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Antidepressant Dreams: Don't Be Scared

by Following the Flow about a year ago in medicine
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They're Quite the Trip

"Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies" The Beatles

Last night, I was in charge of organizing the life-rafts that would ferry the passengers of my sinking ship to safety.

For some unexplained reason, we had to fashion these rafts out of wooden boxes. No matter - they were sturdy and water-tight; they would suffice.

The only real problem was the waters we were in were populated by strange, Lewis Carroll-esque sea creatures (body of an octopus, head of Tom Hanks - that kind of thing). As long as the creatures ignored the wooden crates, everything would be okay.

It was only as I watched the last of these boxes float away that I realized I had been left behind: In my desire to save everyone else, I had overlooked the fact that I also needed to be rescued.

Alas, I was not.

I spent the final few minutes strolling around the ship, before taking a stool in the bar. I helped myself to a glass of expensive whiskey, and… well, I suppose I died a short while later.

The night before, I was marrying a former girlfriend. To be honest, I can't remember the last time I'd even considered her during my waking hours. She'd long since been relegated to some distant hinterland of my memories. Nevertheless, that night, we are getting married.

I'm not quite sure why, but we had chosen to do so in a derelict, wind-swept castle on the edge of a cliff that seemed to not end; there was no sea to be seen far below us, just a void of black. And we had also decided that the venue would be livened up with the presence of a dozen white tigers.

None of the guests seemed perturbed by the carnivorous canines; everyone behaved as if this was commonplace.

If anything, it was the least surreal element of the whole affair.

The priest marrying us was a giant, talking pepper grinder; the tigers must have felt quite bland in comparison to him.

The night before that, I was trapped in East Berlin, during the height of the Cold War. I think I might have been a British spy. I'm not sure.

But that's only because, instead of being pursued by the Stasi, I was constantly being harassed by clowns. The air of suspense was continually being punctured by someone squirting water in my face courtesy of a plastic flower on their lapel, or tripping over their elongated shoes whilst trying to catch me.

It was a mix between John le Carré, and 'The Greatest Show on Earth', and inexhaustibly bewildering.

Those are just three of the dreams I've had recently. Tonight will surely bring another surreal exploration of sub-conscious mind. I'm sure there's hidden meanings to be found in them all. However, there's a very good chance there isn't. Because the likelihood is that they all have more to do with the anti-depressants I take, than anything to do with my fractured psyche.

Mirtazapine may quiet my anxious and depressive mind, but it also gives me some very (very) bizarre dreams.

It's one of the side effects that is most overlooked when we discuss anti-depressant medication. You're told about the possible weight gain, about the potential cognitive slow-down, about the fluctuations in appetite. But no-one tells you about the whole being married by a life-size kitchen utensil thing.

Really, they should; it's a little bit unnerving.

The irony is that most anti-depressants are also sedatives; I sleep far better than I used to - the medication effectively knocks me out. But what happens when I am asleep is a new development. I can now remember my dreams vividly - but that's mainly because they are so vivid. They're not the kind of things you forget.

They hang around long after you've woken up. And that can be disconcerting. Really, I wished someone had told me about them; an octopus with Forrest Gump's face tends to stay with you.

The fact is, as weird as the dreams are, they're also perfectly natural.

If you have depression, then sleep is a minefield (in your medication-addled sleep-state, those mines wouldn't be explosive, they're more likely to shoot liquid chocolate in the air when you step on them). Depression doesn't just cause sleep disturbances such as insomnia (those dark nights of the soul are literal and common if you live with persistent low mood), it also affects the portion of sleep where dreaming occurs - rapid eye movements (REM) sleep.

Depression not only decreases the length of time it takes for someone to naturally enter REM sleep, it also increases the frequency of rapid eye movements once they're there. Thus, as the sleep is itself not entirely healthy, you get horrible dreams. However, as depression also affects your ability to remember, you don't always recall the dreams themselves, just that you had a very bad night's sleep.

Ironically, antidepressants also affect REM sleep. Although they knock you out, they also artificially allow you enter REM sleep at a more relaxed, more natural pace (i.e. the same speed at which a non-depressed person would do so). They also then reduce the frequency of the rapid eye movements themselves, ensuring a deeper sleep.

Essentially, they relax you. Because of this, the gates to your sub-conscious open much more freely; anti-depressants may inhibit your imaginative capabilities whilst awake, but asleep all Hell breaks loose.

There's also the added fact that you're flooding your brain with those chemicals that - due to its depressed state - it can't produce. Depending on what medication you're imbibing, you've given your brain an extra shot of serotonin, or dopamine, or whatever; that creates a cognitive cocktail we don't yet fully understand.

However, it's safe to say that one thing it does do is enable our sleeping mind to paint some incredibly vivid dreamscapes, making connections our waking mind wouldn't think of doing (Exhibit A: Hanks as an octopus). It's like a sleeping acid trip. Honestly, if Lennon and McCartney had genuinely been interested in opening their inner doors of perception, they should've ignore the LSD, and just taken Prozac instead.

And all this is okay.

It's normal.

It's one of the side effects of the medication, and it's alright.

However, you do need to be told.

If you decide to take anti-depressants, and given the damage that Covid has wrought to our collective mental health, more of us will be doing so, some very weird s**t is going to go down in the midnight hours.

Be aware.

And don't let it worry you.

You're going to find yourself trapped in worlds that appear as if they've been created by Lovecraft and Dali working in tandem, and populated with people from your past, doing all manner of strange things.

The medication works. They'll enable you to function, to attain some sort of normality. They'll also just give you really, really, really strange dreams.

Don't be scared: Ironically, it's a sign that the drugs ARE working.

I'd say 'sweet dreams' but - if you're taking anti-depressants - that's unlikely. Instead I'll say 'enjoy your dreams.'

Trust me - they're quite the ride.


If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, and mental health:

You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.

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About the author

Following the Flow


Film, theatre, mental health, sport, politics, music, travel, and the occasional short story... it's a varied mix!

Tips greatly appreciated!!

Thank you!!

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