Am I to be taking anti-depressants for the rest of my life?
The thought worried me. I had always been a little uneasy with the idea of being sick. Certainly, I didn’t feel very good, but did I feel unwell?
Chronic low mood is cruel reality for many people. I felt ‘pressed down’ every day, like I was just getting through my day bearing a heavy weight across my shoulders. Tears were never far away. I was sleep deprived, my mind was constantly racing, I worried constantly about money and the future. Emotionally I felt drained; overwhelmed with sadness, regret frustration and dissatisfaction with myself and with my life.
I didn’t like myself very much. I hated that despite my privileges I couldn’t seem to get my act together. I wondered from occupation to occupation, never sticking at anything for more than a few years. I felt like a loser, hopeless, not good enough. I pounded my mind everyday with nasty, nasty lies.
No, chronic low mood is no fun at all. It’s a devastating, cruel, debilitating way to live.
But still, despite knowing that there was ‘something wrong’ with how I was feeling, I didn’t identify as sick.
Going to the doctor that day I was ill with the flu gave me a strong sense of relief. At last, I wasn’t keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself. I was grateful for the medication. I wanted it to work because I so, so wanted to feel better.
If taking medication and therefore believing I had some kind of sickness would take away these dreadful feelings, I was in.
I stared at my salvation, that tiny white pill in the palm of my hand. I swallowed it with a gulp of cold water.
I felt better immediately. I had no idea how antidepressants worked. I thought they were like antibiotics or even pain killers. The relief of taking action!
And I was one of the lucky ones, no side effects either. Of course, I didn’t know there could even be side-effects. The doctor gave me no information about antidepressants or how they were thought to work.
Life was on the up and up. I was treating my illness and seeing the kindly psychologist weekly for tea and a chat.
I took my citalopram every day for 6 months. Then I stopped because I thought I was cured. I felt better. I was still running the business but I had some new clients. They caused me a huge amount of stress but at least I had more money.
My mood dropped as those clients made bigger demands of me than my little business could sustain and before too long the wonderful new clients I thought I had won left me for big legal firms.
I went back to the doctor. Obviously I wasn’t well enough to cope with everyday life. I got another prescription.
Then I did it again. Life seemed to be improving and I was feeling better. I met a bunch of new friends through business networking who were also building businesses and I felt re-energised and optimistic.
But it didn’t translate to change on the ground. In reality, I was still not sleeping well, I still had racing and worried thoughts. My emotions still left me winded and breathless.
I went back to the doctor. Obviously I wasn’t well enough to cope with everyday life. I got another prescription. This time I promised to take the pills forever. Clearly I had some abnormality in my brain that needed constant medical treatment. I bought into the disease model of depression.
I was a depressed person. I was sick and needed drugs to keep me functioning in the real world.
Finally, I close the business and retrained as an English teacher. I went to China and packed two years worth of the little white pills. I’d be back in Australia after that and could pick up some more, which I did, but not enough, as it turned out.
I ran out of medication while in China. The supply I had brought from Australia was not quite enough to cover my last remaining months.
I left China in July 2012 and after travelling briefly around the province I was living in, and visiting my late uncle in France, I returned home to Melbourne, having been off the anti-depressants for about three months.
But I really felt good, great even. Normal.
Perhaps whatever was wrong with my brain had been fixed by the drugs.
I got a job teaching at one of Melbourne’s prestigious universities.
In 2013 something very exciting happened. I published my doctoral research for a general reading audience! This was a project I had longed to complete, but my low mood and negative self-talk robbed me of the energy to buckle down and get it done.
Signing copies of my book, Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.
I had to rewrite large chunks of the theory so that it would be more accessible to non-archaeologists. It was a big job and I was pretty tired, though happy, by the end.
I uploaded it to Amazon and then, even more excitingly, I was chosen to launch my brand new book at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival! This is the pre-eminent event for Melbourne, known as the City of Literature.
And yet, I felt something I hadn’t felt for a while…
Self-doubt. Uncertainty. Fear.
I was excited, but it was tinged with more worry than I had anticipated, a lack of self-confidence that I hadn’t felt for some time but was all too familiar.
The launch went well but I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t prepare a speech properly and I had no marketing or publicity plans. People seemed happy and were very congratulatory, but I couldn’t banish the feeling that I could have done better.
The old negative thoughts were returning.
My mood was taking a dip yet again.
During this time I also felt more and more uncomfortable at work. “You’re not a real teacher!” my mind started telling me. Most of my colleagues had masters degrees in teaching and years of experience. I didn’t really understand English grammar all that well.
Classes made me feel insecure. When a student asked a question I turned to face the board, mumbling something about “We’ll look at that next lesson…”
I wasn’t really a teacher. I was an imposter.
I couldn’t keep up with lesson preparation and marking. I became short-tempered and irritable. I lost patience with the organisation and the students, plodding home after work, stressed and exhausted to fall weeping into bed, dreading the next day when I’d have to do it all over again. It was never like this in China.
Despite not feeling very well, I was determined not to go back on the anti-depressants.
I began reading, scouring the internet for information about anything that might have an anti-depressant effect.
