My three year old’s head kept flopping to the side. I wanted to wedge my sweater under his neck, but the traffic was stop and go and the last thing I needed was a fender bender. The incessant meowing of the kitten in the carrier on the passenger seat had finally subsided, and I was somewhat calmed by the sound of both she and my son’s steady breathing now that they were both asleep.
Suddenly I smelled the distinct scent of burning. Ahead of me, just five cars away, a plume of neon orange fire was climbing higher and higher. It was so out of place and so sudden that I didn’t feel panicked or scared, I just stared for a few seconds, mouth wide open, my brain calibrating a fire on the highway. Then I saw the people starting to run. And the panic set in. People all around me were jumping out of their cars and running down the highway, away from the gas truck that was literally on fire in front of us. The truck was still mostly intact, and it dawned on me all at once that a larger explosion might be imminent. I jumped out of the car, pried open the car seat straps, flung my son over my shoulder and then grabbed the kitten out of the carrier. Both child and kitten wailed. I ran. There was a pack of us, and more and more people were jumping out of their cars to get as far away from the gasoline truck as possible. I assumed it was a terror attack. There was a BOOM sound but I didn’t look back I just kept running and saying “It’s OK. We just need to move away from the fire.” both to my son, and to myself. The sirens started, the police and firetrucks and ambulances somehow made their way through the maze of stopped cars, and three hours later I was on my way home.
There had been no attack, just a tragic gas leak that killed the driver of the truck. I texted my (then) husband, apologized profusely to my one year old’s sitter for being so late, and then had to run to the grocery store, pick up my four year old from preschool, and make dinner. I didn’t have time to panic, process, or recover. I just had to keep going with my day. It was only later that night, after 11:00PM, that I felt the “effects” of that experience.
The kitten that I had just taken in from the streets of Tel Aviv was crawling in fleas. I totally lost it. Within minutes I was gathering every toy in the house and dousing them with bleach in the bathtub. Next I started vacuuming the carpet, couches, and curtains. I was certain that fleas had managed to infiltrate and lay eggs in every crevice of my home and I was on a rampage to kill them all. My husband was trying to calm me down, assuring me that it couldn’t possibly be the nightmare I thought it was, but I was inconsolable. I was bleaching and scrubbing and vacuuming, and then I started itching, which convinced me that I also had lice. I was in the shower combing through my waist length curly hair, crying, shaking, just completely consumed with this obsessive fantasy that the house and now my body were completely infested with bugs.
By 2:00am I was ravaged with worry. I was tossing and turning in bed. I couldn’t stop worrying. I was worrying about absolutely insane things, but I couldn’t stop. I woke up my husband and said “take me to the hospital. I’m losing it. I feel like I’m losing my mind.” We didn’t go to the hospital. I would sleep for a few minutes and then wake up with a pit in my stomach. I wanted to scream or cry or run, but I was paralyzed and terrified of myself. The next day I couldn’t do anything. My brain felt like I was in danger. But I wasn’t. That evening the panic was still there, and I was dreading trying to sleep again. With my sister’s help (who thankfully is a therapist), I went to a psychiatrist in the area. She talked to me for about 1 minute and then handed me a xanax and a cup of water. “You are having a panic attack and you’ve been in it for almost 24 hours. We need to get you calmed down.” The placebo of having a doctor hand me something and swallowing it immediately soothed me and I was able to speak clearly. I told the psychiatrist that I had seen an accident, and that I had never really suffered from anxiety or panic attacks before. I asked her to please make it stop.
She prescribed me xanax for a couple of weeks and then Cipralex, a commonly-used SSRI that treats both depression and anxiety, to take long term. She also said that it was imperative that I find a therapist and explore what was going on in my mind. I guess even then she assumed the trigger was deeper than just seeing the gasoline truck in flames.
The thing is… I knew that I needed therapy. It had been a long time coming. An unspoken trauma from the past was finding its way out, visiting me in dreams, and violating random moments in my life. I had been doing my best to silence it, shushing it desperately, hoping that it would just go away. So I started therapy. And I started the drugs. And I was able to breathe. For a while.
Therapy opened my mind to myself in a way that I had closed years before. It was as if a door had been kicked down and the halls and rooms of my mind were inviting me to explore, to wander, and to get re-acquainted with my inner-world. The SSRI was working. I was more calm. I was more at-ease. I wasn’t barking at my husband to not get crumbs on the counter, or scrubbing the toys with bleach every night. I was laughing a little more, yelling a little less, more balanced. It was hard to tell what was from therapy and what was from the SSRI, but I was just relieved to be breathing normally. Trauma work was excruciating, facing certain realities caused new issues to surface, but I was grateful for what the SSRI seemed to be allowing me to do.
