A (grieving) mother’s little helper – will antidepressants numb the pain?

I’ve been sitting here staring at the packet for half an hour.

Antidepressants.

These little pills, I know, are offering me the chance to numb my mind for a while from the anxiety and depression that’s taken hold of me. I’ve resisted them for so long that it feels strange to finally be here. As I said in this post, I can’t help feel like I’m failing.

I wonder if I’m really depressed enough to take them. After all, I’m generally okay. I’m not walking the streets in my pyjamas. I don’t feel a black cloud above me all the time. I’m still functioning as I always do, albeit with my mood swinging on a pendulum. I can be switched on one day, enough to write posts like this, but the next I can only stare at the screen blankly, my mind a fog.

But is this enough to start these tablets? I’ve spent over two years avoiding using them. I know this is a last resort for me.

I’ve been here before you see.

Do I really want to go here, again?

The answer is no. I don’t want to go here again, but I feel I must.

*****

When post-traumatic stress disorder, following the traumatic hospital birth of my second child, sent me into depression in 2003, I was told I had late Post-natal Depression (PND) and was put on antidepressants. At the time, I remember being generally okay, still working and getting on with life, but it was when I found myself crossing a busy road without looking, or caring, that I knew I had to get help.

Even then, I didn’t class myself as having PND; my child was around 18 months old. Part of me knew it wasn’t tablets I needed. While they helped a little, they only masked the trauma within – that sensation of being so terrified and in pain that I couldn’t escape. I began to take up exercise and slowing that replaced the tablets. All I really needed was a few sessions with a trained therapist to understand why I was getting flashbacks of my second child’s birth. All I needed was to be understood. I wasn’t depressed. I was traumatized.

The pills don’t change you. They numb you. They desensitize you. Antidepressants turn off the anxious or depressed bit in your head but they also turn off emotions, in order to give you the ‘headspace’ to recover.

I remember seeing a really sad film. I didn’t cry. I remember seeing something funny. I didn’t laugh. I remember watching my child do something special. I felt numb. I didn’t like it. I got used to it though, which is why it took me 18 months to finally stop.

It took me four years to fully recover and feel in control again, so much so I went on to have another child in a positive home birth, an experience which quite remarkably undid all those traumatic memories. From that experience, I knew that pills were not the answer for me. Feeling in control of my life was. So every time I was offered pills after Abi died, I refused.

But your child dying is the ultimate way to lose control of your life.

*****

Since Abi died, I’ve been offered antidepressants several times by the doctor. A few days before Abi’s funeral I called the GP. Normally having to wait or beg for a doctor’s appointment like everyone else, the GP called me back immediately and he knew my situation before I even spoke. I told him I needed something. He said of course, expecting me to ask for something to get me through the funeral. But no, I was actually more bothered by the state of my skin which had flared up so badly due to the stress and pregnancy hormones (following my pregnancy loss a few weeks before Abi’s death) that it was lumpy and painful. I didn’t want to have bad, sore skin for Abi, and with all eyes on me. He sounded surprised. It’s not the first thing you’d think someone would want after a death I suppose! But he prescribed some strong antibiotics to help me get control of it.

Then, a few weeks later, I was at the doctors again. I wanted to find out what they ‘offer’ bereaved patients and they were keen to let me know I could have antidepressants if I wanted them. They wanted to help me take the pain away in the only way they knew how. But, for me, there was no pill that could take away my grief.

At the time, an antidepressant would almost be like an anti-‘Abi’ pill. I didn’t want the feeling of grief to go, no matter how much it hurt. I needed to feel the grief because it kept me close to Abi. It was my penance for not preventing her death. The doctor recommended writing and talking, although the waiting list for free therapy was long. So I began this blog.

*****

I fell pregnant again within three months of Abi dying. All focus was now on that. My grief stalled. My mind and body could only cope with one major thing at a time.

