Freedom feels good. And whenever that freedom erodes—in any way—it can contribute in significant ways to despair. That was a final, widely apparent finding that came up strongly in my review of these healing accounts.
Have you ever had a period of your life when you felt your freedom reduced or even taken away? These remarkable individuals had a lot to say about these kinds of periods in their life—and how moving beyond them impacted their emotional healing over time. This was a second theme that was not universal, but clearly still prominent—representing 12 stories referring to drugs and alcohol (11, 12, 14, 24, 43, 59, 69, 73, 74, 80, 96, 110) and 32 stories exploring long-term reliance on antidepressants (1, 4, 6, 25, 30, 46, 47, 51, 52, 59, 63, 65, 68, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 78, 80, 85, 86, 88, 96, 102, 103, 104, 105, 108, 109, 110, 112).
Some will object to these themes being explored one after another. To be very clear, the issues with illegal drugs and alcohol are very different from those regarding legally prescribed medications. But there also remain some common themes of dependance emotionally on a substance to feel well.
Long-term Reliance on Substance Use
Freedom from drugs and alcohol. Lots of people spoke of reducing or eliminating alcohol as part of their depression healing:
- One man eliminated all forms of drugs, alcohol, and coffee from his life, leading to what he describes as a very clean, spiritual life. “I rarely drink coffee. I’m very serious about no alcohol, no drugs. Life is too beautiful.” (73)
- David spoke of “avoiding drinking too much alcohol.” (59)
- Marsha emphasized their rule of “no drinking alcohol when alone.” (43)
- Gwen said, “I stopped drinking alcohol.” (110)
- One individual said, “I realized the drinking was a slow suicide and I also realized the pain and misery it could bring to [my young kids] if I didn’t find a way to stop.”
This kind of step is well-known to be challenging—especially because it requires people to feel what they’re feeling…without being able to get out of it easy and quick:
- One individual said “I went sober for 9 weeks, which made it both harder psychologically (no escape!) but I knew it was necessary.” She then described how she was also decreasing the amount of sugar, caffeine and junk food she was consuming too.
- “I decided to give sobriety a shot, because at that time I saw alcohol as the only medication that worked for me. The only time I didn’t care that I was miserable was when I was drinking. I had really become very reliant on it. So, when I put the drink down, I was faced with the reality of my life.” (14)
The reality of life. This kind of an addiction is challenging for any of us to face. She admitted, “it was really hard.” But listen to what she said next: “In a matter of weeks I just started to feel different…my life just started to clear up a little bit. I was still really unhappy, but I no longer felt totally controlled by my emotions…all of a sudden, I felt this sense of hope.”
“In a very low point” of her life, which coincided with a period of drinking, drug abuse, disordered eating, and depression and anxiety, Vicki said, “I remember one evening… I was all alone and it was just me, with myself, with what I had done, and what I was doing….and something inside me…roared, ‘You’ve got to do something about this, this is not what you want to do long-term.’”
Although reaching such a low-point is painful, she said, “instead of being ashamed” of these moments, “it’s such a turn of perspective to regard these episodes as teachers, as opportunities.” She spoke optimistically about recognizing, “I can learn something from this, I don’t have to be ashamed of it. I can acknowledge it and can look for help. I can start right here, right here in the depths and work my way out. There is a way out.”
She added, “But you have to take the first step.” (12)
One individual described a wake-up moment after a near-fatal car accident involving alcohol. On that day, she heard a voice, “This is your last chance. If you don’t turn around, I will never save you again.” She recollected, “The voice was so loud that at first, I thought it had been audible…I was changed forever….I had to change or die. So, I changed.” She related, “The first thing I did was to quit drinking alcohol. Cold turkey. I threw away every single drop and never touched it again for many years.” (69)
“Face the facts,” said one individual who battled both depression and anxiety said, “even with total understanding and acceptance, and even when your [mental health is] well under control, you will still feel worse when you are on a come down from alcohol and/or drugs, that’s it! Not ifs or buts.” Jonathan elaborated: “So, then you have to look at the certainty of how you are going to feel the day after and sometimes days after, and if it is worth it?” He adds, “You might very well feel like that short time away from you being worried and fearful is worth the bad days ahead, but if you want a more even life than the highs and lows of alcohol and drugs, then you should at least give abstinence a go.” (96)
A change around substances can prompt other rippling effects. As Brooke remembered, “I decided to quit drinking for a year. I stop all at once and don’t tell anyone about my decision. I immediately notice that I can’t tolerate dating the men in my life without drinking, so I also stop dating and avoid the bars.”
