“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Recently, I’ve been seeing more and more stories / posts / tweets by people in the process of withdrawing from medication. These have brought up both a swell of compassion and a desire to share the things that I experienced (and that helped me) when I went off meds six years ago.
Although much of this blog has been about practices I’ve used to find inner peace—and most of these posts now live on my primary work site—I’ve never written a post about the actual experience of withdrawal (and I’m a bit hesitant to post that on my professional site). Actually, this isn’t so much a post as it is a random collection of thoughts.
Going off meds is a very personal decision, not one that should be imposed on anyone…nor should anyone be coerced into staying on them. As someone who was on all the medications (almost literally) and went off them against pretty much everyone’s advice, I’m here to say: um…this is my experience. It was possible for me, and I believe it’s possible for others, but I’m not in anyone else’s shoes. There have been a few times I’ve wondered whether I should reconsider (thanks, perimenopause!), but my life has changed so substantially—there’s so much more peace than I ever could have imagined—that I can’t fathom going back on meds. Yet I also know better than to say “never.”
The first rule of Life is: Do whatever it takes to stay alive.
First, a statement of the obvious: I am not a doctor or healthcare professional (mental, emotional, spiritual or physical). What follows is based on my experience, which may or may not be yours. This is not medical advice. It’s not even well-written. It’s just random thoughts that came pouring out as I remembered what I went through.
Only you can decide what’s right for you—though I encourage you to listen to your intuition, not your mind. (And your intuition might say, “Hey, we need meds in order not to hurt ourselves”—fair enough. But the mind will try to trick you.)
Depending on how long you’ve been on medication, going off it is a bit like learning to experience the world for the first time (hence the photo of nearly-bursting cherry blossoms at the top of this post).
Old things that have been pushed down will come up to be released. All the anger, fear, guilt, shame, pain that the medication has held inside the body, it will come up and it must be processed. This, for me, was the most difficult part.
The key to survival, at least in my experience, is learning to observe those feelings without identifying with them. Feel the physical sensations in the body without attaching emotion-labels to them. Constricted throat. Dull ache in the chest. Rapid heartbeat. Vertigo.
And release, release, release. Scream into a pillow. Dance. Spend as much time as you can in nature. Watch funny videos and laugh until you are gasping for breath. Yawn. Retch. Burp. All of that is old energy coming out.
I vomited a lot, which I interpreted as both a release of energy and physical withdrawal.
Which brings me to… there may be physiological withdrawal. Treat yourself kindly, as if you had the flu.
Exercise. A lot. I began walking about ten kilometers daily. It was really more like socially acceptable pacing.
Sleep as much as your body needs. Call in sick if you have to. (Or call in healing)
Listen to what your body tells you it needs, nourishment-wise. It might be corn chips for two weeks straight, or pickles, or Parmesan and mustard. Don’t judge. If you allow your body what it needs, that craving will eventually pass. Your body has its own wisdom. It knows what it needs to heal. (People will tell you not to eat sugar, and that’s probably a good idea…but you may find you don’t even want sugar. I lost my taste for sugar…for about five years.)
You may become someone you haven’t seen since childhood—or at least, since you went on meds.
Get into the forest if you can.
Hit a pillow. Scream into it. Let the energy out; it wants and needs to be expressed.
This will pass.
Take hot baths. Bubble baths. Unless you hate them, in which case, don’t.
Nourish your soul. I mean that consciously: do things that delight you, show your soul you’re paying attention.
It may feel like your brain is trying to kill you. It’s not. It’s trying to regain balance, sometimes a balance it’s never experienced. It’s also trying to regain its unique natural balance, not some arbitrary definition of “normal.”
Learning to observe your thoughts is like learning to peel the thinnest layer of skin from an onion. It’s feels impossible at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s life-changing.
If you are in the constellation of ADHD/autism or other neurodivergence, you have a lot of thoughts going through your mind. The goal isn’t necessarily to quiet your mind, but to learn to notice the thoughts. So many of us race through life identified with our thoughts that we don’t realize the thoughts are separate from who we are.
Mindfulness may seem impossible because you have so, so, so many thoughts going through your mind. It’s not impossible. It’s a skill that takes practice and can be learned. My experience is that, as someone who has exponentially more thoughts than most people, it takes a lot of practice. I’m not someone who could have learned this at a weekend workshop, or even a weekly meditation class. Healing my brain became my full-time job, my special interest, my hyperfocus (hooray for the hyperfocus superpower!).
Six years on, I wake up regularly with several firehoses of thoughts racing through my mind simultaneously. The only reason it doesn’t drive me crazy is that (most of the time) I recognize, “Oh, I’m thinking again,” and I do something to lower the intensity of the firehoses, like focusing on the sensation of my cat’s purr, or putting all my attention on the birds chirping outside. Or I wiggle my toes and put all my focus there. (Sometimes the thoughts still come, but usually these things turn the stream into a regular garden hose)
This world was not built with you (or me) in mind. That doesn’t mean you (or I) should have to be medicated to be accepted. However, it’s a really good framework to explain why it feels like a bumpy road sometimes. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with us, but that the pain of the disconnect between who we are and who the world is designed to accommodate…is sometimes significant. And it’s easier to medicate those who don’t fit in than to change society.
