Saturday, 19 July 2014

3 Years Free

Today, July 19th, marks my 3 year anniversary medication-free.  Since coming off of SSRI's and Benzodiazepines, I have never thought once about taking them...ever again.  After relying on prescription medication to treat my anxiety for over 15 years (off and on), it feels liberating to say the least that I no longer feel the need to run to the doctor every time life gets a bit stressful or difficult to deal with.  Instead I take a deep breath, and tell myself "this is just a bump…everything ALWAYS works out in the end…go with it."

That might sound too easy, and truthfully it is, because there's a LOT more that has helped me get to where I am today.

I've spoken many times on this blog about the do's and don’ts of living with anxiety and what I have done to help myself, so I hate to sound like a broken record…but I also know that if you are living with anxiety, sometimes things have to be repeated over and over and over again before they will sink in.  It can take years before you have that "aha" moment.

So to start off, where was I three years ago?

Three years ago I was taking my very last dose of Diazepam, after completing a 10 month taper off of Clonazepam (that eventually became a crossover to Diazepam since it has a longer half-life and would hopefully make the taper a little less difficult).  For 10 months I struggled with just "being".  Every morning I felt drugged, borderline depressed and lethargic.  It took every ounce of mental strength to not only get out of bed…but to greet my daughter (then 7) with a smile, make her breakfast, make and pack her lunch for school, and walk her to school (some mornings I could only get as far as making and packing the lunch, so several dear friends would take turns jumping in and pick my daughter up for school).  Once I was back home and the door was shut, the tears would flood down my cheeks and I'd be running to the kitchen sink where I'd proceed to dry-heave for a few minutes.  I would then warily walk to the couch where I would curl up, knees tucked to my chest, and sit in a daze…often wondering, "how did this happen to me, and what did I do wrong?"  Usually by lunch I had called my husband at work to either cry or panic.  He would go to a room where he could still work but also talk to me in private.  Patiently he'd listen to me say and question the same things I had said and questioned the day before. 

I'm scared.
Why is this happening?
Am I ever going to feel normal again?
What if this isn't the medication…what if this is just ME? 
Will you still love me if this takes another year? 
This isn't right, something is wrong with me.
I shouldn't feel this way…why do I feel this way?
I'm so scared.

Help me…please.

He listened.  He listened every single day.  And when he came home from work, he wrapped his arms around me, kissed my head and told me he was sorry I was going through this.  He was a rock.  He was also human and got frustrated, but 99.9% of the time he was supportive and loyal, and sometimes that is all we need.  Someone who can just be "present". 

…As my day continued…

3 o'clock would soon arrive and off I'd be walking to pick up my daughter from school.  The whole way there (it's a ten minute walk), I'd have to say "left, right, left, right" to myself, because I was so dizzy all the time and if I didn't remind myself which foot was to take a step I'd loose my balance.  Then I had to mentally tell myself, "you aren't going to throw up…breath…slowly swallow", because the withdrawal caused me to feel like I needed to throw up just about every single day for those 10 months.  Once I arrived at the school, I'd flash that smile and try to fight back tears.  Some days were harder than others and if I was fortunate enough to be with a fellow parent that I felt very comfortable with (with NO kids around), I'd let out a few quick tears before my daughter would come out of the school.  Some days she'd bring friends home from school, and somehow I kept on a brave face and went with the flow.  It wasn't always easy, but doable.  It's amazing what you can do when you have no other choice.  They wanted a snack while I felt like dry heaving?  Sure!  They wanted me to put on the sprinkler while walking made me dizzy?  No problem!  They felt like having a sleepover at our house while I just wanted to curl up in bed and sleep for 24 hours?  Why not, the more the merrier!  Life couldn't stop just because I felt ill.  I think being a Mom through this ordeal forced me to put my problems aside from time to time – which can be an awesome thing.  I didn't want this ordeal to "become Sarah"…so in order to keep with that plan I had to force myself to work through it even when it was most difficult. 

By the time my husband would arrive home from work though at 4:30pm, I was "done" (even if I hid it well from others…and by "done" , I mean exhausted…emotionally and at times physically "spent").  And that's probably what I told him 100+ times throughout the ordeal. 

I'm done. 

I can't do this anymore.

Will this REALLY be worth it?

If the Sarah that sits here today could have spoken with the Sarah from 3 years ago, I would have said:

"Stay strong.  You are fighting what is hopefully going to be the most difficult fight of your life, but if you stick with it, you will only be rewarded with a much brighter and sweeter life than you thought possible.  Things won't be perfect.  You might not ever be free of anxiety.  But who is?  People will tell you they don't get it.  They may say they can't relate.  But we ALL deal with anxiety of some kind.  We just don't want to label it.  We're too afraid of what comes with that label.  Weak?  You're certainly not weak if you battle anxiety.  Crazy and/or irrational?  Wrong again.  So hold on tight because this won't be at all easy, but if you stick with it 100% and have faith in yourself – telling yourself EVERY single day that today is a new day, something great could happen – you will make it to the finish line and ALL of this will be worth it."