Previously, she recounted, “At night, I am getting drunk, sleeping with men who desire me, but do not have the capacity to love me, and in the morning waking up and dragging myself to class.” At first, Brooke said, “my daily drinking and revolving door of lovers feels like a legitimate pursuit of pleasure” and it “feels liberating to rebel against …my religious past.” But soon, she acknowledged, “It turns into an emotional dependency, a way to temporarily relieve my anxiety and depression.” She notices how much “relying on alcohol and casual sex to alter my mood only amplifies my struggle.” Eventually, Brooke started becoming “weary of my addictions—the physical ways I try to escape my soul wound” acknowledging, “this is not the freedom I crave.” She then summarized what happens next:
Slowly, meditation seduces me. My practice is gentle and gradually more consistent. Witnessing my own patterns awakens me to this truth: I don’t want to settle for little moments of physical pleasure, distractions, and escapes. I want, as I had always wanted, to be free. (80)
Compared to other things she had turned to in the past, this freedom and sweetness was singular—“My spiritual birthright is far more blissful than this shadow dance: another pretty, oblivious man in my bed, another round of drinks, another concert to drown out the sound of the primal music inside of me.” (80)
Similar benefits came from people reducing their dependence on other drugs, both legal and illegal. As one person recounted:
I was chronically using marijuana from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. It was difficult knowing that I could not start my day off right without smoking some marijuana. I was able to drop my habitual weed smoking habit about a month after I stopped the medications. I have been off all of these substances now for close to 3 months and haven’t felt this great in a long time. (74)
After many years of drinking and being on medications that were not working, one woman began to taper off. Reflecting on this combined shift, Angel said, “I had been hopeless for so many years…. my world had become so small that I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel—and all of a sudden, as I started getting sober from alcohol and getting off these medications, I just started to feel a little bit of emotional energy—and hope.” (24)
Medication, of course, can be a positive support to many, especially in the short term. But even good things can turn into unhealthy areas of dependence. Jonathan remembers thinking about his continued struggles, and asking, “Why had I not yet found the golden ticket that was so often promised? Well, I knew the answer. …they’re out there in the next book. For a long time, I felt I needed a book to lean on.” He went on to admit, “I have often read books that are written around anxiety and depression, and when I have finished, I feel even more depressed and anxious than I did before.” (96)
This is an experience many others can relate to—looking for the next thing that’s going to boost your mood and heal the pain inside, and too often, finding that what you are trying may ultimately be making things worse.
The problem with chronic avoidance. More than simply drugs or alcohol alone, one man reflected on the deeper issue he had observed in his experience:
If avoidance is all we have, then we’re setting ourselves up for great failure down the road. Because not only have we avoided this source of suffering, we haven’t looked at it, we haven’t addressed it, we haven’t done any work on it. Not only that, but we’ve also created a new addiction in our life—every time I feel this, every time I sense this suffering present, I go and do this. We go watch a movie with a friend, or maybe we have a drink, or maybe we have several drinks, or maybe we go out and look for a sexual partner that we have no business being with. But anything is better than being in this situation with this suffering.
Brooke, the woman who described getting sober as she learned to be still, added, “My addictions are another false narrative to protect me from feeling what I do not want to feel.” (80) Thomas underscored the challenge:
What I’m talking about is a kind of courage, and a kind of sincerity, where you look at your life and you’re willing to just see what’s there. And you realize in doing so that where you’re really losing your energy, what was really causing your suffering, when you didn’t realize it was causing you to suffer, was all the energy you were spending on avoiding—all the energy you were spending on resisting.
Is that true of your own life? Then listen carefully to what Thomas says next:
When you stopped resisting, when you stopped avoiding, and you open your closet and look at that bogeyman. You realize, “Oh, the bogeyman was actually my avoiding the bogeyman.” It was being terrified to look under the bed or in the closet, and you look at it and you realize you’re equal to that task. You can look at it and it won’t destroy you. And it’s the willingness to just hold your life, all of your life, in awareness that empowers you to take account, and start moving in a direction that feels right. (11)
Long-term Reliance on Prescription Medications
The initial medication experience. Medication is one of those things that can be healthy and unhealthy depending on details. So many who are enduring terrifying pain turn to medical support to feel some kind of relief. And in many cases, that’s what they find—including among those who ultimately find deep and lasting healing. One woman’s story reflects well the way the narrative often unfolds:
First, we hear someone reflect on their prior resistance to help: “I know now that I should have asked for help sooner. I should have admitted that I was struggling… deeply saddened and unmotivated. But I was afraid of showing any signs of weakness….I didn’t want to admit to myself and to others that I was struggling emotionally.
Second, in their need they reach out to medical support as a triumph of vulnerability and trust: “Going to my doctor, getting my depression diagnosis, and getting help was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was difficult for me to admit that I was having a hard time. I had always prided myself on being tough and self-sufficient. But to be really tough and to stick up for myself, I needed to ask for help from a professional….I needed to put my mental health first.”
Third, a celebration of the results that often came immediately: “The decision to get help and to seek out a professional helped me turn my life around. It’s what allowed me to step out of the darkness and back into the light….asking for help allowed me to be a better wife, mother, business owner, and human being because I was taking care of myself. My doctor gave me the help I needed to finally emerge from that episode of depression. I got the help I needed to get my energy and drive back. I found my motivation again, and I was able to do more around the house and to be present for my children and my husband.”
The impact of such early experience with medications is real—and no wonder people are enthusiastic after witnessing it. As this woman continued, “When I put my mental health first, it improved the lives of everyone in my family. That is why it is so incredibly important to speak up for your needs.”
