This Is What I've Learned (A Story of Withdrawal, Healing, and Hope)
“Facing difficulties is inevitable. Learning from them is optional.” That is a quote from an American pastor and author by the name of John C. Maxwell. Now, at the age of forty-one, I can recognize the wisdom in that quote, and I would like to add the following: “Most of us wouldn’t choose to relive the most difficult days of our lives, but neither would we choose to return the knowledge that we now possess because of them.”
The prescription drug withdrawal that I suffered through in my thirties was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult “difficulties” of my life. I’ve recounted my personal withdrawal story in many previous blog posts, so I won’t rehash the nuts and bolts of the scenario here, except to say that a) I was prescribed antianxiety medications at the age of twenty-one, b) I quit the Xanax and Paxil in my mid-thirties after fourteen years of use, and c) when I did stop taking those medications, I was plunged into a very challenging and painful area of human existence—an ill-defined area known as “withdrawal.”
Just to be clear, this sort of prescription drug withdrawal is not a pesky little side effect. It isn’t a slight fit of indigestion or a little dizziness from time to time. It is a storm composed of many dozens of severe symptoms—some that dig at the very existential fabric of our emotions and logic—and it is a situation that can last a good while. For many people, it isn’t over in “a couple of weeks” as most doctors—at least the ones who don’t deny its existence—suggest. Prescription drug withdrawal can last many months and even years (as it did for me), but while it often isn’t over quickly, neither does it last forever as some people fear that it might (as I once feared that it might).
All of those strange symptoms that often arise when we stop taking antidepressant and benzodiazepine medications— the relentless body pains, the terrifying dreams, the skin-peeling anxiety, the murky depression, the torturous insomnia, the geriatric confusion, the intrusive thoughts, the ringing in the ears, and so many others—do improve and often disappear altogether. Healing does happen—at first in bits and spurts, and later in much larger and more awe-inspiring chunks—but we must be patient and faithful as we walk the path of that journey. (It might at first sound cliché to call withdrawal a “journey,” but having survived it myself, I know few better words for it.)
I’ve now been of off those potent medications for years (six for the Paxil and five for the Xanax), and with distance comes a little perspective. As I said at the beginning of this post, the withdrawal was no doubt one of the most challenging situations that I’ve ever faced (physically, emotionally, and mentally), but believe it or not, it was also a situation that served a purpose in my life. I grew because of it, I evolved because of it, and I got stronger because of it. I learned from it.
So what did I learn, specifically? Well, first off, I want to tell you that I learned that healing is possible. If you are one of the thousands or perhaps millions of people out there who is currently scouring the internet looking for evidence that withdrawal isn’t permanent or irreversible, you’ve found some here. No matter the specifics of the withdrawal scenario (whether it involves one medication or several, whether the pills were carefully tapered off of or quit cold turkey), I truly believe that there is healing that comes with time and a little effort. I’m sure of it.
So that’s one lesson—that we are built to heal—and here are a few of the other profound and useful items that I learned as a result of my withdrawal journey. If you are currently walking that difficult road yourself, I hope that you will find similar wisdom and perspective from your own path—and I know that you will find healing, so don’t despair.
Lesson Number One
We Are Responsible for Our Own Best Health
Who is going to make us healthy? Unfortunately, in Western societies at least, we are usually raised to answer that question by singing, “But the doctors are, of course. The doctors will make us healthy.” And while some MDs and institutions might serve as useful guides or technicians for us (especially in “emergency” or “specialist” situations), we all eventually learn that an unbridled reliance on family doctors and other medical professionals to bring about our best health is a fool’s game. These people can give us pills. They can give us surgeries. They can give us bills. But rarely can they give us the compassion, time, information, and advice that we truly need to improve our mental, physical, and emotional health on a regular basis.
But guess what? We can give those things to ourselves and to the ones we love.
Good health usually isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be, so if we can just get back to the basics and practice them consistently, we will be doing all right. A clinic visit or prescription isn’t going to “cure” a poor diet, a lack of exercise, a lack of professional fulfillment, a mire of bad relationships, a lack of goals, a chronic case of low self-esteem, or a lack of a true spiritual life. Those things require mentors, creativity, time, effort, and love to remedy.
