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For 2015, I’m Trying To Give Up Antidepressants

By on Jan 2, 2015 in Personal | 3 comments

It’s been a while since I have spoken about my mental health issues publicly. And I think it’s time to talk because I’m trying to stop taking antidepressants…and I don’t know yet whether I’ll succeed. *** I stopped taking my antidepressants in the first week of December 2014. Not suddenly…I went on a proper action plan for slowly weaning myself off them. My current bout of depression started in September 2012, which makes it just over two years now. For over a year, I had been on the highest dose of my antidepressant medication – citalapram, 40mg / day – as my course of treatment. Additionally, I am still currently on pregabalin – a drug more commonly used to treat nerve pain in chronic cases – to control my Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Seven months ago, I started feeling better…and that depression was no longer my problem. I felt a modicum of control in my life, through the consistent treatment that I was getting from my psychiatrist and my therapist. Sure, I still had “issues”…but the world didn’t feel permanently dull and dim, like it did in my earlier phases of full-blown depression. So, I told them that I was feeling better and would like to begin proceeding with ceasing antidepressants. I began this process in June 2014. I had good reason to be worried about “doing this the right way” because antidepressant discontinuation syndrome is a very real thing. In the alphabet soup of mental health disorders, this one’s bad because sudden or quick cessation of SSRI antidepressants (like citalopram) can cause electric shocks in your brain (“brain zaps”; which I’ve had to deal with earlier), sensory disturbances, insomnia and a whole lot more. The cause for this, like many other mental health problems, remains unknown. It’s the possibility of insomnia that I was most worried about. I knew that worsening insomnia would flare up my anxiety disorder, because it usually does. I wanted this badly. There was a part of me which wanted to know that I had won. And I wanted this from a medical professional because I worship objective feedback. I desperately wanted closure on this chapter of my life that had gone on for the past two years. I needed this. The road to the end of the tunnel wasn’t easy. Technically, it’s possible to taper off in a couple of months. It dragged out to six months for me because dose adjustments sometimes took longer to get used to. I also had to pause on cutting back dosage during weeks when I had to readjust the dosage of my anti-anxiety medication upwards to counteract issues are they cropped up. But, by mid-November 2014, I was on the lowest “starter” dose of citalopram and I got the go-ahead from my psychiatrist to stop once I finished with my last batch. At first, everything seemed to be going okay. I stopped taking citalopram and felt fine. While it was too early to celebrate, I was secretly doing victory laps on the inside. And then, a few days after I stopped taking it, everything went spectacularly shit. The worst part was the first week or so. I found myself hitting random brick walls of grief which came out of nowhere. I found myself crying uncontrollably, something which always wrecks me because I hate crying. What shook me to my core was that all of this was happening without any reason: not a bad day at work, not fights with people, not a sad song or a book or a film or a TV show. I always look for rational explanations for life events, and especially when it comes to emotional matters I find that I can’t deal when emotions come out of nowhere due to the loss of a sense of control that evokes. It scared me because after six months of slow progress, I was suddenly facing what happened at the height of my depression. A sudden and unexpected regression that seemed like an unravelling of everything that I worked towards to make go away. The answer, of course, was that I needed to stick to the path of staying off my medication a tad longer to see if the situation improved. I always talk about the importance of seeking professional medical help. When I detect things going wrong, when I notice the early-warning signs, I make an active effort to set up an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. I exercise, practise meditation, eat right, ensure that I have an active social calendar so that I don’t stew in my own thoughts, stick to my medication religiously. What bothered me is that I did everything right. What bothered me is that I have ended courses of antidepressant treatment in the past when my depression went away without any of these problems. Faced with this supposed regression, I started questioning whether things really have gotten so bad that I need to stay on them longer. And how much longer I needed to stay on them. And whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel for me. Whether this will affect me for the rest of my life. At this point, I found myself blaming one person: me. I was the one who thought that I was better. I was the one who asked to be taken off antidepressants. I have...