But with the new baby came new anxieties. I was relied upon by this little human and it sent my anxiety overboard. I wondered why on earth I had put myself in this position. As I hadn’t had chance to address the feelings of failure of preventing Abi’s death, I was now panicked by being solely responsible for this much-wanted baby. My body, having done its job at delivering another healthy child, was saying ‘enough’!

But still, I battled on. I was breastfeeding my baby, so I couldn’t take antidepressants or much else to help. I wasn’t tearful or emotional, like you’d expect. In the main I was doing okay, but my anxiety presented as physical symptoms. Aches and pains. Palpations. Dizziness. I became scared of leaving my children without a mother.

But suddenly the doctors seemed to change approach. I was now ‘understandably’ anxious (because of Abi), the fact I felt ill or in pain was all ‘anxiety related’, the fact I cried at times or felt depressed was ‘grief related’.

‘You’re just anxious, come back again if you’re still worried,’ said one hassled doctor after I went in with chest pains. There was nothing they could do for me!

When people misunderstand your feelings – mental and physical – it is frightening for an anxious person. It makes it worse! I felt pushed away. I felt like a lost cause. I felt scared there was something really wrong with me that they were misdiagnosing as ‘worry’. Fear compounded fear.

I battled through months of painful breastfeeding which finally settled down around five months. And, as my baby grew, my anxiety reduced, but it was still there. Now, you see, my grief decided I had room for it again and popped right back to the front of my mind!

*****

I reluctantly went back to the doctor. As time had passed, Abi’s death wasn’t at the top of my notes, so when she asked me why I was feeling so anxious, I just burst into tears. I saw the familiar facial expression change to those sympathetic eyes every healthcare practitioner had given me in the months of pregnancy and following the birth. They offered me pills, again. But I didn’t want to stop breastfeeding now it was established. I was not going to stop just so I could take something I thought I shouldn’t, and that would likely make me worse from the side effects!

So, with waiting lists as long as my arm for free therapy, I began counselling with a private therapist. It was okay but very general, so I then moved on to a psychotherapist, which is much more involved and really digs down to the core of problems. I also saw my osteopath regularly to mend the physical anxiety-related strains on my body. All the while I had to keep my job ticking over so that I could afford to pay for my therapies and also manage my children’s bereavement therapy. I work for myself, so there’s no sick leave!

But it was my psychotherapist who helped me to see that actually, I might not be able to do this on my own. That yes, I’m still the ‘tough old bird’ I always was, but I’m also a human trying to live with some intense emotions. That a low dose of numbness might give me the mind holiday I need in order to get back on track. Looking at it that way, I could see that it wasn’t being a failure to ask for help. That in fact I was ‘failing’ myself by struggling on.

My son, now 16 months, was only having feeds late evening and through the night, more as a comfort than anything. I was getting ready to stop, although I didn’t want it to be for this reason. Many mums choose their last feed or cherish it. I didn’t. I stopped his bedtime feed and slept at the end of our bed so he couldn’t sneak up and help himself in the night. I cuddled him in the early hours when he woke and cried and clung to me, confused as to why he couldn’t have it. It was so hard to be firm, but I know I couldn’t get help if I was still feeding him.

The key factor for me in all this is that I made the decision. Talking therapy helped me to get to that decision on my own. So while I feel a sense of loss of power by getting to this point, making the decision to take these tablets is my way of retaining some control over my broken heart and mind. That in itself is a step in the right direction.

*****

The things that worry me most are dependency and the side effects. Taking antidepressants for something relatively short-term, like my case of PND, is one thing, but this is grief. There is no single day in the future when I will say ‘yes, I’m over it now’. It’s not an illness. But the way I’m (trying to) see it, is that this will help to get me through the post-pregnancy anxiety, the stuff related to having a new baby, not the grief. It may be that my hormones are out of balance or something. This may be the stop-gap to putting anxiety back in its place… maybe…

Will they make me feel better so much so that I won’t want to stop taking them? Will the side effects create new problems for me? What if they stop me feeling sad about Abi, leaving me unable to mourn? What if when I stop taking them it hits me again, like it did before? What if I can’t find my way back to me, without them?

