“Pray for me,” I told my wife as I got ready to leave for work. It was early morning and that scared me, because mornings meant that an entire day of suffering was still to come.
My strange illness seemed to be getting worse, and I now needed profound doses of strength to get through what most people would consider the humdrum of a normal day.
My wife and I lived near Milwaukee, WI at the time, so I had an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute to my job at Madison College—an hour and fifteen minutes each way. I had no idea how I would endure the day’s long driving sessions, much less any job stress that might be sandwiched in-between them.
As I spoke to my wife, my eyes brimmed over with fear and my body trembled. I was sleepless and unable to eat well, and I’d been this way for a couple of months already. I wondered if I’d be able to survive another day.
Would I survive, or would I finally break down physically or mentally in a way that alerted the world (i.e., everyone at work) to my compromised state. And what, exactly, was my compromised state?
I didn’t yet have a firm diagnosis for my situation, but I often wondered if it could be preceded by the term life-threatening. I was losing weight weekly and developing bags under my eyes that made me look like some ghoulish Panda. I wanted to cry out for help, but I also felt cosmically bound to silence. I think that was part of the sickness, too. I felt that being discovered—having others know that I was going through something related to drugs—would be a fate worse than death.
So I suffered in relative silence. From the time I left the house in the morning until the time I returned to my wife’s understanding embrace at night, I felt basically alone. I couldn’t confide in anyone, and I was too lost in my own head most hours to interact with people anyway.
“Pray for me,” I told my wife, and I went downstairs to get on with the commute and with all of the day’s lunacy.
At age 35, I made the seminal decision to quit Paxil, a powerful SSRI antidepressant that had been prescribed to me for panic attacks I suffered as a 21-year-old college student. I was beginning to suspect that the medication was causing me a host of physical and emotional problems, and I thought that cutting it out of my life would quickly make things better.
I was wrong. The opposite happened.
When I took my last dose of Paxil, my life quickly got worse, and I didn’t really understand why. And shortly after that, when I decided to start saying goodbye to the Xanax that had been prescribed alongside the Paxil, I was surprised yet again by an even more painful reality. A life with medication had side-effects, but life after quitting the medications became a dark and frightening world filled with strange body pains and mental anguish; and in my case at least, none of it would let up for a long time.
Prescription drugs can be useful when people are struggling with severe anxiety and depression, but prescription drug withdrawal is real, and in some cases—cases such as mine—it can last for a period of years. The withdrawal is painful and much more confusing that it would have to be. Trustworthy information is sparse, and mainstream doctors might be of little to no help, either because they are ignorant or because they don’t want to take responsibility for the gruesome scenes being presented to them.
And my scene was gruesome. As the medications drained from my system, emotions that had been frozen for a long time came back in confused bursts. They surfaced as thick depression and anxiety without tangible cause, and during short periods when my system calmed, my confused soul would cry just because it could once again.
My mind felt lost, too—I was confused much of the time and worried about permanent brain damage—and new physical symptoms appeared at an alarming rate. At first it was stabbing pains in my thighs, then burning sensations all over my back, then terrible fatigue, and then a perpetually bloated stomach. Often is was a mix of things at once. The bizarre symptoms were countless. At one point the defining torment of the week was a terrible pain that ripped and buzzed through my testicles: it’s hard not to wonder if you’re dying when that is going on.
After a few months of suffering, I crawled into my doctor’s office.
“It all sounds stress related,” he said rather casually. “People just channel stress in different ways. Any withdrawal from the Paxil should have been relatively minor and over after a couple of weeks.”
And when I visited a new doctor, his inattentive diagnosis was that the situation was beer related.
When a final visit to my primary physician resulted in his suggesting some new pills for fibromyalgia, I pretty much gave up on the idea of getting help from the people in white coats. I instead found books and websites that offered advice, and I leaned heavily on my dear wife and on the Almighty One, the One who created both the systems of my poor body and the time that would be needed to restore them to a proper state.
And things can return to a fairly proper state. Escaping from the grips of strong medications such as Paxil and Xanax is possible (for those who feel that the medications are hurting rather than helping). That’s the good news.
