What it’s been like going off my antidepressants

Heather Laura Clarke

I posted back in September that I was officially going off my antidepressants, after a little more than four years of taking Sertraline for depression and anxiety.

My decision was pretty rash, to be honest. I had zero plans to stop taking them, and suddenly it was like a lightbulb went off and I was DONE WITH THEM. I wanted to see “what like would be like” without them. I wanted to see how I’d feel, how I’d cope. Part of it was plain curiosity, I think.

Once I got it in my head that I was done, I talked to my doctor and he agreed that I could try it. I was on a VERY low dose (50mg/day, and 25mg is the “starter” dose that you begin with, so really I was on the lowest actual dose).

I wrote that post, and I never came back with an update.

I have been procrastinating this post. A lot. People have reached out to me privately and asked how it going, and I’ve been honest with them. But writing a public post about it? Totally freaked me out.

I didn’t want to write this post because I didn’t want to influence anyone to go off antidepressants or NOT start taking antidepressants if they’d been thinking about it.

It’s one thing to write blog posts like “I take antidepressants and I’m proud of it! You should be, too! No shame! Woohoo!”

It’s another thing to write about coming OFF antidepressants. That’s why you don’t see as much of it on the internet. No one wants to be the blogger who accidentally influenced someone negatively.

But it’s been four full months, and I felt like I owed you an update. An honest update with lots of disclaimers …

  1. I’m not a doctor!
  2. I’m just a writer (who goes on WebMD)
  3. My experience isn’t everyone’s experience.
  4. I was on a very, very low dosage when I went off.
  5. Not all medications are the same.
  6. Not all side effects are the same.
  7. Please don’t make decisions based on what I write below …
  8. … unless that decision is to talk to your own doctor
  9. Talking to your doctor is always a good idea
  10. Lists should end on a nice round number, like 10.

How it felt going off my antidepressants

By the end of that month (September), I was officially off my antidepressants, I didn’t really feel that different at first — coupled with having a cold and feeling blah because of that. It was also my peak allergy season (fall) so I felt like a bag of shit from that.

I tried to take extra-good care of myself, take lots of breaks from work, take half an hour to read in the middle of the day, etc. I was so proud of how I was “being gentle with myself.”

Heather Laura Clarke
I took this selfie to commemorate what I thought was a “bad” day of adjusting to life after antidepressants, but it actually hadn’t hit me yet.

About two weeks into “being off,” I had about a week of feeling VERY different. I felt super, super, SUPER depressed. I was worried this would be my “new normal.” I was yelling at my husband. I was snappish with the kids. I was angry, sad, furious, depressed, ALL THE BAD FEELINGS.

I took this picture sitting on the steps down to my office, feeling so depressed and miserable. I couldn’t even commit to going upstairs or downstairs. I felt like hell.

I almost considered going straight back on the pills, but a wise soul reminded me that it’s normal to “bottom out” after going off antidepressants.

When I thought of it that way, it made much more sense and I could deal. It was temporary, not forever.

She was right. Things slowly improved. I went to BlogJam as always and it was rejuvenating. I continued to feel more and more like myself as my body adjusted.

Heather Laura Clarke

Now, it’s been four full months without antidepressants, and naturally, you want to know how it feels.

What’s interesting is that if you told me today that I was actually still on my antidepressants — that my husband was sneaking them into my food or something — I wouldn’t be shocked. It’s not like I feel THAT DIFFERENT.

But if I were to be very specific about what *does* feel different since I stopped taking antidepressants, this is what I would be able to pinpoint:

I can cry real tears again.

I don’t know if it was just the specific antidepressants I was taking (Sertraline) or if it was me, but I couldn’t cry real tears. Not at all. Not ever, except for the few times I changed my dosage. (Then I’d cry frustrated tears about something random for about a day, until I balanced out again.)

The rest of the time, I could feel sad and want to cry, but nothing would come out. It was like the medication dried up all my tears. It was sort of weird, but I didn’t mind.

Now, I can cry. I still don’t cry often — probably because I simply got out of the habit of crying. It feels weird to cry. I’d forgotten how. maybe. I still don’t like it. But it’s nice to have the option, at least.

When I saw Little Women with my sissy a few weeks ago, we both started to cry when Beth was sick. But then she stopped — as did everyone else in the theatre — and I keep leaking from my eyes, very slowly.

It was like once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was even crying about stuff that had nothing to do with the movie — stuff in my own life. Once the floodgates opened, it was like I had given myself permission to cry.

Then there was a scene about Jo’s determination to finish her novel (something very close to my heart) and I REALLY cried. Way more feels for that than Beth. (Poor Beth.)