I’ve lived with ‘what ifs’ for too long now. I just have go for it.

This is probably one of the hardest things I’ve shared so far. Why on earth am I even sharing it?! Why expose myself to further judgement? I’m not sharing this for attention. I’m not sharing it so everybody knows my business. The thought makes me cringe! I’m sharing this because it’s real life, real grief.

I know so many of my readers need to hear the truth. They are feeling the same way or have similar fears and want to feel like they are not alone. I feel the stigma of mental illness all around me, nobody wants to be judged, but unless we share our stories we won’t be able to break the taboo.

Do not feel ashamed.

Taking antidepressants is not failure, or weakness.

You’re not crazy.

You can still function.

You can still be good at what you do.

You can still enjoy life through the cracks.

Sometimes you need to give your mind a rest from the negative stuff to let the positive stuff come through. Yes, there are better ways, but sometimes we need more help. I would support any friend who told me they were taking them – so now I need to be a friend to myself.

Here goes nothing!

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20 thoughts on “A (grieving) mother’s little helper – will antidepressants numb the pain?

  1. I am unsure how supportive this may be but this is my experience.
    I am a mental health nurse and my daughter, Ruby, died just over two years ago.
    In December 2014 I was glancing at a colleagues’ pinboard where she had put up a reminder for herself about common symptoms of depression to keep it fresh in her mind when she was talking to patients. It was a reminder I had created and shared with my colleagues. I immediately realised, as I read it, I was depressed as well as grieving (in fact, as distinct from grieving). So all those weird thoughts I had for months about being a bad father to my surviving son, a cold husband, an uncommunicative son, a talentless nurse, all those feelings I thought I had lost- empathy, warmth, love, humour- and nasty anxieties, panic attacks, my foggy brain, my inability to concentrate were down to a clinically recognised and treatable illness.
    I started on antidepressants shortly after this and, long story short, they have worked very well for me. I had some side-effects in the first two weeks but these calmed down. The depression slowly lifted and I have been able to grieve healthily since then- I was able to focus on those feelings of loss and process them properly instead of letting them overwhelm me. Before I started taking them I was worried I might become emotionally distant and numb or that I might feel disconnected from those I love or the world around me. The irony, of course, is that I already was feeling that way but was insightless about it. The medication cleared the fog and gave my mind a window to look out of and focus on the things that really mattered- grieving for Ruby and loving my family and friends again. It was, almost literally, a life-saver.
    I still grieve and I cry and I am sad and I think about Ruby and my loss and her loss. But I can now laugh too. And love. And be a good father and friend. And I can work well and look after other people.

    Unlike grief, depression is an illness. After responding well to antidepressant medication, the illness will be treated and it will be time to stop them. With modern antidepressants this is relatively straightforward (gradual reduction over a few weeks/months) and dependency is rare these days. Most people will take them for a year or two because that’s how long the illness often takes to go. Counselling is also very useful but many counsellors of repute may not want to see someone who is very depressed as they will find it very difficult to engage meaningfully. Medication and counselling work best together (for what it is worth, I am a mental health nurse, a grieving father, I am on anti-depressant medication and I have looked after thousands of people with depression and other mental illnesses). Nursey alert (!)- take them every day, at the same time, learn all about them, expect side-effects, it takes time to get used to them so give them time.
    Sorry for the lengthy response but I hope some of this is useful information. To be honest, I am pleased you may take antidepressant medication- you sound depressed and there is wonderfully successful treatment for it. And when your depression is dealt with you can grieve “properly” because, as we know, there is no shortcut to grief, you just have to put the hours in.

