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Don’t shame me for taking antidepressants until you’ve walked in my shoes

I started taking antidepressants when I was a teenager, and almost 20 years later, I still start every day with a little white pill. It’s a two-second part of my morning routine, like washing my face and brushing my teeth, but I can’t underestimate its importance.

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I’m very open about my medication these days, but for a long, long time I wasn’t. (Nobody even knew I was ill, so there was no need to tell them I was taking pills.) When I did start to talk about it, I found that, generally speaking, people reacted in one of three ways. Some people expressed disbelief that I was ill in the first place, which is a whole other story. Others were pleased I was seeking help but wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t be taking medication for “too long.”

And then there were those who were concerned that I was so ill I had to take a pill every day. It’s the “can’t you just go for a long walk and get some fresh air” school of thought that clogs up our social media feeds with nonsense like this: 

Facebook post against anti-depressant medication
Image: Earth. We are one./Facebook

This image was shared on Facebook by writer, actor, public speaker and activist Jenni Chui this week, leaving me hoping that the 900,000-plus fans of the Earth. We are one. Facebook page are more open-minded than this.

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The reason this kind of thing is so dangerous is that it reinforces the stereotype that taking antidepressant medication is somehow a sign of weakness. Which then reinforces the stereotype that depression isn’t a real illness, simply a character flaw. Would anyone dream of accusing a cancer patient of being weak because they chose a chemotherapy session over a ramble in the woods? Of course not.

I’m not denying the powerful effect a healthy lifestyle (a nutritious diet, good sleep habits and, yes, physical activity, be it running, weightlifting, dancing or the aforementioned ramble in the woods) has on mental health. Even on medication, I have low days, and that’s when I have to ramp up the self-care side of my treatment. I spend half an hour doing yoga. I cook myself healthy meals. I take my dog for a long walk on the beach. The health benefits of the very simplest things in life — fresh air, moving your body, fruits and vegetables — can’t be denied.

But here’s the thing. Without my medication, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of that stuff. I wouldn’t make it out of bed in the morning, let alone maneuver my body into a Downward Dog. My pills are what allow me to take advantage of all the great stuff in life that makes me feel even better.

It’s highly likely that I’ll take that little white pill every day for the rest of my life. Years ago I tried several times to stop taking it, and it always ended the same way: experiencing a new depth of depression I didn’t even know existed. Yes, there are side effects of antidepressant medication. It can be a bit of a trial-and-error journey; it was only after 15 years of different prescriptions for my mental illness that I found the one that worked best for me.

I can attest to the calming effect of nature as much as anyone. I live a stone’s throw from the sea, and there’s nothing that makes me feel more peaceful than sitting on the beach, watching the tide come in. Unfortunately nature has its limitations. It can’t fix a chemical imbalance. It can’t erase traumatic events or years of anxiety or depression. And as breathtaking and beautiful and therapeutic as that sea is, if I wasn’t taking my meds, there’s a very real chance I’d want to hold my head under the water, not sit and admire it.

I’m not a medical professional, but I’m more than qualified to tell you the score on an illness I’ve lived with for my entire adult life. Which means I can say, categorically — and I’ll go out on a limb here and speak on behalf of every one of the millions of people who take medication for mental illness every day — that antidepressants are not shit.

Narrow-minded, ill-informed, irresponsible posts on social media that pander to outdated stereotypes of what mental illness is and how it should be managed? Now that’s shit.

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