It began one day innocently enough. I was walking through a mall when I suddenly felt strange. I could not pinpoint how I felt because it really wasn’t translatable into words—it was just an unsettling, “off” feeling in my body. It was so peculiar and overwhelming for me that I decided to leave the mall immediately and drive back home.
At the time, I was about twenty-five years old and had recently dealt with two bouts of mononucleosis (mono), something I’d previously had in high school. I was no longer doing drugs at this point; I’d quit the night I met my husband-to-be, when I was twenty-four. Scott was a bright light in my world, and I just didn’t feel like I needed to do those things. He wasn’t the type of person to indulge, so it was quite easy to quit pills and cocaine. I hadn’t given up the alcohol yet, but soon my body wouldn’t allow me to drink anymore.
I had quit my job as an associate producer at a TV station/production company, being too sick with mono to continue. Slowly I recuperated enough to work temp jobs to pay the bills and get my feet wet again before looking for full-time work in my field. However, I never got to that point, as my health quickly declined.
I had odd symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats, tinnitus, utter physical exhaustion, brain fog, interrupted sleep, bad memory, a sore throat and swollen glands, the inability to make a decision, sore muscles, intolerance to exercise, headaches, muscle weakness, and additional strange symptoms. I could no longer even have a glass of wine, as I would immediately get a stomachache and become dizzy. How could I be having all these symptoms at such a young age? At its worst, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I will never forget the day when I was so weak Scott had to carry me to the bathroom. I had hit rock bottom and felt humiliated and defeated.
This was no longer a case of mono, and I felt lost, confused, and frustrated without a clear diagnosis. Remember, this was before the internet, so I was left with only books, magazines, daytime talk shows, and random strangers to research for clues and answers. I met with doctors and specialists, and had every medical test available at the time: extensive blood work, EKG, MRI, EEG, allergy testing, and more. One diagnosis after the next was tossed around, like Lyme disease or multiple sclerosis, filling me with vast amounts of fear.
At one point I found a book that said an overgrowth of yeast was the cause, so I followed a special diet and did feel a bit better—for a while. I thought I was losing my mind as the symptoms got stranger and more pronounced. My cognitive abilities were failing, and sometimes I couldn’t walk straight. At this point I was housebound.
In desperation I contacted a neurologist, the best in the state. He gave me all the regular tests, and I did fine on them. Finally he sat me down and said, “You are the sickest person I know and I have no idea what is wrong with you.” I will always love and appreciate him for his honesty, but it was quite difficult and scary to hear this from a highly regarded doctor. I really wanted a diagnosis and didn’t want to leave his office without one, so when I pushed him he said, “chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).”
Chronic fatigue syndrome was a catchall label for patients who had a range of similar yet strange symptoms and needed a diagnosis. It was the new buzzword in the health world at the time and slowly became a widespread epidemic. He wanted to start me on antidepressants, but I told him, “I’m not depressed!”
In all honesty, by that time I was depressed, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I felt defeated. Here was this well-respected doctor giving me medication for people who had depression—what did that mean? Did it mean my symptoms were all in my head? Could I be crazy? But I knew it wasn’t all in my head; I had physical symptoms!
The kind and patient doctor wrote me a prescription for Prozac, saying that the medication would take about thirty days to kick in. I left feeling confused but happy, in a way, just to have a pill I could take. I was ready to do anything to feel better. If the pills didn’t help all of my strange symptoms, at least maybe I would no longer feel tired of being sick.
I filled the prescription immediately, and as soon as I got home, opened my first bottle of little half-green, half-cream capsules. I took one and forgot about it, looking forward to day thirty when perhaps I would be cured. What happened next was incredible: I didn’t have to wait thirty days or even thirty minutes. In just about twenty minutes after ingesting my first Prozac, I felt my brain “turn on.” I felt alive, and I felt strange surges of electricity in my head. No doctor except my current one believes me when I tell this story. “Impossible!” the others say. “It takes weeks for the medication to work!” They thought it was “all in my head”—and it was. My brain was finally waking up from a long slumber.
Feeling alert and turned on for the first time in my life, I told Scott, “Let’s go to the movies!” I think his jaw hit the floor, because I had been housebound for so long. In retrospect, I believe my brain was so lacking in neurotransmitters that it was like a sponge soaking them up; and when it finally got what it so desperately needed, it performed the way it should. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals that cells produce to send signals between your nerve cells. You have probably heard of many neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and histamine. Low serotonin levels are present in people with depression.) Even though I was feeling well enough to get out, I was still suffering from physical symptoms. The medication simply acted as a boost of energy to get me off the sofa; it didn’t address the underlying, root problem.
