Tales of Discontinuation Syndrome
On October 31 of the year known as “Y2K”, a high school freshman became the next victim of a great evil rapidly spreading through millennial children. She was dragged into a sickhouse known as the Family Physician’s Office, where in a mere 10 minutes, it was revealed she carried the family curse called “hereditary mental illness” that could never be undone. She was prescribed her first Elixir, which would morph into two decades of dizzying cocktails of mind-altering drugs. Like a happy face painted on a killer clown, the Selective Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors created temporary facades of mirth and joy, while underneath brain cells were dying, nerves were being electrocuted, libidos were being broken, and the innocence of childhood was being perpetually abused.
Sixteen years later, when the painted mask melted off after trying her nineteenth Elixir, she tried to break the curse with the help of Magicians of holistic and natural medicine. Just then, a vampiric arachnid crept from the woods and lay hidden undetected under the cover of her clothing, where it feasted for days on her blood, and injected her with a potent potion of spirochetes, worms, and an army of parasitic protozoa. Red scaly bumps emerged on her arms. Fungus bloomed from tongue and groin. Her vision grew blurry as her eyes began to dry out, tearing holes in her cornea and retina. Teeth began to turn black and loosen. Werewolf fur overtook as she no longer had the energy to hold a razor, nor tolerance for the burn of its unforgiving edge. She returned to the sickhouse and downed more drugs from the Physicians, painted on more happy faces, then melted into oblivion as they failed one by one...
Then one day, just as she was about to cross the threshold into Permanent Zombie, she was carried to a Master Magician’s table where she was pierced with needles, and began convulsing, shivering, sweating, gasping, and moaning as demons fled. The curse was being lifted, one needle, one herb, one caring ear, heart, and touch at a time.
It took two more years to exorcise all the demons and remove the Physicians’ Elixirs from her body, but today, on the 22nd anniversary of The Curse, she has lived to tell about it. Hair, teeth, and eyeballs in tact, all the poisons removed (though still furry by choice) she is here to tell her story.
I’ve been feeling like there’s so much to say, but I don’t have the words. Or maybe that there are SO many words – a million books have been written, thousands of interviews have been podcasted – and I really have nothing to add… yet I find myself in need of expression anyway. I feel a bit incoherent and rambly when writing lately. Not award-winning essayish or great medical journalism… just griefy and blubbery. To the point of inventing my own vocabulary. My mind just doesn’t want to linger here long enough to conjure up language. I want to leave it in the grave.
Depressed, I might almost be tempted to call it. But I won’t insult my emotions with such a caustic diagnosis. I’m just really sad. Not about nothing, not because my neurotransmitters are imbalanced or my brain is damaged. I’m really sad that I had to walk through hell to get myself free, and now that I’m on the other side, and experiencing an amazing life, freedom, love, joy, and anticipation of the future – for the first time in decades – I also find myself with this new emotion, previously blocked by SNRI’s, called empathy. I am watching a record number of people devastated by the pandemic, going on the same medications that nearly killed me, and children committing suicide and mass murder. And I feel it. As much as I can now feel all of me, I feel all of them in me. They are me. I was them. That past still haunts me like a ghost, moaning with pain and utter despair. And I can’t help them. The answer is bigger than one person (it’s a whole system), and takes rearranging your brain by rearranging your entire life, habits, and thoughts. One can only heal oneself. Is that encouraging? Is it enough for me to stand here and say “IT’S POSSIBLE!”? It’s all I’ve got. Yet it feels so painfully little… for such an enormous victory.
