William Skidelsky: the dangers of antidepressants

Most people take antidepressants to beat the blues. I started taking them, three-and-a-half years ago, in order to counteract a monumental tiredness. I caught glandular fever during my second year at university, and it left me with an all-consuming lethargy that dogged me continually for almost two years. For a while after the tiredness struck, I continued with my studies. Then, at the start of what should have been my third year, I returned to my parents' home, where, I believed, the atmosphere of repose would ensure a swift recovery. But months passed, and instead of getting better, I slid into new depths of apathy. By the onset of summer, when it was time to think about going back to university, the idea of doing so had come to seem ridiculous.

My GP had first suggested I try antidepressants six months previously. To begin with, I told him I wanted nothing to do with them. My illness was physical, not mental. In pointed defiance, I embarked on a relentless trawl through the world of alternative medicine. I tried acupuncture, meditation, vitamin supplements, macrobiotics - anything that the various consultants I saw suggested. But nothing worked. The small fortune I spent on fees and prescriptions was rewarded only by a wan, emaciated look.

I returned to my GP. He prescribed a packet of green-and-white capsules, labelled Seroxat; apparently a version of Prozac, but made by a different company. I started the course, and was quickly impressed by the intensity with which the pills kicked in. After just a couple of days I felt dizzy and excessively jaunty, as if I was on some kind of low-level amphetamine drip. A few days more, and it seemed as if I was being propelled upwards through the layers of my lethargy like a deep-sea diver returning from the ocean depths. Another week, and everything pointed to a glorious, miraculous future, one in which I could achieve anything, take on anyone. A month on Seroxat was enough to convince me of my own near invulnerability.

In August, I returned to university and moved in with a friend. Now followed a happy period - at least it seemed so. For the first time in ages, everything fitted. I could be myself, concentrate on the matter at hand, without this ever-present sense of listlessness overwhelming me.

But it was all a sham. Things hadn't really changed; it just seemed as if they had. Worse still, the pills seemed to affect me in new and unexpected ways. When I had begun the course, I had barely given a second thought to the extensive list of possible side-effects enclosed with the packet. I soon realised that I should have done - for I was being transported into uncharted territory.

The most obvious side-effect was physical. I wasn't conventionally impotent. I could just about manage an erection, and orgasms were also sometimes possible. What came over me, rather, was a generalised desensitisation, a blockage of the usual channels along which the sexual juices flow. It was as if, in the mental ferment of Seroxat, all the blood that had rushed to my brain to begin with couldn't now be reclaimed for less cerebral purposes. Even from relatively early on, I was gripped by a devastating numbness in my groin.

I felt it was like a test. Would I accept my limitations like a grown-up, or would I rail against my fate? Determinedly and - so I thought - manfully, I accepted the gauntlet that had been thrown down. Thus began a period - one I don't look back on with any particular pride - of frantic masturbation. Night after night, locked away in my room, I would embark on a titanic quest to overcome the limitations of my drug-induced state.

My orgasmic success rate during this period was not high - 50% at most. But the real irony was that, even when I did make it, the outcome was barely worthwhile. For, having put such copious effort into its production, the climax could hardly fail to be disappointing.

Actual sex, if anything, was even more of an ordeal. I would have to concentrate so hard on reaching the finishing line that pleasure was out of the question. Male friends tried to be supportive. Rather than feel sorry for myself, they said, I should be grateful for my stamina. What women could fail to appreciate the ability to "go all night" in a man? But I found that any benefits from my enhanced staying power were more than offset by my woeful lack of responsiveness. As yet another tender caress failed to have the desired effect, a sense of hopelessness would descend. Any feelings of passion were eclipsed by frustration and paranoia.

Despite this, in my own mind at least, I had turned into something of a womaniser. My confidence had scaled such heights that my impotence didn't seriously bother me. I saw my sexual destiny as a truly brilliant thing. I would take the world - or at least the campus - by storm. At this stage, the only difficulties were practical. While confined to my house pre-term, I had few opportunities to meet people. Therefore, my mind turned to college, where, as a result of my time away, not one but two new years' worth of women would be waiting. I could picture it all: the intrigues and flirtations, the quad-conquests, the cavalier seductions in cloistered alleys and hallways. So complete had my capacity to be strung along by my own delusions become, that it hardly occurred to me that the female members of my college wouldn't particularly welcome my demented advances.

Against the odds, I managed to get a girlfriend. We even went steady for a couple of weeks, until she ended the relationship on the grounds that we were "very different". Not surprisingly, my sex life dried up completely after this initial peak, and I spent the next few weeks in a state of agonised confusion, convinced of my own irresistibility, yet thwarted in just about every bid to capitalise on it.

In the end, I decided to come off Seroxat. Wrongly, as it turned out, I managed to convince myself that all would be well if only my physical functions were restored to normal. I didn't consult a doctor; I just stopped taking the pills. It was, I quickly realised, a foolish thing to have done. Seroxat had established a vice-like grip on my brain; released from it, there was nothing to stop my indefinite mental slide.

All I can remember about the next few weeks is that I stopped working and started obsessing about the girlfriend who had finished with me so quickly. Within a few weeks, I was back on Seroxat - although, I didn't recapture my former high. Stop taking the pills, and they don't work as well again next time.

When things quietened down at the end of term, I returned to my GP and asked to be put on a different antidepressant. This time I was given one called Effexor, which, the doctor assured me, was less intense than Seroxat. That was true. I hardly noticed any effects at all. I took just one course of Effexor. By this point, I had concluded that antidepressants had done the job I had originally assigned to them - which was to restore my energy - and that I no longer needed them. My feelings of tiredness had now been replaced by ones more closely resembling depression. But that was something I would have to tackle by other means.

A part of me suspected, though, that my experiences with antidepressants were not quite over. I still had the exams to get through, after all, and I was conscious of not having tried Prozac. Even with my exams still several months away, Prozac figured boldly in my imagination. It was to be my last resort, the thing I would turn to if ever things got desperate. As it happened, they did.

Summer arrived, and I couldn't settle down to work. The prospect of exams filled me with dread. With the exam period just a few weeks away, I returned to my GP, and asked to be put on Prozac. For the first few days nothing happened. Then, almost imperceptibly, my mood began to change. One morning I woke up and things didn't seem quite so bad anymore. I felt - and the stab of recognition was wonderful after so long - completely normal, no more or less than myself. A deep, warm glow enfolded me. It was not completely different from Seroxat, except the manic jumpiness was replaced by a feeling of unutterable calm.

The next few weeks passed in a contented blur, undisturbed by doubts or worries. Despite my lack of preparation, exams were the easiest thing in the world. But then, immediately after finishing, I stopped taking Prozac. Why? Because I didn't want anything more to do with antidepressants. Following my earlier experiences, I had come to believe that they are a false trail.

Shortly before the exams started, I had coffee with a friend who was also soon to sit her exams. From the moment we met, I suspected she was on something. Her total lack of concern gave it away - after all, I knew this was a nerve-racking experience for her, too. Later I discovered that she had been taking antidepressants. A stranger watching that day would have seen two happy people enjoying themselves. Yet the truth could hardly have been more different.

Having taken antidepressants, I would urge anyone thinking of trying them to be extremely cautious. Because if the happiness they provide comes at the cost of not even caring whether that happiness is genuine or not, then they are not a solution - they are positively dangerous.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.