This Is What Withdrawal Feels Like

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It’s an established fact that I don’t get along with medication that affects my brain chemistry. Zoloft? Neurontin? Abilify? Nope, nope, nope—all poison to my sensitive system. I’ve learned that the hard way. For the past year and a half, I’ve avoided them completely—except for Tramadol, my main weapon for treating my UCTD. I often forget that Tramadol affects your serotonin levels, though.

After I had the flu, I stopped taking Tramadol. The Plaquenil and Prednisone were doing their job, and my pain was down to a 3 or 4 out of 10. I figured I’d be better off coming off the Tramadol. Less is more, after all. Besides, my doctor’s office has been acting weird and it looks like they want me off it anyway.

I thought nothing of stopping it. After all, I’ve taken it on and off for years and I’ve never had any problems. At first, I didn’t notice anything odd. I still had residual fatigue from the stupid flu, and things have been crazy so I thought my anxiety was just life being life-y. Then I woke up one morning feeling awful—unable to focus, out of my skin anxious, heavily depressed, completely unmotivated, and exhausted.

I tried to push through it, but the feeling didn’t lift. I felt physically and mentally weighed down, and again confined myself to the couch, bingewatching Grey’s Anatomy rather than working. At first I tried to tell myself it was still just leftover flu, but it felt more chemical, like when I came off Wellbutrin and Abilify back in 2015. I also had stomach pains that made me double over, and alternating constipation and diarrhea.

Plaquenil gives me diarrhea if I take it too soon after eating and it’s made my brain fog worse from the very beginning, so I started wondering if this was just a new development. I Googled Plaquenil and depression, and found lots of forums full of people discussing the possibility of depression as a side effect. If it’s on the internet, it must be true, so of course I panicked.

I called my rheumatologist’s office to confirm and see what he wanted me to do. His assistant called me back and told me that Plaquenil doesn’t usually cause depression, but that I could stop it and see if anything changed. (She also said it could be my Fibromyalgia, which confused me because I don’t have Fibromyalgia. Apparently it’s in my chart, along with the UCTD, which really pisses me off because I have zero Fibro symptoms and it’s been decided several times, by several doctors, that I don’t fit the bill for Fibro. Every single time doctors don’t know what’s going on with me, they just blame it on Fibro. This erases me, it erases actual Fibro patients, and you know what? Don’t get me started because this is a whole other blog post.)

I didn’t really want to stop Plaquenil because at this point it’s doing most of the heavy lifting (I started tapering off Prednisone in February). Like I said to my rheumatologist’s assistant, I don’t want to end up bedridden again. She said she understood, suggested that I stop it for a couple weeks and see, then let me go. I really didn’t want to stop it, though, and I think in the back of my mind I knew I was missing something. I took my regular doses that day.

That evening, I moved and my bad hip cracked, kicking off some fun pain. I took 50mg of Tramadol and, a little while later, my pain was less intense and I also felt fine mentally. Then it dawned on me.

I’m supposed to take 50mg of Tramadol twice a day, along with my twice daily Plaquenil. But I’d stopped taking it because the Plaquenil was doing so well for me. My symptoms weren’t Plaquenil side effects—they were Tramadol withdrawal symptoms.

I’ve been on a regular dose of Tramadol for a long time now. Before that, I was being stubborn and only taking it when the pain got unbearable—but that wasn’t working well because Tramadol works better when you’re taking it regularly. In the past, I didn’t have trouble any time I stopped taking it because I hadn’t been taking regular doses. Now, though, my body is used to its twice daily dose, and stopping it suddenly—especially because of the sudden drop in serotonin—threw me way off.

I’d have to ask my doctor to confirm, but it makes perfect sense… especially given my sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine (and what happened the last time I came off a SSRI/SNRI without weaning). Of course, I sort of don’t have a doctor at the moment. (I sent in a letter complaining about the APRN I was seeing and requesting to see the MD, but I never heard back. When I called a week later to check in, they blew me off and told me the office manager would be in touch. I still haven’t heard anything.) I started trying to wean myself off by cutting my dose to 25mg three times a day, but I still feel like hell so I think it’s safer to just continue the 50mg twice a day until I can see someone who will help me.

