Life in vanilla

There are two main Prozac clichés. One: it makes you vanilla. You become stable. Fine.  A nice, creamy vanilla; a human being, the muted tones of a mid-priced show home. Cliché two, and the obligatory disclaimer to any discussion of anti-depressants: muted is better than suicidal. Sometimes you have to just swallow the pill, and all the downsides that come with it, for the sake of being able to function. To get out of bed. To actually get some fucking sleep.

I’ve been taking anti-depressants for over two years now. My prescription is 20mg of fluoxetine per day; an average adult dose, unremarkable even in that. I used to think that depression, for all its horrors, was also an indicator of something interesting; in your self, your mind, your biological make-up. Hemingway, Woolf, Plath; all my idols were depressed. Depression is interesting, I thought. The Depressed are interesting. Like a MENSA group of the clinically miserable, enabled by misery to be creative and insightful.

This is self-loathing vanity. Grim arrogance, of one who fears Average above all else. Because depression is nothing if not normal. We’re all depressed now. Around 40 million people worldwide take anti-depressants on a daily basis. Around 121 million people a year, globally, experience “a depressive episode”. And in the UK, for around 1 in 5 people who have a depressive episode, the issue will be chronic. It’s hard to find statistics on the numbers of Oxford students being treated for depression, for obvious reasons, but I don’t think many people would be surprised if it turned out the concentration here was higher than in much of the rest of the country. Not that I’d wish to cast aspersions on the University’s provision of mental health support; they’ve been enormously accommodating for me. Perhaps Oxford attracts a certain type of person.

Maybe it’s the circles I move in. But since being diagnosed, when I confide in someone that I have depression, I invariably find that they too have “been depressed”. In the early stages, pre-Oxford, my reaction tended to be something close to snarling. I felt: “you get out of bed every day. You have a life, a life that’s more than just closed curtains and musty bed sheets. Don’t you dare, don’t you dare call yourself depressed.” I got past this period of revolting arrogance, thankfully. It’s a spectrum, as we all know. And if you’re depressed, that’s important. Don’t ever think that your unhappiness is less significant, less needful of medical help, than another’s. Even if when you encounter ignorant, misguided people like me.

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When I started taking anti-depressants, I entered a new stage. Meeting someone who tentatively feared they were depressed, my reaction was to urge them to get a prescription. Prozac! I thought. Prozac is the Way Forward. In actual fact, I was afraid of words like “Prozac” and “anti-depressants” and “fluoxetine”. I glibly referred to them as “happy pills”. As though it was one big, bitterly ironic joke. As though I was taking the piss out of “how Skins” we all were. Invariably, these people looked at me warily. They mumbled about not wanting to mess with their personalities, their minds, their selves.

To return to the opening clichés. They were probably right; for me at least. It was vanilla. It was a neutral tone existence. I have tried to “come off” the anti-depressants many times, and endured such debilitating lows that I’ve rushed right back to the comfort of those show-home walls. Currently, I’m decreasing my intake slowly, in a bid to wean off forever. It was in the context of this reduced intake that I left a tutorial last week and burst into tears. That I danced around my room to Daft Punk, not once, but on repeat for 11 minutes. That I read an email from my Dad, and felt I was going to fold, bend, wrinkle and warp internally from the crushing force of my love. These things didn’t happen on anti-depressants.

But for many others, the little pills are all that stands between them and oblivion. The drugs, almost always, do work. Not perfectly. But if it’s a choice between a life of trauma, and a life perhaps a little placid, then surely the latter is worth at least considering. If you’ve been saying no for a long time; if you’ve told yourself you don’t want to make a fuss, and it’s “not that big a deal”; if you want to curl up into a ball and stop being, but also that you should just bloody “pull yourself together”; think, really think, about getting help. It doesn’t have to be anti-depressants, of course. That’s for you to decide with the advice of a doctor. But to get help, you have to be open to it. For me at least, saying yes to the pills was an acknowledgment that there was something wrong. That I didn’t have to just “pull myself together”. You don’t either.

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I meet people all the time at Oxford who have all the symptoms of depression. Often, they don’t seem to think their misery merits the Label. I do wonder if the MENSA-group notion doesn’t perpetuate this. Perhaps we imagine that being depressed, “properly” depressed, means living up to yet another standard. A mad standard of intellectual fucked-up-ness. Far from the commonly perceived stigma of depression as indicative of vulnerability or weakness, we’re surrounded by examples of depressives who exemplify academic or creative achievement.

I suppose I can say that we’re none of us Virginia Woolf, but that we’re alive anyway. So we’ll just have to get on with it. There’s no point in having life if you’re going to spend it miserable; may as well make an effort to be something else. Even if it’s neutral toned.