I don’t regret starting the Cipralex. I truly feel like that drug saved my mind and probably held my marriage together for a couple more important years before a new path was cleared. But a year later I knew that something was off and I knew that it was the medication. At about a year point, like MANY people who take antidepressants long-term, I started feeling fuzzy, numb, and detached. I would have several minute-episodes of not knowing what I was doing or how I got there. Then the confusion would dissipate and I would be left thinking that I was just imagining it. But it would happen again. Fleeting, but tangible. Almost leaving a taste in my mouth. I shared this with my husband but he was worried about the anxiety returning if I messed with my medication. I waited. It worsened. I had no sex drive. I stopped feeling motivated to hang out with friends. I stopped caring about how I looked or what I was wearing. I shared this with the therapist who answered that it sounded like I was focusing on the important things in life. But I was sinking. I had been saved from anxiety, and was now slipping into depression.
I made a unilateral decision to go off my meds. It wasn’t a wise one. Looking back, I see that it was very much a desperate stand against the many factors in my life that I wasn’t in control of. My devastation over my marriage that was quietly but quickly ending, my loss of focus on my passions and hobbies, my overweight and exhausted body, my unfulfilling and suffocating religious life… the list goes on. To simply argue that the SSRIs were ruining my life, would be short-sighted and most likely wrong. I was ruining my life. But I was absolutely clear that the drug I was putting into my body every day was dragging me down and making it much harder to move forward. I felt very much alone, and for the first time in a while, very clear in my mission.
Going off SSRIs cold-turkey is nothing short of a ride through hell. The physical and emotional effects of suddenly depriving your brain of Seratonin is horrific. I was tormented by anxiety, I experienced electric pulses starting in my head and traveling down my entire body, and I found myself in tears over everything. I had so much guilt over the decision. But I couldn’t put that pill back in my mouth. I pushed. It was raw without the drug. My husband and I separated. I said goodbye to God on a park bench and said hello to myself. I sabotaged a conflicting friendship – not something I’m proud of – but huge lessons were learned. I lost 35 pounds. I started singing loud again. I started running. I told the psychiatrist what I had done and that even though so many things were better, I was on the verge of another breakdown and I didn’t know what to do.
She prescribed me a different drug, this time an SNRI (two chemicals for the brain’s “happy” place instead of one), and told me that since I was in the middle of a divorce and life-crisis it probably wasn’t the best time to go off psychiatric drugs. That night I sat with the new pill in my hand. It took a serious pep talk to swallow it, but I did. I felt like I needed all the help I could get. I had three young children depending on me to keep it together and I couldn’t afford to let anxiety destroy me. My past had been delved into extensively, and the lurking trauma was finally put to rest. I told myself I would take the drug, and when life settled down, I would get off.
Fast forward a year and a half. A very similar cycle ensued. At first the SNRI filled me with renewed calm. It was like a rosy tint on life was just a pill away. And then… the fog set in. Again, about a year in, I felt that familiar detachment. I stopped caring about the little things. Which is great when you’re anxious, but it didn’t feel great. It started to feel like I was being numbed. Like I was underwater. Watching the world from below, too slow to stay actively involved in my own life. Sex drive started dying, and with it, my drive for life deteriorated. With this new, more powerful drug, I started feeling physical side effects as well. If I took the pill a few hours later than usual I would get extremely nauseous. But if I took it in the morning I would also get nausea and throw up. On the drug I was more prone to migraines, I fainted several times that year, and I started gaining weight quite rapidly – despite my consistently healthy and strict lifestyle.
This time around, I was determined to get off the drug safely. I checked in with a doctor. I started by taking off just 1/4 of the dose and did so every four weeks, allowing my brain to adapt each time and regulate. It was hard. It was painful. Each time I weaned down a dose I had a week of horrible brain zaps, and even worse, I was much more reactive and impatient with my children. My boyfriend was incredibly loving and supportive, cheering me on, despite the fact that I was not an easy gal to be with. The weaning process took four months. I truly feel like this time around I experienced a beautiful and inspiring rebirth of myself. It’s as if my senses have been heightened and my experiences are fully my own again. My exercise, diet, and mental health care is extremely important to me now. I’m still forming an objective opinion on the use of SSRI’s long term. I know that my experience doesn’t speak to everyone, and that for many people, these drugs are a lifeline.
I don’t have a clear moral of the story to deliver. I just have my own story. One in which drugs allowed me to scratch away at a very lost identity, but then imprisoned me several months later. Maybe some people reading this will relate, and it will shed light on their own experiences with psychiatrist drugs. I think the power of these drugs is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Perhaps those prescribing and taking these drugs can be reminded of how one system affects other systems, and that the equilibrium of our mental state is incredibly fragile. I want to send love and support to anyone suffering from anxiety, depression, and all of the often secret mental burdens that feel like they are destroying you from the inside. I hope that each and every person who is experiencing that pain finds a path towards a deep and real sense of peace and happiness. It’s a path that I am still paving, but I feel hopeful that I’m heading in the right direction.