Life

My (12-year) relationship with antidepressants

May 22, 2018

I distinctly remember the moment when I no longer wanted to live.  I wasn’t just a little sad, or in a rut, or going through a rough patch – I truly wanted to die.

It was the middle of the day during the final weeks of my last semester of college.  I’d been laying in bed all day with the blinds drawn, cursing the sun that tried to peak through the cracks and ruin my dance with misery.  For three days, I had barely moved from a fetal position, sobbing, lamenting that I awoke from my sleep.

The pain I felt was deep – visceral and razor-like, slowly and intentionally gnawing and slicing at me.  I’d finally reached my breaking point.  I’d been flirting with depression for a while, dancing with it, entertaining it, but never letting it spend the night.  I always somehow managed to escape its presence before it had the chance to sink its claws into me and become my master – until now.  I finally gave in to its invitations to sink into it, whispering to me to let it in, just for the night….

I let myself slide into the darkness.  I began to fantasize about ending everything. But even as I writhed around with my new master, something kept me from acting out those fantasies.

Enter: Wellbutrin

I decided to get help.  I went to a psychiatrist, was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, and left her office with a prescription for Wellbutrin, an antidepressant that works on dopamine receptors.  It took a couple of weeks for the drug to kick in, but I remember the exact moment I realized I felt better.  I was driving down the road and a song came on the radio (the fact that I even had the radio on was a positive sign).  I turned it up and started singing… SINGING.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had sang anything.  In the weeks that followed, the fog of my depression continued to clear until I felt normal again, happy and healthy, looking forward to life. I felt hopeful.  I graduated from college, got my first job teaching, and moved to Lakeland to start my new life, post-college, post-depression.  Wellbutrin, it seemed, was my savior.

About two years later, I was teaching at a different high school and started seeing a new shrink.  I complained about the increasingly severe episodes of depression I experienced the week before my period.  My doctor diagnosed me with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, doubled my Wellbutrin dosage from 150 milligrams to 300 milligrams, and added Lexapro to the mix.  Lexapro is another antidepressant, an SSRI (it works on serotonin receptors).

I thought this was great! It seemed all I’d ever need to do to fend off the blues was take another little white pill.

Exit: Lexapro

Well, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.  Lexapro fucked me up.  Within a month, I became a total zombie.  I was no longer having any feelings of sadness, but I also felt no happiness or joy – I just… existed.  There were no emotional highs or lows – I was apathetic about everything.  I told my doctor I wanted off the Lexapro and he informed me that he would not supervise me for it.  If I wanted to stop Lexapro, he explained, I’d need to find a new doctor.

So I said screw him and took myself off the damn drug. Cold turkey.

It was awful.  And incredibly dangerous.  For several days, I experienced those same feelings of intense, suffocating depression I had felt back in college.  Once again, I fantasized about ending my life.  The light that tried to peak in from my drawn shades made my eyes burn.  I felt electrical zaps in my brain – I don’t know how else to describe it – but that is apparently a common phenomenon during withdraw from an SSRI.  I stayed on the Wellbutrin and leveled back out in a couple of weeks.  I’d only been on the Lexapro for 6 months, so the withdraw was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Trying to get off Wellbutrin

As the years ticked by, the effects of Wellbutrin that had initially been so enthralling began to wear off (a sense of elation, a voracious appetite for sex, boundless energy).  After four years of taking the drug, I decided I was ready to come off of it.  I didn’t tell my doctor – I figured I would just end my relationship with Wellbutin the same way I broke up with Lexapro – cold turkey, blinds drawn, biting down on a leather strap.  Within a couple days, I was hurled back into that terrible place of hopelessness, of wanting to die.  But I now knew from my experience with Lexapro, that this was part of the process.  I would be okay.  So I dug in and bit harder.

A week went by. Then eight days… nine days…

I made it 10 days before I could barely function.  This was much worse than the Lexapro withdraw; it was scary and unbearable and I began to think that I would never be able to function without an antidepressant, that maybe my brain was just fucked up, that a little white pill was my new normal.  And so, I retreated.  Within a week of being back on the Wellbutrin, I leveled back out.

Four years later, I tried to stop the antidepressant again.  This time, the withdraw was worse than before, the depression worse than anything I’d ever experienced up to that point.  This time, I only made it 5 days before retreating.

Two years ago, I decided to try for a third time.  At that point, I’d been on Wellbutrin for 12 years.

Twelve years.

Let that sink in.

I had started the drug to get through what I thought was an episodic sadness.  I’d tried to get off of it twice, and both times ended up in a frightening, suicidal depression (that got progressively worse).  The reality was that I didn’t know if I really needed an antidepressant at all – I’d never gotten through the withdraw in order to see what my new set-point of happiness was without one.  I’d started Wellbutrin when I was 22, and at the age of 34, I had no idea who I was without the drug.  And I needed to know.

Here’s where it got ugly

I spoke with my doctor about stopping Wellbutrin and he was incredibly supportive.  We worked together to create a titration schedule that would very slowly take me off of my 300 milligram dose of the drug over a 3-month period.  My 34th birthday present to myself would be freeing myself of Wellbutrin – or at least genuinely trying.