After 20 years on pharmaceuticals for Major Depressive Disorder (a “hereditary chemical imbalance”), I am now coming up on three years clean of all prescription medication (no marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, or psychedelic mushrooms, either – only Chinese medicine and vitamins.) I know the difficulty and pain I experienced during the withdrawal phase was compounded by having almost no one believing in me or supporting me through the decision to come off antidepressants. Any doctors who agreed to prescribe a tapering dose backtracked as soon as I showed signs of major depression and urged me to get back on something. No one had any idea how to treat grief or suicidal thoughts without drugs. From the outside, it looks like a dangerous, ill-advised, and even selfish decision to “go off your meds.” It’s terrifying to family members, especially children, and can result in downright abuse. But the first victim is the depressed individual, and nothing and no one can compare to their level of internal anguish. THEY need help first, before they can take care of anyone else. Remember that.
My question is, why don’t we then support people in this process as we would a hardcore drug addict – with rehabilitation and recovery centers and safe spaces – rather than tell them there’s nothing we can do but force them back on their prescriptions? Why didn’t I have a safe space? Because the pharmaceuticals are FDA-approved? Because they’re backed by billions of dollars in profits? Because the doctors prescribing them are not at all trained in mental health, but only in pharmaceutical rep biases and benefits, yet we are conditioned to trust them with our lives?
WHY DO WE HAVE ALMOST NO HEALING RESOURCES IN THIS COUNTRY WITH THE MOST EXPENSIVE HEALTHCARE SYSTEM?
That’s a rhetorical question – I already know the answer. Read anything by Gábor Máté or Kelly Brogan. I hope this is changing with more awareness, patient-led support groups, websites like “Mad in America” and documentaries like “Medicating Normal.” There are already a lot more resources now than I had seven years ago when I began the tapering journey. But the social stigma and ignorance is still rampant. The economic support is almost nil, for all the talk of “mental health” during the pandemic. Don’t get me started on virtual doctor visits and insurance-mandated 10-minute time limits.
Anyway. Yes, there is deep sadness on the other side of Major Depressive Disorder. That’s normal. People die. We grieve. Life changes abruptly. We panic. War breaks out. We fear. Boundaries are violated. We get angry. Things break. We scream. The normal, even healthy, spectrum of human emotion is vast and complicated and includes a lot of pain. If you’re looking for a life free of heartache, you’ve got the wrong planet and the wrong species. But these emotions don’t have to be terminal illnesses.
The disease is not in feeling hard emotions. The disease is a lack of receiving love, compassion, understanding, healthy biological coping mechanisms, and resolution of those emotions. What needs invasive treatment is not the individual, it’s the society. Yes, even the medical institutions and the religious institutions and the family institutions and obviously the political institutions – all are guilty of criminalizing, demonizing, and pathologizing normal human development. Being depressed doesn’t mean you need to be medicated. It means something in your life isn’t working for the good of your mind and/or body. The good news is: you can change it.
Mental disorder, addictive disorder, and even much of autoimmune, GI, skin, or organ disorder is just that: dis-order. A lack of order. A lack of consistent and coherent instructions for the body (cells, tissues, hormones) to organize and live by. A tiny percentage of that disorder in a tiny percentage of people is directly caused by genetic mutations which cannot be reversed (yet). For most of us, including most of us on prescription drugs, that disorder is caused by inconsistent and incoherent regulation of our nervous systems, through disordered trauma responses, disordered parenting, disordered eating, disordered religion, disordered learning, disordered environments, disordered groups or societies, or disordered safety and connection – basically dis-ordered support and development for life skills. (See Dr. Gábor Máté, Dr. Daniel Amen, Dr. Russ Kennedy, Dr. Caroline Leaf, Dr. Nicole LePera, Yolanda Renteria, Nicole Sachs, Jessica Maguire – all with free content on Instagram, YouTube, podcasts, interviews, as well as their books.)
