It was a few months ago when I was taking my antidepressant—just as I did every night for the past five years—and realized I didn’t really want to be on it anymore.The shrink who’d prescribed it to me had never said I’d need to take it forever (though no one had said I wouldn’t). But that night, surveying my new thinking about all of this in the moment I swallowed it down, I wondered: had it become a habit, or even a crutch in my life, rather than a necessity for a serious depression? (Answer: In my case, probably.) So how would I safely get off it?
This is my brain on drugs
I think I should say that while some people might need a mood-regulator or a SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for super-solid chemical reasons, I think I needed an antidepressant for environmental ones. One reason? My situation has become entirely different than it was when I was first prescribed Lexapro, a common SSRI variant. And it’s made a big difference. Boxes have been checked, and I’m essentially where I want to be—I have a great job, a great boyfriend, great friends. My mood matches my pretty decent reality. And my reality, even when sucky things happen now, doesn’t totally steamroll my mood (or total sense of self).
I was curious: could my pretty healthy exercise and eating habits (along with my sporadic attempts at meditation) provide enough mood-boosting wind in my sails?
That’s not to say I’m not still depressed, of course. High-functioning depression is a very real thing, after all. I just feel like I’m in a better place, and more capable of not having to rely on pills to be truly happy. And more importantly, I wanted to test if this was true.
Intellectually, I’d gotten some confidence for going off the Lexapro from things I was learning on the wellness beat at work. My theory: I probably produce a really steady stream of happiness-boosting endorphins, since I’d become an avid attendee of HIIT workouts, and I also avoid enough inflammatory foods to naturally level me out—so why not reduce the number of chemicals I’m ingesting?
And after learning more about the connection between the gut and depression, I was curious as to whether my pretty healthy exercise and eating habits (along with my sporadic attempts at meditation) could provide enough mood-boosting wind in my sails.
So I set out to stop using the medication that had leveled me out for years—which honestly felt like going into battle without any armor.
The problem with discontinuing antidepressants
But you can’t just stop taking the pills. I’ve had occasions in which I had missed a couple of doses, and felt significant changes in my brain chemistry (some Googling produced the term “brain zaps,” which quite accurately described the weird and uncomfortable sensation you can feel after skipped doses).
So I had no illusions that the process of getting off antidepressants is complex, and not something that should be done without a doctor’s supervision. I went to see Meredith Bergman, M.D., a holistic psychiatrist, to see what I should do.
Dr. Bergman is really approachable and communicative for a shrink; not at all like the MD who gave me Lexapro, four minutes of his time, and a good-luck pat on the back. But she didn’t sugar coat this info: “Drug companies do not conduct research into how to taper off these medications, leading some physicians unprepared and without specific protocols for doing so,” she told me in her cozy New York City office. “This can lead to