    As always, I wish you love, respects and regards,

    Ben

    1. Thank you so much, Ben. That sounds exactly like my situation and yes, I’ve come to a point where I won’t be worse off by taking these pills (although reading the side effects is enough to kick off an anxiety attack in itself!). I have great respect to you for doing what you do, and I suppose the job you do has helped you to help yourself as well as others, which can only be a good thing overall. Yours is such a useful perspective for someone like me, who’s just trying to get to grips with grief. I was reassured by what you said about it allowing room to grief properly. I just have to take it step by step, as always and hope for the best. Thank you so much, your comment really helped! x

  2. It’s beautiful that you poured out your feelings on this post. That is one way to let things out and for me personally, writing was a godsend. It’s been many years since I lost my child, but I had very similar feelings as you about taking antidepressants. I didn’t see it as being a failure and the pills were pushed at me so often because everyone wanted me to “feel better.” So I took them for a while but discontinued them because I didn’t like living with the numbness.
    Being able to choose empowered me and it was a horrible journey, but the love for my other children helped me through. I also became pregnant one month after my son died. Looking back, the grief journey held plenty of numbness for me. I think taking medication to numb the initial horror can be useful, but it only postpones what needs to be dealt with. All these years later, I found joy again in life. So I offer you hope that one day you will feel better. Until then, keep writing and expressing all of your feelings. I am so sorry about Abi – she was so beautiful and I feel your loss.

    1. Thank you so much, Judy, that’s so kind of you. Hearing others’ experiences of this is a huge comfort, even though sometimes it’s not all positive – this grief journey isn’t – it shows that none of us are alone in how we are feeling. I do cling to hope that one day I will feel a sense of healing. x

      1. I can almost guarantee you that you will. Nothing “good” can come out of the senseless loss of a child. But I’ve chosen to look at my scars and healings as a gift to me now. I have a deep appreciation for life and my child is close to my heart every day. He has returned to me in a new form. I cry because I really feel him and am so grateful for that. During grief, the amputation of my soul was something no one else could see or imagine.

  3. “All I needed was to be understood. I wasn’t depressed, I was traumatised” – EXACTLY. Oh, thank you so much for sharing this, all of it. I was prescribed antidepressants, but I didn’t take them, because I didn’t want to stop feeling the way I did – it was grief, there was nothing wrong with it. I didn’t need to be cured, I needed to be supported through it. I do feel that my doctor was too quick to offer a “solution”, and like you, I ended up seeking counselling privately (I got sent on my way with a prescription and a leaflet on PSTD apparently from the 80’s.) My sessions are over now, but I still don’t know if I am/was depressed. I feel largely the same, and it’s so hard to tell what of that is down to grief, or stress, or lack of support – everything is circular. Talking about this is so important, like you say – no one wants to have these difficult conversations about unpalatable things like death and sadness. Thank you for helping to open up the subject. X

    1. Thank you so much Emma, for your comment. Like you said, everything is circular, so it’s hard to know where it begins and where it will end (knowing that it won’t!). I hope you continue to seek help. I believe that seeing a therapist for periods is beneficial and you need the breaks in order to (try to) get on with life. I’m hoping this will help me to focus better on my therapy. I can but try. Hugs x

  4. It sounds to me like you’re doing the right thing. They will take the edge off and help your recovery. They won’t stop you grieving or make you forget Abi, they will just be a part of helping you feel a bit better, along with exercise and anything else you need. I really hope they work. x

  5. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING to be ashamed of. Please go for it without another doubt, and I hope so much you soon feel some relief.

    I have found anti-depressants a life-line, though each of the two times I turned to them only after months of resistance. From myself and my sense of what I SHOULD be able to cope with. Why? If I’d been talking to anyone else about it I’d’ve told them they had no reason to be ashamed, none whatever, and I’d’ve meant it; but for some reason I find it hard to apply this rule to myself. Each time I worried that taking pills might stop me feeling something I should be feeling – in the first instance fear and in the second grief. I thought that they may numb me and mean I didn’t face and resolve things that were real. But that is not what they did. Instead they calmed the terrible background din in my head which meant I wasn’t good for working out anything I needed to. And, now I realise I’m not a failure but a more useful person when I take steps to stop the racket and face it all again.

