*Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say “this website is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. ~ Ed.
Throughout the majority of 2020, I was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks.
I’d always been somewhat anxious growing up, but never enough for it to have been an issue in my daily life. I always accepted that I am shy and the problem was with my confidence and the beliefs I held about myself.
Although this is partly the case, I never realized the impact of my anxiety until it began to interfere with my life over the past year.
In November, I was having a hard time after starting a new job. The job involved something I expected to love and enjoy every minute of, but I quickly realized this wasn’t my experience. I hated every minute of what had I expected to love, which was a huge shock for me. I think my friends and family could see straight through my attempt to convince them I was loving the job too.
I suddenly found myself feeling completely lost.
I was dreading every second of work and counted down the minutes until I had to leave. I’d sit for the hour or two before my shifts and either cry my eyes out or work myself up into a panic attack, and I felt completely oblivious as to why I was doing this.
I was fearful of going to work and that was such a bizarre concept to me. I was confused as to why I was finding it scary because the job itself is not something I would have ever found scary. I have experience in a similar field and I have the skills and ability to do the job.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the job. I imagine if I’d started two years ago, I would have completely loved every minute of it. It was me. I couldn’t enjoy it, and it felt like hell every minute of every day whether I was at work or not. This feeling began to totally consume my thoughts.
After having two weeks off for Christmas and staying with family in order to ground myself, I realized something. Work was not the problem—it was anxiety. I don’t know how I let it get so far without trying to manage it better, but this was when I finally bit the bullet and decided to properly research how to get help.
The idea of speaking to a professional about what I was experiencing was the last thing I wanted to do. I’ve worked in mental health for two and a half years prior to starting my new job in November, and I supported and helped young people manage their mental health.
The concept of the roles being reversed and getting help for myself seemed foreign to me. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable; I didn’t want to accept that I needed help and I didn’t want to talk to people—I felt completely stupid and invalid.
Talking to friends and family brought different experiences; some made me feel completely validated, whereas others, unintentionally, made me feel like I was exaggerating or making it up. This reinforced my idea that I didn’t need help and this was potentially why I waited so long.
The week after Christmas I felt overwhelmed. I felt helpless and I was constantly on edge, hyper-vigilant, and over-sensitive.
I looked online and saw that I could complete an e-consult form in order to request support from my general practitioner. This was amazing for me; I felt able to express myself in writing and this allowed me to be more open and honest than I probably would have been able to in an in-person consultation.
To my surprise, I had a call back from a general practitioner, who was the kindest man, which made the process much easier for me. He explained the process of starting medication for anxiety, and also discussed psychological therapies with me, and asked whether I wanted to be referred to get some support. I agreed to the psychological support immediately, as I was aware of the usual waiting lists for support. Nevertheless, I asked to have some time to think about whether to take medication or not and whether I think that would be effective for me personally.
I know quite a few people who are currently taking or have previously taken anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication, and for each of these people, they appear to have been helpful.
I spoke to one of my close friends, who was previously taking something for depression and anxiety, and he encouraged me to consider it as an option—as I was clearly reluctant at this point. I have no judgment toward people who rely on medication, and he reminded me that it’s similar to if you were taking medication for a physical illness.
My best friend was also supportive and said I should consider it as an option as she was aware of how much I had been struggling.
In hindsight, I wish I would’ve trusted my own instincts and never bothered with medication. I accept that it works for many people and I am definitely not anti-medication for mental health, nevertheless, I can say that it was not the right solution for me and there wasn’t one single positive I gained from taking them.
My expectations were quite high I must admit. I hoped it would be my magic solution and my anxiety and slight low mood would disappear, and I’d be perfectly fine and back to my normal self.
I realize this sounds naive, but all I wanted was a solution, not to have to work at it. In an ideal world, I’m sure that’s what everyone would want; if only life was that simple. Within days, I began to have horrendous side effects and to my dismay, the anxiety felt much worse. I was having regular anxiety attacks and panicking profusely all of the time.
I didn’t have a moment to collect myself. This, in itself, was extremely tiring, regardless of the fact it was taking me up to four or five hours to get to sleep in the evening. When I did sleep, I’d wake up an hour later and remain awake for hours before I could settle back to sleep. I was collectively managing about three or four hours of sleep per night, which was not helpful in terms of my mood.
I have a skin condition called eczema and this also seemed to flare in conjunction with starting the medication. Although the doctors told me this was unlikely to be linked, I didn’t agree. I think the stress of some of the side effects also impacted the flare-up. Another side effect I struggled with was acne around my chin, jawline, and cheeks. I have never had a problem with acne previously; I would usually get a few spots on my forehead every now and again and one or two on my chin near my period. Nevertheless, it was full-blown acne that had a huge effect on my levels of anxiety and self-confidence.
I also experienced an increase in depressive symptoms. I felt so low and hopeless. At times, I didn’t want to leave the house or talk to anyone, however, I had enough motivation and support around me that I tried to persevere with the tablets, reminding myself that the side effects shouldn’t last past a few months.
But I couldn’t cope with this for another week, never mind months.
While taking medication, I was contacted by a service that offers cognitive behavioral therapy, which looks at analyzing negative thought patterns and trying to change these to more positive ones.
I had a phone assessment which lasted around 45 minutes. The person I spoke to made me feel extremely comfortable when asking me questions about my current anxiety and mood and then explained the process of the service.
I have had one further phone call to explain that I will be having six sessions in order to complete a cognitive behavioral therapy program, which I feel more open to and I feel extremely optimistic to see how it pans out.
After seven weeks of medication, and after requesting support twice to withdraw from my medication, I decided to stop taking them. I was fully aware that this is not recommended, however, I did copious amounts of research and spoke to a friend who is a mental health nurse. I already had previous knowledge around medication withdrawal from working in mental health. I decided to do this as I felt the side effects of the medication were more detrimental than helpful for me.
Upon writing this, I have currently been Sertraline-free for approximately 14 days and I am feeling much more positive.
The only withdrawal effects I have felt, so far, have been spells of dizziness, nausea, and headaches. I am thankful that my mood has not declined since stopping the medication, as this was the experience some of my friends have had when stopping mental health medication. I also haven’t experienced brain zaps thankfully, which seem to be common.
Although I feel much more optimistic about dealing with my problems head-on, one of my biggest fears is masking anxiety and how it results in an explosion of emotions, as it did last year.
I feel motivated due to the current situation I am in, and hope that this mindset does continue in the future, particularly when continuing with cognitive behavioral therapy and support.
Although my experience with medication wasn’t the most positive, there have been a few things I have learned and have taken away from the experience. It’s allowed me to explore which direction and career path I’d like to follow in the future. Support work and social care are no longer my choices of a career path at the moment.
I have rediscovered my love for reading and writing and find it fitting to explore pursuing my passion for writing. This is something I imagine I wouldn’t have realized so promptly without this experience.
Another positive I have gained from my experience is beginning to pursue another love that I have for something completely different—boxing.
I’ve learned that when dealing with stressful situations, finding different outlets for healing is so important.