A year after being diagnosed with ME, I relapse badly. Nauseous, feverish and weak, barely able to walk to the end of the street, I’m signed off work for a month, then another three. My GP takes blood and runs tests, but the results are normal. Unable to find anything wrong, he refers me to a specialist.
The specialist listens while I tell him about the nausea, the night sweats, the difficulty walking. Then he leans back in his chair and says, I think you should try antidepressants.
I’m thrown. The symptoms I’ve just described are physical, not emotional. But I’m not depressed, I say.
Let’s see, shall we? he replies, pulling a questionnaire from a folder like a rabbit from a hat.
The questions are familiar: I know them from psychology text books. I could cheat – either way. But I’m curious. Maybe I am depressed, I just don’t know it. Isn’t that a hallmark of depression? What if I was depressed, and taking a pill could make all this go away?
Totting up my score, the specialist is disappointed: I’m not, officially, depressed. Disappointed, but not deterred. I’d still like you to try the antidepressants, he says. He seems to think we’re playing a game, one in which he knows I’m hiding something, and I know he knows I’m hiding something, but as long as I just agree to take the pills, we need say no more about it.
I’m not hiding anything, so I refuse.
Four weeks later, still nauseous and weak, still barely able to walk to the end of the street, I ask for the antidepressants. Swallowing the small white pills, I feel anger and hope, both.
We sell our house, with its bathroom at the top of the stairs I can no longer climb, and rent a bungalow on the coast. Each day I walk the short distance down to the shore, wanting to be near the ready, expansive beauty of the sea. But something’s gone awry. Sunlight festers on the water. The waves break like tired clichés, over and over. The whole scene, rocks, sea, sky, is lifeless as an amateur painting.
That summer, the world takes on the hue of a stage-set; becomes flimsy, illusory, fake. I start to hate the bungalow, with its sunshine yellow walls and perky curtains, its garish roses and sickening green lawn. Behind the paint, beneath the grass and the shag-pile carpet, another world heaves. When I’m alone in the living room, deep pits open in the floor and try to swallow me up. I lie awake at night plotting to rip up the neatly folded sheets in the airing cupboard, knot them into a noose and hang myself from a tree in the garden. The world is a trick. I’m still in the Emerald City, but I’ve taken off my green-tinted glasses.
At my next appointment, I tell my specialist about the sulky sea, the pits in the floor, the noose. I think he’ll be pleased, because I’m pretty sure this is depression. He isn’t; he’s concerned. He makes me an appointment with a psychologist.
A few days later, in a moment of lucidity, I look up the side effects of the antidepressant I’m taking. The list is long, and includes “suicidal feelings”. I call my GP, and he tells me to change brand, straight away. Ten days later I’m no longer trying to work out the best time to hang myself so no one will see and intervene.
I swallow the second brand of antidepressants for the next four years. I’m scared that my depression was part of my ME: that my suicidal feelings were the manifestation of some dark undercurrent of the illness. I’m scared that without the pills, those feelings will return.
When I finally stop taking the antidepressants, nothing changes. My mental health stays stable. And my ME neither worsens, nor improves.