So, I guess I’m not graduating with everyone else

By on Jun 27, 2013 in Personal | 3 comments

I can’t believe this is happening. My university released its results for this academic year and I’ve just found out that I’m not graduating this year. I need to resit two modules in August as part of the late summer resits the university offers, which means that the exam board will not be able to ratify my results in time for the graduation ceremony in July. In June, I was called by the department to discuss “my case”. I was told in that meeting that I had the following options: Take a leave of absence from university on medical grounds, take exams later, and defer my graduation until next year. Sit for the June exams as normal, but in doing so acknowledge that I was going against the department’s advice. I do accept my personal responsibility for why this is happening. I chose the latter option, and the gamble didn’t pay off. *** It’s not hard to pinpoint where my academic career went off the rails. Earlier this year, I talked at length about the mental health issues that I have been facing for a considerable period. That was back in April, at the beginning of Easter break. I was still struggling to get back on my feet when I wrote that piece, as I was ramping up my dose of prescribed antidepressants at the time. By mid-May, I finally felt better, felt that the situation was under control. The problem I faced was that I’d gone into a freefall for the period from February to May. I had a pile of work to chew through and not enough time. I felt paralysed. I felt claustrophobic. My primary concern was my dissertation. I’d sunk a lot of effort into it at the start of the academic year, and it was a project that I was proud to be doing because it was innovative, it was an idea that I came up with myself, and something that I felt passionate about. I planned to use the Easter break to catch up on my project, and I emailed my dissertation supervisor for guidance at the time. I never heard back. I looked up to my dissertation supervisor as role model in academic research, almost as a father-figure for how he guided me through the year. (And my counsellor was someone that I looked up to as a mother-figure too.) It wasn’t until that blog post I published on depression that I felt comfortable to talk to him about what I was going through. I was ashamed to admit it, and I was scared whether he’d consider me less capable for it. In fact, he was quite understanding and supportive. It reassured me the tiniest bit to know that he had my back. So when I didn’t get an email response back during Easter break from him, paranoia kicked in. I thought my supervisor was mad or disappointed with me, for letting him down. I felt shame and guilt for not performing to what I thought was the best of my abilities. Faced with technical challenges, I just plain gave up on working on the project for weeks. The truth was for more mundane: the email that I sent simply got buried in the flood of emails that academics usually get. I could have resolved the situation simply by pinging him again. When I finally felt stable, I tried to get on track with getting in touch with people in my department. I’d been regularly attending counselling sessions and having medical reviews of my case, and I went with this evidence to them. The university does have procedures in place for considering extenuating circumstances. Unfortunately, the process of applying for one and the evidence being considered is a long-winded process, and decisions can take weeks – if not months – to be reached. By the time I applied I started getting decisions back on coursework and dissertation deadline extensions, it was already a week to go for my exams. It literally came down to the wire. I remember frantically panicking in the library because I’d supplied all the evidence, and yet only found out half an hour before the normal dissertation deadline whether my circumstances would be considered. I almost had a panic attack. And then…I just got a week extra, when I was finally getting back on track but felt I needed more time to catch up during all those lost weeks. I didn’t realistically think I’d get an extra three months, but what I wanted was to have my dissertation deadline stretch into the summer before the exam board met so that I could focus on preparing for my exams. That, apparently, wasn’t possible because of logistical reasons. I could have appealed the decision my department took directly with the university. However, due to the procedure laid down for this, it would have meant waiting for 3-4 months before I found out the outcome. And if I lost the appeal, well, I’d be up shit creek without a paddle for having failed my dissertation. So I decided not to, and rushed through with wrapping up my project. I redirected all my efforts into getting the project, and did have a working demo in time. My project was to create a real-time gaze tracking system that worked with standard webcam video on mobile phones. (Kinda like what the Samsung Galaxy S4...

