In January 2014, I decided to come off all psychiatric medication — Zoloft, Lamictal, and Xanax.
Though I’d only been taking these drugs for a year and a half, I felt completely destroyed by them. In that short time, I gained 60 pounds, lost my sex drive, and emotionally flatlined. While I no longer experienced dramatic mood swings, my life was consumed by persistent brain fog and quiet shame about my rapidly expanding waistline.
It’s a cliche, but I felt like a zombie.
I kept hoping things would get better. Maybe my psychiatrist just needed to tweak the dose or change my prescription. Maybe I’d land on the right cocktail of drugs and the side effects would go away.
They never did. They only got worse.
After cycling through 10 different medications and countless dosage adjustments, I couldn’t keep ignoring the faint-but-tenacious voice within: You have to get off these meds. They’re killing you.
I didn’t know what life would be like on the other side of medication, but I knew I had to take the risk and find out.
Before meds, I experienced low-grade depression for most of my life — but suddenly, in my mid-twenties, it became incredibly severe. When I sought help, I was given a laundry list of diagnoses: bipolar type II, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and impulse control disorder were just a few of my new labels.
I was told that I would need to take medication for the rest of my life. What I wasn’t told is that medication would take my life from me.
I found a psychiatrist who was willing to help me taper, but knowing what I know now, his approach was far too ambitious. Because I came off the meds too quickly, my withdrawal symptoms were intense: vomiting, fatigue, nausea, mood swings, and dizziness made it incredibly hard to get through my days.
After two months, I was off everything. I had absolutely no idea what was in store or how much my life would change.
In order to regain my health, medication wasn’t the only thing I had to break up with. I also had to part ways with deep-seated beliefs and dreams. These realizations, while painful, have been critical on my healing journey.
Below, I’m sharing the top three beliefs I had to let go of when I quit antidepressants.
Belief #1: The mind and body are separate.
When I was first diagnosed with mental illness, I spent hours reading up on my issues. After a deep dive into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, several psychology texts, and endless online message boards, I was convinced that my problems stemmed from two things: a lousy childhood and faulty brain chemistry.
I saw my head as a disembodied deviant, completely separate from the rest of my physical self — a black floating balloon, tied to my neck with a string. The idea that the body could influence the mind — and vice versa — was laughable.
In fact, the few times I stumbled across mind-body medicine approaches for mental illness, I was insulted. Yoga and meditation? What the hell is that gonna do for my completely effed-up brain chemistry?
I’d unknowingly bought the pharmaceutical story of “chemical imbalance” hook, line, and sinker. I wasn’t able to let go of this story — and didn’t even see a need to — until I quit meds.
My sole mission after I got off of antidepressants was to lose weight. In my frantic and unsuccessful attempts to lose the 60 pounds I’d gained, I finally stumbled across The Whole30, a whole-foods-based, ancestral nutrition program loosely similar to Dr. Brogan’s dietary program (if only I had her book back then!).
After my first month, I not only lost weight, but I felt genuinely happy for the first time in years.
The same voice of intuition that softly told me to quit meds was now speaking louder: This isn’t a coincidence, it said. So I threw myself into research. I began Googling things like “connection between nutrition and mental health” and “nutrition and depression.”
I was outraged when I learned there was a significant correlation. If nutrition was a root cause for my mood disorders, why on earth had I never stumbled across it in my research?
I had grieving to do. Lots. I grieved the fact that this information wasn’t widely available or embraced. I grieved the fact that I bought into the pharmaceutical promise in the first place. And — as strange as it sounds — I grieved for my old beliefs. I could no longer picture my head as the little black balloon, and I could no longer blame it for “acting up.” The healthier and happier I became, the more I embraced my mind and body as one.
Belief #2: My diagnosis defines me.
While withdrawing from antidepressants was excruciating, there was something even harder to kick: the belief that I was broken.
My psychiatric diagnosis was the filter through which I saw the world. On the one hand, it terrified me. On the other, it helped me make sense of life and feel compassion for myself: See, I’m not making this up! A doctor in a white coat with degrees from prestigious schools told me exactly what’s wrong with me. This is why I hate parties. This is why I can barely pull myself out of bed in the morning. I have an illness that has a name. It’s just as real as cancer or diabetes. It’s OK that I feel this way.
I constantly flip-flopped between feeling victimized and feeling validated. I felt both emotions so frequently that they consumed me.
My diagnosis wasn’t just a diagnosis — it became my identity.
Every thought I had, every sentence I spoke, and every activity I participated in was influenced by my diagnosis. It was my crutch and my curse. It explained my past and informed my present. It was always there, in the background, reminding me who I was.
So, when I let go of the story of chemical imbalance, and when I began to see that diagnostic labels were just made-up names for clusters of symptoms, I didn’t know who I was anymore. If I was not “Holly the Depressed Person,” or “Holly Who Has Social Anxiety,” who was I? Without these stories and labels to cling to, I wasn’t sure anymore. Even though I was getting healthier and happier, I felt like a rug was pulled out from under me.
Reclaiming my identity and rewriting my story took time, and it couldn’t be rushed. If you’re going through this right now, know that it’s a process, and have patience as your new self surfaces.
Belief #3: My life will go back to the way it was before.
At the height of my worst medication side effects, the best thing I could imagine was life going back to the way it was before my psychiatric “breaking point.”
I just want to be the weight I used to be, I thought. I just want my creativity and my sex drive back. I just want to wake up and feel something besides “meh.”
I imagined that if I felt better, I’d have a renewed sense of purpose in my job as an advertising copywriter. Heck, maybe I’d even want to start tackling home remodeling projects again.
The universe had something else in mind.
After my nutrition changes, my mood was incredibly stable, but I woke up to a life that I no longer enjoyed. Things didn’t go back to the way they were before, and I had a brand new set of problems: my health crisis became an identity crisis.
Instead of finding joy and challenge in my career, I found no meaning at all. And even though I felt like being social, my friends’ sideways glances and snarky comments about my new habits and food choices made me drift apart from them. I’d outgrown my “old” life, but I had no idea what my new life could look like. It was a lonely and introspective time, though distinctly different from the lows of my depression.
I knew there was nothing wrong with me, but it would take time to find the new me. Charles Eisenstein so beautifully dubs this “the space between stories,” and says, “Only from the emptiness, the letting go, the unknowing of this state can something truly new emerge.”
If you are in that space, my advice to you is to listen to your inner pilot light and just do the next thing.
I couldn’t stop reading about nutrition, so I became a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, even though my logical brain gave me 500 reasons not to.
I later felt a deep calling toward spirituality and energy healing, so I decided to study and practice Reiki. Every fiber of my being freaked out — I was raised in a conservative family, and I was terrified of judgment. Getting over that and allowing myself to connect to the divine in a way that resonated with me was just as pivotal as ditching gluten and sugar.
I took baby steps and followed breadcrumbs, and today, I get to wake up to a life that’s nothing like the one I had before. It’s far beyond what I ever thought possible.
The most important thing I’ve done is this:
I’ve tuned out the external noise and tuned in to the voice inside me. As someone who will always live with the stigma of having had “mental illness,” I am defiantly proud to say that I hear voices and they tell me what to do.
I am tapped into my intuition, and it is an unstoppable force.
Yours is, too. Follow it. The next thing is waiting for you.
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Holly Higgins is a Michigan-based writer and Nutritional Therapy Practitioner specializing in nutrition for mental health. Follow her work and get in touch at www.pillstopaleo.com.