I’ve never been one to say no to drugs. So on my first day in detox, I was intrigued when the nurse handed me a small white paper cup with two pills in it. I was expecting one—Librium—which I knew they’d give me to help get me through alcohol and cocaine withdrawal.
I must have given her a puzzled look because she said, “The doctor also gave you Lexapro because you’re depressed.”
An antidepressant sounded like a good idea; I figured I could use all the help I could get. I was sweating, my legs were wobbling and my head felt like a lumberjack had taken an axe to it but unfortunately failed to split it. Shards of glass would have been appealing if they promised relief.
Like many of my stressed-out friends in their 20’s and 30’s, I had experience with antidepressants. Therapists recommended them during times I had felt particularly overwhelmed—which is to say episodes that included thick tears leaking out of my eyes for no apparent reason, an inability to get out of bed without step-by-step mental coaching, an aversion to light and near-debilitating exhaustion.
Each time, I was warned not to drink any alcohol because it would counter the effect of the pills. Instead, I would take the prescription to the nearest drugstore and grab a drink at whatever bar was handy while I waited the 15 minutes for it to be filled. Three weeks of steady drinking later, I would wonder why I was still so miserable.
But when I threw back the first dose that day in detox, I felt hopeful. Maybe these things could work if gave them a real chance.
Four days later, I went home, got back to work and started outpatient rehab at night. After 10 years of daily drinking, I had forgotten what it felt like not to be drunk or hungover. I was determined to give sobriety a chance.
As my sober days started stacking up, the difference in my state of mind was incredible. Staying wasted and hiding it all the time had left me anxiety-wracked and exhausted. After detox, it felt as if my brain had finally dropped the barbell it had been struggling for years to hold up.
I started attending 12-step meetings as frequently as I used to see my local bartender. I took suggestions I heard at meetings—go to more meetings, get a sponsor, start doing step work. I began to feel something like what I thought might be “happy.” For the first time, I wasn’t ashamed of myself, overwhelmed with guilt or afraid of being found out. I had some peace inside my head. No big pink cloud, no dancing in the street, just peace.
A year-and-a-half later, I was in my therapist’s office. “I want to try to get off the medication,” I said. “I can’t tell how much of feeling good is sobriety and how much is the antidepressant.”
She nodded as if she knew this day would come. She said we could give it a try, but we had to be careful. I needed to step down slowly and pay close attention to how I felt throughout.
The plan sounded good. I was hesitant to mess with the formula that had kept me out of the liquor store and my dealer out of my apartment for this long. I had nothing against antidepressants. I just didn’t know if they were necessary.
The step down was shockingly easy. I took three-quarters of a dose for a month, then half a dose for a month, then a quarter of a dose for a month, and then I was done. I felt no change in my mood, energy or anything else. On New Year’s Eve, I took my last quarter dose and thanked the makers of that fine drug for their help.
Less than three weeks later, the lights went out. It came without any warning or precipitating event, like a curtain crashing at the end of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I hadn’t so much as broken a fingernail. Quite the opposite, in fact. Things were great everywhere except inside of my head.
Each day, it felt like skeletal fingers of despair were prying their way between my skull and my brain. The voice in my head had a clear message: “You’re worthless. Why get out of bed? You suck. Life is useless.” I felt the same as when I had fallen into those dark wells on and off for as long as I could remember. I couldn’t find gratitude anywhere.
I pushed myself to get up and go to work. Once there, I shut the door so no one saw me crying when I couldn’t stop. I tried hard to focus during the day and didn’t take any personal calls. I canceled every lunch, dinner and coffee on my schedule.
I kept going to 12-step meetings and heard mixed messages. They ranged from, “You can tough it out—this is life on life’s terms” to “That doesn’t sound right—tell your shrink.” I did, and she became alarmed.
When I found myself on the floor of my hotel room at a work conference because I thought rolling out of bed was a good interim step in the direction of standing up, I called off the fight.
“I have four days until I drink,” I told my therapist from my fetal position on the floor. “I’m pretty sure I can do this for four more days, but that’s it.” I don’t know why I determined I could last four days.
“Okay,” she responded. “The experiment is over. You need the medication and you’re going to get back on it right away. Agreed?”
“Yes,” I said. This time, the tears were tears of relief.
She was clear with me: This is a disease. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. I used to treat it with drugs and alcohol. Now I treat it with medication and a 12-step program. I need to take antidepressants as I would any medication to treat an illness.
Within three weeks of refilling my prescription, I felt as good as I did pre-crash. I didn’t mess with my meeting routine. I knew I had never walked out of a meeting feeling worse than when I walked in. That was good enough for me.
Today, I occasionally have down periods, even on the medication. But I’m able to work through them, slowly, by being patient with myself and understanding what’s happening. I use every 12-step tool I have and add more meetings. If the medication stops working at some point, I’ll have it adjusted.
Like I said in detox, I can use all the help I can get.