In a recent New York Times article, “Many People Taking Antidepressants Discover They Cannot Quit,” the authors detail how the withdrawal effects can be so severe, Americans would rather keep using these drugs than suffer the consequences of getting off of them. This finding may come as a surprise to many, but not to me. I had recently tried to sever my own six-year affair with my antidepressant of choice, Zoloft, and the consequences were nearly tragic.
My doctor prescribed Zoloft to me after a deep bout of postpartum depression and anxiety following the birth of my first son. It was, for me, a miracle drug. After weeks of crying for more hours of the day than not and irrational thoughts spanning from, “Does my baby want to kill me?” to “Is my baby evil?”, I was a person again. I had every intention of staying on the drug forever (why mess with a good thing?), until a surgery earlier this year required that I cease taking any SSRI’s to decrease the risk of a hematoma.
My psychiatrist put me on a somewhat abbreviated weaning schedule to time with my surgery — which we knew would be risky, but I still was not prepared for what was to come. As the authors of the aforementioned New York Times article point out, the medical profession lacks scientifically backed guidelines or strategies for people struggling to stop taking antidepressants.
My doctor prescribed Zoloft to me after a deep bout of postpartum depression and anxiety following the birth of my first son. It was, for me, a miracle drug.
One morning, I woke up feeling like I was at the bottom of a black hole coated slick with oil, and couldn’t crawl out. I couldn’t will myself to leave the house. My children couldn’t make me smile. Sometimes my own voice felt like it was coming from somewhere eight feet below the ground whenever I spoke. I tried to tell my children that I wasn’t feeling well, because that’s how you explain when Mommy is Weaning Off of Zoloft to people under seven.
If it were possible at the time, I would have laughed at how much my symptoms made me feel like an advertisement in a magazine – some sad sack woman sitting on a park bench, staring at her kids having fun in a park. The text above her head says something like, “You’re not yourself when you’re not on [insert drug of choice here].”
By week three or so, things were abysmal. My whole body ached, like the worst flu I ever had, and no pain reliever could alleviate it. Several times a day, I wanted to tear off my flesh, or rip off my head – anything to take away this bad feeling.
One morning, I woke up feeling like I was at the bottom of a black hole coated slick with oil, and couldn’t crawl out. I couldn’t will myself to leave the house.
Around that time, my family and I were walking down the avenue by our house. I’d made the mistake of finishing my husband’s Greyhound at brunch, hoping it would help take the edge off a little. My older son was being kind of a jerk that day, and as we were walking home, we were fighting about his iPad time and I lost it. My younger son started joining in on the whine-fest, and I screamed at them both, and they both continued not listening to me, and all my pain felt amplified. I walked ahead of them a bit, trying to relieve them of my wildness.
I looked at the cars and trucks rushing frantically down the avenue, leaving a slight tremble under my feet in their wake. The most bizarre idea came into my head: What if I just turned to my left, and began walking, Virginia Woolf-like, into the flow of traffic? No announcement, no farewell, just a straightforward decision to turn away from everything else and turn instead towards nothing. I could see my body as if I were observing from some distant place, like the tree next to the overpass where I had been standing, and could picture myself walking onto the avenue. In that fantasy, there was no suffering – no crushing limbs, no gore, no grieving family – just the feeling of being freed from pain. The option seemed so straightforward.
It was one of those feelings like when you’ve been sick for so long, you forget what healthy feels like, and then you finally feel healthy and you can finally say, “Wow. Life feels so damn good.”
But before I could dip my toe off the edge of the sidewalk, my older son came running up to me, asking about when he would get his iPad minutes back. Bam. My strange impulse and vision from moments before was gone, and I was reminded of my purpose and duty – to continue to be a mother and wife and child and friend – in spite of my own personal pain. I’d never before that moment, imagined in my wildest dreams, taking my own life.
After my surgery, I was given the go-ahead to go back on Zoloft. At first, I resisted – thinking, well, I made it this far. If, for some reason I ever needed to go off of this drug again in the future, I would never be able to face the withdrawal effects that go with it a second time. When I told my doctor about my “Virginia Woolf” moment, she insisted I go back on it immediately. And since martyrdom never looked good on me anyway, I took her advice. Within a week, I was back to myself. A whole person. It was one of those feelings like when you’ve been sick for so long, you forget what healthy feels like, and then you finally feel healthy and you can finally say, “Wow. Life feels so damn good.”
I am in good company when it comes to failing at quitting antidepressant use. As Carey and Gebeloff note in their New York Times piece, a recent study of 250 long-term users of psychiatric drugs revealed that nearly half of those in the study who tried to quit could not do so because of withdrawal symptoms. In another study, 130 of 180 long-term antidepressant users reported withdrawal symptoms.
As mothers, we need all the help we can get by way of support systems. This system can look different for many people. My support system includes antidepressants – a fact of which I am certain won’t change for me anytime soon if ever. I’m frustrated that I don’t seem to have a viable way out of getting off of this particular antidepressant, and fully switching to something else. But that likely still would not have changed my original decision to have gone on it in the first place. All things being equal, this isn’t all a bad story. Zoloft saved my life once, back when I first became a mother; when I thought it wouldn’t be possible to see the brightness in motherhood. Zoloft allowed me to experience joy again and helped me finally fall in love with my baby. And when I tried to walk away from Zoloft, the effects of that nearly ended my life. So I guess, like many kinds of relationships, ours is complicated.
Alexis Barad-Cutler is a HEYMAMA contributor, freelance writer, content creator and published children’s book author living in Brooklyn Heights. Her (often irreverent) writing is regularly featured on sites such as Well Rounded, Romper, and Fatherly – as well as other sites that cater to the parenting set. To read more from Alexis, click here.
Please seek medical advice before taking any antidepressants. All opinions in this article are those of the author.