Why I stopped taking my meds

I’m not a doctor. And I am in no way giving medical or mental health advice. This is just my story.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s what happened.

I stopped taking the antidepressant that saved my sanity 5 years ago when intrusive thoughts about harm coming to my children were destroying my life. I had a new baby and a two year-old. You can read what I wrote back then in my blog entry, Haunted Housewife.

I tapered down gradually because the side effects feel like biting down on tinfoil with braces on-an intermittent zapping in the brain that produces not only discomfort, but sound. I’d love to tell you that I had a plan, but I just saw that my prescription was going to run out long before my yearly doctor appointment, so I started taking less medication, sometimes forgetting for days until the zapping became life-alteringly bad, then taking it again until the symptoms subsided. Every day, I vowed to call the doctor “tomorrow,” a perfect plan for something I never intend to do.

My mood changes with the spring. That change is subtle in Southern California. Some years, it’s undetectable. This year, we’ve had a tremendous amount of rain, so as the stretches between storms become longer and the days get warmer, it feels undeniably like spring is coming. I feel all of the feels that I would mark “cliche” in the margins of my students’ papers. Rebirth, awakening, heightened sexual awareness.

(Probably a good place to stop reading, Dad. Love you)

Things have been bad between Odie and me. Things have been bad between everyone and me. I’m grouchy with my students. I have pulled back from friendships unless you count Facebook. And, you don’t. My closest work collaborator and I drifted apart after two years of productive collegiality and John Oliver jokes. In short, my life was what Bud Light tastes like. I just plugged into my computer to read, watch Hulu (Netflix is for hip people), or search for something fulfilling on the internet.

One day, a long time coming, it blew up. Odie let me know all of his frustrations from my laundry on the floor to my empty Diet Coke cans stacked up Revenge of the Nerds beer pyramid style on the table by my reading couch. But when I listened to his litany of complaints about me, underlying it was the real story: you won’t have sex with me anymore.

I had no interest, and when I did do it – always for him, because I love him – I felt almost nothing. I wouldn’t keep eating chocolate if I couldn’t taste it.

Where’s the pill for that? My body would be so bangin’.

Other than feeling zappy, I was sad. I no longer cared so much about my spinning obsession. 4-5 days a week, every week became a habit in February 2015. The difference in my body, mood, and confidence was striking to every person who knows me. When the invasive thoughts started coming back, my coping mechanism was to block them with self-loathing. Like a familiar groove in wood, so easy to slip into. I have to give myself credit, though. It was self-care in its own bizarre way. I have a tool chest of far more self-destructive and terrifying ways to block the assault of my own brain chemicals. Cutting. Drinking. Cheating.

So, I stopped exercising, and then I had something to constantly think about and hate myself for. To make plans to fix, but let myself down, and then berate myself over. It kept my mind very busy. I’m almost 45, so the softening of my body as well as the fit of my clothes was noticeable quickly.

Two weeks ago, I stopped taking any pills. The taper was done. The zapping almost never happens anymore. I got up at 4:45 to go to spinning at 5:30. I got dressed. Then I went on the app on my phone and late-canceled the class. Odie got up, stumbled past me to the coffee machine, and asked, “Working out?”

“I just canceled. I don’t know how to make myself go anymore.”

“Yeah, I don’t know how to make you do stuff either,” he replied. When we’d argued, I’d been angry and defensive. The guy who used to sit in my passenger seat with his knees to his chest on top of books, clothes, Diet Coke cans and other trash was going to give me shit about being a slob as if I’d suddenly become one? He knew what he was getting. But I didn’t feel angry because I heard his sadness and pain, and a lot of it was my fault.

It turns out, there is no trick to it. I just went. I was late, but I showed up. I hated the music mix my instructor played that day (Justin Beiber? Really? Aren’t we all adults?), but I showed up. I didn’t touch the tension knob the entire class, but I showed up.

“Didn’t you cancel?” the teacher asked?

“Yeah, I had a hissy fit over being late and being tired and being miserable, but then I realized I’d just hate myself more if I didn’t show up.”

“Good for you. I’m proud of you!”

That’s it. Show up. It sucks, but I feel better about 20 minutes into a 50 minute class. The first 19, I’m hating it, especially if the music isn’t good. Then my body sort of goes, “Oh, we’re doing this? All right.” By minute 40, my endorphins kick in and I am high for about three hours.

