This is the story of Anna.
My first encounter with psychiatry and the “mental health” system was in the summer of 2008. A beautiful; warm summer indeed. But unfortunately I will recall this summer for other, less glorious, reasons. I was 20 years old at the time and had moved eight times in my short life, changed countries twice and had become increasingly more lonely and timid. I was on a quest for meaning and was reflecting upon life and our existence in this world, but not necessarily in a negative way. Engaging in relationships with my peers had become more and more difficult and upon well-meaning advice from a family member I went to see a psychiatrist.
After a mere ten minute chat the psychiatrist, a young and friendly, certainly well-meaning man, opened his DSM-IV and labeled me then and there, changing the course of my life in the fraction of a second. According to his bible, I fit the description of a “socially anxious” and “dysthymic” patient perfectly. My emotions and analytic thoughts were the symptoms of these underlying illnesses. He further explained that I had an imbalanced brain chemistry that needed to be fixed. Sure, it was simple! I needn’t worry about it. I left his office with a prescription of the antidepressant Sertraline in my hands.
I took the pill every day for four years, never questioning the young doctor’s diagnosis. I should say that the antidepressant didn’t ever give any side-effects besides that I developed nystagmus, a rapid eye movement that would appear once in a while whilst reading or focusing my eyes on a close object. The antidepressant didn’t make me happier nor did it make me more depressed. In fact, it didn’t do anything at all. The only time I ever noticed that the drug was actually having an impact on my body was when I forgot to take it, I would immediately become dizzy, light headed, nauseous and I would get a throbbing headache.
The years passed and in 2012 I was thriving. Academically I had found the right path. I made friends and had met someone who loved me for who I was. I thought it was about time I come off the Sertraline, thinking it didn’t do much anyway. The doctor said I could taper off in two weeks and all would be fine.
Two weeks after the last pill I began to experience symptoms of a urinary tract infection. However, all results came back negative. Despite this, the symptoms grew increasingly more debilitating; I developed severe pelvic pains, my bladder felt as if it was constantly on fire and I would have to go the toilet between 20-30 times/day. I became insomniac for the first time in my life and developed horrendous anxiety, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I had a cystoscopy and even an MRI of my urinary tract but my symptoms were unexplainable. My parents treated me like a hypochondriac and I had lost all credibility in their eyes. The doctor finally said it was my “underlying anxious condition” that was manifesting itself again, this time in the form of an overly active bladder. It was all psycho-somatic, he said. I should stress that I had never had these types of problems before.
I was put back on Sertraline and sure enough, the symptoms disappeared within two weeks. At this point I had begun to question myself profoundly, beginning to believe that I couldn’t trust my body or my brain, for I must indeed have a chemical imbalance in order to experience such intense physical and mental symptoms without any medical explanation other than “severe anxiety”.
Another two years of my life passed without any significant incident. I had started working, had my own apartment and was enjoying my job, travelling and spending time with friends.
I decided, again, to come off the Sertraline but this time I tapered off over a two month period. All went well until the two month mark of the last pill. I was walking down the street one Sunday afternoon when a throbbing headache hit me out of the blue. Within a day I became very nauseous, dizzy and light-headed and began feeling generally unwell. I experienced flu-like symptoms, without ever getting the flu. The headache did not leave me and became so severe that my face became numb and I visited the ER twice. I had an EEG, a head MRI and several blood tests but everything was normal. My muscles became sore and begun to spasm. I had a feeling of pins and needles all over my body, including my face and felt as if I was constantly hung-over. Physical activity became impossible; I would become sick and extremely weak. Again, the insomnia came back with a vengeance and with it, that horrendous unexplainable anxiety and heart-palpitations.
I endured these symptoms for two months (with fluctuating intensity) until one day when I hadn’t slept for three days. The inner tremor and anxiety had me completely paralyzed. At this point I had not yet made the connection with the Sertraline withdrawal since the symptoms had developed such a long time after I had stopped taking it and the doctors said it was impossible, the drug was long gone from my system.
I ended up the psychiatric ER, severely sleep deprived and shaking like an autumn leaf, thinking that there was something seriously wrong with me and ended up staying for two nights. The psychiatrist “caring” for me said this was all the proof that I had to reinstate the Sertraline because I was clearly in “relapse” of my original “anxiety disorder”. I was put on a regimen of three psychotropic drugs, lorazepam 6,5mg/day, Trazodone 100 mg for sleep and Sertraline. I refused to take the Dominal, a neuroleptic that was also prescribed for sleep. I questioned this regimen and particularly the combination of two antidepressants and the high dose of the benzodiazepine but the psychiatrist assured me that none were addictive and that this combination was perfectly normal and further insisted I take this regimen for a month, at least. He also told me to stop being so paranoid about the medication and to trust him. “Who is the psychiatrist here; you or me?” were his exact words.
Within two days of reinstating the Sertraline I became acutely suicidal, my anxiety grew so intense that I had to make myself throw up every morning to relieve the physical tension it was causing. My heart was racing and felt like a drum in my chest day and night, pounding hard. I became completely and utterly paralyzed. The fear and anxiety were unbearable. I started to imagine jumping in front of buses and trains, jumping off high buildings or taking every pill I had with a bottle of wine. I remember looking down at the busy street from my kitchen window, asking myself if it was high enough to kill me or if I would only break a few bones in the fall. I wanted to die, so profoundly.