Antidepressants don’t necessarily create order where it’s lacking, as is advertised through the “chemical imbalance” theory. They might chemically manipulate neurotransmitters to mimic ordered biology temporarily, but they ignore the question “why are the chemicals dis-ordered in the first place” and simply dim the lights (your gut instincts and emotions) in the room so you can’t see the giant mess that’s being made of emotions and neurobiology. Perhaps they clear a path through the dark, a rut which you can walk automatically, unobstructed day after day, surviving as usual. But you’re going to miss the fact that a massive pile of disorder is building up on either side (many studies show actual brain damage). When that pile of distress comes crashing down in your path, you’ll know it when you can’t go forward anymore; you require another prescription for a “supplemental” antidepressant to “help” the first one work, or collect more diagnoses, like anxiety, panic, insomnia, IBS, diabetes, thyroid problems, adrenal problems, liver problems, vision problems… you name it, it’s all more dis-order, because the root cause was never remedied.
The good news is, once you explore and discover the cause(s) of your disordered thoughts and behaviors, you can choose to change them or remove them from your life. The bad news is, this takes a lot more work than swallowing a few pills and seeing a doctor for ten minutes every three months; it requires tuning into your feelings, understanding and trusting your gut instincts, which can be very painful, even traumatic, and eventually the crutch of medication will have to be removed so you can feel again. And the feeling of all that disorder is what scared you into antidepressant therapy in the first place. The good news is, with support, education, positive changes, and healthy coping mechanisms, IT IS POSSIBLE to navigate and process those feelings and eliminate the need for psychoactive drugs and their myriad side effects.
Tricks and Treats for Getting Off Antidepressants
(not-medical advice from not-a-doctor)
There are two major parts to antidepressant discontinuation (with many stages and milestones in each):
I) The physical withdrawal of the drug-dependent brain
II) The recalibration of the nervous system and psychology – building a healthy brain
Both of these integrate the mind and body, and you must quickly learn that the two are not separable. Science shows that the brain is, in fact, part of the human body. They are always in communication, and helping one will help the other. Keep this in mind as you navigate these stages. Learning about psycho-neuro-immunology was a very helpful paradigm for getting me through this.
The physical withdrawal is the most terrifying and dangerous part, as you are, essentially, addicted to drugs and require a safe detox and rehabilitation. 1) You must discuss a safe tapering regimen with your doctor and get the proper prescription strengths for each step down. Never quit cold-turkey (I don’t care how much of a bad-ass you are, you are severely risking your life and many others by doing this. DON’T DO IT. If you’re out of your mind and considering it, check yourself into a psychiatric facility immediately for 24/7 surveillance and do not leave until you are stabilized.) Extended Release pills can NOT be cut. Some capsules can be opened and beads counted for micro-tapers. Read up on the literature about your medications and their safety protocols. You must discuss a safe tapering regimen with your doctor.
The best doctors to help you through this will be holistic, integrative, Functional Medicine, naturopaths, etc. They can test specific levels of nutrients, hormones, adrenals, thyroid, immune function, etc. and help you maintain a balance far beyond a general practitioner. If you can’t afford one, there is still hope:
UTILIZE THE VAST COLLECTION OF RESOURCES AT www.medicatingnormal.com
Discontinuation can take weeks, months, or years, depending on your dosage and level of dependency. Range of side effects will also vary from drug to drug and patient to patient, depending on mode of action and half-life. Go at your own pace as needed. Clear your schedule as much as you possibly can during this time. Your first Life Lesson that will carry you through this process and heal your entire existence is the power of saying “NO.” Do not volunteer for stuff, do not take on extra work, do not start a family, do not go back to school, do not travel, do not move, do not change careers, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 (unless it's from your insurance company). Do not perceive this as “all the things I can’t do.” Remember this is “all the things I WILL do after a period of critical self-care and rest.” Your life is going to be amazing. For now, have patience and don’t jump the gun. It will feel like forever. It’s not. Observe, listen, inquire of your inner world, and learn the superpower of stillness.