However, escaping from the clutches of such medications is also profoundly painful and a near Job-like test of character. That’s the other good news.
Wait. Let me explain.
Prescription drug withdrawal—like many of the other challenges we face in this life—can bring us closer to God if we let it. It is often when we are in the deepest pits of despair that we end up connecting to God in the most meaningful of ways, and here are a few of the ways in which my painful ordeal helped me to grow spiritually.
THE PAIN FORCED ME TO FIND GOD EACH MORNING BEFORE EVEN GETTING OUT OF BED.
During the worst of withdrawal, when I woke up each morning feeling as if I were drowning beneath some murky waters, things such as devotions and prayer no longer felt like options. Instead, they felt like the only choice I had if I wanted to poke my head above the surface and find needed air. God was necessary if I wanted to survive the day.
Because of those challenging mornings, I rediscovered the strength that comes from setting a spiritual tone for the day first thing. If we don’t, then the stress of the day can set some other sort of tone for us. I was reminded that a “God-first” strategy for daily living serves all of us well, in sickness or in health.
SET THE TONE FOR YOUR DAYS WITH THE LOVELY GRIND, MICHAEL'S UNIQUE NEW DEVOTIONAL. CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO ORDER A COPY FOR YOURSELF OR A LOVED ONE WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH STRESS OR FATIGUE.
THE PAIN ACTED AS AN EPIPHANY, A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE OF SORTS
When the shell of prescription medication that had covered me for almost fifteen years cracked, certain layers of insanity and fluff were removed from reality for me. I was reminded that a lot of this existence is distraction—it’s so easy to get overly distracted by professional concerns, financial ambitions, football watching, and political talk radio, etc.—and I was reminded that distractions need to be put in their place at the bottom of our daily list of concerns. We should be concerned with caring for our health, our loved ones, and our relationship with God, and everything else is mostly peripheral.
THE PAIN HELPED ME TO STOP TAKING BLESSINGS FOR GRANTED
A person can’t truly understand the beauty of having an appetite until it is taken away and replaced with constant nausea. A person can’t fully appreciate peaceful sleep until it is taken away and replaced with restless nights spent sweating and crying to the macabre tune of nightmares.
The ability to exercise, the ability to go to the bathroom normally, and the ability to enjoy emotions instead of just being frightened by them: these are all things that were taken from me by withdrawal but then returned by God’s grace. I now realize, as never before, how truly wonderful our bodies are when they are in good health. I now try to thank God for the “little” things more often.
THE PAIN INCREASED MY ABILITY TO EMPATHIZE
After experiencing our own “shameful” circumstances, it should become more difficult to judge others, and after surviving the misery of our own painful days, it should become easier to recognize the suffering of others. The most challenging periods of my life—especially my withdrawal experiences—have reminded me that everyone is struggling with something. Jesus constantly urged us to increase our capacity for empathy, and perhaps challenging circumstances are a way of encouraging us to be more understanding and merciful toward the world around us.
It’s now been several years since I stopped taking Paxil and Xanax, and while those withdrawal experiences were among the most profoundly painful episodes of my life, I have stopped wishing that they didn’t happen. Those experiences helped me to grow spiritually, and I hope that any painful situations in your life can be used in much the same way.
I hope that you will stay connected by signing up here to get all of my blog posts. During my spiritually raw days of withdrawal (as I was struggling to make it through sickness mixed with hectic workdays), I began writing a collection of workday devotions meant to give comfort and inspiration to anyone who is feeling professionally stressed, unfulfilled, or fatigued. I know how it feels to be searching for the strength to get out of bed and face the day. The strength can be found and the day can be faced, I know from experience, but we just need to dig deep and find a spiritual place that gives us reassurance and motivation each day.
I hope that you'll order a copy of my book and read a message each day before walking out the door, or maybe you'll want to check it out on Kindle so that you can bring your devotions to work with you, reading them on a phone or tablet during breaks or lunch hours.
Please take care of your health and your loved ones, and God bless you all.
Michael Priebe holds a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He writes devotions for stressed workers at The Lovely Grind, and he blogs about his life at www.michaelpriebewriter.com. He invites you to reach out to him on Facebook and Twitter.