By Katinka Blackford Newman
I’m one of those people who simply cannot take antidepressant medication. I have a severe adverse reaction. And when I say severe, I mean really severe.
I became aware of this four years ago when I took escitalopram. I was having sleepless nights while going through a divorce and when I visited a psychiatrist he told me I was depressed. Within hours I was in a trance like state. Within two days I was severely psychotic, and was hallucinating that I had killed my children. I was so ill I attacked myself with a kitchen knife but I don’t remember that. I was hospitalized and given more pills. I came to learn that if you react badly to one antidepressant, then probably you react badly to all of them.
And so began a slow descent into an illness where I became unrecognizable from my old self. I couldn’t finish a sentence, I couldn’t wash or dress myself, and I had akathisia – a condition where you cannot sit still and is caused by drug toxicity. I was highly suicidal (another side effect of the pills) and it was luck that got me better. After a year, my private insurance ran out and I ended up in an NHS hospital where they took me off all the drugs. Within three weeks of agonizing cold turkey I was completely better. I went back to work as a documentary filmmaker, started training for a half marathon and most importantly was able to be a mum to my kids, Lily and Oscar who were aged 11 and 12 at the time.
So people ask me now what I do when I’m depressed. My answer is that like many people who are given antidepressants, I wasn’t clinically depressed but was having a normal reaction to a life situation. This is all too common – while NHS guidelines state that only people with severe depression should be given antidepressants, surveys show that around 70 % of antidepressants are handed out to people like me who are distressed rather than depressed.
But still, its an interesting question and now I know that medication simply isn’t an option for me, I have to think of ways to cope with whatever life throws at me. The philosophy I’ve developed through this experience is to listen to my feelings. Modern psychiatry seems to tell us that negative feelings are bad, that we can’t have sleepless nights and that tears are to be avoided at all costs. I think the opposite. My view is that some of the things we consider to be signs of mental illness are in fact signs of mental health. Tears, anger, anxiety, even what we now call “depression”, are perhaps signals that there are problems in our life we have to address. Perhaps we are in the wrong marriage or the wrong job, and these are often things we don’t want to address because it involves change and as human beings we prefer things to be easy and to stay the same.
I’m no expert and I certainly wouldn’t set myself up as a lifestyle guru, but, my experience tells me the best solution is to find someone with a bit of wisdom who can help us find the key to whatever is bothering us. As human beings we have an infinite capacity for survival. As long as we join hands and help each other my belief is that we can tackle anything.
The Pill That Steals Lives, by Katinka Blackford Newman is published on 7 July and is available in bookstores and on Amazon.