Nick Johnstone: Blue notes

I hate it when people call antidepressants "happy pills". Depression has nothing to do with being unhappy. Despite a lifetime of clinical depression, I consider myself a happy person. My wife believes that. So do my friends. When we make new friends, they usually end up saying at some point in confidence to my wife: "But he's so funny, he seems so in love with life. I don't see why he's taking antidepressants." And she usually responds by saying that she married me because she's never met anyone with such a zest for life, that I am, in essence, a happy person, that depression is an illness that tries to take that away from me. I see depression as a party pooper, a killjoy, a spiteful termite of the soul. You are a person who loves life; depression tries to tell you that's not true. That's depression in a nutshell.

Taking antidepressants has never made me "happy". No pill can do that. Happiness is a state of mind beyond the reach of any potion, pill or witch's brew. Antidepressants stabilise, restore, balance and carry out complex repairs. When I take antidepressants for depression and anxiety, I see it as no different from calling out a plumber to fix a leaky pipe or an electrician to repair a blown fusebox. Antidepressants go to work on producing serotonin, the chemical that is, typically, chronically underproduced in the the brain of a depression-anxiety sufferer. They bring back the things that make you "you": sleep, energy, appetite, sex drive, interests. It's a process of giving you back the parts of you that depression has eroded or stolen. At no time is it about restoring or promoting "happiness".

Depression does, however, teach a person the meaning of happiness. It's logical; by experiencing abnormal, excessive lows, you come to understand the meaning of happiness. By knowing what it feels like to not have the energy, interest or drive to get out of bed in the mornings, you come to appreciate in the most intense way the joy of waking in the morning, throwing the covers back and leaping out of bed, desperate to get on with what you know will be a beautiful day. By going through the screwy, skewed hell of thinking you want to die, that you can't carry on - a hoax state of mind that depression occasionally manages to install in my mind when my serotonin supplies are running dangerously low - you become expertly versed in the yin and yang of life.

Every time I've hit rock bottom or crawled through a suicidal low, I have been returned to life with the picture even brighter, the colours even prettier, the sound even crisper. Put simply, by almost not being here, you find yourself here in a way you were not before.

I hate all stereotypes of depression, the ones that say that sufferers are a mopy, whiny, whingy, dreary bunch, always at risk of stringing themselves up from the nearest beam. I've met them, the stereotype lovers, the ones who treat me like I'm a highly strung house of cards, a person marked "fragile", a finely cut piece of crystal just begging to be dropped on the floor. They tiptoe around me, choosing their clumsy words carefully. From experience, I have learned that there is no point in saying: "Look, stop walking on eggshells. I'm not so different from you; I have a career, a mortgage, I'm married, I'm a parent." I've tried, and they don't want to hear it. They have a mental image of what someone with depression is like. Sometimes the taboos are too strong to overturn. There are millions of people out there who are genuinely afraid of mental illness, be it schizophrenia or clinical depression. They see it all as one scary package. These same people think that antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft are "happy pills".

It's a cliche, but happiness does come from within. Anyone turning to antidepressants in the hope that they will download happiness into a sad personality will be sorely disappointed. They treat symptoms of depression and anxiety and restore quality of life. They do not bring happiness. Happiness, unhappiness: these states of mind have nothing to do with depression. For me, happiness is my wife's smile; my daughter's laugh; the smell of freshly made coffee; a bed with clean sheets; a long hot bath; a holiday in India or Italy; sunrise on summer mornings; a glass of water; yoga; shuffling through leaves in September; cooking a beautiful dinner; a good book; the sound of the ocean; watching an old film. No pill can bring me these things. There is no such thing as a "happy pill".

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