Separating Medications from Identity
I took Paxil and Xanax for about thirteen years for an “anxiety disorder,” beginning when I was a senior in college, and almost from the beginning it would be safe to say that I felt a “change” happening inside of me. At first, this “change” might be described as simply feeling a little off, a little strange, a little scared that something unnatural was occurring within me.
I was feeling a little less like myself, which didn’t seem like a good thing, even if “myself” had recently been feeling uncomfortable and anxious much of the time.
“Don’t you worry about that stuff,” the doctors will say to those feelings. “That is just the medication beginning to do its job. It’s normal to feel ‘weird’ the first four to six weeks. That means the medication is beginning to get into your system.”
Wait, what? Get into the system? Strange sensations, including disconcerting mental and emotional shifts, mean that the medication is “doing what it is supposed to be doing?” Do we really stop to think about what that means.
Think about that for a moment. If something is chemically engineered to seep deeply into your brain and wind like a growing vine throughout your neural pathways, then what are the ramifications of that down the line?
Well, speaking from experience, I can say that a few of the more immediate ramifications of the antidepressant and benzo medications were, for me: fatigue, a loss of impulse control and general inability to be satiated by food or drink (think binging on junk food and alcohol), a lack of concern for keeping my “house in order” (both literally and metaphorically), and a strange disregard for the future (a sort of “well that will never arrive” attitude).
Some of these things might be common to college seniors anyway, but I can say that instead of stopping at age twenty-one or twenty-two, these unfortunate themes lingered throughout my twenties and into my early thirties.
I didn’t decide to get off the medications until my mid-thirties, and when I did, not only was I faced with severe SSRI withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal, but I was left to confront a seminal question: Am I someone who can live without medications?
That, my friends, is perhaps the most insidious effect of prescription medications. The side-effects I mentioned above are terrible enough in their own right, but perhaps even more sinister are the way they seep into your sense of self-identity.
People on the medications might begin to think of themselves AS the medications. Or rather they might begin to think of themselves as a disordered individual who needs the medications to cling to some semblance of a normal life.
People on medications, especially those who’ve been on them for a number of years, might begin to think things like this: I need the medications to work. I need the medications to relax. I need the medications to have energy. I need the medications to sleep. I need the medications to handle bad news or stress. I need the medications to laugh or experience joy. I need the medications to play my role in the family. I need my medications to care about life and plan for the future. I need the medications for me, and I need them for those around me. I need them, I need them, I need them.
Does any of this sound familiar to any of you who’ve taken or are taking antidepressants or benzodiazepines?
When a person is labeled as broken, given a diagnosis, and then told that the missing part of their wellness equation has been discovered in the laboratories of big pharmaceutical companies and must be swallowed every day to fend off destruction, then it is easy to see how people might get confused about their identity after a while.
When people try to get off of medications, again, one of the biggest questions that swirls through the mind is this: “Am I truly someone who can live without medications, or do I simply need them forever?”
I wrote a bit about how I myself grappled with this question in one of my e-books, More Than a Glimpse of Hell (Order the book here). I was several months off the Paxil, tapering my Xanax, and suffering through severe withdrawals. I was trying like heck to get away from the pills, but I just wasn’t yet convinced that I was someone who was “lucky” enough to be able to survive without them. Here is an excerpt:
Day and night the thoughts and emotions run wild and confused, and after several months of this, when all of those thoughts and emotions continue to gather en masse and dance and fornicate like some sleepless group of college students on ecstasy, a person starts to wonder if maybe he’s insane.
And that’s when beginning the prescription madness anew starts to seem like a reasonable idea. Maybe the old pills were necessary. Or maybe some new ones are needed.
I had wanted so badly to be free of the medication, but shortly after quitting Paxil, I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to admit defeat. Maybe I simply had to accept that I was broken in a way that could only be fixed by the contents of little orange bottles. I thought that I’d been making progress—painful progress in small increments, but progress nonetheless—but maybe I’d just been kidding myself.
Maybe the doctors—the ones who had played no small role in creating my current lunacy—really did have the answers, and maybe those answers only existed as 21st-century pills. Despite my misgivings, maybe I needed to go see one of them again, at least to make sure that I wasn't dying. What was the worst that could happen if I went back to the "experts" in white coats, or maybe even went back to the Paxil or something similar?
I was about to find out.
Well, I actually did end up on additional prescription medications for a couple of months, low doses of Lexapro and Wellbutrin, and then—finally—I stood firm in my belief that I had once existed without medications and could do so again.
Let me repeat that. To any of you who are wondering if you are simply someone who “needs” medications forever, remind yourself that there was a time when you existed without them. Maybe it’s been a while, but there was.
God didn’t create human beings during the first seven days and then think, “Oh shoot, I forgot to create their medications.”
Humans have existed for a long history without all of these prescriptions, and we can do so again. It is just a matter of seeing through the marketing, cutting through the western medical madness, accepting responsibility to truly care for ourselves on a daily basis (with stress management, exercise, coaching or therapy, good nutrition, spiritual connection, fulfilling work, etc.), and then it is a matter of believing in ourselves and our own capabilities.
