Mental Health: Update

It’s been over six months since I got off my medication for depression (venlafaxine) and ADHD (methylphenidate), so I thought I should just provide an update. The immediate trigger for this post is that I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, in which among other things he rants against excess medication, and explicitly picks on medication for depression and ADHD.

Overall, I must mention that I’ve managed pretty well these last six months. Yes, there are depressive bouts. Yes, there are times when I can’t concentrate and I get increasingly restless. Sometimes it is perhaps as bad as it used to be before I started seeing a psychiatrist. But it’s ok. The most important outcome of going to a psychiatrist for a year has been that I’ve gotten diagnosed.

You might have heard this in several places – that ninety percent (or maybe more, or less) of treatment of a disease is diagnosis. And in case of my mental health I find that to be absolutely true. Yes, I took medication for a year. Yes, it helped back then. Yes, as I’ve written before, having those medicines provided me the necessary stimulus to get myself out of the depths I’d gotten into over the last few years. However, I’m certain that I don’t need them any more. But the diagnosis helps.

Two years back my biggest concern was that I wasn’t able to explain my life. There was no story. I had done a lot of things that were seemingly disparate and there were a lot of things that I’d done which I would later regret. So I had a lot of regrets, and I would expend a lot of my idle processor time (in my head) dwelling on these regrets, and wondering why I did certain things the way I did, or why I took the decisions I took. Every time I tried to come up with an explanation for something, I would get the “but everyone deals with that, why can’t you” response.

The biggest advantage of having diagnosed is that it now all fits in. I now know why after getting into IIT with such a good rank I drifted away and completely lost interest. I now know why so many of my initial crushes didn’t work out (ADHD among other things makes you impulsive and blurt out things you aren’t supposed to). I now know why I chose to literally run away from my first job (that’s a long story in itself. Will save it for another day). And I precisely know why I went in and out of three more jobs in the five years after that.

Yes, I might be overfitting in some things (you can see that I’m doing that in the previous paragraph to explain why no relationships worked out). Nevertheless, after a long and ardous search for that one variable or set of variables that would explain a large part of who I am or what I did, when I all I found was noise, I think I’ve found the signal. Till I was close to thirty, I led my life without having fully understood myself. And trying to blame myself for being inferior to other people in certain ways, and constantly regretting my decisions. The diagnosis changed all that. Yes, after a discussion on a mailing list on ADHD some three years back I’d posited that I might have it. Yet, a formal diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist helped.

So you may ask why I discontinued medication if I know that I have some problems. Two different reasons for the two medicines I was taking. As for Venlafaxine (which I used to take for anxiety and depression), I had a harrowing time in November of last year when I ran out of supplies of the drug and couldn’t find it in any store near my house for a couple of weeks. During this time I would feel weak, have a fever and feel extremely numb in the limbs, but had no clue why that was happening. Later, the psychiatrist told me that these were withdrawal symptoms for failing to take my drugs regularly. I panicked. i didn’t want to get addicted to mind-altering substances. More importantly, around this time I got the feeling that the drug wasn’t doing much help. I would still have the same old bouts of depression. The psychiatrist agreed that I had plateaued in response to the drug. So she recommended a rather slow taper off from the drug (to prevent withdrawal symptoms), which I followed and got off it.

Methylphenidate was useful, and wasn’t addictive (some literature has likened it to wearing spectacles. It affects you only when you’re taking it). Yet, I found that it changed me. Yes, I know that I’m attention deficit and possibly hyperactive, but I  refuse to believe now that it’s a ‘disorder’. The problem with the drug was that it was changing my mind. Yes, it made me concentrate so much better. Long strings of meetings when I would visit the client’s office were a breeze thanks to the drug. My concentration levels shot up. Yet,  I found that it had impaired my creative thinking. I’m extremely proud of my ability to connect disparate things, but I felt that this drug was impairing my ability to do so. I just wasn’t being myself. And I had found that on days when I would forget to take the drug  I would be more capable of creative non-linear thinking. And I figured that with the drug I wasn’t being myself.

So yes, I’ve been off the drugs for a while now and have adjusted to life with it. Yes there are days when I’m constantly fidgety and can’t concentrate to get work done. Yes, nowadays  work that takes long bouts of intense concentration gets delayed. But I’m back to being myself. And I’m back to being good at what I thought I was always good at – big picture thinking and making disparate connections.

Yes, one important factor that has helped me to deal with my condition (no, it’s NOT a disorder) is my work. As a freelance management consultant who mostly works from home (and visits client once every couple of weeks)  I can set my own pace. If i’m feeling particularly fidgety some day, I can take a break till I’m doing better. I don’t have daily or sub-daily deadlines to bother me (this was my biggest issue with most of my jobs). More importantly there’s no one looking over my shoulder to see what I’m doing, so I can freely switch between my work screen and twitter. And trust me, this helps. Immensely.

Since I visit my clients once in 2-3 weeks I end up having lots of meetings during these visits. But I simply draw up on my energy reserves during those times and buckle down and concentrate. Yes, last two or three times after I’ve visited the client I haven’t got much work done for the following three or four days – since I’d be recuperating from that intense expense of mental energy – but again I’m okay with that.

I plan to write on this again in the near future after I finish reading antifragile. I find this to be a rather important concept for me given that I’m prone to making errors (I’ve now accepted that). I think I’ve already started designing my life along antifragile principles. But more on that in another post.

Meanwhile, some other posts I’d written earlier about my mental condition.
1. How ADHD is like being perennially doped
2. On the importance of admitting mental illness and going to a specialist
3. On anti-depressants being like an economic stimulus
4. On mental illness in elite colleges in India
5. On anxiety being like a computer virus
6. On how ADHD can sometimes be advantageous

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