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:

10553491_1446165262319048_8139808474237683479_n

…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.


Ad astra per aspera.

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Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 was my 36th birthday.

A year previous, I was just coming off of a nervous breakdown. Which is a phrase usually relegated to hyperbole, except this time, it was true.

In early December 2012, my already fragile enough mid-divorce-living-at-a-friend’s-place, trying-to-write-a-book-about-wedding-planning-on-deadline-while-dying-of-heartbreak, scared-to-death-of-what-comes-next world got rocked when I found out I needed emergency surgery on my eye (bringing the total count to 14 at the time), and also found out that my fertility was questionable, at best. I was collapsing under the stress, so right around Christmas, my psychiatrist suggested changing up my depression medication, to try and help lift me from the deafening numbness that encompassed me, and thus began weaning me off of the Pristiq that was only tenuously holding me together, and introduced Viibryd.

Within a week or so, I felt noticeably different. But… not better. I was painfully exhausted, and was beset with terrible headaches. Even worse that that… rather than numb, I began to feel empty. Desolate. Hopeless. And gradually, day by day, I became increasingly aware of a new feeling: a fear. Unlike I had ever felt before.

I was afraid of myself.

Afraid of what I might do to myself.

If left alone with myself.

And here’s the confusing part: I didn’t want to hurt myself. I didn’t wish I were dead. No. I wanted to live. I wanted desperately to believe that I could, once again, experience happiness and stability. I know that depression lies. I know better than to believe its insidious, manipulative whispers. My logical mind knows this very well.

But, almost as though my self were split in two, like some terrible after-school movie about a girl with split personalities, my emotional mind couldn’t trust myself not to do something stupid. I felt involuntarily pulled toward dangerous behaviors. Like I might inadvertently toss myself off the balcony. Or slice my skin open. Or begin walking into the distance and never stop. Or swallow all the pills in the house. Or drive off a cliff. Like a woman possessed, I felt as though I were being pulled against my own will towards self-harm.

And I couldn’t stop crying.

Luckily, I had enough sense of my logical mind to recognize that no good could come of this feeling. So I immediately alerted my psychiatrist, who agreed it was wise to discontinue the Viibryd, and ease myself back onto the Pristiq. And I mustered the strength to tell the friend I was staying with that, in no uncertain terms, I didn’t feel safe to be left alone. And thank god for him, because he had been in a similar place once, and he held me while I sobbed. He canceled plans to stay in and babysit me. Without judgment, he saved me.

And when he couldn’t be there, I called someone else. Which is no easy feat. Not many people knew how lost I had been to begin with. And finding a way to communicate that I was having terrifying urges, and inviting someone to just come sit on the couch and marathon Law & Order with me so I don’t end up accidentally taking a swan dive off the 2nd floor balcony was not the easiest call to make. I think Allie of Hyperbole & a Half said it best, in her incredibly spot-on depiction of what depression can be like:

“I discovered that there’s no tactful or comfortable way to inform other people that you might be suicidal. And there’s definitely no way to ask for help casually.

how to tell someone you might be suicidal

I didn’t want it to be a big deal. However, it’s an alarming subject. Trying to be nonchalant about it just makes it weird for everyone.”

But, surprisingly, my friends were really awesome about it. They came, without question, and sat with me. There was no excessive comforting, no uncomfortable attempts to “lighten the mood” or play therapist… just acceptance and understanding and loving concern. I’m so grateful, because if I had no one to call, I absolutely would have committed myself for my own safety.

And in the brief moments that I was left alone, or the periodic moments when, even with my roommate beside me, I felt so inconsolably anxious and bereft that I could no longer bear it… I remembered that Jenny once suggested that squeezing ice cubes in your hands can help quench those feelings a bit. And it did. (Thank you, Jenny.)

After a couple of weeks, the Viibryd eased it’s way out of my system, and my familiar friend Pristiq oozed back in. I started to feel, bit by bit, more myself again. Less at risk again. There was light at the end of the tunnel. I could see it. And for the first time in a while, I believed that I’d soon reach the end of that dark and lonely tunnel, and feel the sunlight on my face again.

By the time my birthday rolled around, I was almost there. And, as terrifying as those weeks previous had been, I always wanted to remember them, so that I’d always know that no matter how dark and hopeless things get, I can make it through. To remember my past, and look forward to my future – honoring my worst moments as essential parts of the journey leading to my best moments, and recognizing them for their beauty. Serendipitously, I was given the chance to share my story with an anonymous audience through The Listserve, which provided a great outlet, perspective and support in my healing process. And as a 35th birthday gift to myself, I got this tattoo:

Ad astra per aspera. Latin for “Through struggles to the stars.”

ad astra per aspera tattoo

Also, notably, the tagline for this blog 🙂