And to be clear, there are definitely a subset of people who find “good psychiatric care and pharmaceutical intervention” a valuable part of their own more lasting healing journey—such as Ashley who expressed gratitude for “a rigorously honest and forthright psychiatrist who is willing to work with you and is open-minded about different treatment options.” (75)
There are many other people who haven’t found long-term healing who also feel great gratitude for the relief medications can provide. What follows, as a reminder, is based on the experience of those who have found deeper, more lasting emotional healing—sharing another pattern that is more common to this group, in this case, in relation to psychiatric medication.
What happens next? Whenever I hear about someone’s dramatic experience on initial medication, I’m naturally curious about what happens next, especially if we’re interested in long-term trajectories. One man shared his experience starting Zoloft when he was 16 years old to treat my depression. “Right away my depression resolved,” he reported. “But over time I started to have trouble with my attention and focus,” he continued. “I lost my libido about six months after starting Zoloft, and it never returned, even after I stopped the medication.” He reflected:
After being on Zoloft for about eight months, I felt like I was getting brain damaged. My thoughts felt scrambled, and I couldn’t think properly. I weaned off Zoloft under another psychiatrist. I was then put on Abilify, and then the psychiatrist put me on Adderall to help my attention. Abilify didn’t do much for me, besides a little weight gain and perhaps a little more focused. He switched me to Zyprexa, and I was on that from 17 to 18. (88)
By the time he was around 20, he recounted, “I had been taking Ritalin 25 mg per day, Concerta 36 mg in the morning, and Saphris (an antipsychotic) 5 mg twice per day. I was also self-medicating with guarana (1600 mg per pill, up to 15 pills per day).” Yet, he admits, “I felt crappy all the time. I couldn’t sleep well at night. I wasn’t hungry during the day. I became addicted and tolerant to the caffeine in guarana. I felt suspicious of people, nervous, hopeless, and tired.” (88)
One woman described beginning to take antidepressants “after developing postpartum depression following the birth of my first child in 2001.” She continued, “This began a 14-year-long saga of medication usage and adjustment” while her “true wellness or improvement” suffered. She recounted one medication change “which caused me to be hospitalized several times…during this time, while on medication, I experienced an episode of mania that lasted about two months.” (52) Another woman recounted:
Throughout the years, I tried talk therapy and almost every depression, mood stabilizer, and antidepressant on the market. They would work for a while, but the depression and anxiety always came back and increased. Almost a year ago when my depression and anxiety had become almost unbearable.
At the time she decided to go a different direction, she said, “I was taking five heavy-duty psychiatric medications: Xanax (on and off for 20 years), Trazodone (15 years), Cymbalta (5 years), Wellbutrin (3 years), and Latuda (one month).” (71)
This kind of cocktail is not unusual in narratives of depression. Nicole described “5 kinds of meds at one time” alongside proliferating diagnoses. (102) A parent, Carrie, recounted, “The anti-depressant that our daughter’s psychiatrist prescribed wasn’t working so she just kept upping the dose until our daughter self-harmed.” At that point an antipsychotic drug was additionally prescribed by a physician—a medication usually prescribed for schizophrenia. She continued, “This med didn’t do anything either, so the doc upped the dosage on it too. At that point, our daughter self-harmed again while becoming almost catatonic in her demeanor. What was going on!!” (1)
Others spoke of unfortunate side-effects—some that are easy to overlook. Josh described feeling “really empty all the time.” (105) Although the meds helped initially, another man spoke of realizing that “I didn’t care whether I was alive, didn’t care about my girlfriend or my brothers and sisters in my faith.” (86) Lucie spoke of how the medications “took away some of the feelings of wanting to kill myself in that moment,” but they also “made me feel like a robot. And I walked around feeling the constant out of body experience with this medication in my system.” (85) Even after coming to have an exciting spiritual experience where he felt God’s love, one person described still feeling somewhat of a zombie while still being on medications. (112)
Other adverse effects are more intense. Jada stopped Prozac after it “negatively affected” her sex drive. (78) Jordan experienced “an akathisia side-effect from psych meds” that was excruciating. (68) During a complicated time of his life, Douglas described “an adverse reaction to an antidepressant medication plummeted me into a major depressive episode.… Medication, the mainstay of conventional treatment, simply did not work. Drugs, such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, made me agitated; others such as Lithium made me even more depressed; and the rest did nothing at all.” (4) Moni reported, “I had strong reactions to the drugs they tried. Most of the medication either caused severe side effects (which were life-threatening on two occasions) or they made me feel dull, which I could not accept because I enjoy being an active person.” (46)
New realizations. One individual said “I had always been extremely conscientious about taking my medication; I work as an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry and, for a long time, believed that the meds would help me get better if only I could find the right one that matched my symptoms. But I never did find that magic pill, Seroquel came close for a while, but then it too started causing side effects and problems, and I became chronically fatigued, among other issues.” This individual recounted:
Finally, I realized that, despite the medications, I was getting sicker, had less energy and more anxiety every year. The medications were only helping a few symptoms but weren’t solving the problem, and later I realized that they were actually making things worse….They may help some symptoms and are very helpful in acute situations, but tend to make the disease worse in the long run. (51)
I started to realize that there had never actually been anything wrong with me—and that I’d been put onto antidepressants for nine years because I’d been feeling anxious about a major life event—and I began to get angry. This anger has given me the determination to help people get off antidepressants and stay off them for life, because I know firsthand how hard it can be to get off, and the ongoing psychological and emotional trauma that it can put a person through. (59)
Some became skeptical of previous mindsets (and open to new ones) due to what they had seen in the lives of other loved ones. As Jonathan said, “I also had an inherent mistrust of being placed on this type of treatment because of what had been the outcome for my father and other people I knew personally.” He recounted his father’s experience of being on psychiatric medication for thirty years, during which time he was mostly a “full-blown housebound.” Subsequently, having tapered off the drugs “which took a number of years,” his father “has recovered enough to have a job and travels internationally to countries that he only dreamed about while he spent all the years on drugs that were supposed to relieve his symptoms.” Jonathan added, ‘This is by no means a solitary story. I know of many people who state point blank that medication…only added to the problems they were experiencing.” Looking at both his family’s experience and emerging statistical analyses of the outcomes, he concluded “This approach is not working”—noting “we have record levels of anxious, depressed and suicidal people now today.” (96)
Whether from looking more closely at their own life or another person they care about, a specific shift in perspective was especially common. For some, this also came from new science pointing in the same direction. David mentioned having a colleague casually mentioning to him that he should check out a book called Anatomy of an Epidemic” by journalist Robert Whitaker. “Little did I know the impact that brief suggestion would have on my life.”
