In this guest blog, Emma Bennett shares her experiences – good and bad – of cutting down her antidepressant medication.
As mental health is talked about more and more in society, I’m often asked about my experiences of depression and what it’s like at the bottom. But a topic often lost when discussing mental health is coming off the medication. That was a long, difficult slog.
The decision to stop taking antidepressants is one that should be well thought about and prepared for thoroughly. Always go to your doctor before going ahead – get as much professional guidance as you can.
I’m going to highlight the badly-informed decisions I made over the past couple of years and tell you what I would do differently if I was to cut down all over again.
1. Going cold turkey
It's a really exciting, liberating moment when you realise that you might actually be in recovery. In the same way that mental illness can creep up on you, recovery can do the same: one day it just occurred me that I hadn’t been struggling for quite some time.
"This is it," I thought, and straight away decided it was time to cut the meds and go cold turkey. This is the worst possible decision you can make.
The side effects were horrendous, but the sense of failure when it didn’t work was worse. Whatever your situation, it’s a bad idea. Go to the doctor and come up with a plan.
2. Not logging the process
I'm a huge advocate of writing down, blogging or vlogging your journey through mental ill health, mostly because it's amazing to see how far you have come when you start to get better.
Blogging everything that happened was hugely helpful for me. I did it anonymously, so nobody really read it, but I could map what was going on and it was really useful to remember things for the doctor.
However, what I didn't do was write down what happened when I started feeling better. Coming off medication was a long road with many ups and downs, none of which I can refer to as easily because I didn’t write down any of my experiences during this time. Keep a log of the entire process from start to finish: it’s important to keep note of for the future, as well as being useful for other people.
3. Being too stubborn to back-track
The process of coming off antidepressants should be slow and steady.
For a while I refused to recognise that I was cutting my medication too heavily, despite the crippling side effects. As a result, I actually ended up on a higher dose than when I started.
Going 'three steps forward and two steps back' is better than not going forward at all. If you cut down 50% and you struggle with withdrawal symptoms, there is no shame in upping your tablets until you feel better, and then cutting by a smaller amount later on.
The key is not to get bogged down with personal, societal or peer pressure. Listen to your body, cut and test, don't be afraid to backtrack a little, and remember that ups and downs don't mean failure.
4. Thinking every side effect is a relapse
The amount of times I sat down with my family and confessed to having a relapse (that wasn't actually a relapse) was a little worrying. I didn't know the side effects related to withdrawal and a lot of them look similar to the symptoms of depression.
There are a range of symptoms including:
• Digestive problems (diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting)
• The infamous 'brain-zaps' (resembling an electric shock to the head).
The difference between withdrawal and relapse depends on how long the symptoms last for: a relapse usually involves continually worsening symptoms over a longer period of time – one month or more.
Generally, if the problem doesn't go away after four weeks, go back to the doctor and rethink your dose.
5. Saying 'yes' to everything
Cutting down medication requires effort, time and resilience. The sad thing is, when you feel better about a life without illness, you then have to embark on this long road to a med-free life – a whole other battle in itself.
I was so excited about everything and I started taking on more and more – at work, at home, in my spare time, helping others – this turned out to be a mistake. Everything I did was worthwhile – travelling, volunteering, part time teaching, new hobbies – but I just wasn't prepared for how much effort it would take while reducing medication.
If I could go back and do it again, I would say 'yes' to less activities, and spend a little more time just enjoying a simple, healthier life.
So those are my tips: don't go cold turkey, write down what happens, don't be scared to backtrack, learn the symptoms associated with your medication and give yourself some time to breathe.
The best thing about the challenge of quitting antidepressants is that you're feeling like you can live without them. Whether it takes years to come off and 100 different tries doesn't matter – go and your own pace and answer to nobody other than yourself.
About the author
Emma Bennett is a charity blogger, volunteer coordinator and management trustee for a local voluntary organisation. Emma is passionate about mental wellness and has worked extensively on a variety of third sector projects. She writes and works in digital for High Speed Training, which provides online safeguarding training. Twitter: @emm_benn