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Memoir: Jan Wong’s search for the right antidepressant

Memoir: Pills ApplentyEven with sedatives, I couldn’t sleep. I kept losing weight. I was crying every day. One night, I lost my temper with my son Ben, then 16, because I wanted his attention and he wouldn’t get off the phone with his girlfriend. Blind with rage, I grabbed his most precious possession—his laptop—and tried to throw it out the bedroom window. My 13-year-old, Sam, wrestled me in a bear hug and made me stop.

For months, I had been clinically depressed. Like something out of an Ian McEwan novel, a single incident had destroyed the clean plot lines of my life. A story I’d written for my employer, the Globe and Mail, on a school shooting in Montreal had sparked a nasty backlash. The Globe failed to stand behind me, and when I fell ill, the paper and its insurer ruled I wasn’t sick.

At home, I was out of control with pain and anger. My doctor recommended I go on anti­depressants, but I refused. I was terrified of taking meds that would affect my brain. I thought of myself as a strong person, but strength of personality has nothing to do with who succumbs to depression. After eight terrible months, I had only partially recovered and was back at work when I suffered a severe relapse. I capitulated. I went to the drugstore, clutching my psychiatrist’s prescription.

Every day, I swallowed 10 milligrams of Cipralex, one of the newest SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—in the same family as Prozac. My throat felt parched no matter how much water I drank. My eyes became so dry that the conjunctiva, the clear membrane over my eyeball, actually wrinkled when I looked sideways.

Worse, my reflexes went haywire. At Monday night rehearsals for the North Toronto Community Band, where I play flute, my fingers became unresponsive and I could no longer keep the beat. I couldn’t remember the key signature, either. At home, I became clumsy, knocking over coffee mugs and brushing cutlery onto the kitchen floor. While talking or eating, I would accidentally chomp down on my cheeks until the inside of my mouth was swollen and raw.

Choosing the right antidepressant is a random, messy business. Half the time the first one doesn’t work—although it takes four to six suspenseful weeks to find that out. Nevertheless, insurance companies would rather pay for drugs than for talk therapy because drugs are cheaper. As doctors, patients and insurers all search for a chemical solution to every problem, antidepressants have become one of the top-selling drugs in North America.

Nine weeks on Cipralex failed to lift my mood. I had terrible thoughts. Suicidal thoughts. Suddenly I could understand the allure of leaping in front of a subway train. The rails looked so invitingly shiny, an efficient way to put an end to my workplace troubles and—as I then perceived it—the damage to my family.

 

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