I didn’t know who I was anymore; I did not recognize myself in the mirror and became unable to perform the simplest everyday tasks. My body was no longer my own. Hours upon hours were spent crying in bed with anxiety so intense I was absolutely sure it was going to kill me then and there. I wanted to rip my skin off. I know now that these sensations actually have a name: drug-induced akathisia. I saw the world though a thick fog and began having intense muscle spasm and tremors, joint and nerve pains. My body felt electrical, as if currents were passing through it everywhere all day long. I could not sit still and became very restless. My legs felt as if they were vibrating constantly. I couldn’t read, concentrate or eat. I lost a lot of weight. The pelvic floor and bladder pains returned and with them, the urinary frequency. Sleep became a luxury for which I longed dearly as I was unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time. If I ever managed to sleep longer, horrendously violent nightmares haunted my nights.
I told the psychiatrist about all of this. He looked me in the eyes, without any emotion; telling me that it was all psycho-somatic and that I should try to endure the physical pain a little longer because it was a “great opportunity to really look inside and try to find the explanation of my ‘psychological suffering’ ”. And I certainly had to increase the dosage in order to ever get better. He told me to trust him. This to me was worse than any physical aggression, rape or assault. This doctor, who’s role was to first and foremost do no harm, almost killed me then and there, merely uttering a sentence followed by a cold, absent gaze. This man, a complete stranger, thought he knew me better that I knew myself.
At this point I began to make the link between all of these symptoms and the Sertraline but the psychiatrist told me it was impossible and that the symptoms I was experiencing where merely the proof that I was severely ill. I shouldn’t trust my mind because it is sick. All of the symptoms were but the proof of my illness that requires an increase in dosage. The higher he pushed the doses, the worse I felt. I was so anxious and unwell that I threw up in front of him at one point. Clearly, to him, this was the ultimate proof of my “insanity”. Every day I was fighting the intense suicidal thoughts and horrendous physical and emotional pain. The only way to describe I would be; Hell on Earth. I cannot compare it to anything else and wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.
The doctor began considering hospitalization in a psychiatric ward and insisted I take Seroquel for the anxiety. Luckily I refused both and instead began frantically browsing the internet for answers. This was not me. A little voice inside of me whispered that the drugs were making me sicker by the day and that I should trust my intuition, trust that gut feeling.
I found hundreds of testimonies on different online forums. I spent hours upon hours reading about prolonged withdrawal from SSRIs and realized it was what I had been suffering from each time I had tried to get off Sertraline. It was what had brought me to the psychiatric ER, it was withdrawal symptoms that had caused the further polydrugging. It wasn’t me. It never had been! It was neither my “chemical imbalance” nor my “underlying anxiety” but in fact, the drug had caused my brain to become imbalanced. My nervous system had become so fragile that reinstating the Sertraline had gravely aggravated all withdrawal symptoms, throwing some new ones into the mix. I cried tears of joy and of despair at the same time. I was overwhelmed by so many emotions; shock, relief, feeling of profound injustice and also fear. Had these drugs damaged me beyond repair? Was I doomed to live a life suffering physically and mentally with debilitating symptoms? Could the body and brain ever recover from so many years of SSRI use?
I had been so close to being institutionalized, so close to having other psychiatric labels put on me, so close to death. I was and am still completely traumatized by this. Profoundly shocked by the violence of the so called “mental health” system.
Within a week I tapered off the Sertraline and stopped all the other drugs as well. I was physically and mentally incapable of swallowing another pill. It felt as if they were pure poison and I could not bear having these chemicals circulating in my bloodstream, altering my brain and intoxicating me more by the day.
I found a psychiatrist who recognized that it was indeed withdrawals that I had been suffering from all along. I could never describe in words the feeling of relief I felt that a doctor was at last listening to me; believing me! I wasn’t mad or mentally ill. Tears of joy streamed down my face that evening, burning my cheeks. But it did not matter. It was the first day of the road back to recovery. The sun felt a little warmer that afternoon. The same sun that had been hidden behind a big, gray cloud for so many months.
This experience is still very recent for me and I am in the midst of horrific SSRI withdrawal. I am not yet healed. It’s but the beginning of the journey back. The wounds are still open and bleeding and I am vulnerable. I struggle on a daily basis, both physically and emotionally. I don’t know how long it will take to put psychiatry behind me. I have yet to regain confidence in my mind, my body and in the medical profession that so brutally violated every part of my being and that almost killed me. But they say hope is the last thing to abandon the human being and today I choose to believe this.
We live in unfortunate times where shyness, insecurity and life struggles are considered as symptoms or defectiveness that have to be medicated when it is in fact our society and the way psychiatry is practiced today that are defective. Expressions of our most human traits are labeled, classified and “treated” but at what cost? I cannot think of anything more dehumanizing and my heart aches when I think of all the people who are still trapped in the system and who believe it’s them that are ill and unbalanced and who ultimately do kill themselves. It’s an epidemic and as a victim of it I feel it’s my obligation to speak up and tell my story; the truth behind psychotropic drugs. Big greedy Pharma never will. It’s all up to us. They say that many drops form an ocean. I will not let my voice be quieted again for I am now part of that ocean.
Now 5 months off Sertraline, I have been getting some “windows” when the symptoms become less severe but they are always there to some degree. The main symptoms include:
Many people report that distinct withdrawal problems like Zaps fade away after 5-6 months. But at this point what is increasingly called protracted withdrawal or tardive dysphoria or dysautonomia may remain. RxISK hopes very soon to open up a Complex Withdrawal section to explore these issues further.