I read that having low magnesium levels might be a contributing factor to low mood so I bought a large tub of magnesium tablets.
No real change.
Being low in vitamins B and D could also be a problem so two more large tubs joined the magnesium in the bathroom cabinet.
Still not feeling that different.
Valerian and Evening Primrose Oil were my next choices and although I thought I might be sleeping a little better, they didn’t really have a major effect on my depression.
St John’s Wort was the final supplement and really, it didn’t have much of an effect either.
Perhaps I had the doses wrong.
And then, suddenly, I just got really angry.
Angry with the depression. Angry with the medication. Angry with myself for still being ill.
And pretty angry with the fact that no one, not the doctor, not the psychologist I had been seeing, had prepared me for this.
No one had told me that anti-depressants don’t actually make the depression go away, unless, that is, you stay on them forever. Or so it appeared to me.
Maybe anti-depressants do work for some people. Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps I misunderstood the health professionals who were trying to help me.
I felt let down by the medical model. The doctor told me I was sick and gave me a pharmaceutical solution. It worked. The fact that right at the beginning I felt so good and when I thought I was cured, stopped taking them and the ‘symptoms’ came back proves they worked, doesn’t it?
I began reading about antidepressants and came across four astonishing pieces of information:
- Nearly half the people prescribed antidepressants experience no relief at all
- The placebo effect of antidepressants is almost as strong as that of the active drug
- Taking action, getting help and expecting to be offered a solution is an effective mood booster
- Stress is the origin of depression, not an imbalance of chemicals
I suddenly realised why I felt so good after seeking professional help for my mood all those years ago. I realised why I felt relief after speaking with the doctor and psychologist. I also realised why the good feeling didn’t last.
Talking about the way I was feeling to a sympathetic and supportive person was enormously relieving. Not to have to carry this burden alone, but to share my fears, doubts and uncertainties was such a good feeling. The medications gave me hope. They don’t seem to have had any physical effect or made an practical difference, but the idea that I could feel different was a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. I closed the business, thus eliminating the one massive cause of stress in my life and things looked up very quickly after that.
When I calmed down, I put the supplements away and did three things.
I began to think.
It occurred to me that if I just decided to be well, and made it happen, that perhaps I didn’t need something ‘external’ to me, like anti-depressant medication or supplements, to make me feel better.
Perhaps I could just decide that I was going to change myself, my thoughts and behaviours, and just choose not to be depressed.
This was a massive shift in the way I thought about depression and my experience of chronically low mood.
I began to read.
I began to read about neuro-plasticity. I learned that the brain changes in response to actions we take, experiences we have and also to the way we think about and respond to those actions and experiences.
I began to reflect…
I reflected on the times I felt good, or at least better than normal…
I enjoyed going for a walk, especially to dog park where I got a little canine therapy too.
During the five years I was going to the hot hot summer of Syria I missed the gloomy grey winters of Melbourne and I realised that warm sunny days made me feel a lot better.
I had taken up salsa with a tiny group of eight people and loved every class. We had a lot of laughs and the music was fabulous.
Reworking my thesis into a book for a general reading audience was an accomplishment which made me feel very good.
A counsellor friend had introduced me to an odd little method called Emotional Freedom Technique which helped conquer negative thought patterns.
Just sitting in fast food restaurants made me unhappy. Fresh light meals, delicious flavours, interesting combinations of ingredients…these made me feel good.
I know I always felt better when I’d had a good night’s sleep.
Hmmm….could I use these strategies in place of anti-depressants?
Sunshine…Adequate sleep…Human contact…EFT…Exercise…Music and dancing…Dogs…Making a contribution through meaningful work…A good diet…
These were a few of my favourite things and what’s more they made me feel good and kept my depression symptoms at bay!
I began to play with different kinds of exercise and lengths of time.
I experimented with different times of going to bed and waking up.
Some days I took my morning coffee out into the sunshine and on others, my afternoon tea.
After spending time with loved ones or friends vs time alone, I’d reflect on my mood and feelings.
I knew I was onto something.
The first breakthrough came when I read Dr Steven Ilardi’s The Depression Cure, which describes how he and his team from the Department of Psychology at the University of Kansas realised that it may be our modern lifestyle which has contributed to such high levels of depression seen in the developed world.
Based on years of research by anthropologists among communities living a hunter-gatherer way of life, Professor Ilardi proposes that it is our sedentary, isolationist lifestyle, together with poor sleep and dependence on processed food which is the cause of the rising levels of depression in wealthy western nations.
Lives that are filled with social connection, physical movement, healthy food, quality sleep and meaningful, value-filled activity are those that will have the same effect on depression symptoms as anti-depressants.
I finally stopped thinking of myself as sick. I moved away from the medical model of depression.
Sure, depression is real. It’s horribly real. But it’s not a sickness, not to my mind anyway.
It’s what happens when stressful events are present in your life and when your thinking patterns and the way you talk to yourself are not effective at handling that stress.
Depression may also occur when you’ve lost social connection, aren’t doing enough exercise and are eating poorly. Inadequate sleep, lack of motivation and problems with thinking and memory all sustain a depressive mood.
