This is an introspective metaphorical essay. If you prefer a more direct and practical approach to overcoming depression check out my other blog posts on the homepage.
In writing this essay I explored:
- “Normal” mental health
- The mental illness of depression
- The experience of being on antidepressants
- The experience of quitting antidepressants abruptly
- The experience of tapering off antidepressants, with reinforcing lifestyle changes in place.
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Normal Mental Health
Normal mental health is like you are walking down the street with your best friend.
You meet a young mother proudly showing off her newborn baby. This makes you feel happy.
Farther along you witness a schoolyard fight. This makes you feel sad.
As you encounter the varied sights and sounds, on your walk-through town, you experience corresponding and appropriate emotions.
Like the pendulum that is hidden in the tower of the town’s clock, your own emotional pendulum swings-left-and right; you experience light-and-dark, but overall your emotions remain centered.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Between each varied experience, your pendulum again passes the six o’clock mark.
Within you, all-is-well.
On the other hand, experiencing life with depression is like walking down the same street through the same town on the same day — but you are experiencing it as a late fall day. The trees are bare. The clouds hang low and colorless. Trash blows in the gutter. There’s a spattering of cold rain in the air.
Your emotional pendulum swings, but it swings decidedly to the left-of-center. It swings from the sullen grey of a cloudy day to the blackness and darkness of inconsolable grief, and back again to the sullen grey of the cloudy day.
It does not pass center. You do not experience light or calm or happiness even though they exist all around you.
Your personal reality is skewed. Your individual vision of the world is darkened. You-are-not-well. On the menu today at the sidewalk café are only sadness, discouragement, hopelessness, and despair.
Anger and rage are side dishes.
Meeting the same young mother showing off her new baby you feel sad instead of happy. You’re sorry for the hopeless condition of the world into which this unfortunate child is born. The schoolyard fight reinforces this discouraging thought. Rather than thinking boys will be boys, they’re learning to work out their differences, you feel anger, frustration, and the incredible hopeless of it all.
The whole world seems to be at war.
And it’s weighing you down.
As you continue down the street you are drowning in a flood of black thoughts, with nothing hopeful to grab onto. Each time you sink beneath the surface of these dark, rubbish-filled waters you hold your breath; wishing, wishing, wishing you could rise from this darkness — and more quickly! But every thought is black.
You think of death: Would it be preferable to this private hell?
Surely, you think, you would be better—off—dead —
Your clock tower is leaning.
Meanwhile, your partner beside you is walking through the same town on the same street experiencing a sunny summer afternoon. Her emotional pendulum swings in a measured beat. She-feels-sad, she-feels-happy. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, in-measured-beat, her-pendulum, always-passing-center.
She wonders, why are you so sullen?
If you speak she tires of your negative talk.
So, you remain silent.
She tries to draw you out — and is baffled by your angry response. She kindly suggests you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones.
She doesn’t know that you can’t.
You don’t have any!
The Bakery, The Bar, and The Back Alley
As you approach the bakery, the smell of freshly baked pastries wafts out onto the street. In need of an emotional lift, your senses draw you in. You choose a frosted French croissant with chocolate filling, and a crème brûlée flavored cappuccino to wash it down.
Like bits of flotsam on your inner sea of darkness, these provide a temporary reprieve. However, within hours the darkness returns with an even greater vengeance.
But the tiny boost is enough to keep you coming back.
Continuing down a side street you and your partner pass a corner pub and a dark alley. Drugs and alcohol can appear as wide avenues of escape from the sewers of depression. For many, they end in sucking whirlpools of addiction.
When we are drowning, we are not discriminating in what we choose to hang on to.
After all, it is our life that we are trying to save.
“I can’t live like this!”
Just now you walk beneath a black cast iron sign that squeaks in the wind. The sign says, Psychiatrist.
“Look — a doctor of psychiatry!” your walking partner says, “Maybe she can help.”
You are skeptical. But you are drowning.
A clockmaker can fix the pendulum on a clock; perhaps a psychiatrist can fix your emotional pendulum.
You step inside.
The ambient light is warm and the office is inviting. The psychiatrist’s children smile from a portrait on the wall and a framed parchment testifies to her credentials.
You tell her about the dark thoughts you’ve been having and that you can’t seem to shake them off.
“I can’t live like this!” you say.
“You have a disease. It’s called depression,” she says. “I can help.”
She shows you and your friend a glossy, tri-fold, laminated brochure on which is pictured in amazing detail the nerves in the brain — illustrated in purple.
She speaks of neurons and neurotransmitters. Serotonin. Reuptake inhibitors. And receptor sites.
She explains, “Antidepressant medications called SSRI’s are designed to block the reuptake of the serotonin to keep it in the synapse longer. If you take these you won’t be depressed anymore.”
She pushes a bottle of SSRI’s across the desk to you.
You pick up the bottle and read Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor.
Sensing your resistance, she says “The company rep was just here and left these free samples. If you need more, your insurance company will cover the cost.” Scribbling on a pad of paper she says “Here’s your prescription. Come back in a month. You’ll be feeling so much better!”
You’ve been tossed a lifesaver.
An easy to swallow pill.
Depression on Antidepressants
The antidepressant medication lifts you from the depths of darkness and wraps you in a comfortable cocoon. The SSRI’s move your clocktower back into alignment and once again your emotional pendulum swings over six o’clock.
Now, as you walk through your hypothetical town, your emotional response to the sights and sounds around you are no longer dark. Your negative thoughts and emotions are muted; your emotional pendulum is hanging over center and swinging ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-and-ever-so-slightly-to-the-right.
At first, this feels good.
The overwhelming darkness dissipates almost magically. You suddenly feel okay. You can go to work, go to school, go to meeting, and function within your family.
