The first time I was able to come off antidepressants was in July of 2013. It was one of the best experiences of my life… or so I thought for an amazing six months.
Being able to achieve what I had wanted to achieve for almost thirteen years by then was a huge milestone and, to be honest, quite surreal in some ways for me. I wrote an article for Mad in America in October, 2013 about my struggle with antidepressants since being prescribed them after having a panic attack in February, 2000 when I was twenty-four years old. I had tried in vain to reduce and get off them from time to time but always suffered with terrible withdrawal and side effects when attempting to taper to lower doses. It would throw my physical, mental and emotional state into chaos and my life and relationships would follow suit.
However, it was in late 2012 that a colleague casually mentioned to me—whilst we were undertaking some training on delivering depression awareness for workplaces—that I might want to take a look at a book called Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker. Little did I know the impact that brief and synchronistic suggestion would have on my life and what was about to happen over the next six years.
As I began to read Robert’s book, my eyes got wider and wider and my conviction grew stronger and stronger as I finally saw before me in black and white what I had suspected on some level for the previous thirteen years—which was that there was something horribly wrong with the medical, psychiatric and pharmacuetical model of treating anxiety and depression.
I discovered how we have been misled and misguided by some very powerful institutions and commercial organisations which are making billions of dollars off human suffering, without alleviating the suffering but actually increasing it… sometimes to deadly ends.
I will not repeat here what happened next as that is already in the first article. Briefly, however, as I kept reading about the research that Robert had undertaken which highlighted that the chemical imbalance theory of depression had never been proven and that studies used by Big Pharma to sell their drugs were massively flawed and biased… my anger and indignation grew. If there is one thing that I have come to learn about myself, it is that I have a very strong sense of justice and I will stand up when I see something isn’t right and make a noise, sometimes at my own peril. But, that’s the way it goes. I have no doubt that this article and the book that I have just released will create controversy and I am fully prepared to handle the slings and arrows of that.
Armed with a changed belief about myself and what I began to entertain as possible for me, I started to take steps to get off the antidepressants that I had been stuck on for over thirteen years. I had been prescribed Ciprimal (Citalopram) in February, 2000, after completing my masters degree in psychology and experiencing my second panic attack in two years. I say “stuck on” because that is exactly what had happened—I became horribly stuck on drugs that were meant to be helping me feel happier and better but which were slowly destroying my life. Today I would call what I struggled with “antidepressant withdrawal syndrome.”
At the time that I was able to come off of Prozac in July, 2013, my daughter had just been born and I was in a “relationship” of sorts with her mother. There is a rather painful and difficult story around what happened with that but it is not really relevant here. Things were relatively stable in my life at that time and I had been exercising fairly regularly. Due to some of my research into the half-life of antidepressants, I had decided in January 2013 to do a direct switch from Cymbalta—which had been causing me some terrible anxiety—to Prozac. Prozac has one of the longest half-lives of any of the antidepressants and lasts a few weeks in the body rather than a day or two like most of the others. In other words, when you stop most of the currently available antidepressant drugs, the chemicals leave your body very quickly and that is extremely likely to put your mind and body into a major withdrawal reaction.
I managed to get off the antidepressants by tapering relatively slowly and it was a complete revelation for me. I was absolutely elated. The return of my emotions, sensory acuity and general reconnection to life was almost miraculous for me given that I had tried unsuccessfully to come off the drugs for over thirteen years by then.
As I mentioned, this lasted six months.
By December, 2013, two major life events had come crashing down on me, including a career change—which turned out to be a disaster and left me with almost no income when I had to walk away from it—and the end of my “relationship” with my daughter’s mother. From October, 2013, not only was I a single father again, I was now a single father to a four-month-old baby girl in addition to my two little boys, who were seven and four at the time.
Things went very bad, very quickly for me when the job change didn’t work out. I had only been off Prozac a short time and though I had been continuing to run four kilometres approximately two to three times a week, I found that my anxiety returned with a vengeance. I just wasn’t prepared for it and didn’t know enough at that time to be able to handle the huge financial and emotional upheaval.
And so it was in January, 2014, when I was desperate, severely depressed, anxious and completely insecure about the future that I stood in the kitchen of my apartment holding a Prozac tablet in my hand. I remember swallowing it down with this sense of abject failure and hopelessness.
Not only was I taking an antidepressant again after feeling like I had been let out of prison after thirteen years, I now had to contend with all the emails I had begun to receive since my story was published here on Mad in America. My article eventually had over 100,000 views [editor’s note: our page views reset during our site redesign in the fall of 2016—David’s first story has had an additional 42,000 views since then] and became the number one article on search results leading to the Mad in America website. People had begun to write to me from all over the world, desperately looking for support, answers and ways to get either themselves or a loved one off antidepressants.
The emails were coming in thick and fast from all ages, genders, ethnicities, religions and countries in the world. Anxiety and depression clearly do not discriminate and antidepressants don’t either.