Sex, Pain, Emotions, Depression

By on Apr 8, 2013 in Personal | 3 comments

It’s 3am as I write this blog post. Yet, I can still hear birds chirping outside my window. I’ve been stuck in a rut for the past few weeks and honestly, I don’t know what quite to do with my life at the moment. There are times when my mind is racing along at a thousand miles an hour with too many thoughts than I can humanly handle; times when every thought seems to be coated in a thick dollop of honey and crawling along. I either starve myself or binge eat on most days. My sleep cycle is off the charts, either sleeping for less than half an hour a day (or not at all), or spending sixteen hours a day “napping”. Smoking, which helps with stress release, is something that I’m indulging in like a chimney stack right now. There’s simply too much going on in my head and I truly wish I could talk about all of those things here. I can’t, I simply can’t bring myself to do it though – partly because it involves not just me but other people close to me too, but mostly because I’m usually not comfortable talking about my mental health issues. I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago – Depression, Zen, and barber shops – the first time that I ever publicly talked about the fact that I’m affected by depression. It felt cathartic to, in a sense, shed a skin I’d been hiding inside. But I still didn’t go too far with talking about what it’s like to actually deal with depression on a daily basis. That’s what I hope to do now, in the hope that it helps me clear my head. Helps me get out of this rut. *** The popular conception of treatment of mental health issues is that of an ornate leather couch where you lie down on, get shown some ink splatter, and then a distinguished and bespectacled gentleman with a beard nods sadly and tells you that you want to have sex with your mom because of underlying trauma. I wish I had a fucking couch to lie on the first time I sought help for depression. Freudian psychoanalysis – to which the whole shebang of inkblot tests and lying on couches belongs – is fairly discredited in the modern mental health community. This is primarily due to advancements in the understanding of how mental illnesses actually affect people. The first point of contact when seeking help, as is with most people these days, is usually through a recommendation from a counsellor to a general practician – yes, the same doctor you see for common cold and chlamydia – where you’re evaluated for how seriously depression is affecting you. My first appointment ever with a doctor regarding depression lasted less than ten minutes. Evaluation is done using a standard nine-question questionnaire that checks for statistically objective indicators of behaviour that have been shown to show a strong positive correlation with the occurrence of depression. I was considered a serious enough case to need medical intervention (as opposed to just counselling) and sent away with a prescription. The truth is that modern mental health treatment is firmly based in the usage and prescription of antidepressant drugs. The whole operation runs with the ruthless efficiency of a battery chicken farm. To this day, nobody really knows the precise mechanism of how antidepressants work. Well, the doctors have their theories. The fundamental idea is that when a person suffers from depression, their brain chemistry is physically altered due to reduced levels of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help transfer messages within the brain. From this correlation, it was found that certain substances that alter brain chemistry by increasing the levels of these select neurotransmitters over time help patients recover. Therein lies the crux of why modern medical science places so much faith in pharmaceuticals: they have been proven time after time to be incredibly effective at solving the problems they are intended to solve. Even though the mechanism of how the drugs work may not be fully understood, in comparison to placebos, antidepressants on the market have been shown to work. But while antidepressants do work in helping a person feel better, most of them come with a host of unintended side effects. It’s just something that you learn to live with. The first time I had depression, ages ago in high school, was a mild episode that was solved through talking therapy. I was so glad to have the support of my teachers back then. Then a second wave hit me: the first antidepressant that I was ever prescribed  was one that a lay reader would probably be familiar with – fluoxetine, better known as Prozac. The infamous blue pill – although you’d be hard-pressed to find it in its original form as developed by Eli Lilly due to the rise of generic versions – is the line of first resort for any doctor. I went through two courses of fluoxetine for different episodes, and it worked well. I got better. I got happier. It felt good, it felt like a dark and sad chapter in my life had finally ended and I’d beaten something that I never hoped would enter my life again. Something changed two years ago. I started my industrial placement year…and after...

