Journalist India Hendrikse was first prescribed antidepressants at the age of 19 and has been on and off them for almost a decade. She writes about her journey to coming off the pills, plus learning about the entirely separate medical condition that they had been masking.
This article represents the author’s individual experiences only and it is recommended that if people want to taper off medication, they should consult a doctor first.
You know things aren’t great when you regularly tear up whilst listening to Top 40 tracks. Justin Bieber’s Anyone had become a waterworks hit, and I couldn’t even tell you I particularly like JB. He’s just on the radio a goddamn lot.
A couple of weeks ago, on a Particularly Sad Day, as we’ll refer to them, I got back in my car after a quick shop at the supermarket. Despite the pre-shop tears, the scenario had at least been an upgrade from welling up in the wine aisle a few days prior.
As I drove out of the car park, charged with anxiety, a mum carrying her baby walked past. I barely noticed them, until the baby waved at me. And it wasn’t just a faint smile and wiggle of the hand. It was a full-blown “hello” grin with a hand-shaking wave to go with it.
Aside from the fact the small baby had very much jumped ahead of all developmental schedules, at that moment – despite feeling like I had managed the supermarket by climbing up a rope ladder from the bottom of a very deep well – something as simple as a toothless grin brought me back to the present. I was okay, even if just for a second. And when you’re part of the anxious crowd, being brought back down to earth feels oh-so-sweet.
Even as a frequently anxious person, I don’t regularly cry during supermarket visits. But coming off antidepressants is something I’ve wanted to do for years. And I was doing it. Or surviving it. Or just keeping-my-head-above-water’ing it. So some emotional leakage in the shop was a small price to pay.
I’ve been on and off meds since I was 19, and I’m now 27. I knew withdrawal would be rocky, but didn’t expect to uncover another condition in the process.
The veil lifted, and underneath wasn’t a raw, richer version of me, but a pesky hormonal issue just waiting to rear its ugly head.
More on that later.
Flashback to when I went on meds at just 19, I took a trip to my University doctor. A wiry, grey-haired man looked at me – or rather, through me – as I told him I was unbearably anxious. I had near-constant stomach pain, my heart was fluttering and I was dizzy and panicked. For many, these are day-to-day realities, but at 19, although I’d had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since I was a child, the physical manifestations of anxiety were only just kicking in. And they were fucking terrifying.
Rather than recommending counselling or offering therapy, or heck, even asking any questions at all, this unseeing, unattentive doctor put me straight on Fluoxetine, more commonly known as its brand name Prozac.
Now there’s nothing objectively wrong with Prozac, or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) like it. In fact, they can save people’s lives. But to use antidepressants without some form of talk therapy, for me, was essentially band-aiding underlying problems. I was too young to advocate for myself and my own needs, and too naive to know that antidepressants are notoriously difficult to come off. Knowledge is power, and I was equipped with no information to make such significant choices. That 10 minute appointment was a plaster at the time, sure, but it also set me up for a cycle of dependency that would continue through to my late-twenties.
After the doctor prescribed that drug, I felt numb for a long while. Rather than lessening the anxiety, it felt as though someone had just muffled it; the faulty wiring was still there, but I’d just built a wall over it. He was so unthorough that I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote ‘hysteria’ down in his notepad.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years, and I was finally feeling ready to ditch the pills. I mean, I’m just as anxious, but I now have tools to deal with it.
I’d been on Citalopram for a number of years, before the effects of that wore off, then Sertraline for the last few years. Antidepressants can stop working over time, and I figured that if I often found myself debilitatingly anxious on them, I’d rather be off them and target the root cause. Although I can’t afford therapy currently, I’d spoken to enough professionals and figured out what I should be doing to help my mind. I just needed to do it. And right now, I want to do it with my support system of people (namely, my wonderful partner), not pills.
The first few weeks coming off meds went swimmingly. I was empowered in my decision, and thrilled that I could face the world meds-free. Now, whilst you absolutely should consult a doctor and create a schedule of tapering doses, I decided to create my own schedule. ‘Slowly’ was the key word I encountered during my research, and equipped with anecdotal advice combined with online medical tips, I added a very gradual dose reduction schedule as a note in my phone.