I emailed Robert Whitaker and told him I felt like a fraud and that I would prefer if he took the article down. However, Robert very wisely told me that I should write Part Two of my story and tell people what had happened because my story of having to return to the antidepressants was unfortunately a very familiar one for many people. And so I wrote the second part, which you can read here, explaining a few of the things I had learned and begun to look at in order to prepare eventually for another taper. I certainly wasn’t sure at that time whether I would indeed ever be able to get off the antidepressants again.
Little did I know that my life was about to become a living nightmare, far beyond anything I had ever experienced before, which was already more than I thought I could handle!
You see, the Prozac didn’t work at all. I thought at first that it was just because I had tapered off completely and so I probably had to endure the four to six week adjustment period. But as the fourth week rolled in, I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t think straight, I was filled with overwhelming anxiety and just wasn’t getting any relief at all. And I had to keep getting up and going to work and looking after my kids when they were with me.
This was when I went back to see the psychiatrist who I trusted and who knew the history of my ten years since I had arrived in Sydney.
He suggested I go back onto Cymbalta and started me on a single capsule dose of 60mg. However, by the end of January, 2014, I was up to 120mg of Cymbalta. I was also having to take four tablets of Xanax every day just to cope with the rampant levels of anxiety in my body and mind. I would wake up each morning with anxiety coursing through my veins and would experience an almost abject terror in my being.
By May, 2014, although I was getting on with my life, I noticed that the anxiety would hit me really hard about an hour or two after taking the Cymbalta each morning. I had to be very careful with having a coffee and so switched to having only a half-strength coffee each morning and no more than that. I also began to drop sugar from my diet completely as I did not want anything artificial playing around with my energy or moods.
I decided to test my theory about the anxiety being mostly driven by the Cymbalta, which is an SNRI (serotonin-noradrenalin reuptake inhibitor)—meaning it targets not only serotonin but noradrenalin in your body and brain. Taking one of these antidepressants is like giving yourself a shot of adrenalin when you are already anxious! I knew I was still going through some traumatic life events, ongoing income instability and financial stress, but I was just dumbfounded as to why I was experiencing such unbelievable levels of anxiety where I felt on the verge of a panic attack most mornings.
So, one morning I just halved the dose from 120mg to 60mg and I noticed that the anxiety wasn’t nearly as bad that day. This was when I realised, yet again, that nobody other than the person experiencing anxiety, depression or the impacts of various drugs should ever be considered the “expert” or the “authority” with regards to what works or doesn’t work for that particular individual.
Psychiatrists prescribing antidepressants are playing a game of Russian roulette with your brain and your life. There are some psychiatrists, including Dr. Daniel Amen, who eventually came to realise that drugging their patients was in effect like “throwing darts at them in the dark and often hurting them, badly” and decided to look for alternative ways of helping people recover from mental health issues.
I continued to struggle with the Cymbalta and at some point I switched across to Lexapro because I didn’t want to be on an SNRI, and I got on with earning a living through contract counselling and delivering mental health awareness training. However, as a contractor counsellor seeing around 25 to 30 people each week, I was not entitled to any sick leave or annual leave, and so I began to slowly burn out. I also continued to struggle with what appeared to be ongoing long-term side effects of being on the antidepressants, including debilitating short-term memory problems as well as thrashing out at night and a few other side effects I would rather not talk about here.
It is unclear to me exactly when this next part happened but it was during 2015. I ended up at the mental health crisis clinic at one of Sydney’s hospitals in the eastern suburbs, where the chief psychiatrist had a brief review of my case and told me that he believed I am someone who clearly needs to be on a tri-cyclic antidepressant. Now, if you know anything about this older class of drugs, you may know what they can do to you. I was clearly not in the right head space to dispute his thirty or more years of experience and so I ended up on first Mianserin and then Nortriptyline. Let me tell you, if you have ever had the misfortune of being on any of these drugs I deeply empathise with you! I couldn’t sleep. I became wired and started living on around three or four hours of sleep a night. I had to try taking anything I could to help me sleep but this usually just made things worse. At one point, I noticed that when I went outdoors it felt like the sun was burning through my skin as if I suddenly had no protective layer on my skin at all. It was a nightmarish time for me.
Things continued like this until around August, 2015 when I took a job with another company which ended up being a cataclysmic mistake, yet again, and this time it was all just too much. By December of 2015, I was at the end. When I had started the new job, in my excitement to have some annual leave and a stable salary, I had booked a five-day cruise for myself and my two boys for late January, 2016. After years of not being able to take a holiday or even a short break and spend some quality time with my kids, I was beyond excited about taking them on a cruise from Sydney to Tasmania. However, as December arrived, things had reached such a bad state for me that I just wasn’t well enough to be able to take them on the cruise and rather than forfeiting it completely, my ex-wife ended up taking them on the cruise while I stayed at home in Sydney. I remember the moment I had to accept that I was not going to be able go on the cruise with my boys. I raged and pounded my fists into my bed yelling: “It’s just not fair! It’s just not fair!” I knew I had to let it go and not think about it too much because it would probably lead to me ending my life.
