Monday, September 30, 2013

My Scary Journey Off Antidepressants, Cold Turkey

I’ve written about so many things on this blog, both funny and serious. I’ve shared personal stories that some probably find inappropriate. Others appreciate me keeping it real.

This blog will be my most personal to date and it is painful and, from a personal standpoint, necessary. Maybe by releasing the details I can be of help to someone else. No, I won't be running for office again just in case folks are thinking "oh no, opponents can use this against you!" No, I'm not embarrassed. We need to talk about these things and there are millions of people in this country who suffer from varying forms of depression. With these disclaimers out of the way, here goes.

I began taking an anti-depressant during the fall of 2000. I was pregnant with our first child and was finding myself more and more unable to cope with day to day stress.

Let me be clear: I wasn’t just tired or anxious. Things had reached a point where I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor, rocking back and forth, grabbing my hair in both hands, while crying and yelling into the empty space “what the hell is WRONG with you?”

I’m married to an engineer, so talking to him about this wasn’t really an option.

My doctor seemed the logical choice. I love our doctor. She is wonderful. She asked me “do you need something to take the edge off?” I said yes, as long as it’s safe for the baby. Voila: Zoloft.

It helped, believe me. After Marah was born I stopped taking it. I mean really, I had only needed it while my hormones were out of whack, right?

I lasted less than a week. You see, coming off of an antidepressant cold turkey is a really, really bad idea. I just assumed I was having withdrawal symptoms because I needed the prescription.

Almost every woman on the maternal side of my family takes some form of anti-depressant. I’ve been told for several decades by relatives that depression runs in the family and I probably need to just accept the fact that I’ll need medication for the rest of my life.

In 2004, after the birth of our son, I quit taking the Zoloft again but lasted only a few days before the depression and anxiety went into overdrive. More evidence, in my mind, that I NEEDED the medication.

I went back to the doctor in tears, feeling as if the kids would end up in therapy later in life if their mother couldn’t get a handle on her emotions. I left with a prescription for Wellbutrin and a refill for Zoloft. In the interest of full discloser, I will admit that I’d heard about Wellbutrin being an aid in losing weight so it looked to be a win/win situation. No, I wasn’t above using a drug to lose weight. I hated how I looked and felt. I know many of you can relate. For the record, it didn't help me lose weight!

In 2010, during a yearly physical, my doctor ran some blood tests and determined I had a hypo thyroid issue. I’m not even sure if that is the correct “medical speak”. I do know that a third medication, Synthroid, was added to my daily regimen.

I travelled to San Diego in November of 2011 with my dear friend Kris-Ann to attend the Carrier Classic, to research the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot for material on a book, and to visit my half-sister in Los Angeles.

I forgot all three of my prescriptions.

While on vacation, I felt great and didn’t miss the meds at all (let’s be honest – who DOESN’T feel great when they are on vacation?). So….after a week, I decided to simply stay off of them and see what happened.

Bad, bad, BAD idea.

When your doctors tell you to never stop taking a certain medication cold turkey it is vitally important that you listen to them. There is a reason.

By the three week mark, having quit Zoloft and Wellbutrin cold turkey, the withdrawal symptoms were a nightmare.

I experienced constant dizziness and vertigo.

I was shaky, even without coffee.

The symptoms increased during the third week, resulting in diarrhea.

I would have freaky highs and then burst into tears. Some nights I felt agitated, hyper and fidgety.

My eyes hurt and felt funny behind them and I was seeing spots in my peripheral vision.

My brain felt foggy and I couldn't think straight.

I became nervous while driving because of the mild “migraine like” feeling in my brain that wouldn’t go away and because the sun hurt my eyes.

I couldn’t focus and would often forget what I was doing while doing it.

There were severe hot flashes and then bouts of shivers.

I had never felt this poorly and it just continued on. At one point, I couldn't wake up and felt like I had mono. I slept until 1:00 pm that particular day. A few days later I experienced spazzy bursts of energy (no, “spazzy” isn’t a real word, but it fits). I was never suicidal, but somehow it hovered in the back of my mind.

