How I quit my antidepressant cold turkey and lived to tell the tale.

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I’m finally all healed up from my dual-surgery round robin in July. But because I’m such a glutton for punishment tremendous bad-ass, I couldn’t just leave it at that. Nooooo. I figured “why not tack on another major medical event, while I’m at it?” And thus begins the story of how I quit my antidepressant, cold-turkey, after 3 years.

Let me first be extremely clear: I do not, absolutely do NOT, recommend discontinuing any medication without the support of a medical professional and some very trustworthy friends or family. Getting off any psychopharmaceutical is a difficult and sometimes dangerous effort. Most doctors recommend a step-down, or weaning off process. I repeat: never stop your medication without consulting with a professional. 

In my case, it was time to quit. Pristiq quite literally saved me when I needed it most. Three years ago, I couldn’t manage my depression without it. Starting the medication was, for me, a last resort decision that was not easily made. But I’m so grateful that I did it. In certain cases, medication is the best, fastest way to help regulate the chemistry of one’s brain – and, in doing so, can save lives, both literally and figuratively.

But, after spending several years on Pristiq I was experiencing some negative side effects, and with a hope for pregnancy on the close horizon, my doctors and I decided it was a good time to try removing the medication and see if my chemistry could balance itself, given all the positive changes I’ve made and ongoing work I’m doing in the maintenance of my health over the past couple of years.

What positive changes and ongoing work, you ask?

Careful to never confuse my medication as a “cure-all,” the meds were, to me, merely a supplement to all the other, natural “treatments” available to me.

  • I changed my life dramatically to extricate myself from an unhappy marriage and start over. Not easy. Not fun. But so worthwhile.
  • I spent an hour each week exploring my triggers, identifying and correcting unhealthy patterns, and healing past traumas with a wonderful therapist who didn’t pull any punches with me.
  • I improved my health and nutrition by taking supplements, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet rich in whole foods and proteins, and low in refined sugars/carbs and additives.
  • I go for acupuncture regularly, which has helped balance my body and systems in ways I didn’t even realize I needed, but has made a tremendous difference in how I feel.

And, as a bonus, I stumbled into the most healthy, nurturing and satisfying relationship of my life – which every day blossoms more fully into a future that fills with me excitement, joy, and stability. Score!

In short, I learned to love myself, forgive myself, and to make taking care of myself inside and out a non-negotiable priority.

But even with those support systems in place, I was scared. Scared to quit, and scared not to quit. I really didn’t want to be chained to medication for the rest of my life, if possible. I wanted to be able to have a clean system for pregnancy. But I heard terrifying stories about the painful withdrawal experience. (Hint: stay far away from online forums. They are like mainlining nightmare fuel.) Pristiq has a high incidence of severe discontinuation syndrome, which I had already experienced milder forms of, if I was even just a few hours late in my daily dosage. I didn’t want to do a super-slow wean off, because I felt it would just draw out the uncomfortable effects of withdrawal for weeks, possibly months. I wanted to cut the cord, walk through the fire, and come out on the other side as quickly as possible… knowing I had a safety net of psychiatric professionals, and friends, and family to save me if I started going down in flames.

Luckily (and ironically), having surgery meant I’d be on some very strong painkillers for about a week, which numbs discomfort (duh) and keeps asleep more hours than I’m awake. So it was decided that I’d try a cold-turkey quit starting the day of my 2nd surgery, when I would be guaranteed to barely remember the first few days anyway, thanks to anesthesia and Percocet. I spent the week slithering from my bed to the couch, and back again… dosing every 4 hours with painkillers and every 12 hours with benadryl (as studies show antihistamines can ease the “Brain Zap” side effect of withdrawal, which was by far the most disconcerting).

brain zaps quitting antidepressant

Let’s be real: I was high as a kite, and it helped. But even through the fog of those drugs, I couldn’t shake the feelings of withdrawal. I spent a few days feeling completely underwater, like everything I experienced was in slow-motion and far away. I had flu-like symptoms of nausea, headaches, and exhaustion. And I was definitely tender, as evidenced by the amount of tissues I went through during Louie marathon that I was leaning on to distract me during my waking hours. But, unlike in my depression, I wasn’t sad. I was just… feeling. I wasn’t hopeless. I wasn’t drowning. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t feel alone. I had perspective. I knew, in my bones, that this discomfort was only temporary. And that I was loved. And strong. And I could make it through.

Randomly, these lyrics from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, were constantly in my head whenever I thought about life beyond medication…. beyond withdrawal.

“I kicked the habit. Shed my skin. This is the new stuff I go dancing in.”

