I awoke to a heavy circle of pain pressing down over my heart. The day seemed pale and gloomy in a way that was out of line for even the most overcast of winter mornings in Wisconsin. My house was full of family—brothers, in-laws, and a new nephew—but I felt alone, and that strange feeling of isolation swirled around the day’s first moments like an ominous wind.
“Good morning,” my youngest brother said in a singsong voice as he lowered my baby nephew close to my face. Playing the role of good hosts, my wife and I had surrendered our bedroom and were sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of my office. I wanted to stay on that air mattress indefinitely. I didn’t want to be awake. A photographer was scheduled to come over later in the day for family pictures, and I couldn’t imagine how I would play the role of “normal human being” for that.
“Say hello to your Uncle Mike,” my brother said to his firstborn.
Baby Jackson: He was tiny and fresh, a physical manifestation of both life’s beauty and God’s genius. I responded to the sight of his cherubic little face by descending even further into my sludgy pit of depression.
The thick blanket of terror and despair that now suffocated me was unlike anything I could recall feeling before. As dull sunlight tried to creep through the blinds of my office windows—as my one-month-old nephew cooed and stared at his confused uncle—I somehow felt that death was upon me.
Life equals death: that was how my mind was working now.
I’d quit taking Paxil the month before, after almost a decade and a half of ingesting it for the “generalized anxiety” that had been diagnosed by a family doctor and a short self-assessment checklist. Ever since quitting, my life had gotten confusing and sinister in a way that seemed to speak of impending doom.
I was 35 years old, and I truly felt that my best days were behind me.
Looking back on those first months of Paxil withdrawal, I can now recognize that some characteristics of my emotions were bubbling to the surface after years of being suppressed in some way. After spending so much time under the depths of medication, the emotions were understandably waterlogged and confused, so their first attempts to speak came through as some inexplicable depression—the kind one experiences when looking at a precious newborn baby, of course.
During antidepressant withdrawal, a certain numbness slowly gives way to the tingles of normal emotional experience, but nothing feels normal for a long time. In fact, a few months after suffering that baby-induced episode of depression, my younger brother and his wife were visiting again when I was overcome by another confusing sensation, a pain really.
We were watching the movie Ted—that classic, raunchy comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and a stuffed bear—when I noticed something strange happening to my face. It hurt in a way I didn’t recognize.
I’d been having weird body pains ever since taking that last dose of Paxil, but this sort of facial discomfort was a new one. My cheeks ached in a sharp way, especially near the dimpled areas involved in smiling and laughing.
Then I realized, my face was hurting because I’d been smiling and laughing. It wasn’t used to being stretched by such spontaneous displays of joy anymore.
My face had been frozen in some painful mask of withdrawal-induced stoicism for months, but now it was becoming “unfrozen."
Becoming unfrozen: that’s an apt way to describe the profound and painful thawing process that takes place as prescription medication fades from a person's mind and body. There is so much blunted awareness that wants to come back to life, and there are so many repressed emotions that want to have a voice, but the person in withdrawal really isn’t ready for such a flood of activity. He or she really isn’t strong enough. The person who was taking medication was flying around the edges of life without truly feeling or noticing thoughts for a long time, and then BAM. The pills are gone, and the icebergs start to melt. It is overwhelming and confusing.
Tears flow for little or no reason—sobs can be sparked by the last few "teachable" minutes of a family sitcom or by the melodrama of a Lifetime movie, for example—and then there is the unprovoked depression, the twisted anxiety, and the legions of thoughts that race day and night.
Day and night the thoughts and emotions run wild and confused, and after several months of this, when all of those thoughts and emotions continue to gather en masse and dance and fornicate like some sleepless group of college students on ecstasy, a person starts to wonder if maybe he’s insane.
And that’s when beginning the prescription madness anew starts to seem like a reasonable idea. Maybe the old pills were necessary. Or maybe some new ones are needed.
I had wanted so badly to be free of the medication, but shortly after quitting Paxil, I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to admit defeat. Maybe I simply had to accept that I was broken in a way that could only be fixed by the contents of little orange bottles. I thought that I’d been making progress—painful progress in small increments, but progress nonetheless—but maybe I’d just been kidding myself.
Maybe the doctors—the ones who had played no small role in creating my current lunacy—really did have the answers, and maybe those answers only existed as 21st-century pills. Despite my misgivings, maybe I needed to go see one of them again, at least to make sure that I wasn't dying. What was the worst that could happen if I went back to the "experts" in white coats, or maybe even went back to the Paxil or something similar?
I was about to find out.
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