To Sanity and Beyond!
noun [ U ] UK /ˈsæn.ə.ti/ US /ˈsæn.ə.t̬i/
the state of having a healthy mind and not being mentally ill:
He’d been behaving so strangely that they began to doubt/question his sanity.
For someone who has been labelled as mentally ill by their doctor, the word above holds a great deal of charge. I am not one to subscribe to labels, and disagree with the shame and stigma which is attached to the term ‘mental illness’. At one point in everyone’s life, either due to circumstances or other twist of fate there are periods of sadness, anxiety or other mental stresses. Some people do not identify with it and simply cover it up with excessive drinking, eating or exercise or any other activity which elicits alternative feelings or hides the scary feelings.
The doctors response to those people who do actually get an appointment to see one, is to simply hand out ‘happy pills’. In most cases these pills are unnecessary but the alternatives, CBT, meditation, therapy, hypnotherapy etc. are far too expensive for the NHS and have very long waiting times. If you are lucky enough to have private medical insurance then wait times are much reduced. My doctor prescribed my Sertraline approximately 12 years ago. It was the first anti-depressant I had been on which had very few side effects. Previously I had put on weight with the other two tablets which had been prescribed to me and as a consequence quit them within 8 months of starting. My mantra was I would prefer to be skinny and anxious than fat and happy. Don’t judge me.
Sertraline was great at turning the volume down on my day to day anxiety, to the point where I was leading a ‘normal’ life. It didn’t however dispel the extreme anxiety and panic I felt when flying away on holiday or spending large swathes of time working abroad. In those situations, valium was my only friend.
When Esra and I got together, I felt I was able to come off my tablets. Our relationship was a completely different animal to my previous one. He was loving, caring and not controlling at all. Esra has never actually said ‘no’ to anything I have requested, he allows me to be the woman I want to be. As a result I felt safe and that was a massive factor in my recovery. Next came the terrible task of actually coming off the tablets. After the first ‘cold turkey’ quit and subsequent mental melt-down I consulted my doctor. She gave me a reduction protocol, which I followed, but again, it was too quick for my sympathetic nervous system to recover and I crashed again. At this point, and not one who is used to failure, I was angry. I did some research, this is where I came across a whole online community of people who were also struggling with the task of coming off these tablets in their various forms.
I would like to point out at this juncture in case you believe as my doctor did that my mental instability is because I ‘clearly need to be on an SSRI’ that this assertion is complete and utter bollocks. A mistake in assessment which leads many people (myself included in the past) to believe said doctor and go back on the tablets. The mental instability is actually withdrawal from the drug. And the more research you do the more you realise that a very large percentage of people with depression and anxiety issues do not actually need the drug.
Long story short, my final attempt was a very prolonged (for someone who is used to instant results) and arduous journey. Cutting tablets into little pieces. Once the doses became so low that it was impossible to cut them up, I was dissolving my tablets one to one with water and measuring with a pipette small ml doses. None of this was accurate and small fluctuations in the dose were causing some fluctuations in my mood. I then stopped after 8 months of fiddling with doses.
I researched and researched and by this time was also supplementing with recommended vitamins and minerals. As an anxiety sufferer I am very attuned to my bodies subtle responses and was immediately able to tell that some vitamins were actually more activating than they should be. For instance, I do not respond well to Fish Oils, they make me agitated, so I had to quit them. Through trial and error and many weeks and lots of £££ later, I had settled on a ‘stack’ which suited me.
In the beginning I was supplementing with 400mg of 5HTP, Primrose Oil, 200mg of B6, 1000mg of magnesium and 10mg of Melatonin.
5HTP is a Serotonin pre-cursor and having a brain that has been used to being awash with Serotonin from the Sertraline, this was my primary concern. When your brain has a surplus of one of the neurotransmitters then the wiring associated with it start to down-regulate, that is, your body decides that because you have so much swimming around there, you don’t need as many points in your brain to pick it up. My understanding is very basic and I am sure a neuroscientist would scoff at my basic description. However, the top and bottom is that my brain is suddenly in panic mode, it doesn’t have this wonderful Serotonin sea and it doesn’t have the capacity to capture what little there is as it dumped most of the original receptors. Therefore my aim is to give it more than a normal human needs until such time as it starts to repair itself. The doses above are very large, and not for any normal healthy human. However they were working for me.
Over the past three months I have added a wonderful CBD oil from Love Hemp which, when I first used it I thought I had found Shangri La, but after a week of feeling awesome, I stabilised on it. There is no manual to help you through this, it’s trial and error, research and failure. There is also very little research around these natural supplements, most of what I know I have found in drug chat forums like Bluelight or on Surviving Anti-Depressants. There has been more than one crash throughout this journey, arguments so heated and so volatile that I have asked Esra to leave, go home, I want a divorce. My moods have been so bad some days that Esra has simply hidden in the pub and gone out drinking with his friends which has only added fuel to my fury. There have been some black holes where I could not see the light. Generally these days have been following my fiddling with the above stack. I am only taking 100mg of 5HTP now, and this small dose has me waking in the night with feelings of agitation in my stomach, so I am going to drop it again. This is all guesswork, and if I have it wrong, there will be a couple of days where my moods fluctuate wildly.
However, the positive news is I am 3 months off my medication and doing rather well. My general day to day is sane, and the swings are only as a result of me cutting something too quickly, or my body not needing something anymore, which points to healing. In fact I will go as far as to say I am happy 95% of the time…which is a result!
I am very proud of how far I have come. It has not been an easy journey. In all honesty I could not have done it without my mum, who is on the end of the phone when I am screaming or so angry I could burst. My beautiful friend Samantha, who is my voice of sanity in all things and of course my wonderful and long-suffering husband, who has had his own challenges dealing with me, yet he remains there, and every time I push him away screaming at him for some bad behaviour which I have blown out of all proportion, he comes back and tells me he loves me and he is going nowhere. Don’t worry, he is no walk over, he shouts back and puts my in my place. He rightly points out that I am abusive and he will not tolerate it. I feel vindicated at the time as my accusations seem very valid and it is only a couple of days later, when I have upped my dose of something I dropped, that I realise my reaction was WAY out of proportion. The screaming arguments over the coffee mug have ceased, now its only more normal issues like him staying out until 2am without letting me know, which are just the settling into a relationship arguments between a man who is used to doing his own things and a woman who expects more. However, instead of saying my piece and leaving it, I’m chucking his clothes out of the window and locking all the doors so he has to sleep in the shed, a bit excessive, even for me! I am sure that slowly this extreme response will mellow as I finally overcome withdrawal.
Just because this drug is ‘legal’ doesn’t make it any easier to withdraw than not so legal drugs. I do not minimise anyone trying to come off medication, we all have different tolerances, some people can quit cold turkey without an issue, others have a long and laborious journey. If you have time I would encourage you to listen to Claire’s interview, her experience is very similar to mine and many others I know on the forums.
Nowadays my drug of choice comes from Holland and Barrett or the Gym. My CBD oil is still a fabulous addition to my life and I wouldn’t be without it. I will slowly wean off the 5HTP because I genuinely don’t think my body needs it now, the B6 has already gone and I only use the Magnesium now and again to help with sleep. At what point can I say I am recovered? I am unsure, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive end, the fact that I am functioning well without the SSRI would suggest I am almost there. Will there be dips in the road? It’s unclear, some heal quickly, others like Claire above slower, only time will tell. What I would love to see happen is Doctors educating themselves more on the consequences of these tablets and issues such as discontinuation syndrome. I would like to see a lot more support for people coming off and a lot more research into safe and effective ways rather than leaving people to battle it out on their own.