Uncovering Old Emotions

One of the benefits of coming off my SSRI medication is being able to reconnect with the full range of my emotions again. I’ve come to find that this is also a very challenging experience at times. While it’s much easier for me to feel joy, love, and laughter, I’m also more quick to anger and prone to tears. Although this may be unpleasant and uncomfortable at times, I still consider it a positive overall. Because this is the human experience that I had been missing out on for so many years. I may have wanted to numb my anxiety, but I hadn’t realized that in order to do that, Paxil was going to numb everything else as well. Even so, at first that was a trade I was willing to make, but after a while I began to wonder what I had given up and whether or not it was truly worth it.

The first thing I noticed was that I never cried anymore. Obviously in the beginning, I thought that was a great side-effect. Who wants to feel sad? I certainly didn’t. And without those heavy feelings weighing me down, I felt almost invincible. After a few years, though, I genuinely missed being able to cry and experience that release. It began to feel like the pressure of all the sadness I was not allowing to come up to the surface was becoming a dense ball of discomfort deep within my heart. There were many times that I desperately wished that I could cry and let it out.

What I hadn’t noticed was how I also laughed less while on Paxil. It started to seem like I hadn’t laughed genuinely for years. I still found things funny and made tons of jokes, but I never really laughed. I was beginning to forget what that even felt like. Laughter was more of a social obligation than a natural unconscious reaction. It never even occurred to me that this was related to my medication until a few days ago. I’ve realized that that involuntary laughter bubbling up inside of me had returned. I had forgotten how amazing it felt.

So the first things I picked up on were laughter and crying. Both of which I now cherish and am immensely grateful for. However, I’m also being confronted with my ol’ buddy anger. You see as a teenager, I was an extremely angry person. I can still remember the white hot rage I would experience on nearly a daily basis. Rage that seemed uncontrollable and terrifying to those around me and even to myself after the fact. I foolishly believed that had simply faded with age and was also being nullified with my yoga and meditation practice. Although I still felt anger more than other emotions, it was no where near the level of intensity that it used to be.

Over the last few days, I’ve caught myself being overwhelmed with anger more than I have been in years. I thought I had learned to let it go, but in reality that viscous current of adrenaline was just not as strong as it once was. I am feeling it again at full force, and really struggling to cope. I am fearful that I may become the aggressive, angry person that I used to be when I was younger. I forgot how compelling the feeling of anger can be. It is all consuming at times. The phrase “blinded by rage” is quite accurate. That emotion tends to hit me like a freight train. It comes on suddenly and is irresistible. I feel helpless to control my actions when I’m in such a state. Of course, I have never physically harmed anyone, but I am quite good at spitting venom. My tongue becomes the deadliest blade and once I’ve calmed down, I am always mortified and ashamed of my behavior.

If anger is the price I have to pay to keep the rest of my emotions, I will. Especially because it seems to be the only negative change I’ve noticed so far from lowering my dosage to practically zero. I had definitely expected worse. I’m surprised that this anger has merely been lying dormant inside of me all along though. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. I really thought I had overcome that ugly side of my personality.

Now the real work begins. I’ve been given all these years to practice and grow spiritually, and I’m being given the chance to use what I have learned. I’m trying to remain curious about those angry feelings when they arise, instead of turning that anger back on myself like I often do. It is quite fascinating, honestly. One thing I’ve noticed is the way I cling onto those violent feelings. My rational mind is useless against such a powerful rage. There is a self-righteousness mixed in that likes to feel vindicated and does all it can to justify my anger. It almost makes me more angry to imagine letting it go. As if that is letting the offending person or situation “off the hook.” It feels like my duty to make sure they don’t get away with it.

Given that I’ve already shown myself time and time again that trying to reason with myself in this state is pointless, I’m trying to employ a different strategy. Rationalizations allow me to still focus on whatever it is that has angered me. My goal from now on is going to be shifting my focus. I want to try to turn that focus inward. Usually when I’m angry, my mind is going a mile a minute listing ways that I am correct to be angry, riling myself up even more, stoking the flames. Rather than letting my mind do that, I’m going to try to focus on the feeling itself, to get out of my head entirely and move into my physical body.

What does anger feel like? For me it feels hot and stiff. My chest tightens, my breath becomes quick and short, my heart beats fast and hard against my ribcage. While these aren’t pleasant sensations to focus on, this is a way for me to work through my anger in a mindful way. Even though I’m finding this experience frustrating and challenging, at the same time I am grateful. I am grateful for the chance to get to know these long hidden parts of myself again. I am grateful for all of these newly rediscovered emotions, even the difficult ones.

