The First Tiny, Giant Steps of Progress: A Recovery Story
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 milligrams per day over the years.
When I stopped taking my medications, I was immediately hit by 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 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.
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 now been off Paxil and Xanax for just over four and three years respectively, and the growth continues.
Recovery is about growth. 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. 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.
During the course of my battle with prescription drug withdrawal, I, by necessity, found a number of strategies and tools to survive dark days and move forward toward progress, and I’d like to share these things with you. These are thoughts and tips that you can use in any battle, because while they will certainly be helpful to those struggling through prescription drug withdrawal, their utility isn’t limited to any specific situation. They can be useful for surviving any number of dark or discouraging situations, and I hope that you will find them useful as you move forward toward your goals, whatever they are.
1. Set Your Focus (i.e., Decide on Your Goal or Outcome).
Be specific here, not about a timetable per say for reaching the goal, but about the goal itself. Is the goal to quit pills and survive withdrawal? Is it to get a new job in a new field or set up a new life in a new city? Plant the focus – the goal – in your mind so that you . . .
2. Set Your Resolve.
People tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do things. People say they know what’s best for your future better than you do. People say you’re crazy. Resolve to move toward your progress anyway. In my case, doctors told me that withdrawal didn’t exist or didn’t exist to the extent that I was (supposedly) experiencing. One doctor said my physical pains were due to drinking beer. Another doctor suggested that I replace my old pills with new ones. I was often tempted to try that advice about new pills (and actually did, to my detriment, for about a week), but my resolve to live pill-free was so strong that new problems—be they mental, physical, or emotional—would not change my path, and neither would the opinions or advice of others. I plowed (and at times crawled) forward one step at a time, and sometimes those steps were made possible because I allowed myself to . . .
3. Get Angry.
I believe that being angry at everything—God, family, the news, shoppers at Walmart—is eventually a part of the withdrawal process, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about getting productively angry at something that can be linked to your problem/goal. If you want to quit pills, then get mad at Big Pharma and the mindless (or moral-less) doctors and pharmacists who do their bidding for nice salaries. If you want to quit cigarettes, then get angry at the tobacco companies and the stores (everywhere) that profit from selling death devices disguised as “relaxing little smokes.” If you want to lose 50 pounds, then get mad at people who called you fat or lazy or whatever. Just get angry at something other than yourself and then harness that anger in a productive way. And don’t let the anger overtake your life, by the way, just use it for a while and allow it to fuel your movement, and . . .
4. Keep Perspective.
Whenever you feel ready to give up, give it until ten percent (i.e., give your goal/progress enough time to show itself). Don’t be impatient. The worst messes of our lives aren’t created overnight, and neither are the biggest recoveries and improvements. Be patient with yourself and . . .
5. Take Care of Yourself.
Take self-care to another level. No matter what your goal is, the steps to that goal will have to be fueled by proper self-care. Eating better, exercising more, and getting enough rest/downtime will make you a more energetic and productive person. Give yourself permission to enjoy watching movies, reading books, and taking baths, if that’s your thing. These things refresh and stimulate creativity and allow your systems to calm and renew. These things will cleanse your mind and make you feel better than you have in perhaps a long time. Get back to basics. And another huge part of self-care is starting to . . .
6. Get More Deeply Spiritual.
I’ll tell people that if they weren’t spiritual before withdrawal, they will be afterwards. There is just no way to survive the darkest of those days on our own strength. There is no way to keep moving forward on our own strength when legs, thoughts, and everything else aren’t working. But this piece of advice is about much more than simply finding the strength to survive bad times. It’s about finding a connection to the eternal and a purpose for life in the first place. It’s about finding a connection to the rest of the world and a reason for being in this world in the first place. If you are someone who asks questions about life, I don’t know how you can find peace until you find answers to those really big questions, the ones about where we came from and where we are going. I’m a Christian, and I find these answers in the teachings and life of Jesus. I find daily comfort and inspiration in the Psalms and in the Gospel books. I read devotional books and use those to set a daily tone of comfort and strength in the morning. Get spiritual and do it daily. It will serve you well in whatever struggle you are facing.
7. Find Support and Information.
As I alluded to earlier, reliable information on withdrawal wasn’t always easy to come by. A couple of the doctors I spoke to either didn’t know or didn’t care to know about withdrawal (they just knew how to prescribe). But this is an issue affecting many, many people nowadays, so the stories and the information are out there. On support forums, on YouTube channels, and in memoirs. Just keep searching, and contact me for a few suggestions if you want to. And don’t forget to . . .
8. Congratulate and Reward Yourself.
Every little step of your journey, take stock of your progress and congratulate yourself. Did you make it a week off pills or did you make it through the first week of a new diet or fitness plan? Then go out to eat or for a drink somewhere. Did you make it through the first month of a goal that will take three years to accomplish? Then don’t forget to stop for a moment to celebrate that milestone. Keep perspective. Progress happens one tiny step at a time, but we are often the only ones who know how giant those steps really are, so feel sufficiently good about them.
This post is the first in a series that I will be putting out about surviving prescription drug withdrawal, and I hope that you will join me for the others whether you are going through such a situation yourself or not. If you aren’t going through prescription-drug problems yourself, then you probably know someone who is, so please share these posts with them. Also, I believe that the lessons and motivational tools that brought me through a years-long journey to the other side of Paxil and Xanax withdrawal can be applied to any struggle and journey we might face in life, so I sincerely hope that these posts will prove useful to you no matter what your current challenges or life goals are.
If you haven’t done so already, please sign-up for my mailing list so that you’ll get every blog post as it comes out, and don’t forget to sign-up for The Lovely Grind on YouTube to see videos related to the topics covered in these posts. As always, take care of yourself, your loved ones, and your dreams. God bless you all. Until next time.
MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). The book released June 6th and is now available in both print and Kindle versions. Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list to receive all of Michael's blog posts and better-living ideas.