At first the realization that we are responsible for our own best health seems frightening, but in the end it is empowering, because it means that we can always do something to make ourselves feel better and avoid harm.
Lesson Number Two
We Can't Heal in the Same Environments That Made Us Sick
What causes individuals to seek the aid of doctors and medications in the first place? School or work stress? Grief? Low self-esteem? A lack of physical fitness? A lack of direction? A lack of love? In our “quick fix” society, we often numb our emotional and spiritual issues with pills and then don’t think about truly dealing with those issues until larger problems arise. In essence, we often say, “Okay, I don’t like where I’m at (either literally or metaphorically), so I’ll take a pill to endure the situation rather than trying to find or create a new situation.
Bottom line: If we are in pain or unhappy, we must look at changing our mindset, our goals, our methods, and our health. We must work to make our lives look different, and sometimes that “work” might even involve changing jobs, walking away from negative people, retooling our life goals, and otherwise making temporarily uncomfortable changes to our environments so that we can heal and grow.
And a withdrawal-specific note here: After getting off of prescription medications, time and God do a lot of the healing, but we must be proactive as well. If someone has been off of all medications for years and still claims that they aren’t seeing “any” improvements in the withdrawal scenario, that probably means that their environments (social, home, professional, or mental) haven’t changed for the better in quite some time.
Lesson Number Three
The Human Body and Mind Were Created
With Enormous Healing Capabilities
(Okay, this was kind of the first lesson I noted before the list even started, but it deserves elaboration.)
When we are going through health challenges, it can certainly seem as if our position is the most loathsome and painful place to be on the earth. The situation can certainly seem hopeless. But trust me, there are countless people out there who have dealt with severe physical accidents, strange diseases, and terrible mental challenges. And many of these people have found measures of healing, especially if they immersed themselves into the proper healing environment.
A withdrawal-specific note: Brain damage and memory issues can reverse, nerve receptors can regenerate, and life can get better. It just takes faith, care, determination, patience, and some rehabilitation “work.” What that rehab work looks like specifically will differ a bit in each individual’s scenario.
Lesson Number Four
We Can Often Do More Than We Think We Can
We usually don’t give ourselves enough credit. When faced with digging ourselves out of holes or accomplishing dreams, our first instinct is often to tell ourselves, “I’m just not capable of doing that.”
And during withdrawal, our first instinct is often to tell ourselves (or others), “I’m just not capable of doing much of anything right now.” Whether we are talking about social activities, work, exercise, or measures of positive thinking, we might reflexively say, “No, I just can’t do it. I’m limited right now.” And while individuals are, in a very real sense, dealing with certain limitations during the prescription drug withdrawal process, those limitations are only temporary. And small steps toward transcending any fear or fatigue will go a long way toward long-term healing.
The things we deem "impossible" usually never are. Once upon a time (okay, about six years ago), I had a cigarette habit, I couldn't run a mile, and I was taking two antianxiety medications as well as three blood pressure medications. It seemed that the healthier life I envisioned (or at least dreamed of) was impossible, but then this happened:
2012: I stopped the SSRI medication Paxil (after 14 years of use)
2014: I stopped the benzodiazepine medication Xanax (after 14 years of use)
2015: I stopped smoking cigarettes (a 20-year habit)
2015 - 2016: I stopped the three blood pressure medications (I was told, by the way, that my high blood pressure was "hereditary")
2015: I ran the first 5K of my adult life (with two walking breaks and a fairly modest pace)
2016 - Present: I began running regularly (20-30 miles a week), and I often ran 8 plus miles at a time. I began to love it!
The changes we dream about don't happen overnight (and they often involve some pain and sacrifice), but they can happen.
No matter our challenges—whether they involve withdrawal or some other battle—we should each strive to take small but consistent steps toward greater health and happiness each week. And if we do that, chances are we will be able to look back in a year or ten and say, “You know what? I did a lot more than I thought I could. I’m much stronger than I once gave myself credit for.”
