I’ve spoken openly and without shame about mental health for some time, in hope that it provides a small offering of solidarity; how motherhood and it’s challenges affect real people, real women, real Mum’s. Mum’s like me.
Back in 2018 after five years as a stay at home Mum I realised I needed some help to get me out of a rut, and I sought the advice of my GP who diagnosed me with anxiety and depression, something which deep down I already knew.
New motherhood, loss, redundancy had left me totally bereft of my identity, on top of a bunch of issues I’d carried with me from childhood, my teenage years and beyond. I was drowning in a sea of laundry, lacking in purpose, and feeling consumed by my own negative state of mind.
I the doctors left that day reassured I had not wasted anyones time, with a phone number for Mind charity to arrange Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and a prescription for a daily dose of 50mg Sertraline. Sertraline is a SSRI, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor which is often prescribed to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and OCD.
Within a matter of weeks, the medication did it’s job in lifting my mood enough to help me figure out what needed to change. And change it did, within a year I had returned to work, conquered a life alcohol free, and felt more like myself than I had in years. I remembered who I was, what I cared about, and made time to reengage with the things that I love.
I set myself a personal goal, that I would stay on the medication for 12 months, no more, and as the date crept near I decided to wean myself off the dose, reducing down to 50% of my prescribed daily quanitity.
I had a bit of a shock, as despite feeling tip top in general before hand, the anxiety symptoms came back like a sledgehammer around two weeks after altering my dose.
A telephone consultation with the GP reassured me that the leap had been too sudden, and with some advice, I resumed my normal dosage again, with a plan to take a more gentle approach, i.e a 25% reduction every other day, gradually increasing by 25% over alternate days, weeks apart at a time.
Despite feeling gutted, and disheartened, what my setback taught me was that self imposed time constraints are one of the worst things you can tangle yourself up in when it comes to mental health. Pressure around a date, a time frame or an anniversary is not the reason to come off antidepressants – timing is critical and it has to be when you feel 100% ready.
In addition, seek medical advice and support before you do anything, so you have somewhere to turn to should things not go to plan. And someone who can support you in making that decision.
Finally, think about your environment; the season, whats happenning in your life, your situation. Think stability and sunshine, two key factors in maintaining your best level of well being.
And so, over the winter months, I gradually gradually, by the tiniest almost negligible amount, I reduced my dose. By March I was on just 25mg every 4-5 days and my plan was to make the final leap when the spring sunshine and longer days made a return.
What I hadn’t counted on was a global pandemic to come along and mess up my plans.
That said, I thought long and hard about where I went from here. I really questioned my mental well being and despite facing an unprecedented challenge ahead given the lock down being imposed, deep down, I knew I no longer felt I needed to be taking these tablets.
I have a good level of self awareness, I prioritise my self care routines, I have a great work life balance, and any anxiety I face feels manageable.
So, eight weeks ago, I stopped taking my medication. At a time when valid concerns for the nations mental health were rife, I walked the plank of mine, armed with my toolkit and confident this was the right time for me.
After a few days I thought I had Coronavirus, and was frantically Googling whether dizziness was a symptom. It was days later I twigged that the dizzy spells were more than likely my body withdrawing from the Sertraline; a common side effect. I was reassured that it was set to pass after a number of weeks, and this time, I was determined to wade through the withdrawal, ready to seek the green pastures on the other side.
And the dizziness passed. Yes, we had a few rocky days which I wondered could have been avoided by my change in medication, but above all, I truly believe I know the difference between a bad day and anxiety that requires medicating. I know what to look out for, and I will continue to be vigilant in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
What the past two years have taught me, is that medicating for mental health is not scary. Have a chat with anyone around a table and you will be surprised just how many people take, or have taken medication to support their mental health. Like a vitamin supplement or a limb which needs supporting, your mental health can need some extra care sometimes. It’s no biggy.
The best successes come from using a combined approach of therapy alongside medication; the approach I took which allowed me to break free from the grey clouds over me, and get to grips with the self depreciating narrative in my head. To figure me out, and to know how to deal with anxiety when it raises it’s ugly head.
With management, and the right advice, it is possible to use medication for a temporary period, and withdraw gradually at the right time for you. And if you feel you need to medicate for a long period of time, that is okay too. The most important thing is that you are well, functioning, and even happy. Something which at a time, felt far out of reach.
I know I am no longer depressed, that black dog left my side a long time ago now. The anxiety is a different beast – one that perhaps I have to get used to walking along side me. But I am grateful to live in a time where support, voices and tools are available to learn to manage anxiety in the peaks and troughs of life’s bumpy path. I have a lot of baggage, but I’ve found a way to rummage through it and know roughly what’s in there and why. It helps me understand my sometimes irrational emotions and not allow negative thoughts to consume me for days on end.
With the help I accepted, I got my life back. Dad Muddling Through got his wife back, and my daughters got their Mum back. So was one tiny tablet a day a risk worth taking? I think the evidence speaks for itself.
It’s okay to not be okay. The first step is to open up and ask for help; a brighter day awaits, I promise.