Obviously, life sometimes hands us urgent matters, but do not wave your arms and beg it for opportunities. The withdrawal stage can be brutal. Notify the important people at work of possible complications, if you can’t take sick leave or sabbatical. Make arrangements for your family to have safe places to go and be taken care of if and when things get traumatizing or violent. Participate in religious or community gatherings ONLY if they feel safe, non-judgmental, and supportive; if you need to withdraw for a season, please allow yourself to do so. You may turn into a monster. Prepare a safe space to do that, give yourself a ton of compassion, and PLEASE learn to communicate honestly, apologize (during), and repair relationships, especially with your family (after). Do not let wounded pride and humiliation toxify your life – explain ahead of time, share media relevant to your experience, and be honest about your needs as they arise: to be alone, to be under surveillance, to be excused, to be honest.
In short, 2) prepare for a season of irrationality and disability. Nausea, vertigo, headaches, tremors, cognitive impairment, visual impairment, depression, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, violence, rage, crying, screaming, paranoia, abnormally low or high libido, short temper, panic attacks, anxiety, agitation, insomnia, hypersomnia, risky behavior, addictive behavior.
When and if you feel stable enough at any stage of tapering, certainly maintain relationships and hobbies. Finding activities that you enjoy, and especially spending time in nature, can help ease depression. Just remember to have a back-up and a back-out plan in case of emergency or panic attack. I would advise against attempting to “feel better” by taking a major dream vacation, which may be ruined by sickness or meltdowns. Choose your activities and companions wisely, and invest most in the physical health of your body – use the vacation days for simplicity. Do not feel pressured to put on a happy face, look normal, or “just do yoga” when you feel ill and your body asks for rest. Rest is a healing act as well.
Not all drugs will have these discontinuation effects, and not all people will experience them, nor to the same degree. I’m detailing the horrors of my own scenario to encourage people to take this process seriously and to be prepared. Being caught off-guard and stuck in emergency situations is humiliating and can further the depressive spiral of shame and self-loathing. PLEASE PREPARE.
I did not prepare. In my withdrawal, I was newly wed, immigrated trans-Atlantic, started a job I hated, started volunteering, met new people I had to pretend to like, changed diets, hosted parties, bought a few cars, moved states, went on hikes, got bitten by a tick, and almost died of Lyme Disease. This is not a boast about how much I accomplished during antidepressant withdrawal; this is a confession and a warning of all the stress and major life changes I continued to take on which resulted in MASSIVE MELTDOWNS, horrible first-impressions, near-miss traffic accidents, utter embarrassment and humiliation, and I suspect almost divorce. IT’S POSSIBLE, for those who need to do all the hard work alone. But I beg of you, give yourself more space, rest, and room to disappear for a while if you need to. One good thing about COVID is it prepared many more people for single-incomes, flexible scheduling, and canceling social situations. It’s sad so many people went ON antidepressants during the pandemic, because it was actually an ideal time to discontinue them (for people without kids) – a free pass for chaos and social withdrawal, and a lot more resources opening up for mental health. My first year clean was 2020. It was ROUGH, but I had all the space I needed in quarantine to go crazy.
3) Help your body stabilize and fight inflammation. This should start before the withdrawal process. Inflammation in the brain, or anywhere in the body, will magnify the depression and withdrawal effects. You also want to maintain good nutrition to stimulate repair and regeneration of the brain. Good doctors who support the discontinuation process will recommend cutting gluten, dairy, and sugar from your diet, as well as common-sense restrictions like MSG, artificial sweeteners, coloring, and flavoring, and other nervous system disruptors. These foods are the most common inflammatory factors in the diet. Soy, corn, eggs (fed on soy and corn!) are also common culprits. At the very least, remove junk food and inflammatory cooking oils, and fill up on fresh vegetables and fruits. Ultimately, an elimination diet such as Whole30, GAPS, AIP, paleo, or keto may end up doing absolute wonders for your mental health as undiagnosed food sensitivities come to light. Personally, I turn into a different person when I have dairy or corn – full out psycho, and would definitely have a few diagnoses if I ate them every day – which I did! I cut them out, and the diagnoses and medications are all in the past!
