I was diagnosed with PTSD in March last year.
It wasn’t a surprise. Something had been off since the car accident I had in late 2017, and I needed help. What I thought I could deal with using techniques I’d picked up from anxiety-focused CBT sessions was an entirely different beast; it needed a different kind of treatment. My then-line manager gently suggested I see my doctor, who recommended a combination of trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressants. And although I’d always been reluctant to try medication, I said yes.
My reluctance was due to my terrible track record of forgetting to take pills, rather than the stigma surrounding antidepressants, although I’d be lying if I said I never worried about stigma at all. There are still a lot of misconceptions about using medication for mental health.
What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s often associated with military veterans, but can occur after any traumatic situation. People with PTSD can experience nightmares, flashbacks, and insomnia, and may feel isolated from others. I also felt guilty, as if my personal trauma wasn’t traumatic enough.
PTSD has a huge impact on your daily life. In my case, the feelings of isolation hit hard, because most other people I knew thought of driving as just one of those things you do each day, and there I was unable to even get in my car. I’ve also been relying on public transport much more than I expected to, which means getting to and from events takes longer, can be awkward, and occasionally means I miss out.
And of course, you can’t just drop a PTSD diagnosis into casual conversation, so I felt like no one understood how much I was struggling—even though there’s no way they would have known. Luckily, my family, close friends, and co-workers (those who knew) have been supportive for the most part.
The medication I take
There are different types of antidepressants and—as you must have guessed by now—they’re not just used to treat depression. I take Sertraline, which is an SSRI, and one of the two types of antidepressants licensed to treat PTSD.
SSRR stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They’re the the most common prescribed type of antidepressant because they cause fewer side effects. According to Mind, they work by “blocking the reuptake of serotonin [a neurotransmitter] into the nerve cell that released it, which prolongs its action in the brain.” In simpler terms, this means they make more serotonin available to you, which can regulate your mood and ease symptoms of some mental illnesses.
The first six weeks
Not to diminish the experience people go through when they’re growing a whole fucking human being, but I imagine that the first trimester of pregnancy is a little like the first six weeks of taking antidepressants, at least the way I experienced it. I was nauseous all the time. I puked. I also came very close to dozing off at my desk, struggled to sleep through the whole night, and had random bursts of energy, during which my mother decided I looked like “a feckin’ possum.”
I was warned something like this would happen, but it was still a shock when I found myself sitting on the floor at midnight, yawning but sleepless, and unable to keep still.
Gradually, my body settled into its new reality, and from there it’s been more manageable. My doctor described it as “being wrapped in cotton wool” and I understand where she’s coming from: you’re cushioned from the worst of it. It’s like walking around in a bubble.
Common side effects
Fatigue and sleepiness
This is the main side effect for me—I am tired all the time. Sometimes it’s a bearable level of sleepiness; other days I can barely get out of bed. I go to sleep early and still need an alarm to wake up in time for work. I can’t stay out as late (or should that be early?) as I used to when I was at university, and I’m normally the first person to leave the pub. Two days of socialising in a row leaves me both exhilarated and exhausted, and I have to work from home at least once a week, preferably twice. (I normally alternate the days so I don’t have to be in the office two days in a row.)
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the things I want to. I visit my friends in London and Brighton, or they visit me; I’ve been to Oslo, Tuscany, and Venice. I went to a jazz festival last month and boogied to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and I’ve always got a book on the go, even if I can’t concentrate for as long as I once could. I might have to go to bed earlier than everyone else, but I can still make the most of things before I snuggle down underneath the duvet.
I’ve seen this listed as a reason people don’t want to take antidepressants, and I get it. Personally, I don’t feel completely numb, but the emotions I do experience aren’t as strong as they were before I started taking Sertraline. As someone who is highly sensitive and feels things very intensely anyway, this isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s really quite peaceful. Yes, the good moments aren’t so exciting, but my bad days aren’t as crushingly low as they once were. Antidepressants have taken the edge off my irrational worries.
Loss of libido
I would probably notice this more if I was in a relationship. As it happens, the fatigue I experience means I just don’t have the energy to commit to dating. It’s difficult enough trying to balance work, seeing family, catching up with friends, and making time for things that help me feel good, like yoga classes and cooking. (And eating.) I’m also trying to get out and about in my car, and slowly build up the amount of driving I do per week. I’d love to be in a relationship again one day and I’d be open to meeting someone in a real-life scenario, but dating isn’t exactly a priority right now. As my friend Giulia says, you have to be in the right head space before you dive in on Tinder. (I tried it last year and bloody hell, it’s rough out there.)
I very pointedly do not weigh myself. However, most of my clothes still fit me, so I don’t think this has had the impact I was expecting. My body is softer and and rounder, but I think that’s caused by a combination of eating cake more often and abandoning sweaty workouts for something more gentle.
Most people I see on a regular basis know I take daily medication; not all of them know what it is. I decided it was better to tell my co-workers that I was on medication—I didn’t say what—and therefore couldn’t drink, because they know how much I enjoy a G&T (every Secret Santa present I’ve received since I’ve worked there has been gin-related. I’m not complaining).
As for my friends and family, I believe they all know. And I don’t think they’ve treated me any more differently, although they ask me if I’m okay a little more than they used to. They’re also more careful when I’m a passenger in their cars, which I appreciate.
Do antidepressants work for me?
Yes. If I’d known the difference they’d make to my life, I would have spoken to my doctor sooner. Not only have they eased my PTSD symptoms, to the point I can now drive to and from the supermarket and am considered to be in recovery, but they’ve also taken the edge off my generalised anxiety disorder, too.
I’ve had a couple of well-meaning people say that I should be cautious of relying on antidepressants. But they allow me to live my life more fully—why wouldn’t I rely on them? You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg not to rely on their crutches. Sure, I go to bed earlier and I can’t indulge in as much gin as I’d like to, but anyone who’s known me for a while knows that I’m a lightweight who loves sleep anyway.
Maybe one day my doctor and I will decide it’s best that I come off them. Maybe we’ll decide to lower the dose, or keep going as we are now. I’m open to all options, as long as they’re carefully considered. But I won’t ever feel ashamed that I had to take antidepressants.
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Beth, 26, South East England.
Lover of books, dogs, yoga, travelling, and gin.
I write about ethical & eco-friendly living, minimalism, and mental health, as I muddle through one step at a time. Enjoy!