Dear Antidepressant: I Hate You, but Thank You
When I was 15, I started having panic attacks so debilitating I struggled to go to school. Throughout the school day, my only goal was to not faint, throw up or make any type of scene in front of anyone. Naturally, this led to physical problems such as having difficulty eating, and social problems such as rejecting all possibilities of going out, and emotional problems such as “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be strong enough?” And then, periods of debilitating agoraphobia.
While my friends were doing school projects, going out with each other and on dates with others, I chugged down Pepto-Bismol to be able to go down the elevator of the building I lived in. There was no toothpaste, mouthwash, candy or gum that could get that taste out of my mouth, but it’s the only thing I knew of in my teen years (pre-Google) that might help me with the ever-present nausea and gurgling stomach.
You can imagine how incredibly thrilled I was when I heard there were actually medications to “cure” this! I had a shot at being “normal” — real “normal,” not a “’normal’-masked, terrified weirdo” — which was my uncomfortable “normal” for many years.
The doctor prescribed me an antidepressant and I excitedly took my dosages.
Roughly a month later, the cell inside my brain that had me jailed for so long, finally opened its door a bit. Enough so I could finally venture out of my safe zones without experiencing the feeling I would die.
The medicine was most definitely not a miracle drug as there were many side effects and panic still loomed, albeit in a less frequent and less intense state. However, the fact I was enjoying life was nothing short of a miracle for me.
For several years I diligently swallowed the small pill, as it accompanied me throughout the day allowing me to function. It accompanied me until it could no longer do so. It was the day I found out I was pregnant. I couldn’t swallow the pill because I knew it would have an effect on my child, so just like that, I stopped taking it. Cold turkey.
Quitting a medication like this one cold turkey is dangerous and highly discouraged. Now, I get it.
I had tried stopping the medication gradually many times before, but the withdrawal symptoms were hellish. I had a constant headache, my stomach was incredibly upset, I kept cold-sweating, had vertigo and the two most disturbing for me: brain zaps and being out of focus.
A brain zap is precisely how it sounds. You feel like your brain quickly shakes, or free falls, like there’s a quick current all over your brain and you can feel every part of it. While they are harmless, as Dr. Jean Pollack assures, “Many antidepressants hold serotonin for longer periods of time than is natural, possibly causing a misfire or ‘brain zap.’ There is no current evidence that brain zaps present any danger to the person experiencing them.” However, they are uncomfortable and can severely disrupt everyday functioning.
Being out of focus is like when you move an old video camera quickly and it stays blurry for a second before gaining focus on the image.
After enduring many days of feeling like I was dying (in a different way than panic), I would take a series of small doses to ease the symptoms until I was taking them again, every day, usual dose. Anything less than that would unleash the tornado of symptoms.
But when I knew I was pregnant, I realized I would do absolutely whatever it took to endure the symptoms in order to not take it anymore, and that’s what I did.
I was so miserable I couldn’t even think of tomorrow. I needed to survive today, I needed to survive now. Every symptom I had was exacerbated by my early weeks of pregnancy. I regretted having ever taken the medication without being able to take into account all the experiences and relationships I gained with the aid of it. Every hour that passed added up to a passing day. And so weeks and months passed, and I was quite big and happy, the occasional brain zap reminding me of the little pill that for a long time was my fierce companion.
I see some people have the dilemma on whether they should take these meds or not. I understand there are a lot of pros and cons to this, and while some may be confused, others seem to have a strong opinion on either side. But no answer is universal, and there is no one opinion that validates or invalidates another because the only one who knows is the one who’s struggling with it. How much is this affecting your life? How much have you lost because of it? What plans do you have in your near future? These are some of the questions that should be taken into consideration before starting a medical treatment.
In my experience, though I despise the withdrawal with every neuron of my brain, I know I needed it when I needed it. I worked through what had to be worked in therapy with the aid of the medicine until I was finally doing OK without it. And I’ve needed it again and I’ve gone through the process again.
Understanding the brain is an organ, like the others, and it can get sick or perhaps not function in a way that’s healthy for us, is key to accepting this type of treatment.
It’s important to note that in some cases, in order to be able to truly get better, psychotherapy is a must to be included in the treatment. While we seem to separate clearly the “physical” from “the emotional and cognitive,” the truth is both are intricately intertwined requiring the needed attention.
There is no magic formula, no magic pill, no magic recovery and no magic treatment. The best option one has is researching, reading, experimenting and talking to one’s mental health professional in order to find out what works best. In the end, we’re all different and that’s just fine.
There is no magic formula