Imperfect Enjoyment: My Experiences with St John’s Wort, for #depressionawarenessweek

Caveat lector: This is something of an exercise in talking about myself publicly, something which I am not used to doing and something which I certainly don’t do often when my real name is in the byline. Please also be aware that this piece discusses medical issues and that I am not, in any way, shape, or form, a medical professional.

 

I have never been diagnosed in a clinical setting with any kind of mental illness, but I know myself well enough to know that I am not neurotypical. I find it difficult to do lots of things that typically healthy and happy people do every day; if not with ease, then at least without an accompanying feeling of fear and loathing.

I wrote those paragraphs because I was pretty sure I wanted to write something about my experiences with what I can only assume is depression and the things I have done to attempt to relieve it. I walked away from it for a couple of days partly to get my head together about what exactly it was I wanted to say and also because I am hesitant to talk about myself. This is because I fear myself being one of those awful people who does nothing but tell you about their personal problems and gives you nothing but grief. I also know I can be too self-effacing, and that gets on nerves, as well. I am also plain scared of it.

I couldn’t sleep and got out of bed at 5am to continue working on this piece. With that said, here’s a laundry list of symptoms, not all of which I experience all the time, and some of which are mutually exclusive, and alternate:

  • Insomnia
  • Hypersomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Intrusive, negative thoughts
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Anhedonia
  • Lack of appetite
  • Overeating, largely junk food
  • Mood swings
  • Vivid, technicolour nightmares

That about covers it. Anything else would be variations on a theme. I experience any given combination of these things on a pretty regular basis. As I said in the disclaimer, I’m not a doctor, but I think the above dovetails fairly smoothly with what depression is thought of as being. I am thankful that there are symptoms I don’t experience, and that the people around me love and support me. There are people who have it a lot worse than me. I am ok. I manage.

But.

I am naturally of an artist’s temperament i.e. very lazy, averse to working for a living, good at intellectualising my moral failings. This combined with the aforementioned means I am not as productive as I would like. For example, this should be a pretty simple piece, but I just walked away from it after a couple of paragraphs. I came back because if I can’t sleep I may as well try and get something done.

Well I walked away from it again and I’m back now. Which is largely the crux of the issue. In the course of the last ~15 years I’ve gotten better at managing my symptoms and living with/understanding myself etc. I am better at life than I used to be. But I’m still not exactly as productive as I’d like to be. This is particularly a problem for me because I am my own boss and in that sense my boss often isn’t even in the building to notice that I’m not working when I should be (I’m a proofreader/copyeditor with plenty of experience who can furnish some excellent references fyi). I am also a writer and that becomes a problem when the worker would rather jerk off and play videogames and the boss has been out to lunch for weeks.

I realise there is a natural ebb and flow to creativity and that everyone’s creative process is different, but all the same I can’t help but despair at myself. During one of these periods (this is what I came here to talk about, but the boring prologue was necessary, I am afraid) I tried stabilising my moods with St John’s wort in an attempt to enable myself to be a bit more productive. I guess if you’re a writer everything is an experience you can write about, and I wanted to write about it publicly for the benefit of anyone who is in a similar situation.

(And before we go on, if you are interested in trying St John’s wort, go read the Wikipedia page first. There are various contraindications/things you should bear in mind. I am not a doctor. I am NOT a doctor).

I spent about a month taking St John’s wort daily. It did have some of the effects I desired. It helped even my moods out. The lows were not quite so low, the days when it barely felt worth getting out of bed weren’t quite so frequent, and unless you’re Marcel Proust, getting out of bed is a pretty good precursor to getting things done. It did dull positive emotions, too, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in my experience positive emotions are things that need to be managed in their own right. Baseline was pretty good. I felt ok.

It also helped deal with my anxiety in that it stopped my head ticking constantly. This is a good and bad thing. I often found there was simply nothing there, which was a welcome relief compared to some of the mental states I have experienced. The negative side of this, I suppose, is that I have the ability to think of things with determination and constancy, something St John’s wort inhibited. A constantly working mind has positive aspects even if it can occasionally lead to one’s life becoming a maelstrom of paranoia and second guessing. This, along with the evening out of moods, might be what people sometimes refer to as medications taking away their edge. But, in general, these were positive effects, and I felt a bit more able to deal with life.

There were, however, two very large drawbacks. I had trouble maintaining an erection, and even more trouble achieving orgasm. In a month of trying my best, I mostly ended up beating my dick red raw and making lots of excuses. Luckily, I was on anti-depressants, so I didn’t feel as fucking awful about this as I would have had something else caused these inabilities, but it still felt pretty bad. It wasn’t great for my girlfriend, either. My libido was fully intact. I really really wanted to, but couldn’t. If I hadn’t been in a relationship, my dick might have been an acceptable casualty, but as it stood (or didn’t), it was untenable. Lack of interest in sex is not something I have ever had a problem with, and in the end I had to stop taking St John’s wort for this reason. My sexual functions quickly resumed. I would rather experience emotional instability and be able to function fully as a sexual being than feel more stable and not be able to consummate any of the urges that I still had.

In the main, St John’s wort had a positive effect on me, and were it not for the side effects with regards to my sexuality, I’d probably still be taking it. For me, though, the dysfunction it caused was so great it made me weigh those negative effects heavier than the positive ones. Everyone reacts to it differently, and you might have a better time than I did. Just bear in mind that you might have to sacrifice your genitals for a little while.

I just came back to this again to proof/edit. I am scared of posting it. But I recently read some Harlan Ellison, and he described “writing for the trunk” as masturbation. And while I am happy I can masturbate again, I am going to decline to in this instance.

I think it’s probably illegal to end an essay like this without mentioning that you are not alone, and that help is available.

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