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On Psychiatric Medication and Going Cold Turkey: Relax, Don't Do It

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | April 12, 2016 |

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | April 12, 2016 |

When I’m not writing about the sex lives of fictional characters and geek feminism. I tend to have (blech) real human emotions. I have always been slightly in awe of the way Courtney’s able to write about her experiences with depression—it’s so personal, and the Pahles, for all that we are, a people generally un-shy about sharing our opinions, also value our privacy. Why the fuck would anyone want to read an essay about my mental health issues, anyway?, I would think. (I also have self-worth issues.) I mean, clearly I am an authority on sweet space capes, so people will want to read my #HotTakes on those. But me as a person? Who cares?

I don’t know if anyone does care. It doesn’t matter if they do. I am writing this down for me.

I’ve always had issues with depression and anxiety, since I was… in utero, probably. “It’s so nice in here, where I can sleep all the time and no one asks me to interact with other fetuses. What the fuck, no, it’s an earthquake, arrrrrgh.” But it was in high school, that time every adult looks back on as the best in their life (LOL no), that things got to be too much, and I started going to a therapist and taking medication. I don’t want talk about my therapist. She was nice. We talked about Harry Potter.

I want to talk about my history with medication. It’s a lot of history. And a lot of medication.

My psychiatrist was nice. He had a husband and a kid and was always smiling and had really white teeth. I would see him once a month for 15 minutes and say, “You know, I’m really not sure if this is working.” He’d smile and nod and adjust my dosage, maybe prescribe something new on top of what I was already on. Prozac. Abilify. Risperdal. Wellbutrin. Xanax. Tranxene. Lamictal. I haven’t been on everything that’s on the market by a long shot, but my bingo card’s far from empty. I never felt any better. I just felt tired.

I think, now, that I should have known better than to go along with it. I should have been aware enough and had enough initiative to say, “All these meds clearly aren’t working. I need to try something else” instead of trusting that he knew my brain better than I did. My mom’s a nurse, so she’s always been damn sure to let me know that doctors—no offense to the medical profession—tend to not know what the fuck. She would say to me, “You tell your doctor, I’m dealing with [this complaint], and I need you to give me [this treatment]”—because, without specific instructions, doctors can’t be trusted to do their jobs right.

(Like I said. She’s a nurse.)

You’d think that would apply double to psychiatry, where—unlike your normal, physical doctoring—there are no blood tests or x-rays that can tell what the problem is. Psychiatrists fucking guess. I don’t blame my psychiatrist (entirely) for over-prescribing meds that I didn’t need. I was a teenager. I was indecisive and non-confrontational and timid. A psychiatrist can only make decisions based on what their patients tell them, and I never told mine the meds didn’t do a damn thing, at least not directly. I don’t think I even realized it. I didn’t ask questions that I should have. I went along. I took a multiple choice test and looked at some ink blots and was given a diagnosis of [REDACTED]. I carried that diagnosis around like a weight around my neck for the better part of a decade, during the worst years of my life, before looking back and realizing that it had been complete bullshit all along. (I told my current therapist about it. She looked confused. “What? No one gets diagnosed with that.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

I decided on a college about three hours from home. On the drive up, sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Volvo (“turning radius!”), I felt a cold wave of panic wash over me. It didn’t let up for a week. I couldn’t keep food down. I constantly wept. I saw the campus psychiatrist and got some anxiety meds, but they didn’t do anything. About the time I told my parents that walking to the main drag and stepping out in front of a car was looking like a pretty good option, they called it. Fuck this, you’re coming home. I transferred to my hometown university, lived with my parents, worked a part-time job, and commuted to school. Looking back on it, I just wasn’t ready to move away from home yet. It’s fine. People mature at different speeds. At the time, I felt like I had failed myself on every possible level. I had no friends. I did nothing. I slept a lot. There are days when I would literally stand by the door and wait for my mom to get home from work, because she, my dad, and my brothers were the only people I would talk to over the course of the day. Six years after living three hours up the interstate was too much for me to handle, I decided to move a 12-hour drive away to New York, a city where I didn’t know anyone, so I could go to film school. Though my parents were supportive at the time, my mom later told me that, privately, she thought I’d be back home in a month. Looking back, I agree with her. It was the stupidest decision I’d ever made.

