Drugging the black Dog

Those of you who have been here for a while will know that I struggle (and I use that word advisedly) with depression a lot of the time. I would also use the word suffer here. I suffer, and sometimes the people around me suffer too. I am not an easy person to live with, particularly when the black dog is upon me.

I had a break down when I was seventeen, and have been managing, or not, ever since.

I have never had another breakdown – for which I am profoundly grateful. After the first one, I promised myself I would never, ever allow myself to go there again.

I do not know, upon reflection why I started to use the word ‘allow’. After all, I did not invite it in the first place, but it seems fitting somehow, that after the breakdown I could use a word which gave me a feeling of control over something which I felt took all my control away for a while – a while that felt like an eternity while it was happening.

I feel that sometimes I could allow myself to go back into that place of despair and darkness, but I choose not to.

Creating for myself the feeling that I have a choice is one of the ways in which I cope.

I have, on and off, over the last twenty five years, used lots of coping strategies. I have been in and out of therapy from regular NHS supplied types of therapy to more out there stuff like trying kinesiology,homeopathy, acupuncture, hypnosis, NLP etc. I have tried eating this, or not eating that. I have run away. I have run towards. I have faced fears. I have laughed. I have tried getting drunk. I have tried shopping. I have tried eating. I have never tried not eating. That would be unthinkable to me. I did do compulsive cleaning once. It drove me more mad than the feeling of being mad.

I have put my faith in others and their professed ability to fix me, or my belief that they could fix me – this is the dumbest thing I ever did. I have expected miracle cures (less dumb than expecting others to be the answer to my shit).

I have expected no cures.

Mostly now I put my faith in myself and the limited store of wisdom I have accrued over the years.

I have never chosen to take pills. Someone asked me about my reluctance to do this the other day.

I do not do this because I think pills are wrong. I am sure that pills can be brilliant. I am sure that they help lots of people. I am sure that they can, for some people, turn their lives around. I have taken prescriptions home from the Dr. I have even filled them. Then I have left them sitting in cupboards until their expiry date came and went. Then I threw them in the bin. I choose to look at them as a last resort.

I know I am lucky that I can.

Twice in my life I have taken prescription mood altering drugs. Neither time was for depression, oddly.

The first time was just after I had Tilly. I was very ill when Tilly was born. I was in hospital for two weeks, on and off. The birth was traumatic, the doctors thought I had damaged my heart, my blood pressure was insane, and things were not going well. In the middle of this, my beloved aunt died, and my family needed to go and be with my motherless cousin, and my bereft grandmother, and sort out a funeral I could not attend because I was still in hospital, and too poorly to go anywhere.

I could not sleep. The Dr. gave me valium. He told me it was a mild sleeping pill that would still allow me to wake up for Tilly in the night should I need to. I took the pills for a few days and was grateful for the sleep.

When I got home, I still could not sleep. I could barely do anything except wander around with a new born baby, both of us crying and covered in various bodily fluids.

I went to the Dr. I described these sleeping pills. I asked for some to help me in the short term. He laughed. He told me that no such pills existed and that I had been given valium. He gave me a prescription. He said he had put me on the lightest dose. He said: ‘If one doesn’t work, take two. If two don’t work, take three. If that’s no good, come back and I’ll up the dose.’

I went home in shock.

I could not believe that the Dr in the hospital had bent the truth, when telling me what he was prescribing for me. I felt fairly violated by this. I know they helped at a time when I needed something, but I wanted to be aware of what I was actually taking.

I could not believe that the GP was so offhand about giving me more, and about the dosage recommendation.

I went home and put the pills in a cupboard for a few days. Life did not get any easier. I decided to try taking one of the pills.

It turned me into a zombie for about twelve hours.

I am not saying that this was a bad thing. Nothing hurt, nothing bothered me. Things were pretty easy, but I felt like you feel when you have an anaesthetic to have your tooth out. You feel the tugging sensation of the tooth coming out and you know it should hurt, and it doesn’t, and sometimes that’s pretty weird (although – Hurrah for modern dentistry). It felt pretty weird to me. I didn’t want to feel like that again. Without the drugs life was difficult, but with the drugs, my life was not my own. I needed to feel grief. Someone I loved had died. I didn’t want to turn that off. I just wanted to be able to sleep so that I could take care of my child, even if that child was going to spend a fair amount of time living with a mother who perpetually cried over her.

I flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet. I went back to the Dr. I explained my situation. He set me up with a grief counsellor, who was fantastic. She helped me in lots of ways, including realising that over and above the grief of my recent bereavement, I needed to mourn the perfect birth I didn’t have, and the fact that all my ideas of what kind of a mother I was going to be had gone up in smoke too. She helped me to ask for and get help with parenting, parenting the way I needed to do it. I will be forever grateful to her.

The next time I took prescription drugs to alter my mood was a few years back when I was learning to drive. Those of you who went through the self pitying months of blog hell with me, will know that it was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I was absolutely, screamingly phobic of learning. I used to come home from lessons having to strip off my clothes, having sweated through them during my hour behind the wheel. I would throw up in the sink. I would cry. I would have preferred to jab red hot needles in my eyes than ever get back in that car again. It was unbearable – for everyone.

