For the past two days, my eyes and legs hurt. There could be many reasons for it: the long stressful drive home on Thursday – I’m the only driver in my family and nobody can take over. The change of climate. Having my period. Or a symptom of my depression that comes and goes since I started therapy.
Beginning in spring 2008, I suffered from inflamed eyeballs and increasing muscle pain in the limbs. At first, it was moderate only, but grew more intense as the months went by, causing a doctor to (wrongly) diagnose me with multiple sclerosis.
Only after I had a few panic attacks in June 2010 and was put on citalopram by a different doctor, the ache and inflammation vanished when previously I had taken painkillers on five days out of a week to find relief for a couple of hours.
That is the main credit I will give to being on an antidepressant: that it took the pain away relatively quickly and (for the duration of being medicated) permanently. Mood-wise, it did not change a lot, and so I was not sad when I had to wean myself off before starting therapy in December.
I know that medication is very beneficial for a lot of people and am far from condemning it, but the popular stance of “it is only a chemical imbalance of the brain and a few pills will fix you” certainly does not hit the nail for me. Even if I get occasionally re-visited by the physical pain, the citalopram came with its own set of side-effects: nausea, vertigo, sleepiness, nightmares and something called “brain zaps”. If you’ve never experienced them, they probably are hard to imagine – basically, the sensation is like electrical impulses travelling over your brain, which for me felt like bubbles rising in carbonated water, trying to escape a bottle you just opened. They started at the bottom of my brain just behind the eyes and would crawl all the way up to the top of it, rising just under the highest point of my skull.
Brain zaps don’t hurt (well, at least to me they did not), but they do not feel like anything else I ever experienced and in the beginning they were really scary because I did not know what was happening. Each zap lasted about two to three seconds and during that time, I had to stop whatever I was doing, even if only walking, and wait until the sensation faded. Only when I started to look for online information on why my brain started shivering, I came across this term and understood that I was not alone with it.
If I recall correctly, I had the first brain zap on the third day after getting on medication and they lasted for a couple of weeks until I had reached the therapeutic dosage and gotten used to it. Rapid eye movement could trigger them, but they also came spontaneously. When I discontinued citalopram, the same happened again, but since late December I haven’t had any brain zap at all.
The brain zaps were curious rather than inconveniencing for me, though, but there were other side-effects that lasted far longer which I could not tolerate. The depression led to hypersomnia in me, excessive sleeping, but instead of giving me more energy, citalopram made me so tired that I needed several (sic) naps each day and still slept twelve hours at night. I would get so tired that I almost collapsed on my bed, and the extremely vivid dreams I experienced from the drug often turned into tormenting nightmares.
Another lasting side-effect that never went away during the half-year was that citalopram completely neutered me. It erased any physical, mental or emotional sexual response – in other words, it turned me completely asexual. The mental and emotional parts started to recover after about three months, but physically I remained completely unexcitable. It would have put a huge strain on a partnership had I not been single then, but even so it was hard to bear because I constantly wondered if I’d ever go back to “fully functional” afterwards. I did, but it reduced my willingness to take antidepressants a lot.
Of course, others might not experience the same. Chances are they wouldn’t. No two people are the same. A different drug might have worked better for me. But given the choice between drugs and therapy, I’d always go for therapy first after the good experiences I made with it: it takes a little longer to get started and in the beginning it might make you feel worse instead of better because you start “poking” a lot of sore spots, but even if I got out of a session without having experienced an epiphany, at some point during the following days there would come up a situation where the previous sessions suddenly allowed me to understand better and take a different approach.
So therapy has made me feel emotionally better and it even gave me a little more energy, though I’m still not on “normal” levels. Most of the time, I’m pain-free, but once in a while it comes back when I am going through a more difficult phase than usual. For example, if I argue with my mother, I will feel the stings radiating from my fingers into the arms as we are still speaking. Given that I still have a couple of problems without solutions in my life, the duller aches in my thighs and the dry, itching eyes are like a silent reminder that even though I’ve already come so far, I cannot lean back yet.