This post was originally published on July 10, 2014.
I wake up and my head is already up; she’s an early riser, my head, and she is tuned to Radio Doom. As soon as I am conscious, she chimes in, takes up the negative ditty as if already in the middle of a sentence, “…and in addition, everything is fucked.” Many people in the rooms describe this as standard morning fare, even after long-term sobriety, but after over six years sober, that was not my experience. When I was still on anti-depressants, I would often wake up somewhat optimistic. Cranky, but generally hopeful. Now waking up feels like I have been roused out of a 10-year medically induced coma, during which time the presidents have changed, iPhones were invented and my life went to hell.
“Don’t get up,” whispers my head—let’s call her The Snake—in that tantalizing whisper she has, “Armageddon awaits. Stay here where it’s warm and it can’t get you; the nuclear apocalypse cannot get through pillows. If you don’t go anywhere, nothing bad can happen. No one in life can hurt you if you don’t participate. You don’t even have a landline, turn off that iPhone and you disappear. Kids can make their own breakfast and then hitch a ride to school. No one cares what you write or create and you will never get a job anyway. Do not get up.”
I was first put on anti-depressants when I was 20 years old. It was Paxil (called Aropax in Australia where I still lived) and after a couple of weeks I felt better. I wasn’t beating myself up, and I don’t just mean metaphorically in my own head. I had been literally hitting and punching myself periodically since my teenage years. Coping mechanisms—one of the few behaviors in life that can’t be judged by how well they work.
Like drinking and taking drugs, hitting myself worked to temporarily release stressful emotions. This was back before the Internet, when you couldn’t find alternatives that sometimes worked just as well, like holding ice in your hand until it hurts, throwing ice or drawing on your arm with red pen. (Then again, sometimes those don’t work, but they are certainly worth a try.) In those halcyon days, the new generation of SSRI anti-depressants were seen as the frontline for treatment of depression, self-harm and mood swings because compared to the old tricyclic anti-depressants, they were “non-addictive” with “no side effects.”
A year into my Paxil prescription, I had gained maybe 20 pounds, but it was unclear whether that was from the medication, or smoking weed daily and then eating coconut rice from the Thai restaurant around the corner from where my boyfriend and I lived together. I also slept through much of that year, with fortnightly cocaine binges that neither kept me awake, nor helped me to lose weight. I grew increasingly depressed, though it was an apathetic kind of depression, featuring no self-harm or outward hysteria. My life just got smaller and smaller, until—some time between my acting agent remarking that I was “chunky” and my relationship with that boyfriend started to implode—I finally had an inkling that I needed to make a change.
The withdrawal was hell. It was a smorgasbord of delights that I looked up one by one in a good old-fashioned dictionary based on warnings inside the box that I had paid absolutely no attention to when getting on this merry-go-round…Paresthesia, lips buzzing, vertigo, akathisia, brain zaps, constant crying; after enduring months of it, I made a vow to myself: “I will never go on one of these medications again.”
Then it was over and somehow I gained enough momentum to move to New York City seeking a life more like the one I had always dreamed of, the fumes of that big change motivating me until I met the man I fell in love with (also known as my Rescuer, who would later become my husband). We happily moved to Los Angeles, popped out a couple of kids, then I got sober, and then sadly he was no longer either my husband or my Rescuer, and it seemed that I was back where I began.
Through much of this, and consistently for the last seven years, I had been taken the latest slew of medicines that were going to “cure me,” mostly because I was worried about the effects my depression and mood swings would have on my (then) husband and (still) children.
Year after year, the psychopharmacologist and I had been dicking around with the right combination of anti-depressants like Effexor, Celexa, Wellbutrin, Viibryd and as I filled each prescription, I’d wonder how many millions of marketing dollars were spent coming up with those names. It was money well spent, brilliant really—the use of half of a word that had a positive connotation “effective,” “well,” “celestial,” and “vibrant,” in combination with a medical sounding suffix to add gravitas. Always so much hope that each one, either by itself or in combination with another, would work…
Also mood stabilizers like Lamictal, which I quickly developed an allergic rash to and had to stop taking (perhaps the name wasn’t sexy enough?) Then there were Latuda (would it change my ‘‘’tude?’), Abilify (make me “able” to function?) and Lyrica (restore the “lyrical,” poetic self lost to me under the weight of the responsibility of children?) I was also given a medication called Neurontin (no more neurosis!) As an addict, I could not take anything narcotic or addictive (in other words, fun) so it was to be off-label seizure or neurological pain medications until we got it right.
Every medication worked for a time until it didn’t, or I developed horrible side effects, and once again my days were marked by not being able to get out of bed, or rage—either at myself or others—accompanied by narrowly being able to function. Even after having completed the steps, this was not what anyone would call emotional sobriety at its finest.
A final incident when I experienced my first ever manic high, stopped sleeping and had what I would refer to as a “spiritual awakening/psychotic break” convinced me that I had to detox off these powerful medications that no one really knows much about. They were now causing problems I never had to begin with, like insomnia, constant restlessness and psychosis; I figured that once my medication was actually causing conditions that put me into a new DSM category, they ceased to be what I would call “side effects.” Although I was terrified that I would descend into a depression that might end in suicide, I felt I didn’t have a choice. I began the process of detox—with my doctor’s knowledge, but not his blessing. He was extremely skeptical, and so was I, but my instincts were telling me I had no other choice.
Welcome to the point in this article where I add in CAPS (emphasis mine—yes I am yelling at you): “DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDS NOW.” I am not a doctor, I’m just telling you my story, and if you hear voices, or are bi-polar, or have other severe or moderate or minor mental illness, please allow the sane part of your brain to bubble up right now, and refrain from doing anything. This is more than a disclaimer; this is a plea. I have neither a moral nor a political stance on psych meds; I’m merely sharing that I do not respond well to medication, and have been forced to seek other alternatives. Even for me, this is an experiment, and I have no way of knowing how it will work out. I’m sharing this shit-show because I’m hoping to help someone so please don’t fuck that intention up by doing something rash.
The last time I walked out of my doctor’s office, still manic from too much serotonin, he said, “Call me when you crash.” I haven’t. Called him, I mean, though I have crashed almost daily, even after the first few months of the debilitating physical symptoms I first experienced at the age of 20, along with some new gems: digestive issues, insomnia, and when I did manage to go to sleep, waking up sometimes moments later with what I can only describe as nameless night terrors. In my waking life, there was the lack of attention span, nausea and the seemingly random but no less maddening “itchy feet.” I endured them all by trying sometimes bizarre methods (warm baths while running cold water on my feet) and by leaning on sympathetic people, some of whom have since disappeared, and who can blame them?
I have also called on the help of God, Shamanic energy, yoga, meditation, individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step meetings, good nutrition, the steps, service in and out of the rooms and copious amounts of daily tears. It has been almost four months, and at least I can now sleep through the night, read a book and write stuff—all things I was afraid I would never be able to do again. I can also feel joy when I look at my children, where before I sometimes felt numb. I don’t know where this new dialed-down, conscious, melancholy me is going, but each day I remind myself to be grateful that I wake up and get through it—sometimes with grace, but also sometimes just barely. Which I guess puts me exactly where we all are: squarely back at one day at a time.