I got some help from a hypnotherapist, which worked very well to a point, to the point of actually passing my theory test and booking my driving test. I knew though, that the last hurdle would be impossible without something to take the edge off.

Sadly, gin was out of the question.

I went to the Dr. He gave me Beta Blockers.

They worked. I trialled them a couple of times before the test, and found that all my jitters had gone and that although I wasn’t exactly comfortable behind the wheel, I wasn’t skidding my hands across the steering wheel and chewing the inside of my cheeks just to get through the lessons. I was also stupendously calm about the thought of impending death, which were the thoughts most occupying my mind when I was allowed to be in charge of a car.

I passed my test first time.

I remember coming home from the test and avoiding the congratulatory phone calls. I cried and cried because I knew that if I wanted to get over the fear of driving I would have to get in my car and drive every day until I wasn’t scared any more. I could have used the pills to help with this. Instead I threw the rest of the pills in the bin, and sobbed my way through the first months of driving until I could do it with only gritted teeth, or clenched hands, and eventually I could get in the car feeling relatively sanguine instead of feeling relatively nauseous.

The Beta Blockers did, to a lesser extent, what the valium had done before. It made something hard to do, easier to do. The price I paid for that was numbness in all other areas of my life.

I don’t want to be comfortably numb.

I confess that the thought of feeling nothing frightens me more than the phases where I feel like I am feeling everything.

I also confess to being frightened of the pills.

I once took ecstasy, and it was a bad pill that had been cut with an hallucinogen that made me see tiny pea headed people marching out from under the sofa for about twelve hours (I also saw rainbows coming out of my finger ends. I liked those though. I was sad when they disappeared). As with many things you are in the middle of and cannot get out of or control, those twelve hours seemed like about a week (think about the boredom/terror of giving birth if you have no drug analogy to call on). It was not frightening in itself, but it was boring and incapacitating and I couldn’t do anything about it until the effect of the drugs wore off.

Anti depressants are not badly cut ecstasy bought in a club from a man with a dodgy hair cut. I know that, but I do not want to medicate with things that I have to wean off of, or feel worse before I feel better with. I do not want to be stuck in my own head like a fly in amber because I have no other choice left to me right now until the mind altering chemicals leave my system.

I might, if I am lucky, hit on the anti depressant for me from the word go. Or I might not. My experience of being around other people who have had them is that it is generally not, sometimes for a fair few months. I do not want to be an experiment for a few months. Some days I can barely function as it is. If I felt worse, how would I live? How would I be there for my children? I might not be Tinkerbell lots of the time, but I am present in my own life, and the lives of my children, and I do what needs to be done.

I know that with the ecstasy analogy I am comparing an illegally made and bought drug with a manufactured drug the Dr. says is good for you, but I have known people have anti depressants that have made them iller than they were before they started. The scary thing there is, you know, when you take badly cut ecstasy, that the small, pea headed people are your own fault and that it is just something you ate. When you are taking something that is ‘good for you’ and the Dr. has prescribed to help you with your already fragile mental state, and you start to see pea headed people, you just assume that it is because you are actually more mad than you first anticipated, and that probably more pills will be the answer. Sometimes Drs think this too, and I have seen this lead to a situation where you are given more of what is making you mad, which only makes you madder.

I do not need to be madder.

This ability to choose not to take pills is a good thing. It means that I am coping with the depression I have. I know I am coping because I get up, and get dressed, and wash myself, and look after my kids, and juggle my busy life.

I know that there are others out there who are not so fortunate. I have been in that situation.

When I had my breakdown I was unable to do anything much but cry and rely on others to look after me. In those days I could do that. I had a loving family who took the burden of responsibility from my shoulders and let me just exist until I could start living again. If I got to that stage again, I would have to take pills. I could not abandon the family I have now the way I abandoned the family then. They had the patience and love to wait for me, but they weren’t relying on me, I was relying on them. I will always need to be there for my children, and if that means taking pills for a while I hope I’ll be sane enough to say yes to them, just like right now I feel sane enough to say no to them.

Now, instead of pills I try to negotiate the emotional tightrope of my headspace with as much dignity as possible. I try to think about what is important. I try to see what is unimportant and dismiss it. I try to write or talk out the negative stuff. I try to write the positive stuff, particularly on the days when my head tells me there have been no positives. I try to make good decisions based on what I know works, rather than what I feel emotionally. I try to eat well, sleep well(ish), and learn to pick my battles. I try to be more in the moments of my life, and if that isn’t working for me, I try to choose ways to step away from it that don’t damage me or my loved ones. I try to surround myself with good people. I try not to care what others think and be kinder to myself than I think I deserve.

I try to look for happiness in everything.

Some days go better than others.

And if all else fails, there are pills, and maybe I’m missing out. Maybe if I took pills regularly I would find that life is nicer, kinder, happier, shinier than before. But my fear is that it will be duller, greyer, flatter and that although things will scare me less, things will delight me less, and there are days on this earth, in this body that delight me to the point of tears, and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.