Despite having seen a chiropractor for several months, my body muscles hurt. At times, the tissue around my ribs was so sore that it hurt to breathe and I felt like something was inside my chest crushing my lungs. Often out of breathe, I felt like a 90 year old woman.

I was irritable at best, full of rage at worst, and then could feel overly emotional and loving at other times; all extreme and over the top.

Things peaked at the 3 week mark. I simply couldn’t quit crying; for the entire day.

At that point, I was ready to start taking the medication again. Instead, I started researching online and found forum after forum with testimony from others who had gone through this.

This was when it became apparent that all of this was most likely related to the medication. Going cold turkey is the most irresponsible and dangerous thing a person can do, but by that point I was three weeks in and determined to ride this thing out. From everything I read, it seemed as if the peak point was roughly 2-4 weeks. I figured I was almost through the worst parts.

Out of pages of posts, I found one person who finally had successfully quit cold turkey (the others all returned to their medication), but said it took 7-8 weeks. Unsure if I could make it another four to five weeks, I reached out to a few very close friends and asked for their support.

One of them was Kris-Ann (mentioned above), my best friend from college. She had moved across the country in 2000, so I wrote to her, explaining all of the things I was experiencing (everything I wrote above was documented in a journal during that time).

She called me immediately and through tears explained that for over a decade I had seemed distant and “disengaged”. She had worried, but felt that because she didn’t live close to me maybe she was just out of the loop.

So began a period of self-reflection, during which time I realized that I had, in fact, sort of disappeared over the years. I ignored birthdays, family members, and friends. I had quit attending social events and eventually the invitations quit coming. Things that should’ve seemed simple had just seemed like too much work, so I avoided them. People, events, and relationships required too much effort.

I had been disengaged. And distant. And numb. And medicated.

Roughly six months later, with no trace of anti-depressants left in my system, I was asked to run for public office. The new Marlys said yes, but to be honest, I was still joining the ranks of the “living” and it was a little bit of a struggle.

It was probably the best thing I could’ve done because it forced me to connect with new people and re-connect with the old.

Please pay attention to what I say next, because it is very important. First of all, know and accept that some of us desperately need to be on an anti-depressant. It can literally mean the difference between life and death, particularly if you suffer from severe and debilitating depression, the type that results in thoughts of suicide.

I am sharing MY experience and it is unique to me.

Second, and equally important, please do not ever stop taking an anti-depressant cold turkey. Talk to your doctor and work with them in partnership to reach your own personal and optimal health plan. My doctor is a firm believer in letting her patients be their own best advocate, but I can assure you she was extremely miffed at me when, at the six week “cold turkey” mark, I sheepishly walked into her office and explained what I had done.

Do I believe I suffer from depression? If I am honest, I have to say yes. Sometimes it is simply the ups and downs of life, emotions that all of us have to deal with. It is good for me to feel these ups and downs, though, without medication masking the feelings. Do I believe every person would suffer the same withdrawal symptoms that I did? Since I'm not a doctor, I have to assume every one of us is unique and could experience different levels of pain.

Sometimes I still have fairly sharp mood swings but they are manageable as long as I stay alert, remind myself of what is going on, and ride it out (writing helps!). I prefer this type of “management” to the pharmaceutical kind and it allows me to reconnect and reach out to friends and family who moved on without me while I was still in a medication-induced fog.

One additional positive outcome was that updated blood work (I’m serious, my doctor was so irritated with me!) showed no signs of hypothyroid disease. Were the depression medications and the hypothyroid levels connected? I have no idea. What I do know is that I’m completely free of any and all prescription medication and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

In the meantime, if you thought I seemed distant during the past decade, I must humbly ask forgiveness and can only offer this blog as explanation.

The most important message, though? If you want to know what it feels like to go through withdrawal, just stop taking your anti-depressant. But please talk to your doctor first……and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Letter to Stay-At-Home Parents

Dear Stay At Home Moms and Dads,

I joined your ranks in 2007 and continue to struggle with one undeniable problem. It’s called embarrassment and guilt.

I try to hide the fact that I don’t “work”.

When asked “what do you do” I always focus on what I used to do, what I’m planning to do, and anything in between, rather than talk about what I really do.

