The First Tiny, Giant Steps of Progress: Surviving Paxil, Xanax, and WithdrawalJan 19, 2023
I fantasized about quitting the pills long before I actually made the first cuts to the dosages that had steadily increased over the years. More and more often, I was starting to suspect that the medication was hurting me, but the suspicion that really led to my quitting fantasies had to do with killing, not just hurting. Truth be told, I was starting to suspect that these medications were capable of ending a man, perhaps me.
When I commuted long, lonely treks down I-94 from Milwaukee to Madison and back for work – my eyelids barely open on the return trips, my system begging for a sweet moment’s recess after a day of fighting anxiety with the magic blue pills – I knew that the "medicine" needed to go. If it didn't, nightmares about falling asleep at the wheel would eventually become a reality.
When I was bloated up to forty or fifty or sixty pounds overweight—listless and breathless and cynical and afraid—I wondered how wonderful life might be without the Paxil and the Xanax that had been prescribed to me in college for anxiety. While visiting my brother in Chicago, when I couldn’t take a leisurely walk through the streets without sweating like a left tackle in overtime of the Super Bowl, I wanted so desperately to get back to my younger self, the one who actually had been an athlete. I didn’t want to see pictures of myself. I didn’t want to see mirrors.
When I ran out of my Xanax prescription early yet again – when I invented a story about the pills being stolen or lost at the airport or something to get yet another early refill – I was aware there was a line being crossed, and I was aware that the pills were clawing into my soul in a peculiar way. When the curt pharmacist told me - in front of the others who were in line waiting for their own individual brands of magic pills- that there was a problem with my habit of requesting early refills, I wondered how my life had gotten to the point of being embarrassed in a pharmacy line on a bright sunny day.
When did my days become about dosages and my months about counting down the days until that one magic moment called REFILL TIME? I felt ashamed and wanted to crawl into a hole. I wanted to get away from the judging eyes of the world, the judging eyes of the customers who would say they were “using as prescribed” and the judging eyes of the pharmacist who would say she was “selling as prescribed.”
But I just took another dose of the medicine and those thoughts were kept at bay for another day.
I started struggling—really, truly struggling—with social anxiety and panic attacks in college. In fact, the struggle got so profoundly disturbing that I—me, the guy who loved writing papers and reading books and generally being at the university—wanted to drop out to ease the anxiety. But instead, I went to a family doctor who gave me a little questionnaire confirming some amorphous chemical imbalance of mine, an “imbalance” that could apparently be fixed with a powerful new pill called Paxil. And the doctor gave me a little bit of Xanax, too—a tranquilizer like Valium, but stronger; mother’s little helper times ten—for when the anxiety felt too overwhelming to breathe.
And so began an almost 15-year roller coaster ride that involved me, my anxiety, my pink pills, my blue pills, and unfortunately, all of my loved ones as well. If I mixed beer with my “pill regimen,” I would often end up stumbling with slurred words and squinty eyes before passing into a state of unrefreshing sleep that couldn’t be disturbed by bulldozers much less by my worried wife.
And many times, when my parents would come to the house for a visit, I didn’t have enough energy or enthusiasm to stay social (or awake) for very long. I wanted things to change—I wanted my energy and vigor and “normal” self back—but that mountain seemed too high to climb.
However, I decided to climb the mountain anyway. That’s the first step to changing and making progress by the way: a decision. One that is totally yours and won’t be swayed by the stress of the day or the opinions of others. I was in my mid-thirties, not a young man anymore, but I was still young enough to have a lot of good years ahead of me. So I reduced and then stopped taking the Paxil, and shortly after that I began reducing the Xanax dosages that had ballooned from .25 milligrams to 4 or more milligrams per day over the years.
When I stopped taking my medications, I was immediately hit by withdrawal. At first SSRI withdrawal, and later by benzodiazepine withdrawal. The body, the mind, and everything in-between get used to these pills—that’s the kind of reaction they are designed for—and when the dosages get cut or cease altogether, the body, the mind, and everything in-between don’t know how to make sense of daily existence.
The withdrawal was terrifying, painful, and confusing. The bizarre physical and mental symptoms combined to make an already anxious man worry that he was losing his mind and last breaths to some insidious disease of unknown origin. I cried to my wife and my parents and my brothers. Everything was turned upside down.