The medications may have saved your life!
Though the medications have taken the dark out of the darkness they’ve also taken the light out of lightness. They’ve taken the wonder out of wonderful, the beauty out of beautiful, the intimate out of intimacy, and the awe out of awesome. They’ve taken the spirit out of spiritual, the art out of artistic, the thankful out of thankfulness, the sorrow out of loss, the talk out of talkative.
Ultimately, they’ve taken the person out of personality.
The depression has been suppressed, but the drugs have thrown a broad net.
You don’t weep and you don’t cry — neither do you smile. You don’t draw, you don’t write, you don’t call, you don’t, you don’t, you don’t until you don’t remember who you are anymore.
You may seek out extremes just so you can feel something, or you may check-out — vegetating in bed or on the couch.
All of your emotions are subdued.
The intonation of your voice and the look on your face lacks expression. Others have difficulty relating to you and may avoid contact with you because your “absence” makes them feel uncomfortable.
You no longer connect with the world.
Back under the cast iron sign that squeaks in the wind, your psychiatrist says: “Your medications need to be adjusted.”
The dose is increased or additional medications are added in an attempt to find a cocktail tailored just right for you.
You idle along in a medicated stupor until you can’t stand it anymore.
And then, against the better judgment of all your family and friends —
You consider simply stopping your medications, but you know this to be irresponsible. Always ask your doctor before discontinuing your medications.
You’ve heard it a hundred times.
You tell your psychiatrist (under the cast iron sign that squeaks in the wind,) that you are okay now, and that you’d like her to help you get off the drugs.
After reassuring you that your depression will return, she finally relents.
Her advice is to taper off slowly. “Over a week or so.” (Either she doesn’t understand what she is doing, or she rests assured that you will be back for another prescription.)
She may rightfully plead that she is ill-informed because the drug company has no vested interest in studying how to quit taking these drugs.
They have trained her only to sell them.
In the war on your depression, there is no exit strategy.
After following her instructions, on quitting the antidepressants, you may descend immediately from mediocrity into darkness.
Or, you may for the first time since you started taking these drugs skip down the street feeling the cobblestones beneath your bare feet. You feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your hair. You unfurl your wings to fly past the clocktower, and then you make a pass over Main Street waving and shouting at your walking partner as you fly by.
You see art go back into artistic, and beauty back into beautiful. You watch in awe — as awe flits back into awesome!
Your tongue is loosed. You talk. You smile. You laugh. You cry.
With the staccato-like rapid fire of a metronome — You Are Back!
Your pendulum snaps. Your inner spring bursts from its case.
It violently unspools in a wild tangle of emotion!
Your spring has sprung.
This looks like dependency and addiction, but it’s what the drug companies call — with medical sterility —antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.
Your late Fall day of depression looked a lot like this early Spring day of rapid medication withdrawal. Your psychiatrist takes one look at you and with a smug, I told you so, intonation, she tells you that your depression has returned.
She says, “You need to go back on your medications.”
“For how long?” You ask.
“For the rest of your life.” She says.
Healing and Tapering.
Back on your medication, your inner spring is restored to the cocoon of your personal clocktower and your emotional pendulum again hangs limply over 6 o’clock.
Your tongue is tied, your speech is flat. Awe and her friends — Beauty, Spirit, Grief, Thankful, Sorrow and Happy — once again abandon their posts.
Life again becomes blah.
But your run-away emotions have been safely suppressed.
Learning that your emotional stability is dependent on something called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor is a humiliating experience. Knowing that you can only get it from a licensed prescribing physician, like the psychiatrist under the cast iron sign that squeaks in the wind, is demoralizing.
Knowing that you can only afford it with an active health insurance policy is frightening.
You are an independent person and all this dependence doesn’t feel right.
It’s not right!
There’s a new business in town: The Internet Café.
Tentatively, you enter.
There, you find people, like Rose, who recovered from depression after 25-years on psychiatric medications; People like Anne, and Kathryn, Stephanie, Jeff, Amber and others who have found ways to free themselves from the dark thoughts and emotions of depression, and people who (following their healing) tapered off or are in the process of tapering off their meds.
You learn that with many lifestyle changes and a cautious tapering of medication doses — over long periods of time — people have successfully restored their emotional pendulum’s healthy range.
After a long careful unwinding from the restrictive confines of their antidepressant cocoons, they have found new freedoms.
Armed with this new information, you walk down the street with a lighter step. You feel empowered because you have learned that your mind and body have a tremendous ability to heal themselves; you have learned about what things may be contributing to your depression, including the gut-brain connection, blood sugar, thyroid, fats, and social issues; you have learned secrets to stopping depression which includes what foods to eat and what foods not to eat.
You have educated yourself and learned to enlist the help of a supportive physician to help you taper off your medications.
You now have a dream.
You feel empowered.
By whatever means is available to you, you will rule out or correct the known possible underlying causes of depression.
You will no longer simply slap an antidepressant medication on top of your problems.
At the same time, you will seek out a non-toxic and wholesome lifestyle within which your mind and body can heal.
When this healing strategy is well underway, with the help of a supportive prescribing physician, you will begin to taper off your antidepressant medications.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. You will now walk down Main Street clothed and in your right mind.
Awe and all her wonderful friends will be back at their posts.
Walking hand-in-hand with your partner, you will talk and visit freely.
With each varied experience you encounter, you will feel a corresponding and appropriate emotion.
You will be able to say, that within you, all-is-well!
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Afterward: It’s happening for me! At the time of this writing, March 17th, 2018, I can now say that after dietary and lifestyle changes, and a 20-month medication taper, I have now been free from all medications for five months — and counting, and to date, I am doing well.