Sertraline withdrawal

I found my way to prescription meds when I had my big phat breakdown of the century in 2019 (see previous posts for further detail). Antidepressants were the last-ditch resort: I was tentative about being on them and suffering intolerable side effects. I had some helpful advice from friends and family, but among them, there were very different accounts of how efficiently medication worked for them and what it was like to withdraw from the meds when there was no longer much, if any, need for taking them. There were quite a few horror stories about withdrawal: tales of constant stomach agony, ‘zapping’ sensations in the brain, sleep disturbances, depersonalisation and generally just feeling the clutches of depression strongly as soon as antidepressants were reduced/cut out, but I wasn’t super phased by this. In terms of foreseeing the inevitable withdrawal process further down the line, I didn’t really have the capacity to see beyond the end of each day, never-mind a hypothetical scenario months or potentially years down the line. So I made the executive decision based on where I was in that moment, sat in that barely-padded GP’s patient chair, and said yes to Sertraline.

When I was initially handed the prescription for that first pill packet, I was told that, at minimum, I would be taking this medication for at least a year. This accounted for the initial period of up to six weeks, wherein Sertraline gradually builds up in your system and starts to take effect, and the progressive withdrawal, which is done incrementally.

A year from the first prescription: that should have taken me to Spring 2020, however, as the world was burning down around us and I didn’t want to inconvenience very busy NHS staff with my minor ailment of medication reviewal, I let that preliminary deadline slide. Also, with the entire routine of existence as I previously knew it in the air, only mere months after I’d started to venture out of the house and “take control” of my life, I didn’t feel it was the right time to talk about taking the stabilisers off.

I was right to follow my gut.

I think, in a way, I was acclimatised to many elements of lockdown life and this therefore softened the blow of the first few months (I still obviously had “down days” but they could have been far, far worse). I could have dropped the Sertraline, on track with the trajectory my GP had set, and probably winged it last summer. However, because I was tentative about the timing and unsure about how the COVID-19 situation would pan out, I clung on out of caution. Others were optimistic without cause, but I feel quite lucky as I’m a huge critic of the Tory government and anticipated their ineptitude, so I wasn’t as upset or surprised as others when we’d end up 1 step forward and then 50 steps behind. While others mourned their freedoms, I hadn’t grown attached to the idea of them returning in the first place and quietly continued on, reading and drinking wine.

Alas, it eventually caught up to me and another round of restrictions, which felt like a bit of a slap from the universe, and other influences such as seasonal changes, hormones being out of whack and employment stress led to peaks of tension that significantly worsened my mental state. There’s been light relief in between these periods of angst and anger, so I can definitely say that my mental health has fluctuated a lot on the wild rollercoaster ride that has been life during COVID-19. I altered my dosage to reflect how I was feeling in certain periods, so I swung from the lowest dosage of 50mg all the way up to 200mg, dependent on whether the symptoms of my depression or anxiety were moderate or severe.

Towards the end of the year, my journey with Sertraline came to an end and entirely by (accidental) cold turkey. This was not the plan. Cold turkey is not medically advised because the risks are so high for relapsing or experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, which usually leads to people ending up back at square 1 of mental illness: turning to all the wrong people and places for solace. But you see, the thing is, I really didn’t mean to do this. I mean of course I occasionally forgot to pop one, or maybe two, but always found myself returning to the routine in spite of minor slips. Then came a point where I’d gone more than two weeks without taking it and I decided I was at an interesting crossroads. I did call my GP at this point, mainly to flag that I had achieved this feat with no major differences felt physically or mentally, but also to query whether it was worth me continuing on my rogue-ish course of abstinence. After all, I’d already come quite far without Sertraline and it was promising to see that I hadn’t completely deflated without it or suffered the cruel symptoms of letting it go. The GP was 100% supportive of me ‘weaning’. This process essentially meant that I had to slowly take smaller dosages, dropping one step and waiting for around 3 weeks before dropping another and waiting that out for a few more weeks.

