In her final installment of the “Going Off” series, New York Times columnist Diana Spechler listed 10 things she’d tell her former (medicated) self. I must confess. I was prepared to hate the list, as I disagreed with much of what she wrote about in the previous columns, like choosing between medication and creativity. As I mentioned before, I do worry that the series will provoke many people to ditch psychotropic drugs without the supervision of a physician, and I pray that no lives are lost as a result.
However, I think she did a good job with her list, which includes everything from making sure you have 24-hour support, tapering slowly, cleaning up your diet, trying out meditation and relaxation techniques, protecting your free time, guarding yourself against the barrage of opinions on depression and how to treat it, and anticipating small pockets of hell here and there. Her last paragraph reads like someone who has been off medication for 20 days, not 20 weeks (because that is the case) and so as a veteran medication-taker, I wonder if her picture will be as rosy a few months from now — “The time will come when you wake each morning not woozy with dread, but excited that the sun is shining “—but maybe I’m just jealous.
I can’t write a column like Diana’s because I have yet in my 25 years on psychotropic medications to be able to go off of my drugs completely.
I tried once, when I listened to some well-intentioned friends and family that promised me the land on lollipops and unicorns on the other side of medication. Instead I ended up being hospitalized, donning a paper robe that hardly covered my butt.
Ten years later, I can see where I erred.
I began my second attempt in January of last year. In 18 months, I have successfully weaned off of two of my medications. My hope is to continue this process … gradually … until I’m off of everything. It may take another two years. Or it may not be possible. I’m prepared for the latter, as I know that some people simply need to stay on their meds in order to function as decent human beings. I think we should all–as family members, friends, and co-workers–exercise tolerance, understanding, and compassion in wrapping our brains around that concept.
I am not anti-med by any stretch. I just got to a point where the side effects and risks of the drugs were outweighing the benefits. Lithium affects your thyroid. Eight years into taking it, I developed hypothyroidism. Coincidence? Research has linked the pituitary drug I’m taking to the specific kind of heart valve problem I have. Again … coincidence? Drugs definitely save. No doubt about that. But they aren’t without risks. In my case, they weren’t really working either, which is why I’m trying again.
However, if I learned anything from my first attempt, it’s that weaning isn’t something to be decided over cocktail hour with a group of anti-med folks, and not without the supervision of a doctor. Here is my top 10 list—not of what I would tell my medicated self, since I’m still medicated—but of my top 10 mistakes weaning the first time.
1. I weaned too fast.
Back in 2005, I was switching medications so fast in the period of a year that my system had no real chance of achieving sanity. In the period of 12 months, I went through more than 20 different medication combinations. Then when I decided all of them were toxic, I went off of two or three within a few weeks. I have learned the hard way that my body is extremely sensitive to change. So taking away two or three drugs in under 20 days sent my system into shock. The second time round, it took me three months to wean off of a single drug.
2. I weaned when I was still depressed.
My psychiatrist said something to me the other day that makes perfect sense: “It takes more medication to make a person well than to keep a person well.” Therefore, you’re best bet is to wean off of a drug when you’re well. The first time I threw the drugs out, I did so practically on my way back from the psychiatric ward. Not great timing. The second time round, I got off the first drug when I was still depressed, but I had meticulous records that the drug wasn’t doing anything anyway. I didn’t attempt the second drug until I hadn’t had death thoughts in several months.
3. I didn’t do anything differently to bolster my health.
In 2006, I didn’t do anything differently before I decided I didn’t need drugs. I ate the same diet. I hadn’t added meditation or yoga. I just thought that my body would miraculously correct itself. This time around, I have invested tremendous time and energy into healing the gut issues that I feel are central to my mood disorder. This means following a strict diet and eliminating gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine (and alcohol, of course). I’m also working with a gastrointestinal doctor on reversing my intestinal bacteria overgrowth and an integrative doctor on treating my hypothyroidism and managing my pituitary issues.
4. I weaned during a stressful period.
The first time I weaned off antidepressants, my kids were two and four and I was having developmental issues with both – which required physical, speech, and occupational therapy. My son didn’t sleep through the night for the first five years, so I was horribly sleep deprived. I was also having a difficult time adjusting to being a mostly stay-at-home mom, trying to work when they napped. (They didn’t nap; that was the problem). It was stressful. I realize no time is completely without stress, but some are packed with it—like after a divorce, family death, job change, or move across the country. Taking that into consideration, I held off on weaning off the second drug this time until I completed a work project that was weighing on me and had some extra time in my schedule in case I had a day here or there, or a week, where I couldn’t stop crying.
5. I weaned during the winter.
Spring is by far the best time to begin weaning off your drugs. Winter is not. I know this now. There’s nothing like going off your drugs cold turkey and then being stuck inside your house with some whiny kids for a week because your city only owns one snowplow.
6. My psychiatrist was bad.
I tried to think of a diplomatic way to say this, but, man, he was just clueless when I look back. I think his only question was “Do you have any suicidal plans?” No, I didn’t have any specific plans, but I did think about suicide almost constantly while I weaned off my drugs the first time.
7. I listened to the wrong people.
First time around, I let the wrong people get inside my head—people who have no concept of what it is like to try to stay alive when everything inside your body wants to be five feet under; people who eat, sleep, and breathe the law of attraction and believe by thinking pretty thoughts that you can simply reverse bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. This time, I am consulting my best friend who has known me for more than 25 years and doesn’t hold back when she sees me heading toward danger. I am enlisting my husband, as well, to communicate as best as he can any red flags he sees.
8. I had no support.
Diana talks about having that friend you can call in the middle of the night. For me that’s not enough. I need people who have been through this same thing—who have tried to wean and succeeded. I don’t need cheerleaders who have never had a death thought because they don’t know what they are talking about. I need the ones who have struggled like me, almost every day, and want really badly to get off this stuff so that they can be even better. And that’s why I created my depression community, ProjectBeyondBlue.com, a group of people like me who struggle with depression but are committed to getting better in creative ways and to exploring all kinds of integrative health solutions so that can be better parents and spouses and workers. Now whenever I have an issue, whether it be diet-related or ruminating thoughts that don’t go away, I can log on any time of the night, and find people who understand me and have been there.
9. I wasn’t patient.
The articles I read about getting off medication made it sound so easy. All I had to do was stop swallowing pharmaceuticals for a few weeks. What they didn’t say is that sometimes it might take you almost 100 days to go off of one drug, and that your body isn’t always going to like the change, which is why you have to go about this thing with the patience of the Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) as he is catching flies with chop sticks in the Karate Kid.
10. I was too proud.
The first time round, I never had a conversation with myself:
This may not work. This may not be possible. And if that’s the case, you needn’t feel badly about yourself, because you didn’t do anything wrong. You tried as hard as you could. And going back on medication isn’t a cop-out by any means. You must do what you need to do to be a responsible mom, wife, and citizen of the world.
I was too proud the first time. I blew through all the red flags, as I was getting off those toxins, no matter what it took.
This time is different. I know that I don’t know my body as completely as I wish I did. I have been humbled in the past to know she holds many more secrets, wisdom, and insights that I have yet to learn. I haven’t resolved to accomplish the tapering. I have merely decided to try.
Continue the conversation on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.
Published originally on Sanity Break.
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