As I began to read Robert’s book, my eyes got wider and wider and my conviction grew stronger and stronger as I finally saw before me in black and white what I had suspected on some level for the previous thirteen years.
In that book, Whitaker reviews all the available long-term research on antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. Without denying positive initial effects, this long-term research confirms serious problems later on that haven’t been acknowledged in the mass push to get people medicated. “My anger and indignation grew,” this man said. (59)
To be appropriately clear, others who reach a conclusion that they no longer needed medications express gratitude at its past impact in their lives:
- Stephanie said, “I was medicated for depression and ADD for the past 25 years—that is HALF of my life! I’m thankful for meds and for my psychiatrist for helping me stay alive long enough to figure this all out.” (109)
- Another person attested, “The Klonopin and Celexa brought me back into enough of a state of equilibrium that my soul could commence healing.”
Doing our best to paint the full picture, we want to acknowledge diverse feelings and experiences that people have. For instance, in watching her daughter’s dwindling state, one mother expressed surprise that “not one of her professional doctors” seemed to be curious about the deeper root causes of what was happening. Rather, they continued to focus on what other medications could be added to the mix.
More than one person described coming across Dr. Kelly Brogan’s book, which for one woman, Carrie, “quite literally changed the trajectory of my family’s health”—adding, “The fact that Kelly is a trained psychiatrist who has rejected drugs as a viable therapy to treat her patients intrigued me.” She continued, “As I read Kelly Brogan’s book, I became aware that our experience with her psychiatrist and other doctors was the norm, not the exception and the more I read, the angrier I became. The very people we were trusting our daughter’s life to were causing more harm than good.” (1)
These texts conflicted strongly with what many had taken for granted for decades. Josh said, “I believed it. I really bought into it. I was willing to do anything.” But my “bondage was now to the medication. I just felt there was no way out.” (105)
Resistance from the beginning. In addition to those who eventually came to dislike medication, there were stories of people who resisted medication from the beginning. It was common to hear of people who resisted interactions with doctors and diagnoses, because they “didn’t want meds” (108) and wanted to pursue healing “without medication” (34) and “without use of any medication.” (99) After describing how “a doctor tried to put me on antidepressants,” Gwen remembered thinking, “If I need them, then yes, I’ll come back to it, but I wanna first try [other options].” (110)
One woman described her husband, Caleb, as never having gone “to a doctor to get meds, because we felt like we would find the answers elsewhere.” He resisted diagnosis, precisely because he “didn’t want meds.” (108) A woman expressed gratitude for finding other support to deepen healing—saying “I am so glad that I didn’t have to rely on drugs to heal.” (77)
Mark reflected, “My own experience with antidepressant medication was disappointing, and among my siblings I had seen their depression grow along with their cocktail of meds, so my own journey—in consultation with medical professionals—led to a decision to rely, for now, on a more holistic self-care plan without the pharmacological element.” (6)
Some were “open to trying meds, but resistant to continuing.” (80) One man described hearing suggestions “for years” that she needed to take medication, from people who kept saying “If you had diabetes, you would take medication for diabetes. This is the same thing.”
“I don’t want to depend on a drug,” he added, “fearing I would become someone else if I took a drug.” Jim also confessed, “I do not want to lose myself in a pill. I want supernatural healing.” She explained, “I believe the root of my despair is spiritual, but I don’t know how to set myself free.” After continuing to struggle, this man described her friends as “finally convince[ing] me to see a psychiatrist, who prescribes an antidepressant.” (73)
Charlotte related, “I did reluctantly take a course of medication for 8 weeks to calm my mind, that helped me a great deal.” (106) The woman continued to relate, “It does not take away the despair, but it takes the edge off. There are whole days when I do not want to kill myself. I intuitively understand it is a temporary fix, a small net catching me from falling deeper into an endless cavern of memories.” The state, he adds, “feels like a low level of despair that you’re in. You’re not getting any answers but you’re living okay and smiling at the office…but it’s a low level of despair.” (73)
For some, the initial boost from the medication was so significant they don’t feel right about ever going off. As one woman said, “After it kicked in….it actually started working, and I feel normal again. And I’ve had no recurrence of symptoms for 2 years. And I plan to keep it that way. And, I have no plans to get off the medication any time soon. It’s working for me, and I don’t want to mess with what’s working.”
