In the late fall of my senior year of college, I had my first panic attack. I had always been a little more anxious than the average person, but the intensity of the panic that suddenly took hold of me was terrifying.
I quickly went to the campus health center and was prescribed two bottles of pills: Ativan, a potent benzodiazepine that could quell an acute panic attack within a matter of minutes, and Effexor, prescribed for generalized anxiety disorder. The doctor told me that the Ativan would only work for a matter of hours at a time and could be habit-forming. In order to keep my anxiety under control long term, she told me, I would need to take the Effexor daily.
At the time, I was so desperate for relief from my agonizing panic that I would have given the doctor one of my kidneys had she assured me it would alleviate my emotional and physical terror.
I took the Ativan a couple of times daily to soften the edges of the panic as I began to work my way through the Effexor pills in the packet used to taper people onto the drug. Within weeks, I was taking the Effexor regularly. I felt at ease again, and got back into the groove of normal life as if none of the extreme panic had ever happened.
The only evidence that remained of my anxiety was the Effexor pill I took religiously every morning, and the slight dizziness that would occur by midday if I forgot … that is, until it began to happen again.
Almost two years after my first panic attack, I found myself, once again, repeatedly feeling consumed by anxiety in stressful — but relatively normal — situations. I had difficulty breathing, and would feel waves of heat, nausea, and fear.
So I returned to my doctor's office and she determined that I had developed a tolerance for the Effexor: I would need to increase my dosage of the meds to alleviate my anxiety. Though I was uncomfortable that I'd have to take more of this medication in the coming years, I felt trapped — and agreed to make the jump from 75 milligrams to 150 milligrams a day.
Within a few months, I began to exhibit scary side effects. I was having intense and frightening dreams, and often would wake up to find my vision was distorted. I began to experience frequent nausea and, worst of all, I still felt tormenting panic.
I went to the doctor again, desperate. I told her that the Effexor wasn't working, that I wanted to stop taking it. ASAP. She told me that that wasn't an option. A better solution would be to add another drug that would mitigate some of my uncomfortable symptoms, she explained.
I was horrified. How could anyone tell me that I had to take an anti-anxiety medication?! I had majored in psychology in college. Sure, I knew that anxiety can be awful both physically and emotionally. But I also knew that it wasn't a life-threatening condition. I was resolved to prove her wrong.
As I prepared to break free from a drug that was once a security blanket, and had come to feel more like shackles, I enlisted the help of a therapist, cleaned up my diet, and began to exercise more regularly. I read everything I could find online about the best way to quit.
I got another taper packet, like the one I used when I started, but it left me with withdrawal that was worse than what I initially experienced. After consulting with a holistic health care practitioner, I sought out a compounding pharmacy that would fill my medication in 10 milligram capsules.
I mapped out a schedule for weaning myself off the pills and started by taking 14 capsules every morning. I stayed at 140 milligrams a day for a month before deciding to drop down to 13 capsules a day and continued in this way until I was taking just one single capsule every other day. And then, none at all.
I have been off anxiety medications for almost seven years. It hasn't been perfect nor anxiety-free. But I have found ways of working with my anxiety so that it's less frequent and more manageable. My most anxiety-free periods come when I am eating well, exercising regularly, meditating and sleeping enough. I continue trying to remove unnecessary stress from my life and regain balance when I find myself overwhelmed.
I am not saying that all medications are bad or that there is never a good reason to use anxiety medications as a support during a particularly difficult period in life. But it's incredibly freeing to know that whether or not I want to use anxiety medications is now a choice that I can make for myself.