Peter Gabriel, I love you.

Once my eye doctor cleared me to take easy walks again, about a week after my surgery and stopping the Pristiq… and just when the Percocet ran out… I started meditating.

A new studio called Unplug had just opened within walking distance from my house – a chic, stylish space geared toward teaching meditation without any of the religious dogma or “woo woo” propaganda that can sometimes be associated with the practice and turns a lot of people off. They offer the first class free, and I absolutely loved it. I immediately signed up for their monthly unlimited package, with the goal to attend at least 20 times in the next 30 days, as part of my recovery and withdrawal process.

It was such a relief to give myself 30 minutes a day to just sit in silence, focus on my breath, and accept every thought, sensation, and feeling as they came – without judgment. Some days were easy, some were insanely hard, and some days were amazing. But, giving myself a goal, a routine, and a new discipline to focus on was exactly what I needed. The walk there and back was a gentle re-introduction of exercise, with the bonus of some quality time in nature, and a great way to practice continuing my meditation outside the studio walls. I looked forward to it every single day.

And I learned that practicing meditation can actually heal your brain. It literally grows the pre-frontal cortex (which deals with logical thinking) and shrinks the amygdala, which adds up to an increased ability to regulate our emotional responses to stimuli. It also reduces the stress hormone cortisol in our systems, improves our memory, and can aid in the management of depression, anxiety, pain and a whole host of other health problems! I had no idea when I started meditating, but the benefits seemed uniquely tailored to my needs. Every single time I went, I walked out happier, calmer and more at ease and at peace than when I walked in.

With the help of meditation and getting back into my exercise routine after my eyes were healed, in addition to the other natural tools I use to manage my mental and physical health, I was able to breathe through the tougher moments of withdrawal and help my brain develop in ways that will continue helping me manage my challenges as they come. It took 4 weeks before I felt the last brain zap fade away, but now it’s been 7 weeks since I took my last Pristiq and I feel better than ever.

I realize that this is just one chapter in the novel that is my lifelong journey with mental illness. And I feel gratitude every day for being in a really healthy, happy, balanced place for the first time in a long time. There may come a time in the future that I need to turn to medication again to help guide me toward the light at the end of another tunnel of depression. But, this experience has taught me that with proper support and healthy self-care habits, I have more influence over my well-being than I previously knew. And that feels fucking awesome.

By the way, wanna see me meditate? LOL. The news was there filming class one afternoon I was there. Try not to be distracted by how much the teacher sounds like George Bluth. But at least you can see my studio.


He so does sound like George/Oscar, doesn’t he?! Hilarious.

And meditation has had fringe benefits I never expected! I got to meet a hero of mine, Arianna Huffington, in all her grecian goddess glory, at a special event that was held at the studio:

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…and I even asked my favorite teacher, Olivia, to officiate our wedding! Guys, she’s so awesome. I can’t wait. (Less than six weeks to go! eeeeeeep!)

So, I guess the moral of this story is multi-fold (like paper towels):

1. My story was UNIQUE, and I do not recommend cold-turkey withdrawal from any prescription without a doctor’s supervision. Everyone’s needs and experiences are different. Your mileage may vary.
2. BUT, in the right circumstances, and with support, it is possible to quit your antidepressant and live (happily) to tell the tale.
3. Whether or not you take medication for depression, don’t forget all the other natural therapies such as diet, exercise, acupuncture, yoga and meditation that you can use to support your physical and mental health.
4. Try meditation! It has changed my life. It will probably change yours, too. If you don’t know where to start, google “mindfulness meditation” + your location, and look for podcasts or youtube videos with guided meditations. Olivia has a few here. And read a few books. Amazon has a ton of great options, covering all different styles of meditation. There are a TON of styles. Chances are, one will work for you.

Lastly, let me say that if you ever feel depressed and need help but don’t know where to go, reach out. To friends, family, to me, or to a professional who is equipped to help. There is no shame in needing help for your depression, no matter how mildly or severely you experience it. Trust me. I have lived with depression my whole life, from manageable levels to debilitating and frightening depths. And I wouldn’t be here without the help I’ve asked for, and received. So please, don’t suffer in silence. The world needs you. And there is hope for a better tomorrow and a brighter future. I promise you that.

Ad astra per aspera, friends.


Comments

comments


10 thoughts on “How I quit my antidepressant cold turkey and lived to tell the tale.