It worked out, though. Eight years later, and I’m still up here. The first few years were tough. I had the same problems that a lot of people in my situation—in their 20s, not sure what they want to do with their career, new city, no friends—had. I felt like they were the end of the world. And I knew they were normal problems. I knew working in retail when I was 28, instead of being on a career path, didn’t mean I would die old and alone, living in a cardboard box under an overpass in, I don’t know, fucking Michigan. But I felt that it would, and somehow I was just incapable of dealing with it. I’d sob every day before work. I’d sob on my lunch breaks.

That’s one of the (many) things that sucks about depression. You know the sadness and lethargy you feel have no rational cause, but knowing that means approximately bupkis. “I suffer from depression.” “Oh, I’m sorry. Why are you depressed?” “Because my brain chemistry’s an asshole.” Would that it were so simple a Wizard of Oz thing, where realizing your problems aren’t what you thought they were gives you the power to tap your heels to a better mental state.

I was depressed, and I was depressed about being depressed.

I was anxious, and I was anxious about being anxious.

So I decided to go off my meds.

Wait, you might be saying at this point. You were still on your meds? Close to a decade of escalating depression and anxiety? Why were you still on them? They clearly weren’t doing a damn thing. Yyyyyup. I’d been on a Psychiatric Joy cocktail—between three and five meds at a time, with another pair to take “as needed,” anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotics—for a decade at this point. I didn’t feel any better than when I started taking them. I felt a lot worse. I’d gone from a child to an adult on these meds. I’d gone through adolescence, a time when your brain chemistry is an ever-changing cauldron of What the Actual Hell, on these meds. I didn’t know how bad I was. I didn’t know who I was. I told my psychiatrist (same guy, now consulted more intermittently, whenever I visited my parents) that I wanted to go off my meds. He said he’d ramp me down on one of them, and we’d take it from there. I ramped down on that one. Nothing changed. Huh, I said, and went cold turkey on everything.

Yeah. Don’t do that.

I developed a mental stutter, like my brain was a skipping record. I couldn’t form a complete thought. I was terrified. This is it, I thought. At some point in the last ten years, I went fucking bananas. That medicine that made me sleepy and numb was the only thing that made it so I was able to be a member of society. I’m going to have to go back on them, and I’m never going to be able to stop taking them, not for the rest of my life.

Fuck no, said my mom, except without the “fuck,” because she is a classy old hippie. You’re going through withdrawal.


Withdrawing from psychiatric meds that have built up a crust in your brain over a period of ten years: Not fun. Doing it when you’re working retail: Even less fun than that.

The knowledge that there was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel—maybe dim, maybe flickering, but there—kept me going through the next few weeks. Eventually, everything was flushed out of my system. Now I don’t take anything. I’m still depressed, and I still suffer from anxiety, but I have coping mechanisms that I didn’t before. I’m functional, if some days less so than others. My brother passed away three years ago this July. That’s not helping. Years of having to share a body with my fucking asshole brain has taught me that “this too shall pass” (per a dad pep talk staple). You just have to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually the fog will clear (until such a time as it settles again). There’s only so long I can keep the momentum going. For the last few months, I’ve felt like my grasp on my life is increasingly tentative. It’s possible—on my bad days, I change that word to “likely”—that I will crash again.

Maybe medicine would help me. I don’t know. I won’t do it. I don’t in any way judge people who take medicine. Meds aren’t supposed to be a “cure”—they’re supposed to help with a brain chemistry situation that you can’t control, thus removing a handicap that keeps people from doing the real heavy lifting of therapy, self-healing, and self-care. I understand that, and I respect it. But I’m not going down that road again. You’ll have to pry my jaw open and shove the Abilify down my throat.

(Picture by Erich Ferdinand.)

Rebecca swore to herself that she would grit her teeth and post this, but only if she allowed herself to include a Zoolander reference in the title. She forgets to include this bio thing most of the time. You can follow her on Twitter.

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