As someone who once tried to get off antidepressants with “diet and exercise,” I can tell you they don’t work if you don’t know what it means. First, what Americans consider a “healthy diet” is far from it. Pretty much anything with a label is not ideal. My yogurt (inflammatory dairy and chock full of sugar) and granola (sugar on corn syrup on pesticides) weren’t doing a lick of of good! Second, some studies have shown that the benefits of exercise may actually be reversed when taking antidepressants! Going to the gym killed my endorphins rather than stimulating them!
My point is, read up on real nutrition and do movements that you enjoy, not fitness programs that feel like a drag or make you anxious. (see: Dr. Kelly Brogan, Dr. Will Cole, Dr. Christian Gonzalez, and the literature of the above-mentioned diet plans). The right diet (individualized to YOU) can do WONDERS for your brain!
In addition to diet, there are several supplements that commonly help with depression and drug withdrawal. Vitamin D, a complex of B-vitamins, Omega-3 fish oil (triglyceride form, EPA and DHA), melatonin (start very low), personalized amino acids (tyrosine is also a game changer for me!), 5-HTP (use with caution regarding serotonin syndrome), SAM-e, St. John’s Wort, GABA. THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. All should be tailored to your specific needs under the supervision of a doctor.
My personal remedies for side effects (NOT MEDICAL ADVICE):
I went through my worst withdrawal from Effexor before discovering the wonders of natural medicine. I survived on Dramamine, Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen, and a bunch of other junk I wouldn’t touch now. My “easier” final taper from Wellbutrin was handled naturally. (Links are NOT affiliates or monetized)
-cut caffeine and just REST when you’re tired
-nausea – ginger, “sea band” wrist bands with acupressure knobs
-vertigo – bio-available turmeric
-muscle twitching – magnesium (threonate form goes to the brain)
-akathisia – lemon balm tea (also called sweet Melissa), repositioning my jaw with my tongue or a fist between my back teeth
-anxiety and panic – Chinese Medicine herbal formulas (must be prescribed by a Doctor of Oriental Medicine according to your specific constitution). Nothing else worked for me – valerian, CBD, sleeping pills, other people’s herbal formulas – all did nothing or made me worse
-everything -- acupuncture and self acupressure!
4) Consider temporary transitory medications. Though I’m not a fan of prescription drugs, it is sometimes the only option for a while to transition from your worst drug to one with milder side effects and milder withdrawal effects. Personally, after getting off my worst (Effexor) and finding natural alternatives for Ativan, I was stuck on Wellbutrin for another 4 years while I battled Lyme Disease (a major suicide risk). All I learned about health and mental wellness in that time, however, with a clean diet and balanced Chinese medicines, allowed me to taper off that easier.
5) Learn positive, loving, compassionate self-talk. Be your greatest encourager and advocate. Talk nice to yourself and about yourself, and lose the sarcasm. Find all the evidence that you can be whole and healed when you are tempted to think you’re damaged beyond repair. YOU NEED this self-loving neural network in your brain to heal mental illness and pave the way for a healthy future. Painfully, this may require removing yourself from pessimistic, sarcastic, heredity-blaming, “just kidding”, “you’re too sensitive” family, friends, coworkers, sports teams, fan clubs, communities, or religious groups. Even more painfully, you might find these to be a major source of your original dis-ordered thinking and beliefs. Reconciliation may or may not come. For now, cut the haters. You need massive doses of LOVE and COMPASSION right now, starting from yourself.
6) Protect your body. If and when the compulsion arises to flail, punch, and bang your head on the wall, remember that it’s your precious body and brain that you are trying to HEAL. Book a rage room, or grab some safety goggles and take a few old jars or mugs to the driveway. Break things, not yourself, and not people. And don’t break other people’s things. If you want to feel pain, invest in a second-hand bike trainer or treadmill and do a marathon til you scream (it might not take long).
