Back in 2011 I went cold turkey from my medication, the same medication I’m on now but in a much higher dose. My decision to do it came from the belief that my doctors would try to stop me if I went to them for advice and at that point in my life I wanted a fresh start and wasn’t prepared to let anything get in the way of it. I was just about to leave the flat I’d called home for six years and move in with Big T and I suppose I wanted everything to feel new, including my brain chemistry.
I don’t remember much about the first week of withdrawal. I know I spent a lot of my time in bed shivering, drifting in and out of the lightest sleep, twitching from the brain zaps, and barely eating. I don’t remember seeing Big T or my flatmate, though I know I must’ve done. I don’t even vividly recall coming out the other side, just that I did, and I was okay. You see, I had nothing to lose then. I worked from home and no one depended on me so I could afford to vegetate in my bedroom wearing the same pair of pyjamas, shaking drugs out of my system. A week or two down the toilet didn’t matter.
It does matter now though, because I have a child to look after. I have a home to take care of, and meals to cook, and clothes to wash. I can’t just stop.
But I want to come off these pills.
Every day I wrestle with side effects, the worst of which are debilitating in their own right.
First is the fatigue. It sets in shortly after I take a pill so I try to take it just before bed each night, but it doesn’t help me sleep well, just deeply. I wake up feeling hungover and sluggish, and that’s how I spend the day. Since restarting venlafaxine I’ve had permanent dark circles round my eyes and no amount of sleep changes it because I’m never rested enough. I looked through some photographs from when Little T was newborn and I look healthier and brighter even though I was only sleeping an hour or two a night and was struggling with undiagnosed PND. I am always tired. Some days I sit with Little T in my lap and sob because I’m so exhausted and I worry I’m letting him down.
The second side effect is less physically restrictive but it cripples my self esteem.
I sweat, specifically on my scalp. If the temperature is anywhere above 20 degrees or I move at all I start to sweat into my hair. And I’m not talking about a small amount; walking down to the tram stop with the pushchair at a gentle pace will leave the roots of my hair wet. The same walk in warm weather and it’ll be soaked to the ends. I hate it. At the moment the weather is beautiful, warm and bright, but instead of enjoying it with my son I’m inside hiding from the heat and trying to move as little as possible. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Going out for the day is an exercise in the kind of defiant self-confidence that I just don’t have. And sweating so much makes me dehydrate easily which can have a real physical cost if I don’t manage to drink enough, which with a newly crawling 7 month old I rarely do.
I get other side effects too, like nausea and occasional dizziness, and recently strong palpitations, but nothing that impedes my ability to live fully. It’s true that the exhaustion and sweating have been there since the beginning but back then it was worth it, and that’s the crucial point; that’s how I know I’m ready to come off this drug, because the pain it causes is greater than the pain it’s keeping at bay.
Great news, right? That must mean I’m ‘fixed’ and ready to declare myself fit, well and happy. Right..?
Well, no, because to me antidepressants don’t ‘fix’. All the medication I’ve been on for mental health conditions, which include antipsychotics and sedatives as well as various antidepressants, they hold off the wave long enough for me to breathe but they don’t dissipate it. The good news isn’t that I’m healthy, it’s that I’m feeling strong enough to face the wave on my own.
So a week ago I skipped a pill, just to see what it felt like and to see if I could cope. After 12 hours I was jittery, anxious, shivery, dizzy and feeling the beginnings of the awful brain zaps that feel like lightning behind my eyes. And I couldn’t hack it. The prospect of a weekend with my boys passing me by while I lay shaking and moaning in bed was too horrifying to bear so I gave in and waited the best part of the day to feel stable again. Since then I’ve felt angry and disenchanted because I’m physically dependent on this drug and it isn’t fair. PND took away my control, but I didn’t want to simply hand it over to venlafaxine instead.
I’m seeing my doctor this week and I’ll be making a plan with her for tapering off. I’m frightened, excited, apprehensive, determined, and also grateful to these meds for pulling me back from a cliff edge. But it’s time to try on my new life as a parent without them.
Wish me luck!