If I had stuck to that, I think my experience would have been vastly different. But because the first few weeks went well, I felt confident that I could handle a swifter reduction. So I’d skip a couple of days and see how I felt, then genuinely forget about my pills altogether and miss who knows how many days.
This stray from all advice meant I eventually became so confused with my own tapering schedule, and so ill-equipped at cutting my pills any smaller than a quarter-size, that I just went cold turkey. This is the point where I’d highly recommend buying a pill cutter. A kitchen knife just doesn’t work and will send tiny pieces of pills flying across the bench.
Cold turkey was when the electric current type feelings came to the party. They’re a commonly reported symptom of antidepressant withdrawal, but a feeling difficult to describe. A buzzing would start in my chest and feel like waves down my body. My heart would feel particularly fluttery and I developed a sporadic, anxious shaking in my feet and hands. These symptoms are all very common and usually go away with time, which mine did. But it was rather distracting trying to hold a conversation whilst random areas of my body low-key convulsed.
What was even more distracting, and debilitating, was the symptoms I experienced during that Justin Bieber tears week. I’d been crying more than normal all week as my period was around the corner. For the past year, I’ve noticed intense premenstrual symptoms, resulting in very low mood, fatigue and tearfulness before each bleed. Every month, I’d say to my boyfriend “I can’t do this again”, but then sure enough, the next month, I’d do it again. And again. But this month, having fully stopped Sertraline a few weeks prior, things felt different. Worse. The sadness was intense. There wasn’t just one Particularly Sad Day. Every day was one. The depression was dismal, and as someone who suffers only occasionally from hopelessness, the severity of this week was almost unbearable.
I booked in with an actual doctor, having done my own research via Dr Google. I was convinced I was suffering from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD. It’s a severe form of PMS that starts for sufferers a week or two before each period begins. One of the main treatments is antidepressants.
The doctor confirmed what Google had told me: I was suffering from PMDD. I believe the antidepressants had been lessening its severity, as unaided by SSRI’s this month, I was a wreck. I’d only just come off antidepressants and now I was being offered them again, as research has found them to be an effective treatment of PMDD.
I said no. Electric shock symptoms again? No way. Not anytime soon.
Whilst antidepressants were never actively harmful to me, and did truly help me through difficult times, recently I haven’t found them actively helpful. The PMDD was still simmering through the surface whilst I was on SSRI’s, and being off them had made it worse, yes, but I needed another way.
A friend said to me the other day “you know what you need to do if you don’t take antidepressants?” and I knew what she’d say next. “Really deep-dive into healing yourself,” she told me.
And I knew that. In the pit of my stomach, I’ve known for a while that simply being on antidepressants was just the tip of the iceberg. Antidepressants just cannot and should not be our society’s only affordable response to mental health issues. Therapy should be free. Yoga should be free. Heck, it should all be free. Why subsidise the band-aid without helping prevent the wound?
I can’t coast along in the comfort that my pill packet is enough anymore. I have a toolbelt, and it’s time to actually use it.
So, I went on Yaz at my doctor’s advice. It’s a contraceptive pill shown to assist with PMDD. And then I went and booked myself into a yoga workshop. I cried silently for the first hour of the three hour session, hating every moment of sitting with myself. Whilst I’ve done yoga sporadically for years, this felt different – I was approaching this self-help work more consciously, no buts, no opt-outs.
But who knows, maybe I’ll go back on antidepressants again. Maybe this was the wrong decision. Maybe I’ll always be fighting mental health battles. Maybe life without pills will always be a bit of a slog.
And that’s okay.
Whatever happens, I’ll know I listened to my body and explored all avenues. Thankfully now that I’m over the hump and the withdrawals have stopped, I’ve bled my monthly bleed and the PMDD’s at bay, I won’t be crying in the wine aisle when I go to the supermarket later. And that, for me, is a win.
This article represents the author’s individual experiences only and it is recommended that if people want to taper off medication, they should consult a doctor first. Tapering without professional monitoring can be dangerous and this article is not meant to be prescriptive or instructive in any way. For more information, The Mind Tribe is a tapering-off medication support group that is a wonderful resource.