I type this, feeling rather amazed right now, because I haven’t felt down at all in the last 5 days. 5 days in which I’ve been taking a pill called St John’s Wort, which is described by the mental health charity Mind as “a herbal remedy that has been used for hundreds of years to treat mental health problems”. I’m in a fortunate position that, at 31, my body is in great working condition, but my brain less so. To everyone else it must look as if I go through life and nothing is wrong, yet with mental health issues the damage is hidden away on the inside, and until brain scans become a routine part of mental health diagnoses, it seems it’s all guesswork. As for my personal brain damage, I would guess it might be some pretty bad damage, thanks to a narcissistic emotionally abusive parent, who I am no longer in contact with and a load of other stuff I won’t bore you with, but I know the damage is there because I’ve been feeling it (and trying to medicate it) every day. Until now…
I first heard of St John’s Wort when I was 15, around the time I experienced my first mental breakdown. I saw a doctor and was recommended antidepressants, but refused on the grounds that I didn’t want to put ‘weird chemicals’ in my body. Around that time I would watch a popular daytime TV show before heading off to school in the morning, and one of the sponsors of the programme was a brand of St John’s Wort. I would see this advert day in day out, yet never put two and two together and thought this might help me. I had another mental breakdown at 19, and this time I did take the antidepressant medication that the doctor offered. It worked, but the side effects brought just as many problems as they solved. For the next few years I was on and off this stuff, culminating in a pretty serious episode of mood cycling when I was put on Sertraline. That was fairly traumatic (although I did make some bloody good art). It made me suicidal and I’ve never gone near antidepressants since. I’m also lucky that for the last few years, since cutting contact with the damaging people in my life, my mental health has stabilised a great deal. But I still feel as though I suffer from the effects of a brain with some kind of PTSD – for example, heightened fear, intrusive thoughts, nightmares. I also get bouts of PMS that wreak a bit of havoc in my life for a few days every month. But despite this, I am determined not to live my life as a victim. I’ve seen the victim mentality happen to people as they get older, and the result is not pretty. So I felt like I’d read every self help book that was out there, and done all the manifesting, meditating, positive thinking and ‘asking the universe’ that I could do, but it was almost as if nothing could flick the switch and make me happy.
I spent a lot of time wracking my brain about how it could fix itself. I’m still a bit incredulous that antidepressant medication is the best Big Pharma can do when it comes to depression and anxiety. Why is there no treatment for immediate relief, like with asthma for example – you have a steroid inhaler for long term prevention and a Ventolin inhaler for immediate relief of asthma symptoms. With mental health, there is no option for the latter. Is it any surprise people turn to substance abuse? Science never ceases to amaze. We can put people on the moon but seems we can’t do something as simple as make depressed people happy. Not straightaway anyway.
So I was lying in my bed recently, musing on how differently I felt as a small child, how the world seemed to be filled with colour and vibrancy back then, whereas now everything just feels kind of like I’m watching a summer’s day on a black and white TV. Found myself wishing I could borrow another adult’s brain for a moment, just to ascertain whether this was actually normal, and everybody is in fact living in monochrome while pretending otherwise. I mused on this a great deal and came to the conclusion that I was fed up of feeling down so often. I decided to do something. Not least because I’ve developed a worrying tendency to self-medicate with gin, which is expensive as well as impractical, so I felt that anything would basically be an improvement on this. I began to think about what herbal remedies might be available so as to avoid the side-effects of SSRI’s, and then I remembered that TV advert from years ago about St John’s Wort.
When I Googled this, I noticed that under the descriptions it would stress that this was for ‘mild’ mental health problems only, and that for severe depression you need to see a doctor, etc. Given that I haven’t been experiencing anything near as bad as my mental breakdowns, I decided perhaps I should give this a go, so I bought a pack of pills for £12.99 online. I have to take 3 of them a day, and I’ve got to say, after about one day I noticed I was feeling happier. Of course it’s possible this could be placebo, but I don’t feel it is. I could never understand why I couldn’t see the world in colour in the first place. There was no logical reason for the monochrome. All the bad stuff was behind me, so why wouldn’t my brain work properly? St John’s Wort seems to have restored my brain chemistry to a kind of balance – not high, but crucially, not low either. As a result I find myself less troubled by unfounded negative thoughts and that occasional fleeting sensation of ‘wouldn’t it be a nice adventure to die’. I’m happy that’s gone too.
So I’m going to keep taking this for the foreseeable future. Anxiety is another thing that I’ve struggled with for years and years, so here’s hoping it will calm my nerves a bit as well. I will continue to post in this blog, about how things are coming along. So all this has got me thinking, why aren’t we talking about St John’s Wort? How many people actually know there is a herbal, natural alternative to the drugs dished out by the doctor? Probably worth mentioning here, that talking therapies such as counselling are also very beneficial, but if there is a harmless, natural medication that can be taken instead of an SSRI that is also capable of increasing serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain, why aren’t people taking that instead? Incidentally it always says on the instructions of SSRI medications that they are not to be taken alongside St John’s Wort. If it was little more than a placebo, then I’m sure there would be no need for such a warning, right? So far I’ve had no side effects, but the description of the medicine does list a few that could occur. I certainly did have side effects with SSRI’s however. Nobody wants their sex drive to disappear at 19 (or any age for that matter), or to find that you have something called akathisia, which means you can’t stop bits of yourself bouncing up and down or tapping, even when you’re in public. Add to that the large amounts of vomit that would occur whenever I got on a bus, as a result of the heightened nausea, and I started to wonder if it was really worth it, just to be happy. It almost was.
I’m not going to use this post to bash SSRI’s, because for me (and many, many others) they were a lifeline, at some of the lowest times of my life. Times when I was so mentally ill my brain physically hurt. But for those of us that find ourselves occupying that grey area, that mid-space in-between full on depression and being fine, something is needed to help us get back into the right mindset, so that we can live a healthy, productive, meaningful life and be a better person to those around us and society at large. That’s where real happiness comes from, after all. I’ve been so struck by my reaction to St John’s Wort, which incidentally I never really expected, that I felt I just had to write about it here. In today’s world more than ever, we need to be finding healthy ways to cope. After all, think what an amazing world it would be, if everyone was just… happy.