7) Protect your immune system. Stress mutes your immune system. Withdrawal is extremely stressful on the mind and body – your survival fight-or-flight hormones will be through the roof, and your rest-and-digest hormones will never see the light of day. Long-term, the whole body can shut down to keep your vital organs protected, which is where can’t-get-out-of-bed depression sets in. Practice pandemic procedures like masking, disinfecting, social distancing, avoid risky behaviors, and use all precautions for outdoor activities to prevent tick and mosquito bites (natcaplyme.org). Take your vitamins, diffuse essential oils, eat healthy food, get acupuncture. I did not do this. I got many many diseases just when I thought I made it through the withdrawal, blurring the surreal line between pharmaceutical harm, chronic illness, and PTSD – I don’t know which was which. Keep it simple.
8) Create alternate accounts for social media, because you’re going to regret all the inappropriate rants you posted, and will want to delete this entire identity when you come into a sound mind. However, an honest and open account of your experience can be therapeutic and very helpful to society. Choose wisely and respect your own boundaries. The open honesty might be better in retrospect. Keep a diary.
9) REMEMBER – IT’S POSSIBLE. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND FIGHT FOR YOUR DIGNITY.
When you remove the medication, you will often find that the reasons you went on the medication are still there, and are still emotionally overwhelming. After the withdrawal period, when the drugs are out of your system, you’re going to need to learn new ways of managing the life, stress, work, family, goals, emergencies, and situations that lead to mental dis-order. Recalibrating your nervous system and psychology can overlap and begin in the withdrawal stage. Seek out whatever resources and doctors seem to be the right fit for your desired mentally-healthy life. Learn to sit with the discomfort of change, and learn how to accept it.
You have to take initiative for yourself, and be the driver of your own change. Normally, I spend hours setting up links to the resources I mention, all the doctors, books, and media accounts. Not this time; a major part of why I healed is that I didn’t depend on everyone else to do the work for me – I had to build the network of “I can heal myself” in my brain, by doing stuff for myself. Me being a walking encyclopedia does your brain no good if you can’t connect dots and summon the willpower to explore on your own. So copy and paste the names and books I drop, and find your own support groups. You don’t have to do it alone, but you do have to do it for yourself.
Essentially, you are seeking to understand the original causes of dis-order in your brain and body. These are often a combination of:
1) never learning practical effective emotional coping skills
2) food sensitivities – including ingredients in some of your prescription meds
3) chemical sensitivities – including some components of your medical devices/procedures
4) a traumatic event or loss
6) early childhood / attachment trauma
7) dysfunctional family / religious / community beliefs
1) Therapy should start before withdrawal. I know this can be scary. I went through so many useless counselors. You can start with virtual visits, your EAP, a local hotline, social media accounts of doctors and licensed therapists, or whatever resources you feel drawn to. The important part is that you learn how to feel, identify, and express your feelings to yourself and to another person, learn physical and mental coping mechanisms for overwhelming feelings, and develop a toolkit for handling psychological and somatic emergencies. Cognitive behavioral therapy, Compassionate Inquiry, Somatic Experiencing, breathwork, journaling, meditation, NeuroCycle and other mind-management programs, EFT/ tapping, yoga, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, reiki… anything. There are MANY different practices in many different modalities for coping with negative thoughts and physical alarm in the body. Find some techniques that work for you, and a practitioner – in person or online – who resonates with you.
2) If you haven’t adopted a healthy nutrition plan during withdrawal, do it ASAP. As I said, undiagnosed food sensitivities can be THE game changer in your mental and physical health. Proper nutrition might even get you off other medications. At the very least, empowering yourself to research nutrition and choose a personalized, thoughtful eating plan will build a very important neural pathway toward your new healed brain: willpower and self-determination, self-healing abilities through new choices. A good place to start on your own is to read the books on Whole30, GAPS, keto, paleo, AIP, Wahl's Protocol.)
