV room next to my daughter as she watched the movie Sing for the hundredth time and I ate Pringles from a tube.
Outside the TV room was a private pool that backed onto lush rainforest. It was an idyllic holiday setting. But rather than helping me to relax, I just felt like it was mocking me and my inability to be happy. As if the devil on my shoulder was whispering in my ear that if I couldn’t be anxiety-and-depression free in this ‘perfect situation’, then I was never going to be. After all, what on earth was I so anxious about? No one had died, my marriage had not broken up, I had not lost my job—nothing like that. There was nothing external that I could point to as the cause of my skyrocketing anxiety. Which meant, reluctantly, I had to point the finger at myself.
At first I tried to reassure myself. I thought, “OK, I can do this. I’ve done it before. I’ve managed to get myself out of a lot of unhealthy mental states”. So I opened up my mental-health toolkit and proceeded to use every single one of the strategies and techniques I’d gathered over 16 years, ever since I first went to therapy at age 20. But this time, none of them even scratched the surface.
A few weeks into the trip, my relationship with my wife and daughter started to become seriously strained. My daughter had stopped eating whenever I was around, and seemed to be annoyingly in tune with my dark moods. When I was my most anxious and angry, she had her worst tantrums. As for my wife—every time she looked into my eyes she seemed haunted. I was sitting directly across from her at the dinner table—less than a metre away—when she told me that she felt like I was slowly disappearing down a dark tunnel, and that she missed me. It broke my heart because I knew what she meant: I wasn’t really there.
She could see how much I was struggling, and gently suggested that I go on antidepressants. But I resisted. I had been on them once before, back in 2014. And as far as I was concerned, I was done with antidepressants. They were in the past. They were no longer an option.
The circumstances in 2014 had been extreme. After a traumatic series of IVF attempts, and then a wife who needed spinal surgery while pregnant with our unborn child, I had broken down. Up until then, I had always managed to get by with my mental-health toolkit. And I was proud of that fact. Perhaps too proud. Because by the time I had given in and gone to my GP, I was already in a dark place.
I remember sitting in my GP’s office as she asked me questions from a mental health test. I had managed to hold it together until the very last question: “How often do you feel hopeless?” I stared at her for a moment, then burst out crying. The question had triggered something inside me, and the walls I had built up came tumbling down. As I wiped away tears, she read out my test results, explaining that I had scored high for both anxiety and depression. (Obviously, this was not the kind of test that you wanted to do well in.) She then recommended that I start taking Lexapro. I hesitated for a moment, trying to think of a way to decline, because I had always felt like antidepressants were a last resort—one that I would never need. And then it hit me: this was, in fact, my last resort. All else had failed. So I nodded in defeat.
The story I told myself
My GP had told me that the minimum amount of time that people usually went on the medication was twelve months. And so, not really wanting to go on the medication or admit that I needed it, that’s what I did. I took it for exactly twelve months before weaning myself off. And then, in order to wrap the whole thing up in a neat little bow, I told myself a story to justify why I had needed the medication, which went something like this: I only needed it because of the trauma I experienced; and now that I have stopped taking it, I will never need it again. I am not someone who needs antidepressants; I am not that person. I am better than that.
Except I wasn’t. Because three years later, there I was, in Bali, faced with a similar predicament. I knew I needed to do something, but the last thing I wanted to do was go back on antidepressants. They were not part of my life-plan. Especially in that moment. I mean, we were in Bali on holiday for goodness sake—crippling anxiety was not on the brochure.
Admittedly, nowhere in the world was perfect. And I’d learned that no matter where I went, I always took myself with me. So there were still some anxieties and stresses in my life that didn’t disappear just because I was in Bali lying on a beach or living in a rainforest. Like the fact that we were in a developing country with a young child, and I was vaguely terrified of her getting sick and needing medical treatment. Then there was the malaise of uncertainty hanging over our lives back in Australia. After the holiday, we would be packing up our house in Hobart and moving to an unknown future in Canberra. We would also have a lot less money in the bank than we had planned for when we booked the holiday (i.e. none). And while those things played on my mind, they didn’t correlate to my surging levels of anxiety.
Unlike what happened in 2014, this time I couldn’t explain away my decline in mental health with a list of traumatic life events. How I felt wasn’t Bali’s fault. In fact, I didn’t know what was causing my anxiety. It seemed to come from nowhere—to be baseless. Which made it even more terrifying, because there was nothing I could blame. I couldn’t identify an issue, go and ‘fix’ it and then feel better afterwards. Because, in reality, the issue I had to ‘fix’ was myself. I had to face the truth about my mental state and a lifetime of anxiety-fuelled pattens of behaviour. Not only that, I had to examine and dismantle my hypocrisy and double standards towards taking antidepressants. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t judge other people for going on them; but I did judge myself.
As the weeks dragged by on our doomed Bali holiday, I completely unravelled. Some days I cried and screamed into a pillow, attempting to muffle the sound of my mental pain so that my daughter didn’t get scared and think I was in severe physical pain. I needed help.
I remember sitting in our villa in Ubud, surrounded by tropical rainforest, as the sounds of birds singing, crickets chirping and the gardener cutting the grass with a pair of kitchen scissors filtered through. And there I was, dialling my therapist in Australia on Skype. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I felt like I had failed at everything and let everyone down, including my therapist. I’d even convinced myself that he would judge me for considering going back on antidepressants. No one would ever have known what I was going through by the photos I posted on social media—but I was not well.
