Walking Through a Storm: The Toxic Legacy of Antidepressants
On February 12th this year it will be three years since I’ve felt anything like myself. You never forget the day you were involved in a life-changing incident: a car crash, assault or perhaps a stroke. I’d been watching my football team, Nottingham Forest, secure a vital point in the race for the play-offs live on TV, yet the injuries I received from stopping an antidepressant as instructed after just six weeks were to be sudden, brutal and indeed life-changing. That night I went to bed an over-excited football fan dreaming of glory and woke up feeling bludgeoned, with suicidal thoughts for the first time in my life. I haven’t experienced a positive emotion since. How could this have happened?
These initial effects were quickly compounded when I was convinced by my GP to take a second — SSRI — antidepressant to try and fix them. Having all but done a degree in these medications since (out of sheer desperation rather than any studiousness), I shudder at my naivety as I allowed them to experiment on me again, pumping large doses into my already damaged nervous system at high speed with no direction but up. It was me, not them, who eventually called time on this apparent salvage-job — and all medication — but not before being injured further. Nine months at the hands of doctors had decimated, quite literally, “me”.
And three years on? There’s still that sense of an assault where the perpetrators have evaded justice. It’s why those suffering from prescribed harm campaign so hard for informed consent. Time has been found wanting as a healer, my symptoms unrelenting and tormenting on a daily basis. There is no aftercare for the iatrogenically injured — not so much as a helpline — so I survive via snatches of advice from an online support forum, attempting to recover. One final visit to the GP in the immediate aftermath had left me with just two options: more drugs or therapy. Opting for the latter, the therapist wanted to discuss my childhood. I wanted to talk about what just happened.
It’s hard to count, never-mind convey the ill-effects of the two medications — Mirtazapine and Sertraline — that persist this far out post-zero (a recent minor reinstatement of the former has worsened, rather than improved things) but it’s important, I think, to try. Mainly, there is this all-pervading numbness. It’s in my arms first thing when I wake up. The right side of my brain feels particularly odd. My teeth went numb a few weeks after that fateful February morning and have remained so to this day, while my eyes glazed over at the same time, refusing to sparkle since.
My whole head, then, has become something of a no-go area — a strange mix of tender and numb. On the inside I experience a blankness, brain zaps (quite a common but oddly inoffensive symptom compared to others) and burning sensations while on the outside I have continual sores and scabs across my scalp and at my temples, an external manifestation of the chemical carnage within. Cleansing my face has gone from a soothing nightly occurrence to a disconcerting one, unable to feel any sensation — only bone — as the towel moves across my forehead.
At this point, perhaps the stroke comparison makes more sense. Day-to-day life has become complicated by cognitive impairment, the sometime struggle for words and short-term memory loss; a feeling of suddenly being twice my age. At the same time, conversely, there are new words to learn as terms such as Anhedonia and Derealisation enter my lexicon for the first time, because being chemically cut-off from the world like this cannot be conveyed by basic language alone. They explain why a sunny day can no longer be enjoyed, socializing is surreal and football flat. Proximity to things once loved, now cruelly jarring. You can see the life you knew, but you just can’t touch it.
Everything has become inverted. Before the drugs I struggled with sleep — couldn’t see the point of it — my mind always racing. I’d spring out of bed first thing and be out of the house within minutes, meeting and chatting away to people. Now night-time is the highlight of the day, effortlessly drifting off for hours on end because I’m already in what feels like a coma to begin with. When I wake in the morning I attempt some work from bed before forcing myself up by midday at best, all the while drowning in apathy and disinterest — an outgoing nature compromised by both these and new insular, OCD tendencies. I went to the doctors to fix what was wrong with me and lost everything that was right.
I’d tried to remain positive. The majority of these symptoms — though hugely debilitating— had arisen from coming off the initial antidepressant, Mirtazapine, and I’d been advised by support groups that they would fade over time. Surely recovery was just around the corner? Yet months after stopping the second — Sertraline — there came a fresh blow. Its parting gift had been a new iatrogenic condition, PSSD; a potentially latent and lethal result of SSRI antidepressants, the same ones doctors continue to prescribe to the masses today, and — crucially — non-curable.
Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction can numb you sexually or emotionally, which is why it’s name is somewhat limiting. Some get the former, others — as I did — get both (it shows the depths of despair of those suffering that many dream of “only” having the first). In short, you feel nothing about anything. There is no joy, love, stress or fear. It’s a living death that has been described all too accurately as being both “buried alive” and “crushed by an invisible boulder”, disconnecting you from all the people and things you love and resulting in near isolation. The only real support — outside some specialists in the field seeing case after case without cure — comes from desperate posts made on dedicated forums by fellow sufferers, often disappearing never to return (eerily chiming with some of the plot points in recent AIDS dramas).
UK doctors do not acknowledge its existence — the gap in their knowledge so vast it has to be filled by peer-to-peer support online — while the European Medicines Agency only recognised it as recently as 2019. Yet even among the more clued-up withdrawal support groups, one mention of these four letters and all the positive talk of a quick recovery seems to evaporate. I could tell in the awkward silences, and how talk of healing suddenly changed from months to years. I also became adept at reading between the lines and the absence of any encouraging, quick or credible recovery stories online spoke for itself: I had a non-curable condition contracted from an SSRI that could effectively end my life, without actually letting me die.
The fact that no-one really knows what these drugs do in the first place has been underlined for me not by the more obvious devastation wreaked on my body but, oddly, in the more trivial aspects, as epigenetic changes take hold. I look at the palms of my hands that were once perpetually damp from a swirl of anxiety and excitement and see them bone dry, feeling like chalk rubbing together when I close my hands. The growth of my facial hair has halved — what took two days previously now takes four, what took three is now six. In some ways I’m grateful for these visual indicators of the life-force fading, as so much of the damage remains invisible. Yet they also serve as scary reminders of what I’ve lost, as does the numbness felt every time the insides of my legs brush together.
Outside of the injuries from the drugs themselves (and PSSD/Anhedonia are among the most brutal, see also Akathisia) the gaslighting of antidepressant damage acts like a further symptom. I should know, it was getting CFS/Fibromyalgia nearly five years ago (curiously enough, after a brief, and that time uneventful, first spell on Sertraline) that led to me being prescribed them, and there’s no better training for having your experience negated. Note: none of the symptoms listed here relate to that illness.
Sick people, particularly those with unrecognised conditions, are among the lowest of the low in a society built on suspicion. Health urgently needs — and is slowly building — it’s own #metoo movement. For ‘believe survivors’ see ‘believe sufferers’. Just as victims of sexual assault were distrusted, abandoned and mocked in favour of the powerful, those living with prescribed harm now face patient-blaming and ridicule for attempting to make their own voices heard. No coincidence, perhaps, that the issue of consent lies at the heart of both.
Returning to football — and Nottingham Forest — the defining domestic tragedy of my formative years was the Hillsborough disaster, with a clear message coming from the establishment that those lives didn’t matter. Now, some thirty years later I realise this is an unfortunate cycle we’re trapped in, rather than a lesson learned. Personal testimonies, enabled (and sometimes now curtailed) by social media, still mean little against powerful institutions like the police or medical establishment. As those families finally receive some validation and justice I look for it in the present, for the victims of prescribed harm. But I don’t see it. Yet, they too have lost their lives. And, they too don’t seem to matter.