For over 18 years, I had a daily companion on my journey to wellness in the form of an Effexor® capsule. Despite feeling tired all the time and completely losing the motivation to do anything that might have helped me feel better about myself, I stayed on that stuff because I didn’t think I could survive without help. I would remind myself of how I felt about life before medication and how twisty the roller coaster of my life was during that time, and I would reason that zombie mode was better than hurricane mode.
I was diagnosed with anxiety as a small child. I remember dealing with separation anxiety when either of my parents would leave the house, and I went through a spell of severe anxiety when our smoke alarm would go off in the kitchen after seeing the burnt face of a young girl who had survived a house fire in a magazine photo. I refused medication because I didn’t want to have to swallow pills (keep in mind I was only 4 or 5 at the time). The doctor told my parents that being diagnosed at such a young age meant I would probably suffer from the condition long into adulthood, if not forever.
The anxiety eventually subsided for several years until I was a teenager dealing with being the oldest child in a now broken family. My relationship with my mom was never good, and though I won’t bore you with the ugly details of our history, this was a major factor in the resurgence of my anxiety along with a new friend: depression. I have always had a really good relationship with my dad, who just lived a mile or so away, and this helped immensely in keeping me from severe rebellion and trouble during these years; however, I still found myself unable to control the extreme anger and irritability I felt, combined with certain social fears and depression. I was forced into both medication and counseling by my mom, who couldn’t function with a daughter who wasn’t OK all the time. She needed me fixed (yesterday, damn it!) so I could be out of her hair.
The next 18 or so years were not what I would call a life. My emotions were somewhat managed unless I was interacting with my mom, or sometimes my siblings (Note: because there’s a lot of history here, I’ll probably write another blog post about just that). I slept a lot. I succeeded in my work but never enjoyed it and was not entirely on my game because I was unmotivated and tired all the time. My personal care suffered a lot. I was entirely undisciplined in my life. During this time, I began living alone and rarely socialized with other people because I didn’t have the energy or desire. I would skip work whenever possible. I couldn’t force myself off the couch or out of bed to exercise despite having a really nice elliptical right there in my apartment. That part of my life is known as “the black hole” because while I remember a lot of it, not much of it is even worth recounting. It was pretty pathetic.
Over the last 2-3 years, I gained a better handle on my life. This is largely thanks to the loving support of my dad and my best friend, along with counseling and the mature wisdom life brings as we age (hopefully). I got myself out of debt and forced myself into a gym for the first time in about 5 years. I got into gardening, which I never in a million years would have thought possible. Things really started looking up.
One day, at a doctor’s visit while reviewing my prescriptions with my doctor, he asked me how well the Effexor® was working. I thought for a minute and told him that I had been on it for so long that it was impossible to know without going off it. Together, we developed a plan to slowly taper off the medication and see what happened. Over the next 8 months, I gradually went from 150 mg daily to nothing. I didn’t experience any side effects until I completely stopped taking the stuff, and at that point the withdrawal effects were an absolute nightmare. The brain zaps, dizziness, headaches, unstable moods (I would cry one minute and laugh hysterically the next), nausea, and digestive issues lasted far longer than I would have predicted or would have found acceptable. I was happy though! I felt I had accomplished something big and I was proud of myself.
Soon enough, all the energy the medication had stolen from me returned. I started walking outside every day, hiking, going to the gym, doing more chores around the house, and taking better care of myself. I was astonished by how good I felt for the first time in years. At that point I decided that I wouldn’t give this feeling up for anything and would make the most of it. Someone who has never experienced what I’m talking about could never appreciate the significance. It’s not an exaggeration, it’s real life and it is profound. I would literally cry with joy at the thought that I had reclaimed myself after years in prison.
Being unmedicated has not all been rainbows and sunshine though. After a few months of quitting, I decided to try dating again. Big mistake. I experienced anxiety like I’ve never had it before, to the point where I was walking several miles a day to cope with the need for fresh air and something to keep my mind occupied. I ultimately made the decision to end that pursuit for the foreseeable future and about a week later the anxiety completely subsided. Obviously, this is a serious point of discussion in my counseling sessions going forward.
I also suffer from occasional bouts of depression, which is marked by extreme irritability and anger, crying fits, overeating, and fatigue. It’s hard to say whether this is worse than anxiety or not, but I tend to believe it is because it keeps me from being motivated to do the things that have really helped me stay happy and healthy over the last year. It also has a strikingly negative impact on my relationships with others as I become overly critical and irritated with the people I love the most. I am actually in a cycle of depression right now and my relationship with my mom has suffered immensely over the past month because she and I set each other off like crazy, and it seems like every time we talk we fight. We have a lot of work to do if our relationship is going to survive and heal. The depression also ushers in anxiety over the fact that I can’t get myself out of the hole and I’m afraid of the possibility that I might be better off medicated to some degree. Remember how I said I couldn’t go back there after feeling so good?
I don’t know what the future holds for me. Will I find new ways of coping with and conquering my brain? Will I go back on some form of medication? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. But if you’re reading this and feel any connection to what I’ve said, the one piece of advice I feel qualified to give you is this: BREATHE. In and out. Cry while you do it if necessary, but focus on your breathing and get outside. You can get through the next minute, and then the one after that. And eventually the way you feel will begin to change. That’s all it takes. You can do it.