3) If you haven’t detoxed your home during withdrawal, do it ASAP. Chemical sensitivities can also be a game changer in mental and physical health. It can be downright overwhelming to learn just how many thousands of chemicals are being used in our daily routines which are linked to disorders of the brain and nervous system, endocrine system, reproductive system, immune system, heart, lungs, circadian rhythms, and even cancer. Laundry detergent and fabric softener, air fresheners, perfumes, shampoo, soaps, cleaners, candles, cosmetics, deodorant, toothpaste, dish soap, cookware, upholstery and carpets, furniture, fragrances, dyes, water-proofing, fitness clothing, synthetic fabrics… PLEASE READ UP ON THIS! Detoxing your life can be a daunting process. Start with the things already on your grocery list that need replaced. Google “dangers of toxic _______” and find out what clean alternatives you can purchase, make at home, or do without altogether. If you are still overwhelmed and don’t have the time or money, just be mindful of starting to purchase things with no fragrance, dyes, artificial or synthetic anything, organic, unbleached, etc. Be most concerned about the things that are absorbed directly into your skin – lotions, deodorant, cosmetics, clothing, and detergents. As for perfumes, cosmetics, fresheners, and scents – just ditch them altogether! Nothing cheaper than that!
As with food, undiagnosed chemical sensitivities can be wreaking havoc on your mental and physical health, and eliminating them just might do wonders in your life, and possibly get you off other medications (which can also be hidden sources of mental and physical side effects.) Cleaning up all areas of your environment of mental and physical toxicity can snowball into a fantastic rebirth, way beyond depression, into downright bliss!
Again, at the very least, empowering yourself to research chemical toxicity and choose a personalized, clean environment will build a very important neural pathway toward your new healed brain: self-determination and positive changes – you’re not stuck in the shopping, grooming, or cleaning habits which were part of your depressed life!
Caveat: this information can be overwhelming and lead to a chronic fear of toxic food and chemicals. Affordability is not an obstacle. Healthy changes can be made in any budget. Find a healthy balance for yourself of empowering information and change, and know that repairing your nervous system can also lead to a greater tolerance of these foods and chemicals, a stronger immune system, and the ability to be exposed to them without serious effects. Your needs will change as you move through this journey. Be as aware and responsible as you can, while trusting and relaxing in your choices. Check in with your mental and physical state often.
From here, the nightmare could be over – you have detoxed your brain of pharmaceuticals and made empowering life choices that support a healthy mind, healthy body, and healthy thoughts. You are living proof that change is possible, you are feeling empowered. You have gentle and effective coping mechanisms for recognizing, expressing, and moving through grief, anger, disappointment, fear, sadness, and life’s difficulties. If you’re feeling good, the masters like Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer, Joe Dispenza, Louise Hay, and the gurus of “just stop being depressed and live in love and gratitude in the present moment” might be great sources of inspiration and encouragement.
Ooooorrrr the haunted house may have a few more rooms.
You may be left with PTSD or EST (Enduring Somatic Threat – PTSD from medical trauma), or you don’t have the time or money for all that yoga and avocado-toast crap. You may want to go back on antidepressants, or find yourself with a new addiction, or just feel lost, or maybe even suicidal. Then what?
Well, there may be a greater journey in play here (I know, yuck.) I have outlined the exhaustive details of mine in the “Where’s the Poop, Robin?” series, so I’ll try to make this long story end before midnight. Another fantastic documentary and resource is “The Wisdom of Trauma.”
Back to the roots of mental illness and depression: dis-order. Sometimes the disorder is from bad chemicals in food wreaking havoc on your gut (the birthplace of 90% of serotonin!). Sometimes it’s bad chemicals from the myriad household and personal products interfering with neurological signals. And sometimes the disorder is from traumatic events (death, accidents, war) that we didn’t have social support or personal coping skills to handle. Those may require time to grieve, learning emotional processing, and/or PTSD therapy.
