I’m not new to the world of antidepressants. The first sign of trouble came when I was 9. I spent weeks pulling my hair out, studying each strand. Each one was a different colour—dark brown, auburn, flaxen, gold—and the variety fascinated me. My parents didn’t notice until I emerged from the bathroom one evening, freshly showered, and they realised they could see my scalp.
The bald spot continued to grow in length and breadth. I couldn’t seem to control my compulsion. I didn’t see a psychologist—back then, my parents didn’t have health insurance, but even if we had, I’m not sure if my parents believed in modern medicine enough to take me in to see one. I was home-schooled that year, so I didn’t have to worry about my peers making fun of me, but as summer began to approach the fear of being found out finally helped me stop.
I’m a nail-biter, a worrier, and a pacer by nature, so it wasn’t a huge surprise a few decades and life events later when I began struggling with the oppressive darkness we call depression. Desperation eventually led me to call my OB-GYN and tell the person on the other end of the line that I was having thoughts of running my car off the road.
“Not with the baby in the car,” I assured her. “Just when I’m by myself.”
I was prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which did its job. My anxiety was gone, but so was my sex drive.
“I don’t want to depend on a medication,” I remember telling my therapist. I confessed that it made me nervous to know that I HAD to take this magic pill every day, lest I get “brain zaps” or some other unpleasant withdrawal symptom. And what if something happens and all of the pharmacies shut down? What if I can’t function in apocalyptic conditions because I am unable to access my meds?
“Those types of thoughts are exactly why you SHOULD be on medication,” she said. Still, I didn’t like the idea of depending on something. This is really ironic for reasons I’m about to go into.
As time marched on, I experimented with different brands and dosages of medication. There were stretches of time when I didn’t take any prescribed meds at all, preferring instead to self-medicate with copious amounts of wine, which eventually snowballed into a really serious substance abuse problem. My doctor upped my Zoloft dosage to help me through detox and upped it again because I felt like I was crawling out of my skin.
Let me be clear: The medication I’m on is probably what kept me from throwing myself off a bridge, both before and after I got sober. I am a walking billboard for the fact that there are definitely times when people such as myself need the magic of pharmaceuticals in order to function. I’m grateful as f*ck for Zoloft. But, it also really scares me to be on 150 milligrams of it per day. I know what would happen to me if I drank or took drugs. I’d feel terrible the next day. I’d have to tell everyone I relapsed. I’d have to start over. The thing with my antidepressant is, I can’t predict what might happen if I stop taking it.
Early in recovery, I decided to join a gym because I was eating everything in sight. I had high aspirations of turning my emotional eating habit into an exercise habit, which was an obvious fail, but I have to give myself credit for trying. The trainer I met with was friendly and helpful, but she noted on my intake form that I was on Zoloft.
“You know,” she said, eyeing my height and weight written at the very top of the page, “That medication can make you gain weight. My daughter stopped taking it and dropped 20 pounds.”
Now, I know this isn’t rational. She isn’t a doctor, and my brain was still quite fogged over, but I heard “dropped 20 pounds” and made up my mind that I would cut back on the Zoloft, just to see what happened. Three days later, I was basically crazy AF. Shaking, suicidal thoughts, paranoia, the works. That experience showed me two things: I (probably?) need to be on Zoloft, and that I can’t stop taking it anytime soon.
So, when can I stop taking it? Am I going to build up a tolerance? Will it stop working? What about mindfulness, diet, yoga, sunlight, or dirt—would that work instead? And finally, do the pros really outweigh the cons? Because knowing that I can’t stop taking this without losing my shit is a pretty major “con” for me.
A member of a Facebook group for women in recovery shared an article from the New York Times about antidepressant withdrawal. The comment section was full of women just like me, on various types of SSRIs, who experienced horrible side effects when they attempted to wean off. Some even wonder if their medicines caused their issues with addiction. The article points out the little-discussed fact that so many people are staying on an antidepressant simply to avoid the arduous, perhaps dangerous, process of getting off of it.
That scares me, which is why I’ve made an appointment with my doctor to discuss cutting back. Tonight, I’ll dutifully take my dose of sanity and wonder if it’s chipping away at something deep inside my brain, or if it’s truly helping me.