  1. This story inspires me to think that I could some day be free of Pristiq too. But I’m worried that I’m not motivated enough to adopt as much of a healthy lifestyle as you. I’ve also been on Pristiq a lot longer (about 5 years) as well as a slew of other antidepressants before Pristiq was available in Canada. I started out on Zoloft when I was 12, which was 8 years ago and I’ve also been on Wellbutrin and Cipralex between then and now. Even switching from one drug to another gave me horrible withdrawal symptoms each time, so it scares me to stop taking antidepressants entirely. I think I’ve convinced myself that I’m going to need to rely on them for the rest of my life, but I really want more than anything to be able to function without them. Reading this gave me hope that maybe some day I can be drug free, so thank you.

    • Emily, thank you so much for sharing. I know how you feel. If it’s any comfort, know that I had a terrible experience trying to switch medications once that was the scariest moment of my life. But it was mostly because that medication was a bad match for me, and the doctor didn’t time the stepping process correctly.

      I hope that your desire to get to the point where you’re ready to stop will be your motivation to work on developing healthier lifestyle habits. They can be hard to adopt, but once you’re doing them regularly, they make SUCH a tremendous difference, and they help everything – not just the way you feel, but the way you look, and your confidence, and stamina, et cetera. Please feel free to contact me if you ever need more information or support!

      I’ll be thinking of you and sending you strong empowering vibes. Thank you so much for your comment. It really made my day to know I’ve given you hope!

  2. Thank you for posting this! I hadn’t even known I was living with depression (with heaping side of agoraphobia) for years until I saw a professional years ago. I’m finally able to live without any meds, and though I still get anxiety in social situations, it’s controllable. Meditation has been a lifechanger. My hubby and I have been planning to try to conceive this year, so I need to whatever it takes be as healthy and happy as possible. 🙂

    • I hope you’re still doing well! I recently had a baby, and am so glad I was able to do it without drugs being involved! It’s so great to hear from someone with a similar positive story!

  3. Hi,

    I read your story and was very inspired because I’m in the process of quitting Zoloft. In my case I’m doing it slowly because two years ago I tried cold turkey and it sent me to hell on earth. I realize that you wrote this article when you had been free from the pill for 7 weeks. It’s been almost a year since you wrote it too. So, I was wondering, how did you do the months following this experience? Did you stay pill free? I would appreciate it a lot if you could share with us your experience of the fist year without it. Thanks so much and best wishes!!

    • Hi there! I’m so sorry, I didn’t see this comment until now! I hope that your journey off of zoloft has been successful!
      Over one year later, I’m doing GREAT. I haven’t had to return to anti-depressants at all. In fact, I’ve felt more mentally stable than ever. I still exercise and meditate regularly, and take all my vitamins. I’m constantly working to keep things moving in the right direction. I had a baby in July, and was very nervous about what pregnancy/post-partum hormones would do to me… but I’ve been very lucky and haven’t had any adverse emotional reactions. Hope this is helpful! And I hope you’re doing great! xoxo

  4. I’m on day 4 of quitting venlafaxine after about 3 years and I’m feeling like throwing up at any moment, I have hot and cold sweats, head spins, can’t sleep, have a weird rushing wind noise in my ears and the shakes, I thought if I replaced the antidepressant with a natural product – Sf Johns Wart – it would make the transition period easier but so far I’m not feeling it. you mention something about antihistamines in your blog…can you tell me a bit more about what you took and how it helped please?

    Thank you and thanks for blogging about this in the first place xxxx

    • Oh, sister. Hang in there! I do hope you’re under a doctor’s care.
      I leaned on benadryl twice daily which helped take the edge off. It acts as an SSRI which is what anti-depressants are made from, so it gives a small boost, without interfering too badly either. It also makes me sleepy, so that helped me a bit too. Try it, and see if it helps you! I don’t know about St. Johns Wort, but perhaps together with Benadryl, you’ll find some relief. But if things get too rocky, call your doctor! Good luck. Please let me know how it goes! xo

  5. Hi Dana,
    Thank you for inspiring story.
    Im on low dose of clonozopam from 10 months, and it kind of helped me to my panic thoughts and insomnia issue. I still have Insomina but now i feel i can handle it myself.
    Now i have short term memery loss which is very disturbing.I just cannot remmber properly what happened yesterday.
    So i have decided that i have to taper and stop it slowly.
    Im tapering 5o% of medicine every 4 weeks and i have just started my meditation class.

    please assist me if i need to add something more usefull for my schedule to taper of the tablet completely and have less withdrawal symptoms .

    • I hope you’re under a doctor’s care – it’s so important to have their guidance and support! Good luck with your journey – I hope it works out for you and I’m so glad to hear you’re doing meditation! Keep me posted, I’m rooting for you 🙂

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