How (Not) to Get Off Antidepressants

By Stephanie Elliot 12/01/17

I thought I could just take half a dose for a few days and then call it quits. So that’s what I did. Oh, how wrong I was.

frustrated woman holding her hands to her head
Consult a doctor before making a drastic life decision like going off your long term medication.

I have never considered myself addicted to anything. Well, maybe Diet Coke but I kicked that habit years ago. Every now and then I will try to go on a sugar detox because I know sugar’s not great for you, but until just recently, I never really thought about the implications of detoxing from an antidepressant.

I had been on Effexor/Venlafaxine for 16 years. It was necessary. I was a young mother to three children and the littlest of things would set me off – a sleepless babe, a tantrum (theirs, but then I would join in), or even a glass of spilled milk would set me over the edge. A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my mother-in-law had just found out she had lymphoma. It was a rough time. I was constantly worried, stressed, and being pulled in all directions from three beautiful but needy children ages four and under. I knew I needed help.

So, I went on an antidepressant. And I’m not going to lie – the time it takes your brain to adjust to a psychiatric medication like that is difficult. I couldn’t function, my thoughts were scrambled, I felt exhausted. It messed with my brain, made me feel things I didn’t want to feel, and didn’t seem to be doing the trick.

But then, after a few weeks, I noticed I was not yelling as much, and I actually laughed when a glass of milk spilled onto the floor. Maybe I was getting better?

I guess I started living by the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I think I felt like I was finally fixed. Or at the very least bandaged up pretty tightly.

Somehow, I ended up staying on that antidepressant for 16 years. That’s a very long time to be reliant on one medication. But, my life was going fine. Through two long-distance moves, raising three school-aged children, and a traveling husband, I figured I was doing my best.

Once I felt like things were moving smoothly in my life, I thought it was time to wean myself from the drug. My doctor thought I was being a bit spontaneous in my decision but she was like a mother bird to me, willing to let me spread my own wings and try to fly out of the nest.

I fell from that nest hard and quick. A month later, I was back at her office, begging to go back on the medication.

Once I was on the meds again, I began to feel better. I felt hopeful. I felt like I could get out of bed, do laundry, feed the kids (an important chore!), and generally smile through my days. But was I "happy?" I may never know.

In some ways, I think I needed that medication. A few years later, life got a little worse for wear – my youngest son started having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. We spent a few rough years in and out of hospitals, trying to find him the right epilepsy medication, while he dealt with not only seizures, but suicide ideation, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. At one point, I called his neurologist in a panicked frenzy and she told me, over the phone and quite matter of fact, “Do you have Xanax? You need to take one right now.” I was a mess.

A year later, my daughter was diagnosed with a unique eating disorder, ARFID/Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Again, our family was dealing with hospital visits, self-harm, panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. And as any mother knows, “you’re only as happy as your least happy child.” I was certainly at a loss for happiness.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago. My daughter is healthy. My son hasn’t had a seizure in five years and is med-free. I felt stable. I felt like I could do this again.

I decided I didn’t need the medication any longer.

So, I self-weaned without instructions or supervision from my doctor. Since I was on practically the lowest dose of Venlafaxine possible (75 mgs), I thought I could just take half a dose for a few days and then call it quits. So that’s what I did.

Oh, how wrong I was. I will never, ever advise anyone to go off any kind of med they’ve been taking for a while without the help of a professional.

A day later I started having symptoms I couldn’t really explain. I was having ‘blips’ in my brain, almost as if shock waves were snapping through my head. I felt disoriented, unfocused, and nauseous. I don’t know what it feels like to have a stroke, but at one point my hands clenched up and my mouth was not working properly. That was when I told my daughter I thought I was having a stroke and she needed to take me to the emergency room. We were both in hysterics. I thought to myself, “I am dying.”

The doctors gave me an EKG, a pregnancy test, X-rays, an IV of meds and saline, and a battery of other tests. I was up front with my decision to wean, but they chalked up my visit to low electrolytes and potassium, and dehydration. But I knew it was more than that that led me to the ER – I just wasn’t sure what had happened.

When I saw my general practitioner a few days later, she said she had read over my notes from the ER visit, and was shocked to see I self-weaned and so very fast. “I’m 100 percent sure you ended up in the ER because you stopped taking your antidepressant so quickly,” she said.

I thought I was doing something good for myself by getting off that drug. She agreed that it was a good time to stop taking the antidepressants, but she would have helped me slowly and safely wean from it. She said she would have weaned me in about a month’s time. I did it in four days with the feeling of death knocking on my door.

Now that I’m off the drug, I feel different, but not in a bad way. I have stronger feelings. Emotions ride up faster than they ever did, and that’s okay. You know how if you watch a particularly emotional commercial and that telltale lump begins to travel up your throat – the one that sparks choking tears? I feel that a lot now. And I don’t remember feeling that sensation in a long time. When this happens, I tell myself, “It’s okay to feel emotions. It means you are alive; you are living. Acknowledge the emotion but don’t let it control you.”

So that’s what I do. If I feel like I have to cry, I’ll cry. Occasionally I feel anger toward something that usually wouldn’t have bothered me. If something makes me exceptionally happy and excited, that’s okay too. In fact, that’s really good. For so many years I had been going though the motions, dealing with the everyday tasks of my life. Now, for the first time in a very long time, I am feeling all the feels. And you know what? It feels pretty darn great!

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Stephanie Elliot is a book editor, essayist, and the author of Sad Perfect, a young adult novel based on her daughter’s journey through ARFID/Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. She lives in Scottsdale with her husband and three children. Check out Stephanie's Instagram or follow her on Twitter.