And it has been worth it.  Three years later I have learned more about myself than I have in my 36 years of existence.  I've also learned so much about the people around me.  I've learned that by being an open book and being 100% honest with whom I am, I can open up a world of support to others who may struggle in similar ways.  I've learned it's better to be honest and say, "I'm sorry, I'm just feeling off today…a bit anxious", because the moment you make that statement and be honest with others, 20% of the anxiety dissipates. 

My blog was created to reach out to others who may quietly suffer.  Either from the POSSIBLE (but not always) negative side effects of many SSRI's, and in my case Benzodiazepines, OR from anxiety and/or depression in general.  I do not at all "bash" medication and I fully understand that many people see great benefits from taking them.  I only worry that they are prescribed far too easily and not managed by some doctors.  I was told that Benzodiazepines could be taken for the rest of my life if need be by two doctors.  "It's safe", they both said.  So then to Google it, and find out on site after site (and eventually by speaking with three Pharmacists who all agreed), that they should ONLY be prescribed to patients with anxiety for no longer than 2 weeks because of its addictive nature and possible horrendous withdrawal effects…left an extremely bad taste in my mouth.  I was fed the line, "you NEED this medication the way a diabetic needs their insulin".  Please don't ever trust that statement…at least when it comes to anxiety.

I had my first true panic attack at 15.  I thought I was dying and that the world was crashing in on me…or at least my grade 10 geography classroom.  My heart raced, my stomach turned, my head pounded and the voices of my classmates became muffled.  I have had hundreds of panic attacks since that morning.  They never get "easy", but they become manageable.  It takes a LOT of work, and in the past I didn't want to have to work on it so medication became the solution.  But it never "solved" anything.  I never properly learned the tools it takes to live a vibrant life with anxiety. 

***On a side note:  Aside from the anxiety I'd say that all of my problems with depression were a "side effect" of the medication I had taken off/on for years.  Now that I am medication-free, I am a very grounded and happy individual.  Depression is a thing of the past. 

So to recap what has helped me these past few years? 

Diet:  My diet has changed drastically.  Gone are the chicken wings with pizza on the side nights…all washed down with a Coke (this meal was a common weekend "treat").  Gone are the Starbucks Frappucinos (which tasted SO good, but always created a surge of crazy adrenaline about an hour after drinking them).  Gone are the meat and dairy…aside from Greek yogurt.  I thought I'd miss cheese, but surprisingly don't at all – it helps that cheese and most dairy were causing huge digestive issues.  And after struggling to digest red meat for months, it was an easy choice to cut it out of my diet as well.  The poultry just went away naturally as I no longer had a "taste" for meat (I do eat fish, however, and love it).  IN came the copious amounts of vegetables.  Broccoli, cauliflower, peas, edamame, mushrooms, asparagus and grains such as quinoa.  I have also discovered that although bread sits fine with me, pasta does not – so I've switched to a brown rice pasta and find I eat less of it now, opting for loading on more veggies.  We also eat a lot of legumes, our favourite being chickpeas.  Since the sugary drinks are long gone, the only liquids I consume are water, soda water with lemon and green tea. 

We also don't consume any alcohol anymore.  I SHOULDN'T have been drinking in the first place while medicated, but every now and then I would have a couple of beers.  I would pay hugely the following day.  What 7 beers would do for some people, 1 or 2 would do for me (that's what happens when you are taking prescribed tranquillizers).  Plus, although I enjoyed the taste of beer, I found that one beer would already make me want to curl up and go to bed (again…tranquillizers) – not become more social and ready to party.  My husband's story, on the other hand, is much different.  About 2 years ago, he noticed he didn't feel well after drinking.  And I'm not talking about an all-nighter of reckless drinking…I mean just a few beers while socializing.  So he cut back to two, and low and behold he still felt unwell.  He would become extremely tired, dizzy and out of sorts, a bit queasy, and the heart palpitations would come on.  He decided at that time to quite drinking for good to see if that made a difference (which it did).  Well, months later after discovering he had an elevated bilirubin count (some routine blood work) he was sent to a specialist, and it was there that he learned he has Gilbert's Syndrome.  His liver is unable to breakdown the alcohol which leaves him feeling ill quickly.  He could actually poison himself very quickly if he chose to continue drinking.  So instead of pushing it, he had decided to quit all alcohol (months before he knew his diagnosis), which in the end was the smartest decision he could have made.  He listened to his body – which so many of us don't.  We think, "oh, one more beer won't hurt", or "I know I'll pay for this tomorrow, but I'll at least enjoy this double cheeseburger with friend onions, mayonnaise, mounds of cheddar and bacon to top it off".  In the end, that is what he and I have both done – listened to what our bodies were trying to tell us and instead of pushing the limit, weaning off of the things that weren't in any way helping us thrive.  We might be seen as "boring" or "party poopers"…but we're still smiling the next day and full of energy…and I promise you, we are loads of good fun.  We feel so much better – "cleaner" if that makes sense.  We control what goes into our bodies and it feels SO good once you see the results (whether physical or mental).  I do still have "fun"…but my fun nowadays comes in a package labelled "chocolate mint bar".  Yum.

