Coming Off Anti-Depressants
A therapist who has come off anti-depressants describes how they are grateful for the drugs that helped them for so long
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After over a decade of taking anti-depressants I am now drug-free. I don't feel entirely comfortable using that phrase, not least because I am an asthmatic and use inhalers on a daily basis, but most importantly because it feels far too evangelical, too much as if I have achieved a superior state to the one of being 'on drugs' and I don't believe that one bit.
I first took anti-depressants because someone tried to rape me. It was in broad daylight on a university campus. I was a long way from home, a student learning a foreign language during a long summer holiday and having, what could justifiably be termed, the time of my life. The attack was brutal, the police inept, my injuries a livid reminder of resisting the physical force of a stranger. On return to the UK and to my studies I found I was averse to being in crowds, severely rattled if surprised (jogging had become voguish around that time and made life a misery for me on the streets), weepy when left on my own. I found a good GP who got around my antipathy to taking anti-depressants by describing the type and dose as the sort that were 'generally given to old people to give them a little lift'. I was to learn later that the feelings I experienced then of being a complete and utter failure, of weakness and shame for taking anti-depressants, was shared by many users.
I cannot remember how and when I stopped taking them that time, but recall the same feelings of reluctance about returning to anti-depressants for support when I had a bout of clinical depression much later in life. This time, the depression related to every day pressures at work, the break up of a relationship and, perhaps most profoundly, feelings of worthlessness in the face of childlessness, and I suffered a breakdown. Resistance to drugs to help me, my doughty GP of the time made clear, was futile.
Taking anti-depressants became a way of life then but at that time I took help wherever it was offered. Aside from drugs and psychotherapy, family and friends probably topped the charts of support. These were followed, in no particular order, by massage therapy, cranial osteopathy, reiki, yoga and the insight of a Glastonbury-based psychic. I kept taking the drugs as I feared what would happen if I stopped.
Having a breakdown is the pits. It felt like being down one of the deepest, darkest coal mines without a cage to bring me safely back to the surface. I did not want to return to that state, the risk was too great. I kept popping the packs until I felt I had resolutely turned a corner.
When, years later, I felt I wanted to stop I did it as advised, I decreased the dose gradually, I waited until I was in a relatively safe place – on holiday with a close friend – and focused on the advantages of ceasing drug taking. But it went horribly wrong. I was lethargic and could not sleep, the friend told me that for a 'terminally polite person' I became remarkably rude and I felt generally and specifically anxious. The specific anxiety was “here I go again". I was clearly not ready for the transition and some of the underlying issues had not sufficiently shifted. I rushed back to the full dose and kept the repeat prescriptions flowing for several more years. That was until a few months ago.
It has been different this time. I've been in psychoanalytical psychotherapy for about four years with a therapist, Paul, who professes to have no interest in whether I am on anti-depressants or not. He acknowledged my 'confession' that I took them when we first started working together but left me with the clear impression that it was my own business. This was new, my previous therapist was keen to set a target of ending the drug taking, but now, it seemed, I wasn't going to gain Paul's approval by stopping. It was liberating. I had felt for years that although I had every right to be on anti-depressants, they had come to play a defining role in who I was. And that was someone who was at risk of being deeply depressed.
More recently, and really rather without my noticing, I had become someone who was feeling they may, instead, be in danger of being quite content. Challenged, like everyone else, by life's rigours, disappointments and inexplicable lack of fairness but able to muddle on. So when a pack ran out over a weekend I took a deep breath, scrambled some pills from pockets and overnight bags but did not rush to the pharmacy for an advance on my next prescription. And then I was busy and time passed and the one day on, one day off drifted into all days off for a week, then another.
I saw my GP and she told me the drug I was on, fluoxetine, has 'a long tail' and was therefore one of the easiest to come off. She too seemed largely indifferent as to whether I continued taking them or not (again this was different from other cajoling GPs who tried over the years to wean me off.) I felt sharply independent and uplifted. I didn't dare tell anyone. Not family, not friends until I was sure. And now I am sure. I no longer take anti-depressants and, despite having a pack of pills in a bottom drawer, I can foresee a life ahead completely without them. I remain supportive of those who want to stay on them; there are so many different types and doses, so many physical and psychological challenges they address and not everyone can afford the time and money of long-term psychotherapy that I firmly believe is the foundation for the lasting change in me. I don't feel a better (smugger?) person, just different. A bit excited, a bit nervous and grateful for the drugs that helped me for so long to bridge the gap between darkness and light.