Now that I could get out of the house, I decided I should see a psychiatrist because, apparently, everything was in my head. I made an appointment with one, and was expecting to walk into his office and see the traditional sofa or chaise lounge where I would lie down. I guess I had watched too many movies—his office didn’t look like that at all. He had an ordinary office chair for me to sit in, which did not make me happy—not so much from disappointment but because I was still sick and tired, and needed a sofa I could curl up or stretch out on. I decided to sit on the floor instead, so I could stretch out and move around more. He did not like that, initiating a conversation with me about how it was affecting him. I found a new psychiatrist.
The second time around, I chose a woman, and she did have a nice comfy sofa for me and conversed with me in a much less clinical way, which was more to my liking. An important first lesson I learned: Choose your healthcare providers wisely. Pick somebody you are comfortable with and who listens to you.
Unfortunately, my brain’s euphoria on Prozac didn’t last long. A couple of months into my prescription, I started to not feel so well again, and my psychiatrist gave me a larger dose. I felt good for a while until I went down again. Up and down again. Over and over. By this time I was also taking antianxiety medication, so I had a nice cocktail, with my psychiatrist acting as the bartender. She would ramp up my dose until I maxed out and then announce that I needed to start on a different antidepressant.
Over the years, I tried many different meds, including Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, Wellbutrin, and Xanax. This dizzying dance went on for a very long time—try a medication, ramp up, max out, change to another medication—until I lost all sense of myself and couldn’t feel anything anymore. It was as if a blanket had been thrown over my head, blinding me and making it impossible to live with any sense of normalcy.
I continued therapy with my psychiatrist and I was still a mental mess. Some days I would see her when I was happy and have nothing to talk about, and then I would choose not to see her when I was feeling low, because I felt like a failure. I eventually dropped her, as it became clear she wasn’t helping me. Our relationship had become transactional—it was all about renewing my prescriptions, which I realized I didn’t need her to do as long as I had my primary doctor. However, leaving my psychiatrist was a big part of the roller-coaster ride with my meds, because my primary doctor didn’t really care about my mental health. Again, it was a transactional deal; I would show up and tell her what she wanted to hear, and she would renew my prescription.
From my experience, this type of automated healthcare can be disastrous. I’ve come to firmly believe that if you are taking these types of medications, you need to support your healthcare by being in some sort of effective talk therapy, whether with a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist—a professional you can trust who cares about your mental health and will listen to you, creating a program that’s tailored to your needs. In the beginning, I hadn’t learned to advocate for my health; I hadn’t learned to question or ask for the care I needed—to find a doctor or a talk therapist who could help me beyond the medications they prescribed. Whatever they prescribed, I believed I had to have it, and that was it.
With my mental health spiraling down, I decided on my own to take myself off medication. I was tired of popping pills and feeling either extremely numb like a robot or the opposite: jumpy like a wind-up doll. When I decided to stop taking the meds, I had no clue that people should never just stop taking antidepressants on their own; they need to be weaned off slowly. I went cold turkey—big mistake. I spent the next couple of weeks being the most miserable I had ever been in my life. My brain would deliver explosive electric shocks, and I was left a shell of myself on the sofa, unable to do anything at all. The slightest bit of light or noise was like torture. I wished it would all end. I wished I had a gun so I could shoot myself in the head—that’s how volatile and dangerous it got for me. Mental health is not to be taken lightly or as a joke. It isn’t so much that I didn’t want to be alive but that I didn’t want to be alive like that.
Each day I woke up hoping that my suffering would be over and that my brain chemistry would be back to some sense of normal. I lived in agony for weeks. Going off medication on my own was probably one of the worst decisions I have ever made and one I would never do again; I’m incredibly thankful that I survived it. But I did learn a crucial lesson: just because our mental health can’t be seen like a bodily wound, such as a cut or a broken bone, doesn’t mean it isn’t imperative that it be taken care of properly.
Having survived, though, I’ll be the first to say it was nice to be free of the controlling antidepressant and antianxiety medications once they were finally out of my system. And by freeing myself from their hold, I reached a radical decision that if I was going to feel bad, I wanted to feel bad naturally. I would find a way to live unmedicated, but I had to get serious about how I was going to live my life. I knew I still needed help and I was still suffering from symptoms of CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome), but I wanted to find another way to healing and wellness. I made a promise to myself to try some alternative and natural therapies, and I made my first appointment with an acupuncturist. After all, I had nothing to lose.
In truth I had everything to lose—my capacity for happiness or even my life—but by radically changing the course of how I treated and thought of my health, I gradually gained my life back. I had a chance to finally live as a whole being.
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