My experience is that most of the time, depression and anxiety are signals that I have a need that’s not being met. A need for acceptance, connection, affection, privacy, autonomy, quiet, love. As neurodivergent people, we may have more needs that are unmet a greater percentage of the time, simply because we live in a world that’s designed to meet the needs of a different type of person.
And we get messages that who we are isn’t okay. Many people get those messages, but we get them often in bundles.
You are perfect and whole, just as you are.
(And also, we can all use a little improvement)
Even though it feels like meds allow us to be “more ourselves,” or to understand what others talk about when they say “let it go”…my experience is that meds turned me into a different person, one who was able to fit in a little better (in part because I was so oblivious to my differences). Meds (arguably) made me more palatable to the world, but they also obscured my true self.
There is something in you that wants to emerge.
You may worry your creativity is gone. I had the same fear. And in all honesty, I’m not the same writer I was before. I don’t have the same voice. I don’t write at the same frenetic pace (well, I was on huuuuge amounts of prescription speed, so there’s that). I’m not as entertaining, as a writer or a person. But I believe my writing has more depth now. It took a while to get there.
Your gifts are your gifts. They are not going to abandon you.
I have to do more now to quiet my mind before I write; I have to take care of myself first (which is something our culture really doesn’t understand) in order to give or create from a place of fullness.
I’m still afraid that who I am is not who people want to work with. I worry that my personality, or my spoken voice, negates my actual talent. But I was more difficult to get along with when I was on meds…only I didn’t realize that about myself at the time!
You are becoming more yourself.
Whatever differences you have will become more noticeable to you. Maybe not to others, but to you. This is your authentic self, and it is exactly who you are meant to be. It holds within it all the gifts you have to offer the world. And challenges, too, because that’s life.
Try not to make any major life decisions for six months.
Homeopathic remedies didn’t seem to help me much, though 5-HTP did (not St. John’s Wort). The point, for me at least, was not to try to replace medication, but to heal the underlying issues that caused a need for medication in the first place.
I listened to self-hypnosis programs by Glenn Harrold, Paul McKenna and Adam Eason, among others (in my experience, they were the most skilled. Because I’m in North America, I found their UK accents soothing)
You are on a path to discover who you really are.
There were times I was afraid I would impulsively hurt myself. My agreement with myself was that I would stay alive, even if that meant taking occasional medication. Sometimes, a quarter-milligram of clonazepam allowed me to notice my thoughts.
Thankfully, I didn’t experience the extreme physical withdrawal I’ve heard others describe. This strategy kept me alive, and eventually, my need to use it at all disappeared.
Meditate. Stick with it. You will be bored. You will think you have too many thoughts to watch. You may, indeed, have more thoughts than most people, especially if you’re part of the ADHD/autism constellation, but you can learn to notice them. Don’t try to hold onto them. Just let them pass.
Don’t believe your thoughts.
Don’t believe your thoughts.
Don’t believe your thoughts.
That one is really important.
I listened to a lot of Eckhart Tolle, pretty much everything he had ever recorded. And Tara Brach, who is a wonderfully compassionate, funny and down-to-earth Buddhist teacher and therapist. And Pema Chödron, especially “When Things Fall Apart.” Feed your brain healthy stuff (it will also keep you from ruminating).
When I needed distraction, I listened to the Stephen Fry performance of all seven Harry Potter books. I still do, at least twice a year.
Do whatever it takes to interrupt the pattern: play Tetris or Bejeweled (Candy Crush if you must), dance, do yoga, make a gift for someone… Whatever moment you’re in will pass and will give way to a new moment.
You are being given an opportunity to become who you are meant to be, not who others say you “should” be.
In case you missed it above, it bears repeating: There is nothing wrong with you. You are whole, just as you are.
Stop trying. Start allowing.
“Positive thinking” isn’t necessarily the way to go, if you’re doing it at the expense of feeling the feelings that need to come up. Instead, try what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good.” Look for things that make you smile, whether that’s a funny turn of phrase, a beautiful flower or the Hamilton soundtrack (also see: Harry Potter books).
Use your sensory hypersensitivity to your advantage: Place your hand against a tree trunk, and focus all your attention on the sensations in your palm, without labeling them.
Inhale the fragrance of a flower and focus all your attention on where you register the scent (your nostrils? Your brain?). Don’t label. Just experience.
You can do this exercise with any sensation you find pleasant—taste, touch, smell, sight, sound.
And if you decide to go back on meds, that’s okay too.
You are whole, exactly as you are.