In June of 2016, I began reducing my dosage slowly.  It wasn’t that bad at first – I felt sluggish, foggy, a little weepy, but once I got below 150 milligrams, the real games began.  And they fucking sucked.

I had a white board in my office where I kept track of my dosage schedule.  It was a countdown, and each day I marked down another day closer to whatever it was that awaited me at the end.  In truth, I believed it was possible that I would make it through those three months and at the end, realize Wellbutrin was something I’d need for the rest of my life.  But the only way I would truly know if it was something I needed was if I could get the drug out of my system long enough to give my natural levels of dopamine and serotonin a shot at doing their jobs.

Once I got under the 150 milligram mark, I had to develop strategies to get through periods of darkness that would engulf me.  These drops would typically last a couple of hours.  Because I lived alone, I didn’t have anyone physically present to talk me down when I was feeling insane and unstable.  I knew, for me, the best thing to do was exercise through it, to try to catch an exercise high, to boost my serotonin with a little sweat session.

Usually, it helped, but there were also many times that I drove to the gym and sat in my car for an hour or so, crying, trying to get it together long enough to actually walk into the gym.  Sometimes, I’d just drive around for a couple hours, windows down, music blasting, trying to remind myself that I was going to be okay, that this episode was just that, an episode.  In a couple of hours, I’d feel better.

And I always did.

Success

By the end of August, 2016, I was completely off of Wellbutrin.  I took that as a victory, but I was by no means in the clear.  I spent the next four months in and out of a depression.  There were days I’d feel ecstatic with a sense of joy I’d forgotten was possible.  I realized that Wellbutrin was sort of a wet blanket on my emotions and personality.  It kept me level, it kept me from experiencing major lows… but it also kept me from experiencing true feelings of happiness.

The dips were pretty gnarly for a few months.  In December, I didn’t know if I could make it much longer and began to seriously question whether I would ever feel normal again.  I felt like a ping pong ball oscillating between extreme highs and lows.  But over time, the highs and lows became less extreme.  Six months after I took my last dose of Wellbutrin, I was beginning to feel much better.  But it ended up taking a full year for me to level out.

A full year.

In retrospect

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I began taking Wellbutrin, I traded one lord (depression) for another (antidepressants).  Nobody told me that getting off the drug would be hell.  Nobody explained to me that the longer I stayed on it, the harder it would be to get off.  None of this was ever mentioned – among my doctors, it was just sort of this unspoken expectation that I’d probably be on the drug for the rest of my life, and I think that is a common attitude among doctors who prescribe antidepressants.

Look, Wellbutrin was good in that it helped me get out of that initial depression when I was 22, but there was no reason for me to stay on it for 12 years.  The reality is that I became part of the machinery for 12 years, fueling a sinister pharmaceutical industry.  For each one-month supply of brand-name Wellbutrin (which is not bio-equivalent to the generic, bupropion – that did not work for me), my insurance company was billed anywhere from $1200 to $1600.  Multiply that by 12 years, and the upward estimate is a quarter of a million dollars.  Not to mention the fact that there are virtually no studies on the effects of long-term antidepressant use.

Changes I experienced

Now it gets weird.  I went through some strange changes following my breakup with Wellbutrin.  My tastes in music, art, and fashion changed.  I went from listening to John Mayer and Jack Johnson to Disturbed, In This Moment, Metallica, and Avenged Sevenfold.  I started dying my hair bright colors.  I pierced my philthrum.  I finished sleeving out my arm.  I noticed I no longer shirked from confrontation.  Generally, I felt more dominant, more aggressive, more confident and in control.  My business boomed.  I stopped taking on shitty clients.  I embraced my new edginess.  I became willing to take risks, to try new things.  I started going after things I wanted in life instead of sitting back and dreaming about them.  I became action-oriented.

I also stopped feeling a constant buzz of anxiety and paranoia.  Anxiety, it turns out, is a side-effect of Wellbutrin. But because I’d been on the drug for so long, it crept up on me and I didn’t even realize how serious of an issue it had become for me.  I was literally convinced that I was being watched, that experiments were being conducted on my body while I slept.  Folks, it got weird… but there was NO way I was going to tell anyone about that shit and risk being committed.  I knew these delusions were abnormal, but I didn’t realize they were from the Wellbutrin.

I’m happy to say that I no longer get up in the morning and inspect my body for marks caused by nightly government experiments.  More importantly, I’m happy to report that I am, well, happy.  It turns out, I don’t need Wellbutrin.  There’s nothing wrong with my brain.  I’m not  a “depressed person.”  I just had to muscle through a really fucking gnarly withdraw process to see that.

To close…

If you’re on antidepressants and want to try getting off, find a doctor who will support you.  And find friends who will help you through the lows you’ll experience during withdraw.  If you’re struggling and need someone to talk to, reach out to me – I get it.  I’ve been there… I made it out the other side, and so can you 🙂

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