    If you had a headache so bad you couldn’t think straight, you would take a painkiller so you could get relief and get on with your day. This is just the same. For the sake of your family as well as yourself, you need to be able to participate fully. Not just go through the motions of a necessary routine, but to actually participate in life. If depression/unhelpful, uncontrollable cycles of feelings are making this impossible, you need to take action to change things. Taking a painkiller for your head doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the cause of the ache, and if there is a serious cause that needs addressing too. But if the painkiller takes the edge off the agony to give you space to deal with the cause, it’s serving a vital purpose.

    It needn’t be forever, just for enough time. Anyone who judges you I’ll for taking anything is ignorant of both the facts and the point. But I’m sure no one will.

    Good luck. You are not giving in, you are stepping forward towards the light, and this is better not just for you but for all who love and need you.

  6. My pills still sit in a box in the cupboard. It took me about four years after Clea’s death to consider anti-depressants. In the end, I took them for about a week and felt so physically ill that I stopped. My psychologist’s advice was that because I didn’t want to take them, I had virtually made myself sick and convinced myself that they would not work . I decided that I wasn’t actually depressed, I was very very sad and I was grieving. The pills would not change my life or my situation. Clea would still be dead whether I was on the anti-depressants or not. And once I came off them, she would still be dead. Many people offered me good advice on why anti-depressants did work for them but none of them were in my situation. They were all suffering a form of depression. I was in a bad state at that time (I also suffered from post-traumatic stress) and a few very kind people assisted me change my job and change certain other aspects of my life which helped me and gave me the confidence to keep going as I was. I think you should take them if you think it will assist but I could not stand the numbing effect of my emotions. Good luck.

    1. Thank you. I can appreciate how you feel. Our minds and bodies are so sensitive to our emotions and not everything can be fixed. I have to try this as I feel I can’t be much worse off. Keep going, you can only do what you can do. x

  7. I was feeling very low and felt life was just too stressful, I had been looking after my daughter with cystic fibrosis for the last 9+ years and recently found out my dad had an incurable disease. I began taking fluxotine and began seeing a therapist from mental health. A mere 8 months later both my dad and my daughter had died, I broke up with my husband and found out my my other daughter (now my only living child) was pregnant. I continued counselling but I was inconsolable, unable to sleep, fiction at any level. My doctor increased my anti depressant and I’m now taking the maximum dose of 3 capsules a day of fluxotine. Has it numbed my pain? Yes to a certain degree, does it stop me grieving? No it helped control my grief, I no longer spend hours sobbing uncontrollably but still cry every day some more than others but I feel I am in control, I can see positive as well as negative in my life. I can make decisions calmly. To be honest I’m not sure I could cope without my pills. I don’t want to ever go back to that dark place. I trust my doctor in helping me know when or if I can reduce or stop over time in the future but for now they are my lifeline.

    Thank you for sharing your post, you are not alone. Xx

    1. I as so saddened to read your story Sharon. I’m ‘glad’ that you have found something to help you. If it works, do it! Thank you for sharing your story too, it really helps me too. x

  8. This is an excellent and important discussion that you’ve initiated. Thank you for your honesty. How strange that there are so many bereaved parents and siblings in the world, all experiencing intense suffering, living in our own private hell(s).

    It has been recommended to me that I try EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to help me cope with the trauma of child loss (and I do think that all of us have had some PTSD with child loss). I know it has helped some other people, but I’m still dragging my feet about it. I think that antidepressants are certainly worth a try to help you through a tough time and give you a breather. I hope they work for you.

    Three years into this and every day is still hard work for me. The weight of grief has not lessened, but I try to make room in my life for acceptance of some happiness and joy. Nothing will ever be as it should have been, but I’m trying to make the best of what I have left.

    1. Thank you for your comment. My therapist is actually EMDR trained and while I went to her initially to see if I should have this, we’ve decided it’s not really necessary, it’s more in-depth discussion that’s needed. I have heard a few people have it and found it to be useful however, so I will consider it if I’m not better. Three years is no time still, and we all need to take our days so much slower than everyone else. x

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