This post was originally published on October 14, 2014.
“No matter what, I’m not taking Prozac—Prozac is for crazy people,” I said to my therapist as the image of a white straitjacket with bulging silver buckles surfaced in my head.
“That’s interesting,” Andrea said while a small, knowing smirk slowly grew on her face. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know,” I responded. “It’s just that everyone that I’ve ever known that’s been on Prozac has been crazy and I’d always figured that if I take it then that must mean I’m crazy too, right?”
I was waiting for Andrea to jump in with a reassuring comment about how I wasn’t crazy but instead, after a long and agonizing pause, she said, “Well you don’t have to take Prozac; there are other meds that treat anxiety and depression.”
What Andrea didn’t know was that I only really knew of one other person that was actually on Prozac. And if that person was crazy, whatever that means, I certainly didn’t have the credentials to make that call. But what Andrea and I were both very aware of was the history of addiction in my family and my fear that if I started popping pills to manage the faulty neurons in my head, that I’d become an addict as well.
I took a sip of my coffee and Andrea continued, “I know there’s the big addiction question here and it’s a very legitimate concern.” She paused and the room fell silent. The white, plastic-rimmed clock on the wall above my head started ticking louder. “But a lot of these medications aren’t addictive.”
I wanted to take another sip of coffee to buy some time and give my thoughts some space but it had turned cold and sticky. “I know what you’re saying,” I said. “But it’s really just the act of putting a pill into my body every day that’s weird. I just don’t want to become addicted to it.”
Andrea gently shook her head as if she understood. “You don’t have to decide today,” she said. “Just think about it and let me know.”
It was time for a change. My reality looked liked this: I’d been managing depression and anxiety on my own for years. And I had accumulated a pretty solid set of tools to work with for when I started to spiral—things like mediation, yoga, spinning, Al-Anon meetings, affirmations, talk therapy, self improvement courses and gratitude lists. But despite my best efforts, something still felt off. So that is why I pushed aside my fear of becoming an addict and decided that it was time to give medication a try.
The first mood med I was prescribed was Zoloft. The pills looked like a pile of oversized Tic-Tacs in the plastic amber-colored bottle I picked up from the pharmacy. I did exactly as my psychiatrist told me to do and cut my first pill in half. I put a white paper towel out on my kitchen counter and placed one of the little chalky pills in the center. I pulled a serrated knife out of a nearby drawer. The pill had a vertical groove down its center that I slid the knife through several times until it split in half. I placed one of the halves on my tongue and it started to melt. This better be worth it, I thought as the pill slid down the back of my throat, drowning in a liquid cushion of Shop Rite diet ice tea.
The act of cutting up a pill sparked a memory of a pop-up drug deal I once witnessed courtesy of my brother. I was sitting on his couch in his apartment, in between these two shady guys whose names I don’t even think my brother knew. All of a sudden my brother burst out of the kitchen, jumped in front of the three of us and dumped a rainbow assortment of pills on the coffee table. He was all jumpy and spastic as he chanted with a semi-toothless grin, “Yo, what you want? Anything you need, it’s right here.” I don’t remember what the two guys picked up off the table but I do remember wondering where the hell my brother got all of those pills and why he thought it was okay to do that in front of me, his baby sister.
I knew that it could take up to six weeks for the Zoloft to work its mood-stabilizing magic. But after six months had passed without any noticeable changes, my psychiatrist and I agreed that it was time to move on. He warned me though that tapering off the Zoloft could be challenging but never mentioned anything about the possibility of experiencing full-blown withdrawal.
I was living in New York at the time and remember sitting on the 6 train and feeling my head slowly slipping off of my neck sideways. My eyes were engorged and wobbling like squares of Jello. The light from the subway car made my pupils bleed. Every noise made paper cut thin slits in my skin. Quick zaps of electricity rained down my spinal cord, causing my limbs to twitch uncontrollably. The palms of my hands were drowning in sweat and my jaw was tense and sore from constantly clenching my teeth. My entire body was in agony and all I wanted to do was curl myself into the tightest ball possible to squeeze out the pain.
If I would have just talked to my doctor about what was happening or even gone on the Internet to do some research, I would have figured out that what I was experiencing was completely common. But instead, all I kept thinking and believing was, Oh my God, I’m addicted to Zoloft!
Eventually, I talked to my psychiatrist and we worked together through my fears of being addicted to Zoloft while smoothing out my withdrawal symptoms. In total, it took a little over a month before I felt normal again. Since Zoloft, I’ve tried Ativan, Wellbutrin and Lamictal, none of which seemed to work in the long run. At one point I was prescribed Klonopin but once I learned how great the potential for addiction was, I dumped the entire bottle of pills I had down the toilet. I did the same with my bottle of Ambien. The reality is that addiction has destroyed my family and even if I’m not in danger of becoming an addict, the risk is just too big for me to take. I’d rather play it safe.
A little over a year ago, I started seeing a new psychiatrist and within 10 minutes of our first meeting, we had the medication convo. After I filled her in on my still unstable mood, my withdrawal episode and my fears around addiction, she gently paused, looked out the window and said, “Have you ever tried Prozac?” I nearly fell out of my chair.
Despite my earlier declaration that I would never use it, I walked out of her office that day with a fresh script for Prozac—or Fluoxetine, as I prefer to call it—in my hand. I’ve been taking 20 mg every morning for a year now with great success and am happy to report that I finally found something that works for me.
I still don’t know if taking Prozac makes me crazy but I do know that it definitely has not turned me into an addict.