It was just before all of this that I had begun to reconnect with the work of Dr. Wayne Dyer, who is a psychologist and author of over forty books on self-help, psychology and spirituality. I credit the beginning of the turnaround in my life to his work. I would listen to him in the car and I began to read anything of his I could get my hands on. Through listening to him I also reconnected with the work of Esther and Jerry Hicks, and their work also helped me connect with a part of myself that began to give me some peace and some hope that I could change things around.
I also returned once more to a psychiatrist who knew me well and he suggested I try Effexor. Yet another SNRI. Although I had my misgivings, I just had to get myself back to functioning and so I went along with it and ended up on a dose of 225mg of Effexor at one stage. This is a HUGE amount and the upper limit for this drug.
In July of 2016, I was finally able to leave my work as a contractor and take a role as a student counsellor with a large college. This was when things really began to settle down for me and I was finally able to breathe and focus on my health and well-being.
Now I had a real conundrum because when I decided I needed to taper down the Effexor, I realised that I couldn’t really do it on my own because it comes in capsules and inside those capsule are tiny, coated (time release) beads. I had counselled someone not long before this who had told me that she had managed to wean herself off Effexor by removing a few beads each week for about three years!
I just wasn’t prepared to wait that long. I am persistent but I am not that patient, not by a long shot. In addition, my experience and experimentation had proven to me that I didn’t need to completely wean off one antidepressant to get onto another—as most doctors and psychiatrists repeatedly told me I had to do—but that I was able to find out the rough equivalent dose of one drug to the other and then switch across, which is what I did when I switched from Cymbalta to Prozac and then successfully weaned off the Prozac in 2013.
My struggle with anxiety, depression and the antidepressants continued to escalate. In the meantime, I continued to work full time and try to earn an income. I also continued to have my kids two to three times a week—even when I was struggling with major anxiety and sometimes quite debilitating depression. There were times, however, when I just couldn’t have them and I had to contact my ex-wife and partner and tell them that I just couldn’t do it. The guilt that I felt and the sadness that I couldn’t see my children was very hard to bear. My daughter’s mother was at least understanding of this as she had often seen what I was going through and the tears in my eyes when I would drop my daughter off after a weekend with the kids.
During this time I began to research everything I possibly could around the most natural ways to increase serotonin in the body and brain through supplements and food. I found out exactly how serotonin was naturally produced in the body, which is from protein being converted by the body into tryptophan and then into 5-hydroxytryptophan before it crosses the blood-brain barrier and provides serotonin.
I completely dropped sugar from my diet and then began to follow a mostly gluten-free way of eating after reading Dr. David Perlmutter’s books Grain Brain and Brain Maker—which show the direct connection between gluten and inflammation in the body and brain, as well as how this can often be the cause of anxiety and depression.
It was then, around December of 2017, that I made some further major changes to my diet and to my exercise regime.
I began running five to six times a week each morning at around 5am. I started off with just a 3 km run and then increased this to 4 km and then 5 km most weekdays. On weekends, I extended my running and eventually I was running 8-10 kms at least once each weekend.
I dropped meat and chicken from my diet and increased the amount of green vegetables I was eating by having a vegetable soup for dinner most nights, which included cabbage, onion, garlic, celery and spinach. I would have this with gluten-free bread and a protein—either fish or eggs.
In the meantime, I had already switched away from the Effexor back to a Prozac tablet which I was able to cut down with a pill slicer.
My energy levels increased amazingly as I continued with my new diet and exercise regime, and I continued to meditate and work at finding peace with my situation.
Within two short months, I found myself staring at the box of Prozac as I had a little “farewell” conversation with it—which I have detailed in my new book Black Belt Mind—and threw it into the bin.
I had managed to get off the drugs again, this time with practically no withdrawal reactions at all other than some disturbances to my sleep which eventually settled down. In fact, I started to experience a restful sleep that I had not experienced in years. I remember lying down to sleep one night and having that experience of your head hitting the pillow and then waking up what felt like a minute later and it being morning. Feeling rested, refreshed and with no trace of anxiety in my mind or body at all.
I truly feel that I have been given a second chance because I am aware of how many people struggle terribly with these drugs just as I did. My experience of life now is completely different, in so many ways that I can’t even begin to describe them all here.
It is now nine months later, and although I have had some ups and downs trying to work through some of the issues that I had not really been able to do whilst on the drugs, on the whole, I have found that my experience of any down days or difficulties are infinitely more manageable now. This may be due to the fact that I now know that nothing is interfering with me. I know that if I exercise I get the benefits of the endorphins and the serotonin boost. I know that if I get enough sleep, meditate, connect with good friends, eat a diet designed to maximise my physical and mental health, and take certain supplements, I will continue to be free.
I am indebted to Robert Whitaker for his bravery in writing Anatomy of an Epidemic and for his ongoing encouragement over the years. So much work to be done and people to help because from where I stand as a psychologist, trainer and author, I can see that people across the world need something very badly right now, and that is HOPE. And if I can inspire people to see that they can indeed overcome anxiety, depression and antidepressants, then it was all worth it.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.