Eliminating depression a matter of finding a way to make that ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle your lifestyle, to decide to make those changes.
These days, my lifestyle looks a bit like this:
I take 3 regular brisk walks each week. In addition to that, I have made a decision to leave the car at home whenever I can, and use my local shops and facilities. I also walk with my father at the park; this is much slower because he has moderate dementia, but it’s still movement, it’s still outdoors and there’s still the opportunity for meeting other people and passing the time of day (all essential to a depression-free life).
I ensure I see friends or family at least twice per week. That might be a coffee or lunch with a friends on the weekend and a phone call with my brother who lives interstate. Or a movie on a Monday with a friend and a visit to Mum on the weekend.
Omega 3 supplements support my brain health and I enjoy a delicious and easy-to-prepare Mediterranean diet.
Dogs are very important to me and I get plenty of ‘canine therapy’ through walking and pet-sitting through my online profile with a dog-sitting company.
When I visit Dad in the care facility where he lives now, I always speak and share a laugh with the other residents. I know some never have visitors. It’s no effort for me to do this and I think it may just brighten their day a little. It makes me feel good to do something nice for others, even a simple thing like saying a cheerful “Hello, how are you?” and sharing a happy smile.
I ensure I get adequate, good quality sleep by sleeping and waking at roughly the same time (not exactly with the sun…but something like that).
I enjoy a range of new and interesting experiences such as seeing a new exhibition at the gallery, reading a fascinating book, stopping to listen to a street musician, admiring someone’s garden, hearing about my friend’s recent trip to country, watching a quality documentary on television…being open and curious about the world!
Being aware of how I’m thinking and reacting is important too and I use Emotional Freedom Techniques to keep negative thoughts under control.
Yes, I certainly know it is possible to live without depressive symptoms AND without anti-depressant medication.
I believe with the right tools, resources and support, you can turn around your depression symptoms without needing medication1.
It’s a matter of finding a way to make your lifestyle ‘antidepressant’, to decide to make those lifestyle changes.
How has choosing a lifestyle free of chronic low mood enabled me to live a much more rewarding, happier life?
In 2014 I decided to go to a large archaeology conference in the US; something I never ever thought I’d do because I left the academic world of archaeology behind so long ago.
With my poster at the American Schools of Archaeology Conference, November 2014. Who would have thought!
But thanks to my newfound confidence I created a poster of my research and presented along with all the 20-something year old university students and I felt great! It didn’t matter that I was nearly twice their age.
Recently I travelled to Jordan and Israel and participated in archaeological digs in those fascinating and ancient countries. What a dream come true! I never thought I get my trowel in the ground again and there I was, among people both younger and older than me; it was an unforgettable experience and one I plan to replicate in the near future!
On site in Jordan, drawing top plans of the excavation trenches.
Archaeology won’t be a career choice, but I’m able to indulge in my passion without criticising myself for ‘wasting time’. It’s my hobby and brings me a great deal of happiness.
Reconnecting with archaeology is my way of reconnecting with my bliss. What would you like to reconnect with that would give you back your bliss?
Dogs have always been a very important part of my life!
I also created a dog-walking and dog-sitting business which enables me to get lots of canine therapy with dogs of all ages, sizes and shapes and get paid for it too!
…and I’ve developed this website to share what I’ve learned.
None of this would have been possible even five years ago.
Strong, empowered, clear headed, able to cope with things that life throws my way, such as my father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and a recent close family bereavement.
Now and then I have a blue day, a weepy day comes that from out of nowhere, but I know that having sad, unpleasant or unwanted emotions is just part of being human and I have the strategies now to get rid of it so that my mood doesn’t spiral downwards again.
I have learned that having a healthy lifestyle, a nutritious diet and a values-driven, meaningful life can help push the symptoms of depression away. I’m in my mid-40s. I have maintained a stable mood, fought procrastination, knocked low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, self-doubt and uncertainty on the head.
Today, life is wonderful!
It’s taken some doing, but life is now very rewarding, in all sorts of ways.
Thanks to my new-found resilience I am able to cope much better when life throws its challenges my way, like coping with my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. He has really taught me a lot about living in the moment.
Life is for living and giving and being fulfilling!
If you feel you are struggling with chronic low mood, don’t stay in that place. Get help today. With the help of effective means of controlling negative thought, regular exercise and socialising, a new diet and adequate sunlight and sleep, purpose and meaning in life, I now life free of chronic low mood. I feel like I’m OK. I like myself now. You can too.
I’ve worked out what works and it’s taken some years.
Don’t wait years for relief. Get help now.
Send me an email today and ask how I can help you regain your bliss!
- Please remember that on this website I am talking about chronic low mood, sometimes diagnosed as persistent depressive disorder, formerly known as dysthymia, which is a chronic form of depression. It is very distressing to live with, but may allow some day-to-day functioning and decision-making. I am grateful that I have never suffered with major depression, bipolar depression or depression with psychosis and I am not recommending that an anti-depressant lifestyle is necessarily going to work for you if you have been diagnosed with any of these illnesses. It may, but you must seek medical advice. You must also seek medical advice immediately if you are considering harming yourself.