Despite the poor internet connection and the Skype video regularly freezing, my therapist’s message to me was loud and clear. I’ll paraphrase, but this was the gist of it:
“You are not a failure if you choose to go on antidepressants. And anyway, who are you to say that you would be a failure for doing that? To judge yourself like that? A failure would be someone who had never tried anything else to help themselves, or who just wanted to go on medication and not do any of the hard work on themselves. And no one could ever accuse you of that.”
“There are very few things in this world that are universally good or bad. It’s about what is right for you in this moment in time—which might be antidepressants. But don’t take them thinking, ‘These will take my anxiety away and fix me’. Go on them thinking, ‘This will help me quieten down my brain while I actively observe and reprogram it.’”
“You’re in Bali with your family on a 7-week holiday, living like a millionaire—living a life that very few people get to live; a life that many would be envious of. And yet, this is how you feel. It is the strongest proof you could ever have or ever need that what your brain is doing isn’t real. There is no stimulus for your anxiety, your brain is just creating it anyway.”
“Thinking that you shouldn’t feel the way you feel when certain things happen, or that there must be something wrong with you, just means that you’re in denial of being human. And considering how much you think about things, going on antidepressants when you need them might actually be a minimalist approach to dealing with your life. And, if it turns out you need to be on them more long-term, that isn’t a failure either. That is just what’s right for you that allows you to be you and do what you’re meant to be doing.”
A huge weight was lifted from me. I felt like I had been given permission to take antidepressants, and reassurance that I was not a failure if I did. And even though I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t need permission or reassurance from anyone, the truth was, that was exactly what I needed. And when it came, it felt like it hadn’t just come from my therapist, but from the whole universe. From God. And just like it had in 2014, while sitting in my GP’s office, going on antidepressants suddenly felt like the only thing that made sense.
That night I called my sister back in Australia who had been checking in on me while I was in Bali. I told her about the sense of failure and judgement I had towards myself for needing the medication. She listened, then said, “What if you were diabetic and needed insulin to survive? Would you judge yourself for needing that in order to be healthy? Some people need insulin, and some people need antidepressants. Maybe you just need antidepressants.” It was so simple, so matter-of-fact, so rational, that I couldn’t help but see the truth in it—as well as the ego in my own thinking. I exhaled. It was such a relief to see that other people didn’t judge me the way I judged myself.
For weeks my ego had repeatedly told me that going on medication again would equate to failure. That I was giving up. But after talking to my therapist and sister, I knew that this was not about failure or giving up. It was about swallowing my pride and surrendering to what needed to happen. It was about being the person I wanted to be.
I didn’t want to be the kind of father who suffered through a mental illness, pretending that nothing was wrong with me, while turning everything and everyone around me into the supposed ‘problem’ in my life. I didn’t want my daughter and wife to suffer the consequences of my pride. It was true that I desperately wanted to be someone who didn’t need antidepressants, but when I looked at my daughter as she refused to eat her breakfast, and I saw what my mental health was doing to her, and our relationship, I knew what needed to happen. I had to give up any notion of who I thought I should be and what I thought I should do. I had to surrender. So I did.
The indefinite timeframe
Six weeks into the holiday, I went back on antidepressants indefinitely. And by ‘indefinitely’ I don’t mean that I decided, then and there, that I would take the medication forever. I just decided that I wasn’t willing to put a timeframe on it or spin it into a justifiable narrative this time around.
I had heard the term ‘indefinitely’ used a lot in the NBA. Basically, whenever a basketball player was injured and the team weren’t sure how long it would take them to recover, the coach would announce that they were ‘out indefinitely’. In other words, they weren’t willing to put a timeframe on the recovery. And neither was I. The player might be out for a few weeks, an entire season, or maybe forever. Likewise, I resisted any self-prescribed timeline that dictated what I should do at certain points in the future. I was going to let it be whatever it needed to be for as long as it needed to be.
The world didn’t end…
As it turned out, going on antidepressants indefinitely was not the end of the world. Or even the end of my world. In fact, it marked the beginning of a whole new life that quickly took on a completely different look and feel. A life where I didn’t have to spend every waking moment battling my own thoughts or meditating to keep from feeling overwhelmed. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a better life. For starters, I could be more present with my family: I could play with my daughter and genuinely enjoy it; and I could spend time with my wife and feel at ease. Anxiety had dulled my personality to a blank, dead expression. But now, I was able to be my natural self again—a flamboyant introvert—without having to pretend that I was OK, because I actually was.
When I took away the need to constantly battle myself, I found that I had a lot more time and energy for other things in my life—like actual life. I could stop merely surviving and start living. I could even ponder why I was here on this planet, rather than simply trying to exist.
And when I looked back, I wondered why I had fought myself for so long—why I had resisted going on antidepressants so vehemently. Because it was pretty clear that my ego-pride blockade hadn’t helped anything. The first thing that did help was admitting that I needed help. And then accepting that help. And then accepting that I was the kind of person who needed help. Because I was also the kind of person who valued themselves, their health and their relationship with their family. And when I did all that, the world didn’t end. Not at all. It just got a whole lot more liveable.