I want to strongly state here that I still think painkillers are a safe treatment option for chronic pain patients. I still think Tramadol was a good choice for me, because other painkillers are very strong and make me sleepy, so yeah. Despite my mistrust of SSRIs/SNRIs, I’m very grateful for Tramadol because for a long time it made the difference between functioning and not. There were too many days that my pain was so disabling, I couldn’t get out of bed or dress myself, but there were also many days that Tramadol helped me push through the pain to have some kind of quality of life. Until a better chronic pain treatment is developed, I will remain an advocate for opioids and opiates because, when used safely, they are life for people with chronic pain.

Life.

However, I have very complicated feelings about medications that affect my brain chemistry, and I kind of have the heebie-jeebies knowing that I need help in getting off a medication that basically saved my life. I’d also kind of like to know that, should I need pain medicine again, I won’t have to jump through hoops. I don’t deserve to be chained to my bed because my local and federal government would rather slam down on doctors and patients instead of helping treat patients with substance abuse disorders. I don’t think it’s fair or effective to demonize painkillers, vilify people struggling with substance abuse, and erase chronic pain patients.

But that’s also a whole other post.

I didn’t get the chance to call my doctor’s office yesterday, and my entire state is shut down today because of the blizzard, so for now I’m just going to keep taking the proper dose of Tramadol without trying to come off it by myself.

This has been another episode of I Just Can’t Win Lately, brought to you by My System is Stupid Sensitive.

Story Time: Why #SuicidePreventionMonth Is Not Enough

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via Unsplash

September is Suicide Prevention Month, which dredges up a lot of complicated feelings in me. You may or may not know that I’m a survivor. Almost two years ago, I’d been on antidepressants that, as usual, had an adverse affect on me. I was so messed up, I was convinced that no one loved me, that my husband had abandoned me, and that I should just die. I was also grieving the loss of a dear friend, so I’m sure that didn’t help. None of those things were true—my husband was in fact baffled at my behavior and worried—but I couldn’t see through the dark clouds.

Depression lies.

From the moment I woke up the next evening, confused but alive, I felt ashamed of what I’d done. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. I felt stupid and I felt like a failure. It took another year before I finally came off all of the medication and was properly diagnosed with PTSD from multiple traumas throughout my life.

But that year in between was hell.

None of my doctors realized that the medications they were prescribing me were just making things worse. In fact, despite how awful I felt, they usually just increased the dosage or added a second or even third medication. I finally talked the psychiatric APRN I was seeing into discontinuing my medications. Through the haze of pharmaceuticals, depression, and anxiety, I could still hear my gut. And my gut was saying “Drugs are bad, mmkay?”

Unfortunately, for reasons that I will probably never understand or forgive, my APRN didn’t wean me off. We’d discussed how various psych meds always strongly affect me, and I even asked if I needed to wean. He said no, and within days I went into withdrawal.

I felt an infinite amount worse.

Almost immediately, I became completely unable to care for myself. I spent my days lying on the couch binge watching TV and movies I can barely even remember. I became a ghost woman, barely eating, not taking my arthritis medications, and rarely sleeping. Even my thoughts weren’t my own. They weren’t suicidal, per se—I didn’t want to hurt myself—but I kept thinking things like, “I wonder what’d happen if I filled the bathtub and tossed a toaster in? Wait. Why the fuck did I just think that? I don’t want to do that.”

It was frustrating because I’ve been suicidal in the past but it was my decision, if that makes sense. This was like a stranger had stepped into my brain and was pulling the strings.

I knew it was the medication.

Psych meds have what’s called a half-life—the time it takes for the substance to get completely out of your system. As you go through the half-life, if you don’t wean, you will start to have withdrawal symptoms. The medications I was taking happened to have a shorter half-life, which means they’re even harder to come off of.

Though I was still seeing a therapist and the APRN, neither of them thought to do something about this. I was on my own.

