SSRI Stories: The Terror of Withdrawal

"What I experienced during withdrawal is outside the scope of what a human is capable of feeling without chemical manipulation. Our language doesn't have the words to describe it."

This is the first post in a series detailing people’s personal experiences taking antidepressants and coming off of them. This series is not meant to stigmatize prescription drug use, but to provide a counter-narrative to the prevailing opinions and marketing surrounding psychotropic medications.

Many mental health professionals are coming around to a truth that patients who have been on SSRIs and SNRIs already knew from personal experience: withdrawal from the drugs can be much more difficult than patients are often led to believe.

If you are attempting to stop using SSRI or SNRIs, please consult with your doctor first. There are also several forums and websites that I found very helpful when I was coming off antidepressants. You can email me for advice if you want. If you have a story to tell, feel free to email me too: p.e.moskowitz [at] gmail.com.

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Jessica Gonzales is an actor and performer living in Los Angeles. When she was in college, she went through a rocky period—a breakup with an abusive boyfriend, her parents divorcing. She went to the school’s doctors seeking mental health treatment, and that started her on a 14 year path of antidepressant use, and a subsequent two-year withdrawal from the drugs that nearly wrecked her life.

[This as-told-to has been edited and condensed.]

No one ever asked me about my circumstances. No one asked me about my life.  The first line of defense was really intense medication. They told me to eat healthy, eat whole wheat pasta, and take lithium. And I was like, “okay, if you think this will make me feel better.” The narrative I was told, from the doctors, from my family, was about genetic predisposition. That I had a chemical imbalance. And of course I trusted those people. 

I got off the lithium relatively quickly, but then was put on a bunch of SSRIs and SNRIs—Cymbalta, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Prozac, Effexor.

Some of them helped at first, but then I’d slowly descend into side effect land. On Cymbalta, I felt great at first, and then as time went on, I started to get so tired. I’d sleep 8 to 10 hours a night and couldn’t get through the day without a nap. I started having really bad memory problems. I couldn’t remember really basic stuff, like my best friend’s name, the street I lived on. As a performer, an actor, that was kryptonite. I had a lot of trouble working.

I saw seven or eight doctors, all trying to figure out what was wrong with me. They gave me MRIs. They thought maybe I had a thyroid problem, or a brain tumor. No one ever said, “you know, maybe it’s the medication that’s making you sick.” Instead they just gave me something to balance out my tiredness. 

By 2017 I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me, and I felt terrible all the time. No one could figure out what was going on, but something was clearly very wrong. And I decided I just wanted to get rid of drugs as the variable. I didn’t even think it was the medication at that point, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t covering up something else.  I felt inert. I had nothing left to lose.

My doctor told me to lower my dose every other week by 25 percent. I started having stomach problems, really bad anxiety, brain zaps, which basically feels like electrical currents running through your body. 

But I was so determined to get off the drugs. I wanted to power through it. But a month into withdrawal I realized that was untenable. I was so sick. 

In summer of 2017, I woke up one night with unfathomable stomach pain. I felt like I was being stabbed a bunch of times. I got up and I fainted. I crawled to the kitchen to get some water. I got up and fainted again. And I commando crawled to the bathroom and fainted a third time. I was lying on the floor, sobbing, in pain. It was fucking terrifying. It was horrible. I’ve never been in that much pain in my life. 

What I experienced during withdrawal is outside the scope of what a human is capable of feeling without chemical manipulation. Our language doesn't have the words to describe it. It's not unlike trying to get someone who's never done LSD to understand what that's like. Except I think withdrawal is further from what it feels like to be a human. 

I was sleeping two hours a night, max. That lasted for six months. I threw up a lot. I still do, but that’s getting better now. The mental effects, it was just terror. It felt like sheer and constant terror. I did not have a fucking second of peace for six months. 

I started looking around the internet—Reddit, Facebook groups—and it turns out there are thousands upon thousands of people that were going through the same things. And they were helping each other get off these drugs in a way that the medical community usually did not. It was really validating. People feel sick for 5 years, 10 years, and no one talks about it because they’re too sick, or because people tell them it’s not the meds. Finding those little caves of information helped. 

The people online recommended a much slower taper, like dropping five to ten percent a month, shaving off your pills, picking apart your medication, whatever you had to do. But I just wanted to get the meds out of my body. I slowed down my taper, because I had every symptom you could think of. I went slower than the psychiatrist recommended and faster than the people on the internet recommended. I took four or five months. 

But if anyone asks me now, I tell them: take two years. Take as much time as you need. Don’t do what I did. It’s really, really bad.

I was in therapy at the time, with a really good therapist, and she really helped me see that this is not how I was always going to be. That I was dealing with something bigger than myself. It slowly got better. I had to teach myself how to have fun again. It was like fun was a color I couldn't see. I’m very grateful that has come back.

The first year was really tough. This second year has been more about getting my life back on track, because the first year I was largely too sick to work. For the last six months, I’ve been doing really well, which is exciting. 

I had such blinding anger for a while about what I went through. I felt like so much was taken from me, and continues to be taken from people so that these companies can profit. There’s no justifiable reason this should be happening. And that anger radicalized me. 

There’s a lot of stuff in my personal life I will not put up with now. And politically, I’ve moved from being a liberal for years of my life way to the left. It feels...exciting isn’t the right word because it isn’t fucking exciting, but it feels very truthful, to be seeing the way the world is, to see that people are walking around like this is all normal, when it’s not. 

These drugs, it feels like you’re in a car and the check engine light is on, because your car is about to fall apart. And someone comes up to you and says, “I have this great solution.” And they just turn off the light. And meanwhile your car is on fire. 

Looking back, seeing these old antidepressant ads, in one there’s literally a woman in a cage made of brooms. In another, she’s vacuuming and holding a baby, and there’s a briefcase at her feet. And then the ad is like, “with this drug, she can do everything again. She can cook breakfast again.” 

And it’s like, “woah woah, why aren’t we talking about why this woman doesn’t want to do this shit?” In this capitalist society that we haven’t evolved to work well in, a society that has evolved faster than us, we’re not made for a lot of the shit we’re supposed to do. 

I’m not anti-antidepressant. I think people should do what they need to. But I’m all about informed consent. Drug companies market these drugs for long term use, and they haven’t been tested for long term use. They manipulate the results if they’re shown to have side effects or be ineffective. I just wish there was more transparency, more checks and balances. 

In this country, we’re super individualists. And if you’re in trouble, it’s not really, “are you okay?” We try to fix it as quickly as possible, and antidepressants are perfect for that. They act more quickly than therapy, they’re cheaper than therapy. And they play into this super-insidious narrative that there’s something wrong with you, not something wrong with the way the system is set up, not something wrong with the idea you’re 100 percent supposed to fit into this system that wasn’t really built for us.