Other long-term concerns. It’s not only physical and emotional side-effects that prompt a desire to taper, however. People also expressed concerns about lasting dependence. For instance, one woman said, “I was taking Paxil 40 mg a day. My mood was good, and I had few side effects. However, I did not want to remain on medication for the rest of my life.” (52)
Another woman said, “I came to Dr. Lee with unopened bottles of Xanax, Ativan, and Prozac that I didn’t want to take.” (77)
Others express concerns about ongoing treatment potentially covering up the signal that might point them to deeper healing. As one individual reflected:
Too often these pills “absolve” people from “doing the hard mental, emotional, and spiritual work required to really heal because they have their prescription, their doctor’s permission slip, allowing them to skip the work. They think pills are the cure. They aren’t. Drugs cannot cure depression.
Based on her experience, she elaborated, “Antidepressants can make you feel better temporarily. So why not just take them and feel better? Because it’s not real healing. Antidepressants mask the bad feelings that are telling you something is wrong and needs to be dealt with. Hiding those emotions with drugs only guarantees that the patient will never address their actual problems.” (69)
This view is very different from prevailing wisdom. This same woman pointed out that her psychiatrist had trained her to “believe the drugs are the cure instead of guiding her through the difficult process of actually getting better.” (69)
That longer process we’ve been exploring in this review clearly entails experiencing discomfort. As she said, “Pain can be beneficial. I know it’s not the happiest message, but sometimes we need to feel pain in order to get better. Pain can be the catalyst to get off the couch and do the work needed to address the pain.”
Given that, “Masking emotional pain with drugs is like taking painkillers to numb an infected wound” she claims. “You might feel better temporarily but unless the infection is addressed and removed, the patient is not going to really get better. In fact, if that infected wound isn’t treated properly, the patient might end up losing a limb or worse.” She then suggested, “Emotional pain works in a similar way. It tells us that there is something wrong inside that needs some work. Pain guides us to the problem area so we know where the work needs to be done.” (69)
Once again, none of this requires an anti-medication stance. Many expressed appreciation for the role medication played in their journey. As one woman said, “The medication I was prescribed was absolutely necessary and saved my life. It brought me through the darkest part of my journey.” But even while counting the medications as an “integral part of my healing,” this individual spoke of learning “many tools and strategies that strengthen me every day,” She added, “I learned that with them I could go forward without medication.”
In this case, she saw the medication as “a necessary stepping-stone” and now, she said, “I have stepped off.”
A decision that can feel scary. As realization grew about some of the long-term treatment outcomes they were experiencing, many reach a decision to try and taper. “Armed with a changed belief about myself and what I began to entertain as possible for me,” David said, “I started to take steps to get off the antidepressants that I had been stuck on for over thirteen years.” (59)
Others describe similar choices, including “a substantial reduction” in some medications, and coming “completely off” (102) others and deciding to stop taking a particular antidepressant. (73) “I decided these drugs were for not for me” said Michael (30), while Moni said, “I was desperate to get off the medication.” (46)
Like one individual (73) expressed above, another person said, “I’m going to wean off psych meds and become more serious about God.” (103)
To say this is countercultural is an understatement. The idea of taking medication for the pain is built into our culture. As this same woman reflected from an earlier time in her life, “They talked to my mom about it, and she asked me if I wanted to see a therapist and potentially get medication.” (103) So, part of the fear of tapering reflects an understandable social stigma of not taking medication. As Caleb put it, “When you choose to not take the meds, you get judged so bad.” (108)
This was coupled with other reasons a decision to taper felt scary to people. “I was afraid to drop the meds,” one woman said. “I was literally told in the beginning that I would probably be on medication for the rest of my life, and even though I knew my brain was healing, what if I was wrong about it?”
She then went on to relate her belief that “it was divine intervention that my insurance thought I needed to switch to a medication that was less expensive for them to cover” which prompted her to seriously consider going off entirely. She describes her decision-making process and the cautions she put into place:
I went to the Lord in prayer and told him what I thought, then I went to my husband and let him know—through lots of tears—because it was one of the scariest things I was about to do on purpose! I told him he needed to watch me carefully, that he would need to look for signs that I may be in trouble.
Even so, she admitted, “It was so scary for me… I never want to feel that darkness and pain again, what if getting off my meds is just what would bring that on again?”
Yet she said, “I knew how I felt as I brought it to the Lord.”
