Last fortnight, after 15 months of waiting for sertraline to kick in, I had a frank discussion with my doctor wherein I admitted to lying.
Since a work-induced near-nervous-breakdown some months ago, I had been put on some little white pills and, under the auspices of five GPs, two work counsellors, one professional mentor, one four-month women’s empowerment course and a CBT therapist, I hoped to feel an improvement in my mood stability. The dose was doubled, later tripled, and month by month, I turned up at the GP surgery and flicked through an array of increasingly well-thumbed magazines awaiting my turn to tell the lie.
‘Yes, I am fine, thank you.’ ‘My moods are much more stable now.’ ‘Life is getting better.’ ‘No nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks.’ ‘No thoughts of self-harm or being better off dead.’ ‘Yes please, a two months supply.’
What was I doing?
Increasingly, a little voice inside me was tapping at my temples from the outside in, telling me that I was playing the game, and I that knew it. Then an even smaller voice admitted it was only doing so because I was afraid of telling my doctor the truth – these tablets were not helping and I was no different to how I was before I started them. Yes, there was initial euphoria – but that golden (or green) ticket I was first handed several months ago was, in fact, merely symbolic, some sort of placebo, although I hasten to add, a placebo which kicked me firmly up the backside and told me I needed to leave my job to stay sane.
On some level I knew, with steadying clarity, that this was about wanting to keep the conversation open. I didn’t want to be refused more medication. I didn’t want to be denied the right to come in for a monthly appointment to discuss my mental health. I didn’t want to be left to contend with this darkness on my own. If it I meant I had to keep taking these useless, bitter tablets day after day, for fifteen months or so, so be it. But at some point, I had to admit it was no better than taking nothing.
Why do people grin and bear it?
People prevaricate, particularly in a medical context; bright lights, cold hands and the sweet scent of chlorahexadine gluconate are barely a conversation starter, much less about the inner workings of the mind. I can’t speculate for the millions of others with similar mental heath problems, but for myself, I find it all too easy to conflate somethings-not-working with some sort of inner failure, as if in admitting so what I am really communicating is that I haven’t tried hard enough or that it is, after all, my responsibility, and that I deserve to have all forms of support withdrawn.
Anyway, I did it. Last week I began the gut-wrenching and brain-zapping (literally) process of dwindling my daily sertraline intake down to nothing. Then the two day washout period before trying another drug. Then a weekend in tears, violent laughter, anger, irritation, bemusement, and today, in complete silence. I can’t say it’s pleasant but I’m glad I’m getting somewhere.
In the throes of these confusing emotions, I thought I should compile my lessons learned (sorry if they don’t make sense):
- Mental health appointments aren’t meant to be a weigh-in. There should not be guilt or shame (nor should there be at weigh-ins, for that matter, but that’s another subject).
- The fact that something isn’t working doesn’t preclude you from accessing and trying other forms of support.
- It’s not for want of trying that these things don’t always work. If that’s what’s going on, you can say so. You can be as honest as you need to be.
- If you can’t put your finger on what’s going wrong (or not right), sound it out with someone you trust – a partner or a best friend. Sometimes having this time to practise your speech can put you at ease and give you a sense of validation.
- Mental health problems happen to everyone. It’s going to be a while before society gets comfortable with that taboo, but while we all have a brain, a past, confusing emotions and complex relationships, let’s not assume it’s going to go away. Being honest with ourselves and people close to us about the reality and impact of these problems might help pave the way to a more supportive immediate network and a more tolerant society. At least I hope so.