I can read between the lines but never stand up for myself. During those instances where someone might say to me “must be nice”, “but you don’t work”, “some of us have to work”, or “why don’t you get a job?” I simply bow my head in shame and mutter “I know, I’m really fortunate.” I AM fortunate, don’t get me wrong. I GET IT.

What I really want to scream is “But I had a thriving career and walked away because my husband travelled and made more money!”

I want to retaliate with “I cleaned rooms in a Holiday Inn, worked as a janitor, survived a night shift in a factory, was employed as a dispatcher with a heating and cooling company (enduring verbal abuse from clients so nasty that it would leave Chris Rock’s face crimson), and even had feces thrown at me while working in a group home, so don’t treat me like I don’t appreciate the value of hard work!”

I want to write a note to the Kansas City Star JoCo913 reporter who called me a “stay at home mom” when I ran for the Kansas House of Representatives last year. She failed to mention that I had a lengthy professional career full of accomplishments. I imagined her as some snot nosed recently graduated journalism student trying to make a point about a “middle class Johnson County soccer mom looking for something to do”.

How shallow of me. How self-pitying. How insulting towards other mothers and fathers who choose to stay at home.

I’ve done both and understand and respect the value inherent in each world. I didn’t quit working outside the home until our oldest was six and our youngest was three.

I remember rushing around in the morning, frantically yelling and trying to get ready while shoving a granola bar into our daughter's little hand as we drove to daycare.

I remember crying the rest of the way to work because I knew my anxiety probably fueled the tone for the rest of her day. I know many of my friends still go through this nightmarish ritual some mornings.

I remember speeding back to the daycare provider’s home because the pick-up time was close at hand and I didn’t want to be late (let’s face it, she’d been monitoring a houseful of little ones since before many folks even get up in the morning…talk about a hard job!). Then rushing home, hurrying both kids through dinner and bath, and trying to skip pages in the bed time story because I just wanted to go to bed.

And I remember doing the math, figuring out how much money we were spending on day care, my wardrobe and makeup, shoes, lunches, and fuel. Then subtracting all of that from my monthly salary to see how much I was really contributing to the family’s income. The final amount was staggeringly low.

If someone takes a jab at me for being a stay-at-home mom, it hurts me. And because I’m sensitive, I begin to wonder if I’m less valuable than “working” moms.

This is the real shame.

I don’t “stay” at home because I’m lazy. Our financial situation is no one’s business, but I can assure anyone curious enough to wonder that I would get a job, ANY job, in a heartbeat if we needed more money. I’m not too proud; picking up used condoms from under a hotel room bed should be ample proof of this. I’ve bought food at Aldi and clothes at consignment stores and still shop at places like these (I would even if we were wealthy, at least I’d like to think so).

I don’t “stay” at home because I can’t keep a job or because I’m “too good” to work. Neither of us was born with money nor did we inherit a trust. We both worked hard all through college, figuratively and literally, and I was well respected in my past career.

I stay home because of many of the same reasons you do. Initially, it was because my husband was travelling with his job Monday through Friday and my work hours were becoming incompatible with daycare hours. We didn’t have close family members to watch our children or anyone to even call if in a pinch.

I remember listening to co-workers complaining bitterly, and sometimes unkindly, about having their own parents watch their children…for free…as late or as early as they were needed. Having this option for daycare would’ve made a huge impact on our decision for me to walk away from my career.

I remember being subtly moved to the outside of the “inner circle” after I began working part-time. There was an underlying tenor that I had it easy and was no longer one of them. *(I still have some amazing friends from my old job, friends who never treated me differently pre or post employment)

I remember being discounted, even then.

The decision to stay at home is not an easy one for many of us, and for me personally, a woman who loved her career, it was terrifying because I knew that by leaving I would most likely never have the same opportunities again.

This was certainly one of the costs. I now have the feared “gap” in employment history, so if and when the time comes for me to re-enter the work force I will be at a severe disadvantage. There is an initial internal shame that you are the one who needs to quit your job because your earning power is so inferior to that of your spouse.