I now experience feelings of happiness on a higher level.

When I watch a funny video on Facebook or a joke on Buzzfeed (these ones made me LOL) or there’s a hilarious line in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I can actually laugh out loud. Sometimes I laugh until there are tears in my eyes.

That did NOT happen when I was taking antidepressants, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I laugh more with the kids now, too.

Looking back, it was like there was a cap on my emotions — good and bad. I could feel happy on my antidepressants, but not THAT happy. Not THIS happy.

It feels good to be able to feel really happy again. I never would have described myself as “feeling dead inside” before, but I definitely feel more alive. More excited for things. More positive about things. More MORE about everything.

… but I also experience bad feelings on a deeper level.

The trade-off of “experiencing happiness on a higher level” is “experiencing sadness/anger on a deeper level,’ but thankfully, it’s not an equal trade-off. I’m not experiencing a ton of additional bad feelings. But when I DO feel sad, it seems to hit me more deeply.

“Feelings!” I’ll moan, half-jokingly. “I don’t like to feel these FEELINGS!”

Bad feelings are uncomfortable. I don’t like them. I still felt them when I was taking antidepressants, but there were more subdued. Like I was feeling them through a thick pane of glass.

I could feel this difference right away in the first couple of weeks of going off my antidepressants. Like everything around me was too much, too painful.

“Sharp,” I kept describing it to myself. “The world feels too sharp.”

I highlighted this passage and took a picture of it at this exact time in the process because I identified with it so much. HOW DIFFICULT AND STRESSFUL LIFE IS. SO SHARP.

Now that it’s been a few full months and the residual effects from the antidepressants are really gone, the world doesn’t feel as “sharp” anymore. Or is it that I’m not as fragile? Bad days happen, but I can cope with them more easily. Feelings come and I feel uncomfortable, but I can muddle through them. It’s easier now.

I’m not ignoring my “stuff” any longer.

I wouldn’t say being on antidepressants is like going on vacation from your problems because that is NOT the case. But in my own personal situation, I seemed to be “lazier, emotionally” when I was taking antidepressants.

The medication was putting a calming pane of glass between me and my “issues,” and as a result, I wasn’t really working on them.

I thought I was, sometimes, but I wasn’t doing the hard work that was needed. I was dabbling. I was kind of thinking about things. I was sort of considering what might need to change. But I was mostly shoving all of those thoughts and feelings deep down inside me, and the pills made it easier for me to do that.

Without the pills, I was suddenly back to being in the regular “too sharp” world, except now I had a ton of strong feelings bubbling back up to the surface. There was no choice but to stop ignoring them.

Heather Laura Clarke

I’m doing the work.

I’m reading self-help books and websites. I’m journaling. I’m facing up to all of the ugly feelings that I ignored for so long. I’m talking to people about it. am, as they say in the business, “doing the work.”

I’m working on myself. It’s uncomfortable as hell. It’s the most difficult DIY project of my life.

I started a “therapy journal” where I mostly write down quotes, all organized by topics. I have almost filled the notebook.

It’s scary and awkward and sickening and frustrating and there are SO MANY FEELINGS, but I know it’s what I have to do. For real. Without the comforting veil of antidepressants, which — for me — made it too easy to NOT do the work. (I’m not saying that’s the case for everyone, of course.)

I’m more motivated than ever.

It’s like cause-and-effect. Now that I’m working on my “stuff,” I’m in a better headspace and I’m even more focused on my goals. On doing what makes me happy. On making the most of my life.

I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and threw myself into working on my novel almost daily. I started November with about 49,000 words and now — Jan. 22 — I’m up to 85,000 words.

I’m more motivated than ever to finish it, get an agent, sell it, and become a published author.

I co-wrote a play with my friend, Sam, and it’s all about mental illness. It’s being performed by an amazing cast for a sold-out crowd in about a week! Oh, and I have a small part in it, so I’m going back on stage to act for the first time since Grade 10. (!!!)

I started taking oil-painting classes again, and I showed my painting at a real gallery just a few weeks later.

I bought myself a fancy pink keyboard that lights up in different rainbow patterns. It was completely unnecessary (I did need a new one but a plain back Microsoft one would have sufficed) but I adore it. And more importantly, I know I deserve it.

I taught myself to make homemade bread, and I’ve been trying out new recipes for dinners. Cooking is a huge weakness of mine — I HATE it — but we have to eat, so I’m trying to improve my skills.

I dragged my sweet husband along to an ’80s dance for New Year’s Eve. We NEVER do things like this and we were both uncertain, but we ended up having an amazing time with friends. Getting out of my comfort zone = good.

