As I wrote about in my last post, Jesus really turned my life around in 2008. By fall 2010, life was still good. I had a strong Christian community; I was growing in my faith; I had a stable home life with an incredible roommate; I had a new amazing teaching job. Despite the stress of my new teaching job along with beginning a graduate school program, I felt happy. I remember thinking, “It’s been so long since I’ve had a suicidal thought. Praise God!” I was even able to steadily decline on my antidepressant, til I was on the lowest prescribable dose.
In all of these positive changes, I was so grateful. But I still wasn’t satisfied. Anyone who knows me knows I rarely settle. I am always on the quest to better myself. I began getting more interested in how to take care of my body better. Around that time, I read an inspiring book The Antidepressant Solution. The main thing that stood out to me was that antidepressants are addicting and that doctors keep patients on them because they mistake withdrawal symptoms for depressive relapse. I also learned that the medication I was on, Cymbalta, was a drug with some of the worst withdrawal side effects. So, against the advice of my counselor and my roommate Theresa, I decided to wean myself off of Cymbalta. The reason they were concerned was because winter was beginning and my depressions usually worsened during the winter. Plus, I was doing well, so why change things?
But the facts in the book scared me, and I became determined and a little impatient. I decided to use the charts provided in the book as well as my journal to document my withdrawal symptoms.
How bad could it be? Little did I know what kind of hell I was about to undergo.
First, I decided to go from the 20 milligrams I was on to around 10 mg. Unfortunately, a 10 mg prescribable dose of Cymbalta did not exist, so I would break apart the capsules, dump out the little white balls inside, “eyeball” what I thought was about half of the contents and ingest the balls. As you can imagine, I was not very accurate in my “eyeballing,” so my poor brain was getting different amounts of its “fix” every day. I would have moderately intense symptoms, such as zapping sensations in my eyes, vertigo-like feelings, severe headaches, nausea, intense anxiety and dramatic crying spells.
Some of these symptoms were just a stronger version of withdrawal effects I was already accustomed to, having been medicated for ten years. So I pressed on, and after only a week of the 10 milligrams, impatience won over and I decided my body could handle even more discomfort. So, on November 6, 2010, I stopped taking Cymbalta. The withdrawal effects probably had an impact on my reasoning skills. I guess it didn’t occur to me that I had at one time been on 120 milligrams of Cymbalta and had adjusted to each new dose over the course of several months! And now I was going through multiple dose changes in the course of a few weeks without the help of a doctor. Not only that, but it was evident that my body was very sensitive to chemicals of all kinds.
I also didn’t realize that the first day of nothing could possibly be excruciating for a brain that had been “high” on antidepressants for almost ten years. That day was a Saturday and I was visiting my parents in Wisconsin. The first thing I noticed starting in the late morning was a worsening in some depression-type symptoms I’d already been dealing with: inability to concentrate, irritability, and radical mood swings. However, the physical sensations were severe and new: “Everything was hazy, glossed over, and there was this pressure on my head, chest, everywhere…I felt suffocated. Extremely dizzy and ‘off’. Everything was whirring, stirring. I felt thrown about, plagued by an unimaginable force…On top of all, was the migraine….which became unbearable. My ‘out-of-it-ness’ in combination with pounding head became so suffocating I literally felt as if I was dying.”
“Reluctantly I split the Cymbalta and took a little less than half the little white beads…I felt like a failure because I just want(ed) to fight my pain and discomfort but I realized I was probably not a fun person to be around. If I were alone I would’ve probably just gone to bed, but for Mom and Dad’s sake, I took the med.” Within a few hours, my symptoms lessened dramatically. I couldn’t believe how right the doctor who wrote the book was: I was addicted to Cymbalta!
After this experience, I became even more convinced I had to get this “poison” out of my system. My fears of how it was hurting me and SO many others I knew who were on antidepressants intensified. I was also angry. Angry because so many doctors were handing out these horrible medications like candy and, mistaking reactions like mine as a depressive relapse instead of withdrawal symptoms, keeping patients on them or even increasing the dosages! (I can be a pretty all-or-nothing person. Just the year before I had finally accepted that, even for Christians, antidepressant medications were okay, good, even necessary for me to be taking.)