Navigating some turbulence. Although most any psychiatric medication can be reduced and minimized by a cautious, gentle taper, withdrawal effects are nonetheless common when tapering off of medication. It’s precisely these withdrawal effects that make support and ideally supervision helpful. Michael, who was “under medical attention” when deciding to taper, said, “I definitely do not recommend stopping a medication without talking to a doctor first—if you are currently on a medication, doing so could be very, very dangerous, potentially life-threatening.” (30) Another person suggested, “it is a mistake to try to go off of antipsychotic or antidepressant medications by yourself, especially if you have been on them for as long as I had! There is so much more to getting off a medication than just gradually reducing the dose.”
This person went on to describe a holistic approach where her complementary practitioner encouraged “a regimen of supplements and herbs to specifically support whatever medications her patient is on”—noting parenthetically (“Seroquel blocks the histamine receptor, and it was vital for my recovery after going off of the medication to provide other means of blocking/reducing histamine.”)
More than simply helping her get off the medication, one woman described her practitioner working to “solve the original illness too.” She continued, “over time, each medication was safely tapered off….It’s been a year since I went off of Seroquel. I felt so much better immediately after being medication-free, but there were still challenges and healing that had to take place.” (51) Another person recounted:
To help support my systems—especially through the tapering process—she added smoothies and supplements to my diet. And we incorporated meditations into my life. In the beginning, when we started tapering off the medication I was concerned. I had grown so used to the idea of having to be on medications. However, we slowly started reducing my medications while increasing the supplements to help support my systems…. Dr. Lee’s mind-body techniques also helped me to relax and keep my mind clear and able to focus. (71)
Note—Some expressed a desire “to find natural alternatives to Prozac and other antidepressants.” (4) Yet similar kinds of reductions in dependency sometimes happened with various vitamins. For instance, after experiencing benefits from supplementation for a time, one person recounted, “I have gradually been able to decrease the amount of nutritional supplements necessary for maintaining my health.” (104)
This kind of attentive taper involves ongoing watchfulness in how their body and mind is responding. As David summarized, “I have also adapted a daily tapering template…to monitor food and drink intake, exercise, sleep, mood, and anxiety, as well as any and all supplements being taken, to ensure that it is clear to me what is making the difference or what is going wrong if I am struggling with the taper for some reason.” (59)
While some have serious withdrawal effects, others do not. As one person said:
I cannot at this stage tell you exactly why I was able to successfully come off. Was it the Prozac’s longer half-life, or was it because I completely shattered the belief that I had a lack of serotonin in my brain? Whatever the factors may have been, after I stopped taking Prozac completely, none of the usual physical withdrawal symptoms appeared. Some emotional reactions occurred, but I believe these were actually a part of my brain’s process of returning to its natural state, and my own process of becoming acutely aware of how I felt about things.
Some of this does seem to depend on the tapering approach. David who used a pill slicer to cut down dosages, writes “I had managed to get off the drugs again, this time with practically no withdrawal reactions at all other than some disturbances to my sleep which eventually settled down.” (59)
Another woman admitted, “In the past, when I would taper my antidepressant medication, I experienced unpleasant symptoms, during the withdrawal process, such as mood swings, suicidal thoughts, severe PMS, difficulty making decisions, and lack of confidence in myself.” However, this time when she withdrew from Paxil, “using an integrated approach of diet, nutritional supplements, and energy medicine (meditation and EFT),” she reported remarkably: “I did not experience any withdrawal symptoms, and I was able to continue to work full time.” The taper took five months and was successful: I am happy that I have been able to be off Paxil [for years]. I feel that I am now able to thrive as a mother, wife, and educator.” (52)
Feeling myself again. Stephanie said “with my doctor’s help I have now been off of the depression meds for almost 3 months! And I feel like I think we are supposed to feel as people! Not blissfully going through life, rather living a life that has turbulence and knowing how to navigate my way around it and sometimes through it… like we are here on earth to do.”
She continued, “I have been ‘well’ for about 2 years now, and I only find myself getting stronger along the way. She then acknowledged having one more medication still to taper, saying “it will take a little more effort for me to get off of that one, but I know it’s possible… I’ve already done what I thought would never be possible, what’s one more pill, right?” (109)
Although there is real turbulence during many tapering experiences, the benefits for emotional health are also significant—as reflected across this and other accounts. As one person said:
During the withdrawal, I was able to attend my college courses. My mood, appetite, libido, and sleep continued to improve over this time. My attention and focus were similar. I could learn the material in class more quickly. I am much happier with my cognitive functioning and with life. I feel normal. I also feel that I am getting better each day. I feel like I’m not a prisoner any more to drugs, and I’m not dependent on them anymore. I am through with drugs, and I never want to get on them again. I would like to tell everyone about how integrative psychiatry can heal them of their own drug dependencies. I would recommend this approach, because it actually works, and it’s healthier. (88)
After tapering off the SSRI antidepressants that he had been on for 14 years, Jordan described feeling “intellectually at my best.” (68)
Julie recounted, “During this time, I felt I was continuously getting better and always felt I was able to work and concentrate on my job.” (71) As David said, “Today, medication free, I feel better than ever before.” (59)
It has been interesting to hear from multiple people who said they “felt themselves” upon initially starting medication, share something very similar when they decided to finally taper off. Describing her tapering experience, one person said “I would get emotional about happy things as well as sad things. I also started to feel different in my body, almost like I was waking up. My physical senses seemed to be heightened. I just felt, well… like me again.”