Heather Laura Clarke

I’m enjoying my time with my kids more.

When I was on antidepressants, it’s like I wanted to be alone ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t want to be alone. I craved it. Even when I was alone a lot, it wasn’t enough. My skin would crawl with the desperation for everyone to just leave me alone.

I still love being alone, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m enjoying my time with the kids more than I once did. I’m laughing at their jokes. We’re having long and sometimes silly conversations. We’re playing more board games. We’re baking together more. I feel like I’m being a better parent.

Mixing up a batch of Magic Mud a.k.a. Oobleck

I don’t regret going on antidepressants.

You might think, from reading this, that my life is much better without antidepressants and I wish I hadn’t gone on them in the first place, but NOPE.

I don’t regret going on antidepressants. They’re just for me right now.

They weren’t “happy pills,” even though I used to jokingly call them that. They also weren’t “stop-being-sad” pills or “stop-feeling-anxious” pills. I’m not going to pretend I understood exactly how they were working in my brain, because ugh science. But I do know they were doing SOMETHING.

I don’t know how those four and a half years would have gone if I hadn’t gone on antidepressants. Maybe my life would have been better? Maybe it would have been much, much more. Maybe they saved my life by pulling me out of the darkness just enough, and I wouldn’t even be here today.

I had convinced myself that I couldn’t live without mine and I was scared to go off, and then I went off them and realized … it’s not that different “on the other side.”

They just weren’t doing quite as much as I once thought (granted, I was on an extremely low dose by the end). They weren’t CHANGING ME as much as I’d thought.

I hate the uncertainty of these medications. HATE.

What I’ve learned about antidepressants is that you can never really be SURE of what they’re doing and how life would be, with them or without them, at any given moment. It’s so subjective.

I can’t wait for the day when we can go to a doctor and have them scan our brains with a fancy-pants device and say, very officially, “This is what’s going on in your brain chemistry and here is the exact medication — and dosage — that will keep you feeling at your absolute best. Take it for this long, precisely, and then do this.”

It’s going to happen someday, I’m sure, but maybe not in my lifetime. There still seems to be a long way to go. Right now, it’s “Well, try this antidepressant and see how it goes.” Doctors don’t know. We don’t know. NO ONE KNOWS. It’s all trial and error, and I hate that with a passion.

It’s HARD for a person — any person, but especially a person struggling with their mental health — to be able to say exactly how they say and how a medication might be helping them or hindering them. ESPECIALLY WHEN IT’S ALL IN THEIR HEAD — the struggles and the medication.

You might be able to logically track the differences in your pee if you start a kidney medication, but how can you track the changes in your FEELINGS when you start an antidepressant?

“I feel … I don’t know. Still bad!” Is it just how you’re feeling? Is it the pills? Should you be on different pills? Should you wait it out? Should you increase your dose? Decrease your dose? Add in a new medication? IT IS JUST SO FRIGGING HARD TO SAY.

How will I know if I need/want to go back on antidepressants?

Oh, don’t worry. I have a plan! I will go back on antidepressants 100% if I feel like my life is no longer manageable and enjoyable because my mental health is suffering.

If I fall into a depression and feel like life is a slog, I’m unhappy all the time, I lose interest in things I love, I don’t feel like I can cope, etc. I will talk to my doctor and go back on antidepressants.

If my anxiety spirals out of control, I feel like I can’t juggle the balls in my life, I have panic attacks and irrational thoughts on a regular basis, and I can’t manage my stress, I will talk to my doctor and go back on antidepressants.

Right, I am doing well. I really am. But I recognize that might not always be the case.

I’m monitoring how I’m doing and believe me when I say, I won’t hesitate to go back to my doctor and resume medication if I feel like I need it.

And yes, it will be a bit sad to go back on knowing that I will be sacrificing the ability to cry real tears, to feel happiness on a higher level, to work on my “stuff.” But those things aren’t the end of the world, and they’re a small price to pay for a medication that might keep me alive and functioning.

Heather Laura Clarke

The most important takeaway from this very long, winding post?

Do what works for YOU.

Do what makes YOU as happy and functional as you can be, whether that’s therapy or medication or both or neither.

What worked for me at one point no longer worked for me, so I tried something else and it’s working for now. It might not work forever, which is why it’s so important to tune in to how you’re doing, all the time, and listen to what you’re telling yourself.

The biggest thing going off antidepressants taught me is that we’re all DIY projects — at least, we all should be.

If we’re not actively working on being the best, truest, happiest versions of ourselves, then what are we even doing?

Sending lots of love and peaceful feelings out to you, those of you who made it to the end of this post.

Thank you. xo

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