I’ve always been the type of person who needs to be in control. I like to take the driver’s seat in my own life and I hold myself to high standards, constantly worrying that anything less could be perceived as weakness.
The same goes for my medication use. I’m wary of starting new prescriptions because it makes me feel like I can’t handle a problem on my own. It’s ridiculous, I know, but it’s a very real and common perception. When I started suffering from frequent panic attacks, however, I felt like I had to choose between relinquishing control by accepting medical help or continuing to face a loss of control every time I spun into a panic attack at my body’s whim.
On the advice of my doctor, I reluctantly started a prescription regimen. I was prescribed the SSRI Celexa, typically used by those diagnosed with depression, to combat my panic attacks. An adjustment period followed, but after a handful of a few very long weeks, I finally began to realize that my moods were stabilizing. I was no longer feeling debilitating anxiety over a minor inconvenience. I could do normal-people things like drive a car or sit in a movie theater without feeling panic symptoms creeping up. I felt like myself again, and I almost forgot how hard my anxiety had hit me in the first place.
Then, I went on vacation. I didn’t realize my prescription bottle was empty until I was already there. When I returned home several days later I was feeling fine and decided that maybe I didn’t need to be on medication anymore. I considered ordering a prescription refill but pushed the thought away. I loved feeling back in total control of my own body and had determined that I was cured of whatever anxiety had plagued me before. After all, nobody knows my own body better than myself, right?
A week went by, then two. I sunk into what I first believed to be PMS but ended up turning into an all-out antidepressant withdrawal. Anxiety symptoms, which had remained at bay for months, began to flood back into my daily life with accompanying depressive symptoms to boot.
Simple tasks became overwhelming and I couldn’t get through a workday without crying. I was physically exhausted and stopped leaving the house. Phone calls went unreturned; if I did talk on the phone it was pretty much only to my family. They pointed out how irritable and moody I was acting and asked over and over again what my problem was. I had no good answer for them. I felt just as out of control as I had before I had started the medication.
It turns out that cutting off an SSRI medication cold turkey can lead to some hefty withdrawal side effects. No two people will respond the same; some will barely notice the drug’s absence, while others might feel physical, flu-like symptoms or take a mentally dark turn. Suicidal thoughts can even surface, making what might seem to be an innocent choice both irresponsible and dangerous.
In retrospect, it might seem obvious that abruptly stopping a medication could incur withdrawal symptoms. But in all truthfulness, I didn’t realize how much the drug was helping stabilize my moods until after I stopped taking it. When my symptoms returned, it felt like a failure to admit that I needed to start all over and get help again. Instead, I chose instead to deflect and deny until the whole thing culminated in a full-fledged panic attack that I had while driving, leaving me to swerve onto the shoulder of the interstate, truly convinced I was dying.
I’m back on Celexa now, and I am re-committed to taking it as long as my doctor and I deem necessary. By skipping my meds for so long, I likely set my progress back, so it may take as long for my moods to re-stabilize as it did the first time. Ultimately, though, I’m lucky that my symptoms weren’t as severe as they could have been.
Messing with your medication without a doctor’s consultation can lead to some pretty serious issues. When you’ve been relying on medication for mental health assistance, it’s important to remember that you may not know your mental state as well as you think. If you feel like you’re ready to leave the meds behind, make sure you consult with your doctor first. Most likely, you can work together on a plan that you feel comfortable with to taper off your medication use in a healthy and realistic timeframe.
By sucking up my pride and going back to my doctor in an effort to combat my anxiety, I consider myself taking back control of my life. And, when it comes to taking action for the sake of my mental health, it feels pretty damn good to be back in the driver’s seat.
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Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won’t love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.