But sometimes the dis-order is camouflaged. See, our brains are actually really smart, certifiable or not. Sometimes when things in our environment are so disordered – the people we love hurt us, the things we trust betray us, the life we’re given is in constant threat, what we’re told and what we’re shown are not the same – ours brain will protect us from this pain, fear, confusion, and hypocrisy by shutting parts down. Actual brain changes can be detected on scans. Mental disorders and what is diagnosed as a “disease” may actually be normal, healthy, intelligent adaptations of our brain in response to abnormal, unhealthy, and abusive environments. Is the “chemical imbalance” hereditary, or are the lifestyles, beliefs, and systems of abuse which cause these brain changes being passed down instead?
The good news is, these adaptations can be worked around or even reversed and resolved into a healthy, happy brain, through the process called “neuroplasticity” - the ability of the brain to change when it gets new information or a new environment. All the steps I’ve discussed so far for surviving antidepressant withdrawal contribute to neuroplasticity; these changes in your lifestyle and thinking are feeding your brain new ideas, new habits, new perspectives, new hope, which are strengthening neural networks of positive thoughts and positive feelings and positive neurotransmitter exchange. The more you dive into this work to learn for yourself and make your own choices, the stronger the “brain surgery” will be, and the better you will heal from mental dis-order. If you merely go through motions because I, or a doctor, or the internet told you to, but haven’t learned to take control of your mind and body, the results may be superficial and temporary (but hey, any progress is good progress! Keep going!) Building and reinforcing a new network of brain cells focused on love, compassion, creativity, and joy is the key. And start with yourself - self-love and self-compassion is the only way to heal; it's not selfish, and it will flow to others.
Back to those painful situations that our brain has quarantined from our memory – the bad news is, they may be blocking and sabotaging our ability to build and reinforce that happy little network of brain cells that will heal depression. This is known as trauma. Big-T Trauma like abuse, and war, and death; and little-t trauma like food and housing insecurity, having an ill or addicted parent, being regularly teased, criticized, or shamed by someone you love (especially a parent), having your feelings and emotions dismissed as “too sensitive” or “sinful”, or being raised with the constant fear of punishment. (See “ACES study”) Little developing brains are highly sensitive to hurt and emotional dysregulation. Big-T, or little-t, a young child (or adult!) with no one to help them through their dis-ordered understanding of a dis-ordered environment and their emotions will develop coping skills for their trauma that will eventually result in a dis-ordered brain, and often the body will follow.
The good news is, this can be healed. The bad news is, it can be a long and painful journey. The good news is, it’s worth it. The bad news is, you sometimes have to fight really really hard to hold onto that benefit. The good news is, it gets easier, and you can have a second chance at a brand new life free of mental illness even after 20 years on pharmaceutical antidepressants. You can overcome even the brain changes and toxicity they have made.
4, 5) Seek a support group and therapy for your specific trauma. Learn about different types of therapy and somatic (body-based) approaches to reintegrate your mind and body, resolve the past, experience the present, and not fear the future. (Read: “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk)
6) Understand how even a “normal” childhood can be traumatic for a child (that’s YOU, your younger self) without the proper resources and attachment. (See: Yolanda Renteria, Gábor Máté, Jean Cheng, C-PTSD) IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN, work on yourself first – use these resources from the perspective of YOUR childhood. It will inform and evolve the way you parent; be careful not to let guilt and shame of “messing up your children” prevent you from healing YOURSELF first. YOU are the child. Healing your SELF is the only way to help heal your children.
7) Consider how you may need to set boundaries, develop a different type of relationship with, or cut off contact altogether with family, friends, religions, clubs, sports, communities, etc. who have contributed to your dis-ordered self-image, beliefs, and destructive coping mechanisms. Choose connections that support and reinforce healthy, positive, compassionate, and loving ways of thinking, speaking, acting, and coping with difficult issues. I’ve heard it said “It’s hard to heal in the environment that hurt you.” This is especially true of depression and mental health.
If you want your life to change, you have to change your life. There is nothing scarier than that. But this trick comes with amazing treats. You know what the day after Halloween is? All Saint’s Day. All holy. All divine. All healed.