Exercise:  We don't all love doing it, but it is SO necessary for good mental health.  My choice?  Hiking.  I absolutely love it.  The air is fresh and clean, you are surrounded by the sounds of nature, and you work up a great sweat by hiking on an incline.  I also enjoy blasting some music and lifting weights or using the elliptical, but I find I stick with the walking and hiking better – I don't bore of them.  I also stretch almost daily and do some yoga.  Yoga was difficult for me when I was coming off of the medication because it forces you to be quiet – to listen to your body and breathing.  The medication made me so jittery and "afraid" that it was almost impossible to be surrounded by silence.  It feels amazing now to be able to not even think about those days anymore. 

Support System:  Nothing beats an amazing support system.  It isn't always easy to get when you're dealing with mental health issues, but if you can get even one or two friends on your side, it will be the best kind of love you will ever receive.  I was EXTREMELY fortunate in this department.  My parents had watched my ups and downs with anxiety my entire adolescence and young adulthood – they NEVER gave up on me and were always there in a heartbeat.  My brother, sister-in-law – even Aunts, Uncles and Cousins – they all "got it".  Anxiety runs openly through our family so there's always someone who will understand.  It's certainly not a taboo in our family, thankfully.  Friends – I really discovered how loyal my friends were through this.  I believe the more open and honest we are about our struggles, the more others can relate to us at a whole other level.  If we aren't ashamed of our downfalls, then why would others ridicule them?  It doesn't always work out that way, but I think in most cases, being an open book helps more than hinders.  My friends were incredible.  Some of them had witnessed my ups and downs throughout high school (and still stuck around – never thinking twice), so here they were again, stepping up to the plate and THEN some.  Such amazing and beautiful people.  Then there were "newer" friends didn't think twice about helping in tremendous ways.  Their loyalty and kindness will never go unnoticed.  And of course, I've said it before, but my husband and daughter – WOW.  Talk about unconditional love.  From numerous "get better soon, Mommy" notes left all over the house by my daughter, to the love and admiration from my husband – I am eternally grateful.  If you have a loved one who lives with anxiety or had a traumatic experience with medication, keep in mind they don't MEAN to think irrationally, cry, panic or feel hopeless.  They are scared and to them it is very real, but it will pass. 

Meditation:  Whether sitting on a cushion in your living room, in your garden, at the beach, or even in your place of belief – meditation can be a magical thing once you feel comfortable with it.  It can take months – even years – to learn how to do it but is extremely rewarding.  While sitting in the car on the highway (as a passenger of course), or walking through a busy mall, I can take myself somewhere else – to a safe place.  I don't always do it well, but it gets easier.  It comes with a lot of self talk, trust, and in my case visualization.  Sometimes people find they need an object to help them.  I often find twiddling my finger and thumb around an article of clothing helps me tremendously.  I was taught the "rubber band technique" years ago, where you put a rubber band around your wrist and when you begin to panic and think irrationally, you snap the band on your wrist and mentally tell yourself "stop".  I used this technique and found it helpful, but eventually found that visualization worked better for me. 

With all of these tools, I have made tremendous headway.  I am no longer controlled by anxiety.  I have days where I'd rather back out of events/parties/social gatherings because it can be tiring to fight it, but 99% of the time I succeed and feel better that I at least give it a try (and most of the time, thoroughly enjoyed).  I am in a very HAPPY place.  I feel grounded and in control of my life.  I feel ecstatic that I no longer have to carry an orange prescription bottle with me everywhere I go "just in case".  I only have myself to rely on and that is extremely freeing. 

I have more progress to make.  I still continue to experience symptoms from the withdrawal.  That may not make any sense to most, but keep in mind the medication affected my central nervous system – which can take years to heal.  I find I still get "mixed signals" from time to time which leads to days of nausea and/or heightened anxiety and agitation.  So when I should feel hungry, I feel very queasy and unable to even take in some water.  Eventually – after hours – the nausea will pass and TRUE hunger pains will come on and I am then able to enjoy my meal.  It's frustrating at the time, but once the "wave" passes I forget about it and continue on with my normal day-to-day life.

Whether you choose meditation, diet changes, exercise, talk therapy or a combination of all, realize it takes time.  It's not a quick fix by any means and it will take a lot of dedication and self-confidence.  I have dealt with anxiety for 20+ years, and have been prescribed upwards of 10 medications to overcome it since I was 15 years old (all which proved to be temporary bandages OR made it worse), and finally at the age of 36, I now understand it.  I realize what changes I had to make in order to lead a more comfortable life, and all of those changes have made me a healthier person – mentally and physically.  Listening to your body is the key.