Several months ago I quit my final psychiatric medication after a long, slow reduction in my regimen. In the bad old days with the psychiatrist who treated my moods between 2000 and 2006, I was over-medicated. At several points I was taking six different medications for my mental health. The side effects were dreadful and humiliating, and my depression hardly lifted. The only benefit was a generalized emotional numbing. I was free of intense anguish, because I had no strong feelings at all. This seemed like a good idea at first, but I soon recognized that life was passing by while I lingered in a medicated haze. My wife hated the zombie-like affect I presented, and it was impossible to accomplish anything while so sedated.
Since 2006, I’ve been tapering off the medications. I feel more sadness, but also more happiness. I can laugh and cry and think once again. My former passion and creativity have been restored. Coming off the drugs has been very good for me, although I am by no means suggesting it would be right for everyone.
And in fact it wasn’t completely right for me. During the few months on no medications, I struggled with darkness. Life had become briefly challenging every time I stepped down in number or dose of pills, but when I discontinued the final drug, I slowly spiraled into an exceptionally unpleasant space. To my great relief, I did not contemplate suicide, which shows how much progress I’ve made in accepting low moods. However, joy and interest drained from my psyche. I continued all my normal activities, but I enjoyed few of them. Worse, I became hypersensitive, irritable, and withdrawn.
After three months with no improvement, I decided to go back on a low dose of that final drug. Within two weeks, my days became dramatically easier. The lesson, I suppose, is that extreme positions are always suspect. I had decided that since six drugs were disastrous, the answer was to take none at all. That turns out to have been too drastic. It looks like I am better off taking a modest dose of one antidepressant, rather than trying to live with no psychiatric medication at all.
It’s been an enlightening experience. My anger at the psychiatrist who treated me so aggressively, the resulting misery, and the shocking weakness of psychopharmaceutical research had all pushed me to reject the usefulness of medications. Now, I’m not so sure. Although I wonder if the antidepressant would be as necessary if my system had never been exposed to any such chemicals, the fact is that life is much easier on one medication than it was on none.
It’s a good reminder to watch myself, and continuously reevaluate my motives and decisions. It is very easy to get swept away by strong emotions. As much as I believe feelings are necessary to live fully and happily, it is also the case that when they get too intense they cloud judgment.
Fundamentally, it is vital to maintain a balanced perspective. If a single antidepressant can make such a big difference, and if it also happens to be one of the few medications that causes me no side effects, why not take it? Is philosophical purity more important than pragmatically doing something to make life more livable?
One of the biggest problems in the world today is our very human tendency to get locked into behaviors and attitudes that are rigid and extreme. Inflexible and dogmatic positions are damaging. This is as true in an individual life as it is in the case of religious fanaticism and political extremism. As the Buddha said, it’s best to ‘follow the middle way’. Or as they say in Christian circles, ‘moderation in all things’.