She says, “ANY physician who treats depressed patients needs to be aware of this [withdrawal] research. I know I will be making my doctor aware of it the next time I see him… and hopefully save someone else the length of suffering I went through.” (65)
Carrie shares encouragement with “anyone who has that still, small, but persistent voice in their heads that is telling them drugs aren’t the answer and there has to be a better way”—adding, “There is, we are living it, amazed at the difference in our family and will never go back!” (1)
Slow and steady wins the race. In most cases, going off medication too quickly can make matters worse. One person said, “I had tried to go off of my medication by myself [and too quickly] and realized that it wasn’t working. I was extremely depressed and burst into sobs in Dr. Lee’s office. I had never tried to go off of my medications before.” (51) Another person described negative consequences for “stop[ping] all at once. I had experienced running out of my sleeping pills before and the withdrawals were dreadful, cold shakes, panic attacks, the whole deal. My doctor had warned me that stopping the medication abruptly could be life threatening.”
So, this person related, “I set up a plan to slowly wean myself off of all the prescription drugs…antidepressants, mood stabilizers and sleeping pills.” In this plan, he decided “to take smaller and smaller dosages until I would be completely clean of them by my 34th birthday. And that’s exactly what I did.” (69)
This individual shared more detail, “The healing process wasn’t painless. My immune system was weakened as I gradually weaned myself of the drugs and I got very sick. …I needed time to heal and get strong. Time to learn how to get well. Time to learn how to stay well.” (69)
Reflecting on the psychiatric medications they had been on, another person reflected, “Over time, my body and systems just became desensitized to them and they really weren’t working anymore. However, Dr. Lee stated that we still needed to come off the medications slowly because my body needed to detox from them and coming off of powerful medications like the ones I was on too quickly could be dangerous.” (71)
While gradual and mindful tapering is clearly the best practice, it’s important to note some exceptions—wherein the taper happened quickly and miraculously. With the stipulation and caution that this is not the best way and can even be dangerous without the right support, here are three examples:
- In one exceptional story, one man described stopping cold turkey during a spiritually powerful few days of prayer and communion—saying, “I basically stopped taking the medication.” He recounted having “the sort of mindset that God was going to take care of the rest, and that’s what he did.” Recognizing this can be a reckless and dangerous course medically speaking, he added, “I really should have these serious side-effects from the meds, but I had none. Something miraculous happened inside.” Now, he said, “I wake up every day and I’m happy. I find joy in going to meetings, socializing, and praying.” (86/112)
- “I really should have these serious side-effects from the meds, but I had none. Something miraculous happened inside—I wake up every day and I’m happy.” (86)
- Moni described being “able to get off” some high-intensity psychiatric medications, “without having any side effects, which seemed like a miracle” since “in previous withdrawal attempts, I had experienced severe side effects with even the slightest change in dosage.” But with the next medication they started tapering “more slowly, just to be on the safe side.” (46)
With or without you. With the support of professional support, one person said, “I was able to wean off all my medications” within four months.” (88)
This kind of supervision is ideal. Another woman described working with a practitioner who helped minimize withdrawal effects—thanks to “compassionate care and medical knowledge of both the traditional and holistic aspects of mental health care has enabled me to identify the areas of my body that needed healing and to treat me appropriately.” (52)
Yet professionals aren’t always willing to provide such support. Even after experiencing some painful side-effects, one woman recounted, “Every doctor I encountered dismissed my requests to get off of medication completely, and would just change my medication, causing me a new set of side effects and the inability to function in the real world.” So, she continued, “Once I got back on my feet, in 2014, I knew that I had to take my well-being into my own hands and find a doctor who could help me get off of medication safely and effectively; otherwise, I would be taking psychotropic drugs for the rest of my life.” (52)
The mother Carrie admitted, “Much to the doctors’ stern objections, we pulled our daughter off her meds.” (1) Since the psychiatrist “wouldn’t have approved” of even his gentle and gradual tapering plan, one man admitted, “I did it all without my psychiatrist.” Had he listened to his psychiatrist, “She told me I needed to be on medications for the rest of my life…. She was wrong.”
“So, I never went to see her again.” He admitted, “My former psychiatrist would be astonished to see how happy and healthy I am today.”
Although not ideal, it’s understandable that some feel they need to pursue this course on their own, or by leaning on their faith: “I never went to any sort of AA meetings or talked to any kind of counselor. It was just me and God. I don’t necessarily recommend getting clean in this way. In my case, God was the only counselor I needed” (69)
A good professional may still express concerns, while affirming the individual’s right to make a decision for themselves. As one person said, “When I told both my therapist and psychiatrist of my choice, they were concerned to say the least, but absolutely supportive. I remember my psychiatrist saying, if you’re going to do this, you will need two things, exercise and laughter.”