I was extra dependent on God during this time. Helping me through this trial of medication withdrawal was the number one thing I asked of Him in my journals. I felt I had Him and Him only to help me. NO ONE I knew was going through what I was. In order to maintain my sanity and be able to go to work every day, I weaned off a little slower. This was no easy task. I used a website I found to figure out how many balls were in each capsule. I discovered that 55 balls was about 8 milligrams. So I counted out 55 balls (very time consuming!) and ingested that amount for about a week.
I continued to worry that “I might go into a full blown depression,” but was hopeful that once I got completely off of Cymbalta, I would “be able to tell what’s med and what’s me.” This thought really motivated me to continue on the journey, and the journey gave me a purpose for living. Whereas for many years prior, I had continuously entertained thoughts of death by my own hand, I now wanted to live, and I saw freedom from Cymbalta as the possible key to my happiness.
During this time of withdrawal, I was also working a stressful job, going to grad school, and attending to all my normal church and family responsibilities. Through it all, my anxiety was unrelenting. “Just having a conversation with… (one person) makes me short of breath and my heart race. So when there gets to be more people, noise or commotion I have to consciously force myself to breathe deeply…Sometimes with all this anxiety I think I’m going crazy or may pass out due to my shallow breathing. Other times I feel completely vulnerable because I go for seconds without realizing who I am or what I’m doing.” I was also getting extremely tired of tediously counting all those teeny balls every day. Many days I was really tempted to go back on the 20 milligram pills. But I couldn’t imagine doing that with all the progress I’d made. So, with the support of the Lord and my community, I persevered.
I continued to moderate the number of Cymbalta “balls” I consumed to have just the right severity of symptoms. I didn’t want them so severe I couldn’t work, but I also didn’t want to be on the antidepressant much longer. This preciseness definitely turned into an obsession. But it was exciting to see the progress I was making. By December, I had a plan. I would take out one little ball every day. By my calculations, I would be off of Cymbalta by the beginning of February!
By Christmas 2010, I had gotten through my first semester of grad school and the first few months at my new job. The holidays were typically challenging for me depression-wise, so the fact that I was struggling was not a surprise. I continued to ask myself, “Is this me or the med withdrawal?” but I never came to a conclusion. However, I was encouraged to rediscover that I hadn’t had a lingering suicidal thought for many months. This insight spurred me on through the trial. I knew if I wasn’t suicidal, I was safe; I could handle anything.
I ended up ahead of schedule and took the last Cymbalta “ball” at the end of January. On January 27, 2011, I wrote in my journal: “Dear God, Today is Day 4 of no Cymbalta. I’ve been doing strange in a way lately. Everything (at times) seems kind of other-worldly. But, overall, I’ve been positive and happy and feel like You’ve blessed me beyond what I deserve. Maybe the strange feeling is that I don’t know what to do with the positive feelings.”
Over the course of the next few weeks and months, slowly but surely, I would notice something interesting: I was no longer depressed. Yes, I had my normal bouts of moderate anxiety, unease, irritability and melancholy. But, to me, this was not depression. Because no matter how down I got, I never lost hope. And I never once thought about dying. In fact, I had more of a will to live than ever before.
During this post-Cymbalta period, I continued to take care of myself by eating better, exercising, practicing all the skills I’d learned in therapy, and surrounding myself with positive people. It would be several months, if not a year, before I could truly say: I am healed from depression! I just could not believe that I was now feeling the best I had ever felt, better than any of those ten years I was on medication.
I later ended up with more of a balanced outlook on antidepressants: They are powerful drugs that can be helpful and, yes, they are necessary in some cases and for some mental illnesses more than others. But, in my opinion, they should always be given at the minimum dose possible and used in combination with natural approaches. People should be warned about the dangerous side effects of medications and their addictive qualities. I am especially extremely wary of putting children and teens on medications, as, in most cases, there are little to no studies done on what the longterm effects of meds are on this age group.
In my case, I never wanted to be on an antidepressant again after my horrendous experience getting off of Cymbalta. I kept wondering if I should have ever been on meds in the first place. What if, all those years, the meds were actually worsening my depression? I processed through a LOT of anger over the fact that, especially as a vulnerable teenager, I was practically forcefed medications and not even offered other natural treatments that would have no doubt helped me way better than the meds. Mostly, I just celebrated how far I had come with the Lord at my side.
I still consider my journey of Cymbalta withdrawal to be one of the largest feats I undertook of my entire life. And I have the Lord to thank for leading me to this victory!
“For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” Deut. 20:4
“Blessed is the (wo)man who remains steadfast under trial, for when (s)he has stood the test (s)he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12