The first time I had a real sobbing, desperate, I-know-the-truth-and-it's-terrible panic attack was when I submitted my early decision application to college, which coincidentally was at the same time my little sister was getting in a near-fatal car accident. I don't think it was a moment of psychic connection between siblings -- I think I've just always been obsessively scared of dying and my college application meant I was one step closer to it.
I continued to have similar panic attacks through my later teens and early 20s, and they came randomly and without warning: while watching "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," in a nail salon, during sex. I was taught to self-medicate with over-the-top television consumption which meant hours spent in a ball next to my glowing laptop, watching "How I Met Your Mother" reruns. These years of an undiagnosed anxiety disorder undoubtedly instilled a powerful attachment to sitcoms as well as a powerful attachment to Neil Patrick Harris, whose voice is still a super-effective sedative.
It wasn't until I vomited after reading Mona Simpson's devastating eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs, that I actually sought psychiatric help, which came in the form of one adorable little blue pill.
Even 50 mg of Zoloft is a fucking revelation. After just two weeks of serious constipation and sharp, Dali-level whack dreams, I basically forgot why I was ever scared in the first place. Zoloft took my shivering, lonely brain and swaddled it in cashmere. I was able to read books by dead authors without manically eating plain slices of bread. Soon, I could fall asleep without Netflix. Zoloft and I easily settled into a standard long-term relationship -- meaning I gained 10 pounds and he stayed exactly the same.
Why, then, would I ever want to break up with the thing that had brought me actual mental health? And why hadn't I known how hard it would be?
To be honest, I hated how I looked and thought Zoloft was to blame, and the idea of being on any medication for my whole life made me feel seriously uneasy. Also, my psychiatrist had suggested that I start the tapering process now that I had been (relatively) panic-free for three years. So I did it. And it sucked.
Long-term antidepressant use is increasingly common in the United States. According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey study, of the estimated 16 million people who have used antidepressants for over 24 months, 70 percent are female. (In fact, Julie Holland's book "Moody Bitches" outlines just how female emotions are being pharmaceutically regulated.)
"People can get started on [antidepressants] for anxiety, obesity, menopause. You see people prescribe the drugs for anything under the sun. I think they're among the most difficult drugs to come off -- harder to come off than alcohol and opiates," said Dr. Peter Breggin, an expert in psychiatric withdrawal in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Almost anything emotionally and behaviorally destructive can happen during withdrawal because serotonin is the most widespread neurotransmitter in the brain."
Pfizer, Zoloft's manufacturer, recommends that Zoloft users wean off the drug through a "gradual reduction in dose rather than abrupt cessation." So that's what I did.
When I reduced my dose to half of what it was (50 mg to 25) I noticed a slight uptick in my evening death thoughts. They came to me in short bursts like I was remembering hazy snippets of my own past burials. I stayed on 25 mg for eight months because every time I went lower, I would have a sinking feeling that someday, I would be in a coffin and very, very lonely.
Breggin told Al Jazeera's Rebecca White that coming off the drugs can cause a wide range of symptoms including "shocklike feelings in the head, imbalance, odd feelings in different parts of your body, depression, hopelessness, suicidal feelings and actions, disabling anxiety and persisting sexual dysfunction."
At the end of May, I said fuck it and flat-out stopped taking the pill every night. I had basically been tapering for a year now and thought my big, strong brain could handle a small uptick of worries. I felt literally every feeling that Breggin mentioned. I got brain zaps (when it feels like your brain circuitry is sparking), I was unhinged (I cried at least 14 times writing an article about a dying dog), I was very, very cranky.
So I went back on.
Not all the way, but just enough to calm my brain storms enough to work and not actively drive my friends to hate me.
I am currently down to 12.5 mg, a ridiculously small dose that, at this point, might be just placebo (although I highly doubt it). I continue to be unsure about whether this long, stupid, painful, dizzy process is even worth it. For the past four years, I have been so happy not having to confront eternal loneliness every time I think about where I want to go on vacation -- why the hell would I ever willingly go back to those days?
One blogger, who appropriately goes by the moniker "GLOOM," describes withdrawal as "hell on earth." But so is, for me and so many other anxious people, life off antidepressants.