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A Common Med Side Effect: Losing Some Mental Sharpness

Hi Paul. I don’t know where to start. I guess, first off, I’d like to thank you for this blog. I’m going through a pretty stressful time in my life right now, and the podcasts I’ve listened to in the past week have really helped me out. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone, even if I have to connect with people who aren’t actually here in order to feel like it. I’ve been feeling a sort of low grade depression for the past couple of days, which makes studying for finals pretty hard. I thought maybe sending you an email would help more than just typing this to myself. I apologise if it seems a bit disjointed, I don’t think much of my ability to get my point across in writing. I’m a university student at a university in South Africa. I’m female, and in my twenties. I’m not from South Africa, but I am from a SADC (Southern African Development Community) country, so I’m pretty close to home. I had what I always term a “nervous breakdown” when I was 19, attending a different university than the one I do now. I had always been what my family termed “sensitive” – I remember months of primary school (what you’d call elementary school, I guess) when I would come home from school, and cry every fucking day. I don’t even know why. When I was 19 though, I was suicidally depressed. I hate looking at those words written down, because they remind me of the deep hole I was in. I remember thinking that I would never see my parents again, and that they would have to come and collect my body when it was all over. And I didn’t care. I couldn’t get out of bed most days. On the rare occasion that I went to class, I felt like a Spotlight of Suckiness was trained on me, and that people could see how worthless and broken and jagged I was on the inside. I pushed the people I knew away, because I didn’t want to infect them with my poison. Eventually my best friend got me to call my parents and tell them what was happening. To my honest surprise, they were loving and supportive and just wanted me to come home. I was sure that they wouldn’t see the point in trying to help me; I sure didn’t. The next 18 months were a struggle – I had to find a decent therapist (I’ve had a couple that just did not fit), try to finds meds that worked (the struggle continues) and start working through all the shit in my head. I eventually came back to school, in another city, to study a different degree. And I’ve been happy here, for the most part. I was born to be a Humanities student, I think. It’s given me a sympathy for the world, and for myself, that I doubt I would have found in other faculties. But being a student again has also been a huge struggle for me. I’ve always been a smart kid. I taught myself to read when I was barely 3. I helped write a high school textbook when I was still in high school. Before my depressive episode, I never had anything below an A average. (And I mean that literally – I’ve failed one test in my whole life, a Social Studies quiz in Grade 3 for which I got 3 out of 8. That is the only thing I have failed in my 16 year academic career. I think it’s actually pretty sad – failure forces people to accept their limitations, right? That’s something I definitely want to work on.) I’ve always taken pride in my brain, and it’s one of the things that I’ve received the most praise about. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it’s probably my identifying feature. People refer to me as That Smart Girl. Which is why psychiatric medicine has fucked me over. I take lithium, among other things. One of the side effects my psychiatrist mentioned was “mental dulling”. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? During my entire first year of my new degree, it felt like my head was full of cotton wool. I wasn’t quick anymore, I had lost what made me me. I wasn’t That Smart Girl. And the worst part was, everyone tried to make me feel OK about it. My parents, my friends, they all acted as if that was the sacrifice I would have to make for mental health. But I couldn’t be mentally healthy if I didn’t even feel like myself anymore. I’m about to write my final undergraduate exams. In fact, I have one tomorrow. I didn’t think I would make it this far, to be honest. It’s been harder than school has ever been for me. There have been hypomanic episodes, manic episodes, visits to psychiatric hospitals. But the mental dulling has… well, dulled to a large extent. I still don’t think I’m as smart as I used to be, but I’ve sort of come to terms with it. I’m more than just That Smart Girl. I just don’t really know what else I am yet. Thanks again for the doing the podcasts. We’re not alone. That’s a beautiful message. Dee

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