The gauge of my well-being is this. I have to walk up two flights of stairs to my classroom. If my legs feel it at the top because I worked out that morning or the day before (I alternate days), then I am at peace with myself. If I ditched a workout, it’s when I climb the stairs that I remember it, because the movement of my thigh muscles reminds me for good or ill what I’ve done. It sets the tone for my day. I’ve gone Friday and Sunday for a month straight, and last week, I did Sunday, Wednesday, Friday. It’s made all the difference.

I think I can manage my depression with diet and exercise for now. Cut back on the sugar and processed food, ramp up the cardio. Sex is also crucial. Sometimes I feel angry at Odie for his prototypical male libido. Aren’t there more important things to think about and prioritize in this world? It’s easy to think that way with no desire coursing through my brain or body, and no satisfaction to be had from doing it if I did just starfish for the team. Now that I have back the desire and the physical response, it’s a bizarre feeling. How did I forget this? How did I ever think I could live without it, or that our marriage could survive without it? Or that it should? Just a familiar, self-preservation groove. It made sense while it made sense, and now it doesn’t.

If I find myself in another mental health crisis, I am willing to take medication. It saved me. I was on the verge of not being able to bond with my children. With that crisis handled, though, I can’t continue to take the cure for the crisis when the fallout of that cure creates a crisis in my marriage.

This week, I quoted a John Oliver joke to my colleague. He laughed. It’s spring.

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“There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”
― Carrie Fisher

The genius of her writing is exemplified in this simple complex sentence. I’m not bipolar like Carrie Fisher was. Hard to write about her in the past tense. She has been an idol of mine since I was a little girl. First as Princess Leia, but most enduringly and endearingly as the writer I most aspire to resemble. I feel an unfortunate kinship with her and appreciated her work to remove the stigma from mental illness. Her honesty and specificity often make the reader uncomfortable, but she knows how to put in a laugh to cut the pain. When it comes to turning a phrase, she’s on par with Dorothy Parker.

The brilliance of Carrie Fisher’s statement about demons and self-possession is in the literal and connotative meanings. It echoes an Emily Dickinson poem I once used as inspiration for a post about my own mental illness, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” Demons are literal in literature, art, and religion. Demonic possession and something to do with the uterus were the top two explanations for any mental illness in women prior to about 2008. 

Therefore, literally, she is the demon who possesses herself and there isn’t enough physical space for other demons. No room at the inn, as it were. 

Metaphorical demons abound. Fisher’s personal demons were the biological illness she had and the numerous substances she used to medicate it. That includes the love drug. The desire to be loved by people who wouldn’t love her. Love, freely given, doesn’t heal the self-loathing. The golden ticket is to win the love of a person who can’t love. To people who don’t have depression or self-loathing, it can be very tempting to dismiss those conditions as self-inflicted and therefore self-correctable. In Postcards from the Edge, an openly autobiographical novel turned film, an addiction specialist tells Meryl Streep, playing Carrie Fisher, that taking a bunch of pills and ending up with her stomach pumped in the ER is suicidal behavior. “The behavior may be, but I’m certainly not,” she replies. This line demonstrates the other meaning of self-possession. She knows herself and understands what is happening. She is calm, composed and in control of her feelings. Ironically, the only way to be in control of her feelings as a person with bipolar disorder is to admit that she has absolutely no control over what comes out of her brain or when.

When I accept the “demon” possessing me-the biological illness in my brain that is as much a part of me as my earlobes-I am “self-possessed” and don’t need any external demons. In this way, the quotation is incredibly hopeful. No room for the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, promiscuity, infidelity, or drama-filled relationships. On the other hand, you know that those demons will appear, so fill up the space they seek to claim inside of you: be self-possessed. Claim yourself, flawed as you are. As we all are.

Carrie Fisher also wrote, ““If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” I’ll close with this. On the internet program “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld and John Oliver discuss how non-comedians don’t understand the overwhelming drive to get to the joke, even when it causes all kinds of calamity. There is a moment between Seinfeld and Oliver of profound kinship. The “You get it!” moment. “You see me!”

That’s what Carrie Fisher’s writing was and is for me. I got it. I saw her. 

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