Life after. Sometimes tapering appears to be a part of the healing, while others seem to taper after getting better—with the discontinuation seemingly a result of recovery, rather than contributing to it. After a transformative period of learning, Moni admitted, “I felt that the medication was not needed anymore as all of the tensions and traumas had been washed out of my body. For the first time in my life I felt settled, calm and peaceful.” (46) David described life changes that led them to a place of readiness:
My energy levels increased amazingly as I continued with my new diet and exercise regime, and I continued to meditate and work at finding peace with my situation. Within two short months, I found myself staring at the box of Prozac as I had a little “farewell” conversation with it—and threw it into the bin. (59)
To be clear, life after medication isn’t simply easy and blissful. Having been medication free for almost two years now, one person said, “Is it easy? No. It is a challenge every day. But I choose this challenge.”
Others described working through recurrences and relapses. (30) After tapering off meds, one person said, “My job is going great, and I feel blessed”—adding, “I remember telling friends that I felt ‘normal.’ Not manically happy or incredibly depressed, but content. I told them that I don’t think I had ever felt that way before. The feeling hasn’t left.” (71)
One individual reported that after one year off medication, “everyone involved in my healing process is confident that I will stay episode-free in the future.” Another person detailed how their life has changed post-taper:
I truly feel that I have been given a second chance because I am aware of how many people struggle terribly with these drugs just as I did. My experience of life now is completely different, in so many ways that I can’t even begin to describe them all here. It is now nine months later, and although I have had some ups and downs trying to work through some of the issues that I had not really been able to do whilst on the drugs, on the whole, I have found that my experience of any down days or difficulties are infinitely more manageable now. This may be due to the fact that I now know that nothing is interfering with me.
Others have found positive places while staying on their medications. As Juanita said:
In the depths of the solitude of my depression, I had grown to feel more alive than I had known since childhood. Even a year after, the recovery seemed sure, more real, more permanent, like being on solid ground emotionally. I wasn’t turning cartwheels—I never knew how—but I felt as though a five-hundred-pound monkey had been taken off my back and I could finally breathe again. (47)
Others who stayed on the medications achieved some healing, but faced substantial struggles. Even while achieving remarkable levels of healing, one man, Mark, discouraged others from seeing his story as a “redemption song”—saying “I continued to struggle with regulating my emotions. I still often felt anxious and depressed. Relationships were still challenging… It wasn’t as if everything suddenly changed for me overnight. Spring sprouts slowly.”
After noting his continued medical treatment, he added, “It wasn’t always easy. I still experienced relapses in my depression, and thoughts of suicide occasionally crept back in. I couldn’t just forget that old way of coping. However, I never acted on these thoughts again, and to a lesser or greater degree I coped.” (25)
Recovering life. In most people’s accounts, you read something that reflects the qualitatively different state they have found in their healing journey. One woman admitted that the emotional turbulence “sometimes still hits.” Yet “even when better, that doesn’t mean there won’t be [hard] times.” Others related similarly:
- “Of course, I have moods, just like everyone else,” said Michael. “But they are normal moods, not the wild swings between suicidal despair and grandiose hypomania as before.” (30)
- “I struggle time to time…and learned to be patient” said Nicole—adding, “I do believe I will be completely healed from all mental health issues.” (102)
Some acknowledged the struggle was still sometimes there emotionally, but not like before at all:
- Matt reflected, “My wife and I still know that my Eeyore self is there, but we try to keep that part of me at a ‘lovable and livable’ level. My brain’s vulnerability to depression never goes away entirely—I still have those times—though I feel myself growing closer to something that feels like being healed.” (6)
- “Depression is like alcoholism or cancer… Once you have it, you’ll always have it to a certain extent, considering yourself “on the wagon” or “in remission.” But I continue to take my vitamins/supplements and put in the work to make sure I never go back. I keep a list of the 6 steps taped inside my kitchen cupboard so, if I’m feeling a little off, I can check the list and say “ah, I’m not sleeping well. Time to get outside and soak in some sunlight to set my body clock.”
Speaking 7 years after her official diagnosis, Beth says:
Today I can wake up and take the first breath of the day, say thank you to God for a new opportunity…to love more. Today I can use the tools I have discovered along my healing journey. I vigilantly watch the words I say to myself, I say to others. I am aware and constantly adjust my perspective on things. I ask questions. How can I respond to this? Or is this really that important?
I pray. I take care of myself. I take deep breaths. I step away for those 10 seconds when things are getting a little crazy. I put down the pack of cookies when I realize I don’t need to engulf them as my medicine anymore. I pray. I look in the mirror and try to see what God sees. I look at my husband and my children and see the reflection of God in them. I pray. I laugh more. I go to Zumba classes. I take water aerobics classes. I love my body. I love my family. I love my home. I love my life. I appreciate every day. I celebrate that I am alive and I have chosen to be alive.
I try to seek pleasure in all I do including the mountains of laundry and cleaning the toilets. “Let’s do this!” I say. All the while I remember the darkness, the pain, the hopelessness of what I felt before. And I know how possible it is to slide right back there. And I choose not to go there. I choose today. I choose God. I choose this new opportunity. I choose life. I choose joy. I choose freedom. I choose peace. Does this all mean I don’t get frustrated or sad or annoyed, or angry or have bad days? Absolutely not. But I choose how I respond. I am conscious of each moment and each thought. I choose healing. (63)
Photo by Slav Romanov on Unsplash