I am not saying that my way is the right way. I am not saying that what works for me will work for you. Everyone has their own demons to battle and path to walk. This is mine. If you’re going down a different path, I wish you happy.

15 responses to “Drugging the black Dog

  1. Once again, I stand and applaud you. I’ve had a side order of depression, having seen someone I love consumed by the black dog. The thought that one day, I could feel like that, scares the hell out of me. And to be frank, I think that keeps the black dog away. There are days too, when I wish I did not feel things so keenly, especially in grief or anger, but I know I would not be me if you could take the edges off. So keep on battling Katy, keep eating, sleeping and above all keep writing. You are bold and brave and brilliant.

  2. I don’t think I have enough control over my emotions when my bipolar takes over to say that I can allow myself to fall under the spell, as it were. That said, when I was first diagnosed, I decided that maybe the pills were the right thing for me, and took a long time to find something which seemed to work. It did so by numbing me to everything, so much so that I don’t remember living for a lot of that time, merely existing.
    I stopped taking the pills as I was scared that I was losing myself. It’s not easy, and sometimes I have days where I can’t move, as the pain is so great. Sometimes I behave irrationally, but most of the time I’ve learnt that I can avoid the absolute extremes. It’s certainly not easy, however you deal with things, but I admire you for making your way through your life without the pills. I will try to continue to do so as well.

  3. My GP told me many years ago that anti-depressants would not make me happy but would just stop me being sad…..I took them for a very short time and decided that being in a steady stasis feel nothing state was like being embalmed….the pills had to go…Life is Beautiful Katy……sometimes a struggle and sometimes above and beyond what we can deal with…..but sometimes so wonderful it makes me gasp…..the only place I know is inside my head and as it will always be the only place in which I live I have embraced it….I wish you well……and thank you so very much for the Ukes comment re a ticket for me…it meant more than you know xx

  4. Excellent post.
    Thank God that anti-depressants have moved on in the last thirty or so years. I saw my Father go through a nervous breakdown, and subsequently do battle with coming off of valium years afterwards. I have partaken of the new sort of pills – I found they don’t make me feel great, or even good – I just feel alright, and the feeling alright is well enough to give me a leg up to taking on counselling (always private – never NHS, waste of fucking time, you could be suicidal before you get an appointment and I have never found them as good. Sorry NHS, for I otherwise love you)

    The counselling is the thing which has helped me change my life, and helped me choose better paths, iron out my thinking etc. Pills on their own (in my opinion) will NEVER do the job on their own – there are reasons that depression and anxiety are there and you need to get to a point to be mentally well enough to untangle the mess.

    It is interesting how people who have suffered depression describe it – you can identify with it immediately. The clutches of the darkest realms and all that.


    Keep writing, keep thinking, keep breathing.

    • I agree that NHS counselling can be pretty awful, although the grief counsellor I had was an NHS counsellor and she was fantastic. Good luck with your own battles. x

  5. Congratulations on fighting a hard battle with so much self awareness and strength. Hope it gets easier!

  6. A beautiful and a painful piece to read, thank you. As always you’ve been able to articulate things that exist only as wisps in my head. I’ve never been as low, or ever very high, although I have felt the edges and occasional stab of everything you’ve described, (and also stopped eating, which comes very easily indeed sadly) I’d say only these things:
    Depression lies, every time.

    J. x

  7. An interesting take on things. I’ve heard this before, and even said it myself, before I decided to give pills a go. But these days I think it’s too simplistic. I still feel. I am not a zombie. The pills just make the bad feelings more bearable. The good feelings, and all those inbetween, are still there and just as intense as before.

    The pills just balance my Seratonin – just like regular run or massage or boost of sunshine would do, if I had the time, money or energy for those things. They do not change my personality or capacity to feel or be myself.

    Personally, I have’t got time to feel depressed. I’ve got babies to care for, dogs to walk, a house to keep in order, a husband to have a relationship with and a job I need. Not taking pills, in my circumstances and for the sake of ‘keeping it real’, was starting to feel selfish and self-indulgent. I started taking the pills because I wanted to free myself up for my children, if that makes sense.

    I suddenly realised that my kids, husband and boss didn’t care, and likely won’t remember, if I take pills or not. But they will remember me losing it, sobbing or being so self abosrbed by my mood that I bearly hear them on a daily basis. This is not to say I can’t turn to them or show them my true self. I can and do. The pills just make the bad feelings more bearable.

    So for me, pills it is.

    But good luck with your choice. It sounds like it’s working for you and your family, which is all that matters. Don’t change a thing.

  8. Ps I’m not saying that not taking pills is self indulgent or self absorbed, by the way. I was just refering to a personal realistion I had in the midst of a ‘should I? Shouldn’t I?’ battle re the pills I had during my darkest days… I was behaving like a knob. The pills don’t make me any less of a knob, they just help me rein it in.

    • Thanks for your comments. I didn’t think you were being mean, honest! Everyone has to find their own path and what works for them. At the moment I believe I’m doing ok. Later, I might not be, at which point I hope I have the sense to take the pills. Thank you for sharing your experience. x

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