Last year, I started seeing a new psychologist, after quite an extended break from therapy, with one goal in mind—to see if I could give life a go without antidepressants.
I’ve been taking antidepressants pretty consistently for the past six years, and they’ve allowed me to live a life that isn’t dominated by panic and sadness. But as the years have passed and as I’ve found myself continuing to improve, I found myself often pondering—“what would life be like without them?”.
I first started taking antidepressants at the age of 22, after a pretty traumatic life event resulted in me becoming rather unwell—a time I affectionately refer to as My Spectacular Breakdown™. I experienced panic attacks that lasted hours, was in a constant state of anxiety, and convinced that at any moment I would simply drop dead. I tried a long list of medications to tame the anxiety and panic, but I would convince myself each time that they would kill me and so treatment was short-lived.
Months into self-imposed isolation, I came to the quiet realisation that despite my best efforts, I could not fix this on my own. I returned to my extremely patient doctor and told him that I would give antidepressants a proper go. The rest, as they say, is history.
When I made the firm decision to see what life would be like without them, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit scared shitless by the whole thing. But in February this year I started the tapering process, and here’s what I experienced.
The shit stuff
I’ll be honest here—getting off antidepressants has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve known of a few people who have been spared from the side effects that often accompany antidepressant withdrawal, but the resounding response I get is that the process really sucks. There’s no real way to predict which ones you’ll be lucky enough to experience, and for many, they can be alarming and really stressful.
So, what does withdrawal feel like? Symptoms can include dizziness, headaches, nausea, brain zaps, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and a crap-load more. I was gifted with some pretty hectic migraines and felt like I was always on the precipice of vomiting. Towards the end of the tapering, I would also find myself crying at the most insignificant things. The most ridiculous? My partner patting my dog. (Actually that tracks, dogs are life.)
Depending on what you read or who you talk to, these symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to months after you’ve finished the tapering process. What I found particularly frustrating, was how little information I was given by my health care provider, relating to withdrawal and the side effects associated with it. It wasn’t until I had spoken to friends who had gone through the process, and read countless articles on antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, that I understood what I was experiencing.
There’s good stuff too!
For many people, taking antidepressants can result in some pretty crappy side effects. So what’s the best thing about coming off them? No more side effects, baby!
For me, I can now sleep through the night without waking up covered in sweat. I am no longer tired all the damn time. No more weird hand tremors, dry mouth, and random dizzy spells. But the best thing? The best thing part of it all? Sex is 10000x better.
Now I’m not saying taking antidepressants automatically equals bad sex, but for some of us, sex can become considerably less enjoyable. Which is why I’m very happy to report that my libido has returned, I’m no longer experiencing vaginal dryness (have you heard a sexier phrase?) and orgasms are way more achievable.
antidepressants be like do you wanna die or do you wanna cum
— Laurazepam (@andlikelaura) November 18, 2019
I wouldn’t change anything relating to my treatment the last six years, but it’s really nice to feel like I have a bit more control of my body again.
It’s all valid, even without medication
Throughout this entire process, the thing I’ve struggled with most is not the withdrawal, not the dread of becoming unwell again, but with the fear that my mental health condition and the experiences associated with it, cease to be valid without the presence of medication.
A lot of stressful scenarios have crossed my mind—will people think I’m pretending if I take a sick day because I’m struggling with my mental health? Do I no longer deserve to take a space and openly talk about my experiences?
In reality, these feelings and fears are part and parcel of the internalised stigma many people, including myself, experience concerning their mental-ill health. I’ve had to bust my ass to unlearn these beliefs and face these fears head-on. In truth, all of our experiences are valid, regardless of whether we are taking medication, going to therapy, or if we’re figuring it out on our own.
It’s now been about a month since tapering off my medication completely. Overall, I’m doing really well, but there are some mornings I wake up wondering if this will be the day it all turns to shit again. I think on some level, that fear will always be there.
Despite some of the difficulties I’ve experienced both on and coming off them, my feelings towards antidepressants will never be negative. I understand they have a purpose, that they save lives, and that one day their purpose might be to save mine again.
But for now, I am enjoying this small victory, one day at a time.
Editor’s note: If you’re thinking about coming off anti-depressants, go chat to your GP first! And if you want to speak to someone about mental health, give BeyondBlue a call on 1300 22 4636.
Maddie is a podcaster and newbie writer living in Sydney. You can find her on Instagram @maddiecherrington.