I’ve now been off of all of those antidepressant and benzo medications since early 2014, and I can tell you that in order to get off pills and stay off them, a person needs to separate the medications from the sense of identity. He or she needs to stop giving the medications credit for every good thing that has happened in life, and he or she needs to take more credit for the ability to work, succeed, play, hold a family together, survive stress, and so on.
For many years the contents of the little orange pill bottles were as much as a part of my daily life as my clothes or my pillows. I wouldn’t leave the house without wearing pants, and neither would I leave the house without the benzo medications tucked into a pocket or shoulder bag. I wouldn’t go to bed without having a pillow available on which to rest my head, and neither would I go to bed without swallowing the Paxil that I was told I needed to be “normal.”
But just as my clothes and my pillows were not, and are not, ME, neither were the medications. They were simply something I ingested for a number of years—like a meal consumed—and then, eventually, they were gone. Goodbye. Time to move on.
If you are someone who is struggling because of medication use, tolerance, antidepressant withdrawal, or benzodiazepine withdrawal, I will say to you be patient with your process of moving forward and take good care of yourself.
Find your support each day, find your self-care each day, and begin to envision how you are moving forward one step at a time. It will get better if you take this approach to each and every day.
If you are someone who is struggling because of medication use, tolerance, antidepressant withdrawal, or benzodiazepine withdrawal—if you are someone who wants to move forward—I will also say to you: begin to separate the medications (and the “disorder” on which the medication use is predicated) from your sense of self-identity. Don’t see yourself as irreparably broken or forever limited, but rather as simply “you with some issues you are working through.”
Because, at the end of the day, that is what we all are. Just unique children of God with our own dreams, sensitivities, likes, dislikes, fears, and plans for the future.
It is okay to be imperfect. It is okay to be anxious sometimes. It is okay to feel depressed sometimes. It is okay to have some highs and some lows. That is human.
We are simply human, and we can be human without medications. Even if it takes a while to get used to that idea.
Take care until next time,
Michael Priebe is a writer and wellness coach who has studied psychology, literature, and print journalism. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated with honors, and over the years he has helped people from all over the world understand antidepressant withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal and find healing in their lives. He puts out a variety of spiritually inspiring content at The Lovely Grind, and he blogs about his life at www.michaelpriebewriter.com. He invites you to find out more about his coaching here, and he hopes you'll reach out to him on Facebook and Instagram.
“Michael was the only person I could reach out to who had been through what I’m going through and totally understands how difficult it is. His delightful, calm, and encouraging manner was exactly what I needed. I enjoyed the wealth of information that Michael was able to share. He gave me valuable pointers to help me on my way, and I would really recommend his coaching services to others.”
Melissa, United Kingdom
“I enjoyed Michael’s experience and understanding. I enjoyed [his attitude] of non-judgment and genuine concern. I decided to try his coaching because I needed to talk to someone who had gone through what I was going through and was able to come out on the other side stronger. I needed someone who could relate to my vision of wanting to get off antidepressants and thrive without them. I enjoyed the ease of my conversations with Michael, and his sincere desire to be helpful, and I would recommend his coaching to others.”
“Michael’s were the first positive messages I found regarding withdrawal, and they really spoke to me at a time when I needed it most. This can be an incredibly isolating experience, and our session reminded me that I am not alone in the process. Michael helped to push away the darkness and fear. After talking with him, my anxiety level has steadily decreased. I now know I will find healing, and I don’t need to be afraid. I would definitely recommend Michael’s coaching to anyone.”
“Michael is warm, compassionate, and wise, and most importantly he knows this process from a firsthand perspective. I enjoyed many different things about working with Michael. He provided reassurance and direction, and his counsel opened up the door for hope and determination. Also, his summary notes were invaluable, as were the supporting spiritual resources he provided. I would absolutely recommend his coaching services with a resounding yes!”
“Michael helped me in a way that no doctor or therapist has been able to! His personal experience combined with his optimistic, constructive input and guidance is priceless. I highly recommend his coaching sessions.”
“I contacted Michael for coaching because he has the ultimate credential of having been through it all himself! I liked his warm, empathetic manner. He is easy to talk to, and I felt as if he were a family member in his warm caring toward me. Michael has a very reassuring way of communicating, and I would highly recommend him.”
Jon - British Columbia, Canada
“I came across Michael’s videos by chance while looking up information on prescription drug withdrawal. I found his YouTube videos to be very informative, honest, and consoling. I was watching one after the other and even converted the sound on the videos to MP3 so that I could listen to his advice while going for walks. That was very soothing for me, and therefore I decided to try his coaching services. Great decision.
"Michael is a great and patient listener, and during our time together I felt that he sincerely cared about my healing progress and had genuine empathy for all those going through withdrawal. He is a positive-minded individual who disseminates hope, and I appreciated the useful, personalized follow-up notes he sent after our session. Most certainly I would recommend his coaching.”
Yasmin - Cairo, Egypt
“No one else is doing what Michael is doing. It truly is a ministry! Michael is willing to make himself vulnerable to help others during their journey in the valley. He is very easy to talk to (I felt like I had known him forever), and I would most definitely recommend his coaching to others.”