But it goes deeper than this for us stay-at-home parents. There is an abiding sense of servitude, a pervasive feeling that every household need is your responsibility and yours alone. Because it is your job, you feel you have no right to ask another family member to do anything related to household chores (and yes, we do still require the kids to have responsibilities so that they will learn life lessons).

You feel that because you don’t work, you have no right to buy yourself things or to go out. This is a guilt you carry with you on those occasions when you might really want to do something but your spouse would be needed to cover for the kids if you do it. You see, every grocery item bought or cooked, every item washed or put away, every need expressed by each child or extended family member, every particle of dust, every event to attend, and every moment your spouse isn’t at work is actually yours to take care of: because it’s your job and household needs are no longer divided or shared among family members.

The question “what did you do today?” takes on a whole new meaning and you find yourself trying to justify how you spent your “non-working” day.

Each need related to the family is yours alone, 100%...because you don’t contribute any money. That’s the real bottom line. If I ponder this issue too long or too deeply, it can leave me feeling torn because no one verbally states these things and it’s hard to determine what is justified and what are my own messages to myself, separate from the messages my spouse may or may not be sending. Does this make sense?

It is at those times, I remember two things.

First, many working women continue to carry the burden of handling all household needs. They simply have to do it while working at the same time because they are either single or have a partner who refuses to help (and yes, I’m sure there could be a handful of men dealing with this issue too).

The second thing that sustains me (and most likely all of those other stay-at-home parents) is that in spite of the above, staying home has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

I continue to stay home now because we've seen the benefits and because I still can. My kids are thriving and our family unit has far less stress because there is always one person available to handle anything needed, any time. That person is me, and I can be there without fear that I will be written up…without fear that I will be fired…without fear that I will use up all of my sick leave or vacation…without fear that I will never be able to get caught up on missed work…without fear that my co-workers will bitch about me behind me back if I’m gone. I am deeply grateful for this.

I’m writing about this today because it's been on my mind and because I've had some recent discussions with a few friends who have felt looked down upon or discounted because they don't work outside the home. People don’t typically SAY insulting things as a rule, but they can certainly think and infer them. So here goes a bullet list of how this stay-at-home mom views her situation:

1. I understand that I am fortunate and blessed to be able to stay at home and I am deeply grateful for this gift.

2. I understand that many folks out there don’t have this option or opportunity and that this should make me even more grateful. Believe it or not, it does.

3. I would work the dirtiest, nastiest, and most demeaning job in existence if I had to do so in order to feed my family. Don’t think for a minute I wouldn’t. Most of you would do the same.

4. I am grateful to my spouse because he is an amazing provider and a bright, driven, and loyal man. I also acknowledge what we have is a combination of sacrifice, commitment, hard work and good fortune. One serious medical issue, one bankrupt company, one act of nature and things could change. Each day is a gift, plain and simple.

5. I do everything in my power to be the rock and the sustenance within the home, not just as it relates to housekeeping. I'm the one who feeds the neighborhood kid, whose parents are divorced and who seems drawn to our home every moment he isn't in school, dinner many nights. I'm the one my daughter's friends can call if they need something and their mom is at work. When I told my kids I might need to start looking for a job because I was feeling inadequate they both replied in panicky voices "Why??? We don't WANT you to work. We need you home mom!" So am I worthwhile, even if my office is the kitchen and my attire shorts and a tee shirt? I want to think so; I have to think so.

Most of us stay at home moms and dads are quite informed, nuanced, and grateful. And our powers of perception are sharp. People who make subtle (and not-so-subtle) comments or look down on us may simply be unaware.

For the time being, we’ll keep doing what we're doing because it’s working for our family unit and because, through that same hard work and good fortune, I still can. The kids are flourishing and we are healthy and happy, at least for today and at least while life still affords us some control.

If someone can give me an easier term to define what I do, I’m all ears. Until then I’m going to try hard to stop feeling ashamed and to learn to say the words “I’m a stay at home mom” without offering up excuses and apologies. In fact, I'm going to try to learn how to say it with pride.

I encourage the rest of you to do the same. I know how valuable and worthwhile you are. We just have to remind each other sometimes, right?


Stay-At-Home Mom

Today I baked banana bread!!