The bed was soaked yet again, the sheets saturated with a pungent, urgent sweat caused by nightmares and the prescription toxins that were trying to leave my body. Once again the few restless moments of sleep I was able to “enjoy” were interrupted by the nightly ritual of my wife turning on the lights and stripping the bed so that we could lie on a surface that didn’t feel as if Patrick Ewing had just used it as his postgame massage table.
It was still dark outside—predawn hours—but I had to be up for work shortly. I lived just outside of Milwaukee in Waukesha, WI, but I commuted to my post at Madison (technical) College each day, a trip that took an hour and fifteen minutes one way in good traffic that didn’t include getting stalled by the notoriously long freight trains that passed through Waukesha.
I worked in the Testing Center at Madison College, a position that had me dealing not only with large numbers of students most days but also with the daily ups and downs of office interaction with coworkers.
I couldn’t believe I was still functioning at my job. How did people not know about my illness? When would they find out? How would they find out? How long until I had some sort of public breakdown that ended the whole charade?
Or maybe everyone already knew and was too polite to say anything. I mean, how could they miss the rapid weight loss and the sudden and persistent appearance of midnight-black bags under my eyes? I was sure I looked like a zombie, but maybe it was all in my head. I was getting trapped in my head a lot lately.
As my wife tidied up the bed and quietly cursed my relentless night sweats, I worried about the upcoming workday. How would I make the drive in my sleepless condition? How would I survive the office in my anxious condition? Even the tiniest hint of workplace stress might send my compromised system into a panic that exposed my “secret” illness. I wasn’t well-rested or well-nourished enough to survive the ups and downs that define a normal day for most people. I could barely eat or sleep and I hadn’t been able to do either of those things sufficiently for months, ever since making the decision to stop taking the Paxil that had been prescribed to me for anxiety attacks suffered as a 21-year-old college student.
I was now in my mid-thirties, and I was starting to suspect that prescription medicines were causing me anxiety and a host of other problems rather than fixing much of anything. It took me a long time to come to that suspicion, but as they say, Better late than never.
Paxil—one of the biggest rock stars among the SSRI super pills that flooded our society around the millennium—had been causing certain health issues for me, not just physical ones but emotional ones as well. I had little energy or tolerance for exercise, I dealt with stress by drinking and eating too much, I gained weight, I had elevated blood pressure, I had elevated liver enzyme levels, and I just kind of “floated” through many aspects of life, unable to fully engage with existence the way other people did.
As I found myself within striking distance of turning 40, I desperately wanted the sort of healthy, “normal” life that I suspected other people had, so I finally decided the Paxil had to go.
I thought that life would get better when I quit taking the Paxil—remove the problem and life gets better, I reasoned—but I was wrong. And not just a little bit wrong. Once the Paxil was removed from my life, all hell broke loose and I didn’t even see it coming.
And a short time later, when I began cutting out the Xanax that the family doctor had prescribed to go along with my Paxil, all hell broke loose again. And once again, I truly couldn’t have predicted the strange physical pains and extreme mental anguish that would pummel me and not let up for years.
You see, that’s the problem with antidepressant and benzodiazepine withdrawal—especially the drawn-out or ‘protracted” kind like I experienced: you don’t expect it because few people even acknowledge that it exists. Doctors will dismiss you, loved ones will have a hard time relating to you, and all across the world the gigantic pharmaceutical machine will continue to grind its profitable gears without so much as a hiccup. The lines at CVS and Walgreens never get shorter, and people are still willing to turn their emotions and brains over to the modern inventions of profit-driven chemistry.
If you tell someone in the medical establishment that you are sick because of a prescription medication or because you are trying to quit one, they will most likely tell you that it sounds as if you need a different prescription medication.
Withdrawal? What is that?
The clock signaled that it was almost time for me to leave for work. There would be no more sweating in bed wondering about what new withdrawal-related symptoms the day would bring, because it was time to experience it all firsthand again. I always hoped that one morning it would all be over, but like Groundhog Day, each morning seemed to bring more of the same.
I left the relative safety of my bed and made my way across the hall to the spare bedroom that housed the treadmill. The sun was about to rise, and I needed to get the anxiety out of my system somehow. This wouldn’t be the spiritually refreshing, five-mile morning jog of a healthy man on his way out to conquer the world. No, this would be the uncoordinated and breathless five-minute effort of a man who was hoping for a small hint of calm in the anxious storms that were becoming the norm in his life.
When my short session on the treadmill was finished, I showered, dressed for work, and resolved that I would try to survive another day in the strange and terrifying new reality that was my world since quitting Paxil.
I went into the bedroom and kissed my wife goodbye. Fear was visible in my eyes and pulsated from my fragile body language. I felt as if some demonic force (or even a strong wind) could send me through the earth’s crust and into hell at any moment.
“Pray for me,” I told my wife in a desperate voice, and then I went downstairs to get on with the commute.
Michael Priebe is an author and personal development coach. He holds a journalism degree from the university of Wisconsin-Madison, and over the years he has used fiction and nonfiction platforms to write about sports, spiritual inspiration, relationship issues, politics, and prescription-drug withdrawal. He blogs regularly at LovelyGrind.com and MichaelPriebeWriter.com. He also makes YouTube videos about surviving and growing during prescription drug withdrawal.
Readers can message Michael here with questions or comments, or to request more information about the coaching sessions he now offers to individuals experiencing antidepressant and benzodiazepine taper and withdrawal symptoms.