I tried to ride it out. I really did. I kept telling myself it’d get better, especially as each day passed. But there are really no words to describe how I felt. It was terrifying, like crawling through endless cotton-thick white mist. I had no concept of time, no desire to write, and it seemed like I’d never be myself again. I just wanted to get back to my life.

On a Tuesday evening, I made the decision to go to the ER. I did not feel suicidal but I knew I needed help coming off the psych meds. While I didn’t exactly want to try any other medications, I guess I thought the hospital staff would prescribe me something to ease the transition or at least refer me to a new doctor who could.

I was so wrong, and I deeply regret going.

The staff did not listen to me. I tried to be honest, briefly explaining my history and how psychiatric medication always seems to do the exact opposite for me. But instead of hearing “past medication made me attempt suicide,” I think all they heard was “past attempt at suicide.” I was signed in against my will and, no matter how hard my family, husband, and I tried to explain again, I ended up being held for a week.

During my first night there, I had to meet with a social worker who asked if I had ever been sexually assaulted. I told her I have, twice. Not an hour later, they parked a patient next to me who kept screaming about how he did not rape his girlfriend.

The whole experience was horrifying, and almost a year later I still have flashbacks.

But after I was finally released, I found a new therapist who was trauma certified. Between the drugs finally wearing off, her proper diagnosis, and the new techniques she taught me, I felt better within weeks. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t received the proper help that I needed. Maybe I would’ve started seeing a new provider and taking yet another medication that wouldn’t work; my mental illness has never been chemical, so there’s no chemical balance to readjust. Maybe that next medication would have been the one to finally kill me.

I’m not saying antidepressants, etc are all bad. They help a lot of people—many of whom are my own loved ones. But we over-prescribe them. Few providers know what to do with trauma patients, even though many of them are required to ask the same screening questions. And mental illness in general is so stigmatized, too many people just get brushed off. Hospitals have quotas to fill so they can make their monthly budget; affiliated and private providers are overbooked with too many patients.

We have to do better.

I don’t know how to patch the holes. All I know is writing, so all I can do is share my story and hope it inspires other people who do know what to do and have the power to make things better.

Putting these words out there used to terrify me. It still does, a little, and I’m not quite ready to share all the details. But in less than a year, thanks to my therapist’s help and quite a bit of independent work, I feel stronger than I ever have. Last week, I was able to let go of the past and stop letting one of the men who assaulted me continue hurting me. I was able to step out of that trauma cycle, stop obsessing over what happened, and walk through the door. I’ve closed it, and I feel fantastic. Free. I’ve got my magic back.

I just know that, someday, I’ll be able to let go of what happened to me last year. I’ll no longer feel uneasy at the very mention of a hospital. And I’ll keep getting stronger.

I’ll probably still have to deal with depression, anxiety, and flashbacks for the rest of my life, but not as intensely. The problem with multiple traumas is that it’s like ripping open a gash over and over. The original wound never heals, and just festers unless you get the right help. But I’m finally healing—mostly because I finally got the proper diagnosis and treatment. Now, when I have a flashback, I know to let it happen and remind myself that I’m in 2016 and I’m safe. When I have an anxiety attack, I know that it won’t last forever, that if I just breathe and ride it out, I’ll be okay. And I know that when I start to feel depressed, it’s time to ramp up my tools (journaling, yoga, meditation, essential oils, R&R, etc), and I know to always carefully balance my workload as a preventive measure so I don’t get overwhelmed and spiral out.

This isn’t the happy ending to a movie; my life is a work in progress. I’ll still have bad days or months or even years. But something tells me it will never be that bad again. I can’t even put into words how strong I feel, even when I’m down. I’m so much stronger than I ever was.

And even though a lot of that magic is mine, the spark started with Erica, my therapist who I may not see anymore but always think of and will be forever grateful to. If we had more Ericas in the world, maybe we wouldn’t need a suicide prevention month.

To learn about the warning signs of suicide, please read this SAVE.org article.

If you or someone you know might be in danger of hurting yourself, please call 911 for medical emergencies or Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or, if you prefer, text Crisis Text Line.


I am not a trained or licensed medical provider. I am just a woman who has been there. I can offer an ear but I cannot give you any medical advice. Please use the above resources to get professional help.