Lesson Number Five
The Time Has Come for Reform Regarding the Prescription and
Marketing of Antidepressant and Benzodiazepine Medications
A couple of years ago I began writing about my prescription drug withdrawal experience, and a little while after that I began making YouTube videos about it. It didn’t take long for people who were battling similar scenarios to find me, and I now receive emails and messages from all over the globe on a regular basis.
This past week I heard from someone whose prescription medication carousel began at the age of seven. Yes, you read that correctly, seven years old! This person was prescribed a variety of antidepressant and benzo medications before even hitting adolescence, ostensibly because he was exhibiting “inappropriate thoughts.” (By the way, this occurred in the United States). Now, this situation would have absolutely floored me, had I not been contacted just several weeks prior to that by someone who had been prescribed antidepressants beginning at the age of six!
These people are now older, and they are dealing with fallout—the fallout of that malpractice that wasn’t illegal; they are dealing with the heartache and pain of withdrawal and trying to piece their lives back together. And while these stories might be extreme because of the ages involved, they are unfortunately not isolated. There are simply so many instances of avoidable pain.
The time for reform has come, I believe. No longer should pharmaceutical companies be able to invent marketable but hollow theories about how these drugs work (e.g.. “They fix an unseeable chemical imbalance”), no longer should pharmaceutical representatives have unfettered access to the doctors at our medical clinics, no longer should doctors be allowed to suggest life-altering chemicals as a first line of treatment for the maladies and challenges we all deal with (anxiety, depression, grief, and stress), and no longer should people be allowed to fill dangerous prescriptions without first being informed about the very real and predictable possibility of a debilitating prescription drug withdrawal occurring if they ever wish to stop the medications.
Now, I’ve occasionally referenced prescription drug withdrawal previously in my writings, but never before have I made it the theme of an entire month at The Lovely Grind. However, I believe that the time has come for more attention to be paid to the topic. As I’ve continued to make my YouTube videos on the subject, and as I’ve begun working one-on-one with individuals going through withdrawal, I’ve been emotionally shredded by so many stories. People whose lives are being ripped apart approach me seeking guidance, comfort, and reassurances. They are in pain, they are often on the brink of giving up hope, and they usually feel as if they are wandering around in the dark, because although tens of millions of people are casually prescribed potent antidepressant and benzodiazepine medications, doctors usually never warn of the withdrawal that might occur when the medications are stopped—in fact, oftentimes they flat out deny its existence.
Even though my own life was thrown into a painful state of upheaval when I stopped taking those antianxiety medications, I’ve traditionally measured my words oh so carefully on the topic of withdrawal because a) at least 1 in 5 Americans is still taking one of these medications, and I don’t want to offend or scare these people (because admittedly not everyone’s story will be similar to mine, and b) because people who denounce these medications as harmful or useless are often called “unhinged” or “uninformed.” When misinformation is spread on a mass level (as it has been during the past several decades at the direction of Big Pharma overlords), black is white and up is down and a mediation with dozens of side effects that takes 45 days to get to “therapeutic levels” in your system will have no long-term ill effects when stopped, right?
And of course, the medications exist for altruistic reasons, not for profit.
The stories I’ve heard from people over the past couple of years would break my heart if I thought that healing wasn’t a reality. These people have gone to the doctor or psychiatrist vulnerable, complaining of anxiety or depression or sleep problems or grief, and they were blithely given a prescription that changed the very essence of how their body and mind functioned. Their very temporary and oftentimes everyday problems and challenges were given heavy-handed and chemically complex solutions, and when they stopped taking their “solutions” and experienced withdrawal, the doctor usually tried to give them another pill.
Withdrawal, what is that?
No matter what our problems are—panic attacks or low mood or insomnia or whatever—it simply doesn’t pay to compound them a hundred-fold by handing our well-being over to the heartless machinery of the Big Pharma monster. Behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes, study, spiritual outreach, love: These are but a few of the actual solutions to our problems, and we don’t even have to wait in line at CVS or Walmart to pay for them.
There is just so much pain out there that is preventable when it comes to these medications, so I guess I’m saying that the time has come to start preventing it.