The sleep that had come so easily on the medication now eluded me. I would sweat and turn at night, and my once-cherished naps were impossible. The relaxation that had always been just a pill away now seemed gone forever. My mind would never slow down enough for something called relaxation—and not because it was overwhelmed with productive or creative thoughts, mind you, but because it was overwhelmed with guilt and worry and thoughts of death that sped back and forth through my tired brain. I feared it would never end.
But I continued on. Through weeks and then months. I prayed, I read devotions, I exercised when I could, I tried to eat healthier, I tried not to drink too much caffeine or alcohol, I sought out support and information on the Internet, and I continued on with cutting the Xanax dosages little by little.
And when I received news that my grandmother had passed away, something about the season seemed right to finally make the jump: I made the decision to make the final leap off my last tiny dose of Xanax. It was now or never. Something about being confronted with death made me want to get on with the business of living and living as I had imagined for so long: free of the pills that were once my salvation but had quickly become my worst enemies.
So, I made it through one day without any Xanax (I had already been off the Paxil for about a year by this point), then I made it through another day. Then I made it through a week and a month and a year. And things were often terrifying, painful, and discouraging, but I never lost sight of my goal. I never forgot that progress—true, magnificent, life-altering progress—happens by taking one tiny step forward at a time.
When I was at my lowest points during the SSRI withdrawal and benzo withdrawal—when I would complain to my wife that months had passed and I was getting worse instead of better, when I would theorize yet again that I was dying or slipping into a permanent state of mental illness—my wife would come back at me with the following proposal. “Give it until ten percent,” she would say, meaning that I should wait until I’d been off the pills for at least ten percent of the time I had taken them. Then I could assess my situation properly. (By the way, there isn't anything scientific about the "ten percent" timeframe; it is instead a reminder to be patient.)
I’d been taking the Xanax for about 14 years, so I trudged ahead until I’d been off for 17 months. And when that milestone passed, I found further ways to keep my eyes on down the road until more progress had been made. And the entire time, I grew in dozens of ways.
I’ve been off Paxil since 2012 and Xanax since 2014, and the growth continues. My personal growth, and my spiritual growth. I guess that's one of the lessons learned from all of this. Growth should be present for us at all times, not just during crisis or "adjustment" periods.
Recovery is about growth, really. Taking tiny steps toward progress is about growth. Prescription drug withdrawal may seem like the devil’s work to those going through it, but when a little perspective settles in, it might start to seem more like God’s work. The experience makes a person grow spiritually and get closer to God. It makes a person find inner strength that will serve him well in future challenges. It makes a person get back to the basics of good nutrition and regular exercise and overall proper self-care. It makes a person evaluate the time he has left on this earth and decide how to best leave a positive contribution.
I climbed my mountain, and I continue to climb life's mountains using lessons and skills I picked up during my medication and withdrawal ordeal.
I don’t know what mountain you are eyeing up right now, but I’m here to tell you that you can climb it. Even if you are down in a crater at the base of the mountain and the path upward seems obscured or complicated by blizzards and buzzards, you can climb it.
Maybe you want to lose 20 pounds or maybe 100. Maybe you want to get out of debt and even save $100 or $10,000. Maybe you want to get out of some soul-sucking career or find a way to be happy no matter what your job is.
Or maybe you want to get off some pills that you get at Walmart or Walgreens or CVS every month. Maybe you already stopped taking the pills and think you can’t go on another minute.
But you can, and every minute of small progress is going to add up to an hour of bigger progress and so forth. No matter what long road you have ahead of you, the path forward is one step at a time. And when the days seem too dark, remember that God never abandons us. He just holds us tightly through the worst torrents of the storm, and when the skies clear, He shows us the picture that was being painted for us (and by us) little by little.
And when those dark days creep into your journey, remember these words from Romans 9:38-39: “And I am convinced that nothing can separate us from his (God’s) love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
You never have to feel alone or hopeless during the toughest parts of your journey. And you must always remember that the journey to where you want to be begins with just one step.
Don't give up! Take the next tiny step forward, with faith and courage. Eventually, those small steps add up to Giant, Monumental, Life-Changing Progress!
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