Depression, Zen, and barber shops

By on Dec 28, 2012 in Personal | 11 comments

The last time I had a haircut was back in February. Since then I have cycled through various iterations of dyed hair: ginger, blonde, grey, blackish-blonde, reddish-black. I simply love the attention that I get from dyeing my hair after each episode – and from the general perception that people who know me get from it that I do “crazy, spontaneous things”. The truth is that it helps my self-image a lot to be perceived as outré. I have a weird relationship with my self-image. I meticulously cultivate a persona that ensures that I get attention from others. I do genuinely like having a different taste in culture, although I do wonder whether at some point this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I like different things because I like being different?) I go through intense phases of self-loathing despite outwardly denying this ever happens. There are times when I feel intense hatred towards my parents for what I feel was a lackadaisical attitude in parenting in my childhood, sometimes I feel indifferent towards them, and yet other times I feel a needy yearning for their approval. My relationship with my parents is another one of those things I am incredibly uncomfortable with because I don’t know myself where I stand. When I said in my last post that I could not decide whether to fly to India or not, this was partly the reason: I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to face my internal demons on where I really stand with respect to my parents. (I took the decision to solider on.) Thus far I have shied away from ever mentioning this publicly, but you know what, fuck it: I suffer from depression. It’s become a fact-of-life that I have struggled with for years, along with associated problems such as behavioural and eating disorders. I consider cognitive behavioural therapy to be “for losers”, even though I rely on it – and medication – massively as a crutch to remain a functioning individual. I loathe how being on medication appears to make my emotions ‘flatline’ while generally keeping my mood stable in a way that I cannot without their help. Most of all, I hate the side effects that come with taking antidepressants – which have been various depending on the specific antidepressant that I’m on at any given time. What has been hardest is that I’ve never let on that I suffer from depression, except to a handful of friends; although of late I’ve let more and more friends in on this ‘secret’. Acknowledging what I see as a ‘defect’ in myself simply did not sit well with my curated ‘public’ persona. My biggest worry with telling anyone about this has been that I don’t want to be pitied and, well, when I do tell friends what are they going to do about it anyway? Depression is, ultimately, a problem that I need to deal with myself. Still, I’m grateful for friends who over the years have lent an ear to me in my darkest hours. The past few months have been incredibly harsh as I went through a major depressive episode. What really freaked me out is during this time I had thoughts of self-harm – and I usually haven’t been that ‘bad’ to have thoughts of harming myself or others. This was driven less by self-loathing and more by a lack of any kind of feeling during this phase, to the extent that I wanted to hurt myself just to experience ‘something’. One of the reasons why I started letting more friends know what I was going through is because I was incredibly scared of losing grip and actually doing something stupid. I put on a brave face regardless because I didn’t want my friends worrying about me, but it was nice to know that there were people who went out of their way to simply meet up with me and chat about what I was going through (and what was going on in their life). Part of this self-image cultivation is my online identity. It crept up in a way that I didn’t even notice. I was timing posts on Twitter or Facebook so that I knew they got maximum exposure: craving for retweets, likes, and shares consumed me and I when I got them, I genuinely got a kick out of it (no matter how much I denied it). That’s what I was on about when I wanted to disconnect during my trip to Turkey. Thus the cycle continues. I feel smug about how self-aware I am, feel smug about recognising my own feeling-smugness-of-my-self-awareness and so on as I take one step forward two steps backward on what I keep thinking is a path towards self-actualisation and personal epiphany. For all the noise that I make about changing as a person, I don’t know how much of it is just that – noise – and how much I’ve really changed. My takeaway from being more open about what I’m going through has taught me one thing: that a lot more people than you think suffer from mental illnesses, from personal experiences that I found out when I told my own experiences. Am I wrong to feel somewhat comforted by this fact? I don’t know. What I do know is that mental illnesses are still an awkward topic, and there are people who look at you weirdly...