Andi, North Carolina
“Michael’s coaching is truly a game-changing experience. I appreciate the level of understanding he brings … tons of knowledge on how to survive the days and get closer to recovery. When you finally get to look someone in the face and know they understand exactly what you’re going through, it can bring a different level of comfort; that is what Michael’s coaching provided me, and without a doubt I would recommend it to everyone going through this.”
“I decided to use Michael’s coaching services because he seemed very genuine and trustworthy. After speaking with him a couple of times, I realized that I am strong enough to overcome certain obstacles, but also realized that I need not rush the process [of becoming medication free]. It was comforting talking to Michael about my withdrawal issues so that I could realize that what I’m going through is common, and it was also useful that Michael took the time to give me feedback in specific areas—like making a schedule and forming realistic expectations for myself. Michael gave me more useful feedback than a lot of mental health counselors I’ve had. Michael has helped me, and I hope he continues to help others. I would definitely recommend his coaching services.”
“I learned a lot from Michael. At first I was so confused by withdrawal (wondering what I was going through and if I would be this way permanently), but Michael helped me to realize that we do heal and that things do get better. I had a lot of worries, but he helped to ease my mind and he gave me positive feedback regarding how to approach each day in this process. Michael has a caring heart, and I would 100 percent recommend his coaching to others going through this.”
Erikka, South Dakota
“It can be frustrating having to deal with [withdrawal] symptoms for months on end and getting next to no support from doctors or anyone in the medical community (people who for the most part are clueless). Simply getting a chance to speak with Michael—someone who has gone through what I have and is able to offer support—was comforting. I also really enjoyed his follow-up notes. They were insightful and helped me to consider things I hadn’t thought of. I very much enjoyed working with Michael, and I would recommend his coaching to anyone who is going through this process and looking for support.”
“Michael is relatable and non-judgemental. I liked his positivity and follow-up notes. He provided good support overall. I believe that if a person really wants to withdrawal from medication, then support like this, from someone who has personal experience, is invaluable, and for that reason I would recommend Michael’s coaching to others going through this process.”
Leanne – Ontario, Canada
"Because of Michael’s own experiences, he knows what serves and what damages. He helped me to control my intake of negative information, he made me more optimistic, and he gave me a sense of the “whole [healing] picture.” Michael is a good listener and his comments are very precise. I would definitely recommend his coaching to others going through withdrawal."
Miguel, Atlanta, GA
"I really enjoyed my coaching sessions with Michael and looked forward to each call. He is very easy to talk to and offers very good advice. Our conversations gave me hope and coping skills, and his follow-up notes and progress plan were very helpful; I reference them often to stay on track. I found it comforting talking to someone who has been through this and really understands the struggle. I now look at withdrawal as something that can be overcome, something that I can heal from. I felt very comfortable talking to Michael, and I would recommend his coaching services to others going through the withdrawal and healing process."
“I decided to try Michael’s coaching because, in his videos, he seemed so honest, relatable, upbeat, hopeful, and knowledgeable. I believe I got more out of Michael’s videos and coaching than I got from years of professional counseling. It is very comforting talking to him because it is like talking to a very knowledgeable, long-time, close friend. I have more hope for the future after talking to Michael, and that helps me to survive the times when I am feeling blue. I would recommend his coaching to those going through the withdrawal and healing process.”
“I really enjoyed the care that Michael put into every contact with me. I appreciate how he shared his own experiences, found out about my overall context, and made direct suggestions; it was so important to believe that I was not losing control of my mind and body and that I could carry on with living while going through the process. It was also helpful to set goals and a plan and check back in on these things. Michael’s coaching is very professional and authentic, and I would highly recommend him to anyone who is going through the withdrawal and healing process.”
Emma, United Kingdom
“I always refer back to what Michael coached me on in the past regarding dealing with such times during the recovery and healing process. I enjoy working with Michael because he takes his time answering each of my questions in detail. Michael has true answers and guidance. It is comforting being coached by someone who understands my symptoms, and also Michael is a very compassionate person. I would definitely recommend his services to a person in need of help during the withdrawal process.”
THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS offers 90 devotional messages that will help you find rest, renewal, and perspective for your workweek and beyond.
WHAT IS YOUR STRUGGLE RIGHT NOW? Difficult coworkers? A lack of professional fulfillment? Financial concerns? Balancing work with the rest of your life?
By discussing a variety of professional stressors and life challenges and then offering spiritual and thought-provoking perspective on each, THE LOVELY GRIND gives readers a truly unique devotional experience.
Get a copy for yourself and don't forget to order one for a friend or family member who has been feeling fatigued or stressed out lately. Come join THE LOVELY GRIND & start living lovely!
CONTACT ME ABOUT COACHING
If you or someone you know is struggling to survive the pain and confusion of prescription drug withdrawal or chronic stress, I would like to offer my coaching services. Stress can suck the joy out of life, and the withdrawal process can be challenging (I know from experience). However, with the proper tools and mindset, these things can be survived and even used for greater growth. If you or someone you care about is trying to quit antidepressant or benzodiazepine medications (or simply trying to reduce stress levels), please click here to email me about coaching options and availability.