Should You Accept or Regulate Your Emotions?

Paxil (5mg)

I cannot believe I have only been taking 5mg of Paxil instead of 30mg for nearly two weeks now. Back when I was around 22 or 23 I began taking this SSRI every day and only recently found the nerve to try to wean myself off of it at 27. There were many times throughout the years when I wanted to do this, but when you read the horror stories about Paxil withdrawal it’s quite intimidating. A big part of my hesitation to give up the medication was also psychological. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to manage without it.

Before I began taking Paxil, I was petrified of most (if not all) social interactions. It was a monumental task to even call my doctor to set up an appointment or to order food in a drive-thru. Meeting new people was always a nightmare, and I had a very difficult time making friends. After a month on an SSRI though, I was a completely different person. I didn’t think twice about making a phone call or talking to a stranger on the street. I felt like the shackles I had been wearing all my life were finally removed. That ever-present fog of fear had finally lifted.

But what if even after years of living in this newfound freedom, Paxil was still the only reason I was able to do these things? What if that old fear came back to overtake me as soon as I stopped? Not only that, I was afraid there would be no turning back for me once I began this journey away from Paxil. There are many accounts online of people attempting to cut back only to realize they desperately need this drug. However, upon increasing their dosage again, they found the medication didn’t work like it did the first time. I was afraid if I was making the wrong decision, I would be stuck with it.

Despite all these fears, with the support of my loved ones and primary doctor, I managed to start weaning myself off my Paxil. I tried not to think too much about it or look for any negative symptoms rearing their ugly heads. Much to my surprise, everything has remained pretty much the same, even now on practically no meds at all. I have only noticed positive changes such as rediscovering my formerly blunted range of emotions. And I could not be happier or more proud of myself.

The other day as I was driving home from an impromptu meeting with my boyfriend and his family, something incredible dawned on me. I can’t believe I just did that, I thought. I just spent the whole day with my boyfriend and his family. I just met his developmentally disabled aunt and elderly grandfather without having any idea I would be doing so beforehand. Wow. This might not sound like anything out of the ordinary to most people, but imagining how I would have handled that situation before Paxil vs. now is like night and day.

At 21 if my boyfriend had sprung meeting these people on me at the last minute I would have been petrified, angry, desperate to get out of the situation somehow. But that day, it never even occurred to me that it was of any significance. I simply shrugged and agreed when he said we’d be going to see them. I had no problem at all talking with them. I feel like I even managed to make a great impression. It actually brings tears to my eyes to say that. (Tears I now feel forming much more often and easily on my lowered dosage.) I am just so proud of myself.

Even though I’ve been through many similar experiences in the years since starting Paxil, this was the first time I can remember doing something like this pretty much on my own, with no significant chemical assistance. I genuinely never thought I would be capable of maneuvering social situations on my own. This incident has allowed me to more fully appreciate the things I’ve continued to do every day with no problem since lowering my dosage. I’ve still been meeting new clients every day at work, making follow-up phone calls, shooting the breeze with my coworkers, etc. All things I have become accustomed to, but had always given all the credit for to Paxil.

So to anyone out there who has been leaning on an SSRI for support, wanting to venture out on your own again, but are too fearful to try, don’t be afraid. You can do it. (With the help and support of a medical professional, of course.) I had hoped that the new pathways I have been building for years inside my brain would be strong enough to stand on their own after so many years of Paxil assistance, but I couldn’t be sure. Now I am. I know I can do this.

In summation, first I was throwing total support behind psych meds, then I was wavering more towards being against them all together. Now I have a better understanding of how to use these tools without becoming dependent on them. SSRI’s are not a miracle cure. They are also not something to avoid entirely. I finally see that they are like training wheels. Paxil gave me the courage and the confidence to gather new experiences, to learn that social situations don’t have to be scary. It gave me the time to practice better coping skills. My brain used to associate small talk, phone calls, meeting people, etc. with terror. Now I have years and years of conditioning under my belt to remind me that I can do these things and be perfectly okay. There is nothing to fear. Paxil has taught me that, and I am so grateful. Now with my new neural pathways in place and the old self-destructive ones faded and withered, I am ready to forge ahead on my own.

Chemical conversations: The story and science of how medication helped with  my depression | The Anchor