When I last wrote an IHTM for xoJane, I was struggling to live with Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder, which I’d developed seemingly out of nowhere. However, this was only the most bizarre of the array of ailments I’d been dealing with over the past decade, on top of an ongoing battle with depression, ever-worsening manic episodes, and occasional psychosis. I’d been seeing specialists nonstop since I was 19, who continued to pile treatment on treatment, and nothing ever seemed to completely take care of any problem. My physical health was deteriorating, my mental state was no better than it was when I started taking psychiatric medications in 2002, and my life had become unmanageable. And scary.
In a last-ditch effort to get to the bottom of my issues, I decided to go off all my medications in April 2014. I knew that, in order to properly treat whatever I was struggling with, I needed a clear status update on where I was at my organic base level. I’d been on antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers since I was in my late-teen years, and a lot has changed; I needed to find out exactly what I was still suffering from when everything else was stripped away. I also figured that 15 years on birth control was playing into my hormones and disrupting my moods, so I went off that, too.
I don’t recommend my method, by the way. At. All. I didn’t have a psychiatrist I trusted, which left me feeling like I needed to resort to my own devices; this was not ideal. I knew that slowly going off the medications would be drawn-out misery, while quitting cold-turkey would just be a short-term hell, and I like spoilers, so, after thoroughly researching the dangers of quitting the specific pharmaceuticals I was on, rallying my support group, hoarding supplements to ease the transition, and getting my affairs in order, I just quit everything.
It was literal physical torture. Don’t do it that way. Please.
I expected to descend into the depression I’ve known since I was 11, and I planned to spend a couple months observing myself so I’d have a thorough report for a psychiatrist when I went back. My husband was my right-hand man during this; we kept in communication constantly and I trusted him to tell me if he was worried about any erratic behaviors. I made no big decisions and texted him anytime I felt anything remotely negative. We knew we were being hyper-vigilant, but knowing how severely my mind can react, we didn’t want to take any chances.
However, something unexpected happened after everything left my system: I felt fine. My mind was finally calm; I was no longer caught in obsessive cycles. I didn’t feel too happy or too sad. I was no longer needlessly angry about the past. There were no manic episodes or mood swings. I felt more settled than I had in years.
My husband and I were too nervous to be optimistic, but, over the next few months, my calm demeanor, objective moods, and clear thinking stayed. We couldn’t believe it.
Not only that, but my physical illnesses began to dissipate immediately. My PGAD was gone within a week and hasn’t returned. The fibromyalgia-type musculoskeletal aches and pains I’d been seeing a neurologist for slowly vanished, and my chronic fatigue was lifted completely when I gave up gluten (I knoooow. I hate it, but it’s true). I’d seen a gastroenterologist for ER-worthy pain and bloating, but endoscopies never turned up anything new; after quitting my meds, this pain stopped completely. Because I was no longer on birth control, my hormones started working themselves out naturally (Oh HI, ACNE!) and finding a rhythm again.
It was while I was observing my monthly cycle that I had a revelation I wish I’d had when I was 12: I only feel suicidally, cripplingly depressed for a few days every month. In fact, I vividly remember the years before I started antidepressants spending evenings in full crisis mode and then waking up the next morning feeling alright again. I never thought to start tracking it alongside my monthly cycle because, at that time, there was no PMDD diagnosis; people were barely talking about mental health at all in the mid-90s, or least I wasn't aware of the conversations that were happening.
There were plenty of exterior influences in my adolescence and early twenties that compounded my depression, but now that I’ve done a decade’s worth of therapy and rebuilt my life so I’m surrounded by people who love and support me, the only thing left to contribute to suicidal compulsion is a chemical imbalance.
By taking myself off all my medications, I was clearly able to see that that chemical imbalance only happens a couple days every month for me. Sometimes, the immobilizing depression, crippling anxiety, and suicidal thoughts only last 6-8 hours and then I start my period and my mood lifts as though I’ve walked out of a fog. The first time I experienced it in this last year, I was amazed; it was exactly how it used to be when I was a tween.
I learned from a friend that it is possible to take a little Zoloft for the week prior to my period to curb the suicidal thoughts and depression part of PMS, and my OB/GYN has prescribed me 7 small tablets per month just for that. It works fantastically.
Only now does my evolving bipolar behavior and diagnosis make sense. In the three weeks every month that I don’t need to be on antidepressants, I was being wildly overmedicated, which lead to me becoming manic, aggressive, and sometimes psychotic. Not only that, the superfluous medication was amplifying all the crazy possible side effects and wreaking havoc on my body.
I would be lying if I said I haven’t spent some time being angry that none of my doctors ever suggested that it was all the medicine causing most of what I’ve dealt with. I’ve been angry not a single one ever suggested seeing what I was like at my base levels instead of just piling on more pills. I was angry that, for the first 9 months after I went off of antidepressants, I experienced Tardive Dysphoria, which is when someone has been on antidepressants so long that s/he loses the ability to give a shit about anything without pharmaceutical help.
I’m still a little angry I went to 6 long-term doctors over the course of 12 years and none of them really listened to me or treated me like a person instead of a guinea pig. I’m not an idiot; I understand their fear of taking a previously-suicidal woman off her meds, but I was infuriated to see how quickly they were to routinely dole out more medicine without ever once examining the big picture. (A few times when I asked, my psychiatrist flat-out said my health problems couldn’t be related to any medication I was on, even though some of the pharmaceutical companies later listed those as side effects… and lost class-action lawsuits pertaining to the exact ailments I had.) And nobody ever, ever suggested “healing,” but that’s a whole extra can of worms.
Today, I’m really only frustrated that we’re still stuck in the Dark Ages of Psychiatry. For years, I told everyone I knew about my depression in hopes of getting help and was responded to with, “You’re just trying to get attention.” (Uh, yes. Yes I was. Just like if I was drowning, I’d be screaming for help.) Then, once I was seeking treatment I had to endure years of monthly manic episodes and depressions while people around me scoffed, “You must be off your pills again,” despite my constantly doing everything I knew to get better.
Look, this essay can’t scratch the surface of all the issues surrounding psychiatric culture in America, but frankly, it’s a field that needs the public’s attention and social awareness in order to improve.
I’m too relieved and thankful to be actively angry, though. I’m just so happy to have found answers and to finally see my life moving forward. I’ve spent the last 15-ish months making my body and mind mine again. I’ve been connecting with my family in ways we weren’t able to when I was having psychotic episodes that wrecked everything. I’m taking time to recover and regain strength and endurance. I’ve been able to hold down a part-time job, complete a 9-month yoga teacher training, rebuild my marriage, lose 40 lbs, and take my daughter on regular adventures in the last year, which would’ve been impossible to do in tandem at any point in the 12 years I was always in flux.
I’m just happy to be consistent, sane, and in control again, which is something I never considered hoping for when I was in the throes of mental illness, medically-induced or otherwise.
I don’t advocate my method to everyone. (PLEASE don’t ever wean yourself off medications alone. Work with a doctor. Make sure you have loved ones around to keep tabs on your behaviors for the first little bit. Rely on people you trust to tell you when they think you’re acting erratically or dangerously.) But I do encourage everyone to do extra homework when seeing a mental health specialist; your health is your responsibility, and proactivity and research are your friends. Just like with any science, medicine is ever-changing as we learn new things; our participation and response is what molds its course for the future.