In a recent article in Elle, Jo Piazza writes a conflicted send-off to her “Band-Aid” Zoloft. Her piece is as empowering as it is an ode to powerlessness. Leveled by depression and anxiety, Piazza was prescribed 100 mg of Zoloft and then, after a couple years of “feel[ing]like a human being again,” she describes her journey to get off medication. The article paints a dark yet familiar portrayal of everyday depression. One in which she cries herself to sleep, holds onto resentments and regrets every decision she’s ever made in life. To say that I identify with the author is an understatement. As I read, I felt like I could’ve written vast swaths of her story.
While Zoloft brings her back up to something of a social cruising altitude, Piazza cautions that she’s not an advocate of pharmaceuticals. But she’s also not saying the drug didn’t work, either. She’s less a cautionary tale than she is cautious about encouraging readers to go down the same path she did. She expertly describes the slippery tension between finally feeling normal again and deciding to plunge back into unmedicated humanity. It’s a tension that I’m all too familiar with.
You Feel New, Don’t You?
A full year before I got sober, I put my doctor through absolute hell. Seriously. Whenever I wasn’t no-showing for my appointments, I was dodging questions about how much alcohol I was consuming. I put that poor guy through the ringer. I can still remember him standing there, doing his best impression of someone who didn’t think his patient was a lying alcoholic. He couldn’t figure out any of my symptoms. He furrowed his brow; he bit his lip. I was like the saddest story problem he couldn’t solve. I had shaking hands, so he gave me an MRI. I had a panic attack, so I was rewarded with a stress test. One morning, I even went to the ER because I couldn’t put my foot into my shoe without wincing. I felt like I had acid and glass in my veins (spoiler alert, it was beer-induced gout).
When I finally revealed that I was a full-blown alcoholic (with some help from a full lab draw), my doctor was simply relieved. He nodded and we had an entirely different playing field. About a month into my sobriety, my weight was coming down and all symptoms were magically evaporating.
“You feel new, don’t you?” He suggested.
“You mean without alcohol?” I asked.
“No,” he shook his head, “being honest.”
Fear of Letting Go
Early on, anxiety rippled through me without warning. It’d hit me in grocery checkout line and while I was sitting in a movie theater. After getting sober, my doctor prescribed me 10 mg of Lexapro as a life preserver. For weeks, I honestly didn’t feel any different—but it was taking hold in ways I didn’t really understand or recognize. It was curling around my thoughts, dulling my impulses and dialing everything down a notch. Then, one weekend, I missed a dose. The world suddenly became barbed. I was like a tuning fork. The slightest surprise or sound would cause me to snap, which reminded me of my grandmother whose nerves were always “shot.” Even at six years old, I couldn’t tear-ass into a room unannounced without her gasping or tossing her crossword puzzle. That’s how I felt just 24 hours off Lexapro.
A recent Mayo Clinic post is careful to note that there’s a big difference between having antidepressant withdrawal symptoms and being addicted to antidepressants. This gives me a little bit a comfort—especially since the thought of coming off Lexapro terrifies me. After all, this is my new normal, my equilibrium, my status quo. When I stopped drinking, I was so scared of losing my identity, creativity and everything in between that I didn’t notice just how lost I really was. Depression doesn’t creep in—it blackens everything like a swift cancer. In all the ways I couldn’t imagine drinking, I can’t imagine living without from anti-depressants.
That is, until I read Piazza’s article.
Clear Thoughts, Clearer Living
I’ve often likened my drinking to being a ball held underwater—it was just dying to come shooting back up through the surface. When I got sober, I had all the classic pink-cloud moments: amazement, joy, and irrational emotions. I cried uncontrollably over a Paul Walker tribute video. Lexapro brought me down to a medium. Not a happy medium—just a medium. No high notes, no death valleys. My life is all middle gears. Piazza, however, hits on something that I’ve been quietly wrestling with for years. As she says, “the thought of stopping medication that stops anxiety also causes anxiety.”
Her rundown of everything she’s regained since being off medication is an alluring list. They’re also reminders of things I’ve forgotten or didn’t notice were missing from my life. It’s almost the same as how alcohol scours and scrubs out all the things you love in life. Anti-depressants sort of do the same thing—just not as dramatically. I could certainly live without the intense sugar cravings that Lexapro certainly brings on: the deep-seated hunger for glazed apple fritters, Swedish Fish and Peanut Butter Snickers. But for the longest time, I’ve been afraid of facing my own brain. I don’t know what untempered thoughts feel like.
As my sponsor says, there’s always a part of my brain that wants to kill me. Ever since I heard that, I’ve felt that Lexapro has been the Plexigas that keeps me safe. Logically, I know that taking myself off anti-depressants doesn’t mean I’m going to immediately give myself over to insanity. I have a whole wealth of tools now: exercise, diet, prayer, meditations, other people. However, I still don’t trust my thoughts. Not in the slightest. I don’t trust where my untethered thinking will take me. Left to my own devices, I’ve found myself in some pretty desperate situations. That said, I also know that the things that keep me sober aren’t found in a pill—they’re the things I learn in meetings, that I hear in podcasts and that I read in articles like this. Reading Jo Piazza’s words remind me that I’m not the only one who’s afraid of fear and anxious about anxiety. It gives me hope that my best thinking—and living—is yet to come.