It was during the second dropdown phase that I felt the slow ascension into my natural more manic state, which involves hyperactivity, struggling to sleep and taking on a multitude of tasks at the same time (juggling until I go kaput!). I also experienced heartburn, a completely new and unprecedented symptom that I literally never experience, and a slight spike in my IBS/digestive issues. These were uncomfortable experiences, but tolerable as I reiterated constantly in my head that they were literally just products of weaning and not signs of actual mental deterioration. Was this challenging? Yes. But nowhere near the same level of challenging as the condition which led to me taking Sertraline in the first place.

I worked through it. Honestly, there have been a few occasions where I’ve felt low and my instinct has been to blame the withdrawal from Sertraline, but I’ve not felt it strong enough to warrant turning back to the drug as I’ve generally managed to handle the symptoms I’m experiencing with holistic or alternate treatments. I’m lucky to be in this position and know that this is generally a sign of recovery, as I’m able to manage myself in a small capacity and look forward to testing the waters even more when the pandemic comes to an end. In the meantime, I think I will continue to take things a day at a time and try to avoid drastic decisions regarding medication as it worked for me only in tandem with talking therapy/other avenues being explored.

The world is a very weird place at the moment and I think it’s justifiable that we humans feel out-of-sync and a little tested by our current circumstances. Like countless others, navigating the new territory of a global pandemic and trying to keep mentally afloat, I have generally tried to be a little kinder to myself even when I get unfavourable blips of madness or sadness. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, so we end up in these frustrating bubbles where it’s easy to overextend or to abuse our crutches (be they in substance form or otherwise). My one significant achievement from this pandemic will be the fact I was brave enough to commit to life for the foreseeable future without antidepressants, even if that’s challenging sometimes and even if this only happened initially by accident. I’m very privileged to be in this position and I sure as heck couldn’t imagine it at all a couple of years ago, so I’m grateful today and I’m going to actively celebrate this victory as it’s no small feat.

If you’ve been feeling a little poopy lately, as if you’re missing the spring in your step, I would definitely implore you to write a list of all the things (however big or small) you’ve persisted through this pandemic and take a long, hard look at how far you’ve come. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you beat yourself up about your shortfalls, it’s equally as important, if not more so, to celebrate all that you have done, as these feats are a testament to your stamina and positive will. I am guilty of focusing on the negatives myself and it doesn’t make for a productive or kind headspace. All I can say is: don’t lose sight of the bigger picture!

BOOK REVIEW: Amazing Disgrace by Grace Campbell

This debut book from Grace Campbell has changed my life, to be honest. I didn’t know I needed it, or that I’d relate to it so much, but Amazing Disgrace has made me really reflect on the normalised shame I feel most days of my life and has helped me to question why it is that I feel it in the first place.

Amazing Disgrace is a candid, humorous and introspective reflection on Grace Campbell’s personal experiences of shame, with chapters drawing upon the big guns like romantic conquests, rejection, sexual assault and mental health. Sounds serious, but also expect gags about fanny farts, avoiding potential Tories at house parties and being a bodyguard for her dad when she was a kid. In between her anecdotes, there’s witty observations observed of a culture we women buy into as part of an unspoken social contract when we’re toddlers. I can honestly say I hadn’t thought too deeply about it until Campbell started pulling out examples left, right and centre. I was floored. I mean, when you think about it, shame is indoctrinated into little girls’ heads across pretty much all cultures and it taints, very toxically, the way they grow up to value themselves and value other women.

I now see shame as this dirty little secret, which is bequeathed from one female generation to another. We don’t choose to carry it, in fact, most of the time we don’t even know we are carrying it, because it’s so inherently coded into our behaviour and our attitudes. But why? Who decides what is shameful? (*coughs* THE PATRIARCHY *coughs again*). And why are we still pandering, sacrificing our own pleasure and sanity in the process, to keep these shame police happy in 2021?

These are the questions asked by Grace Campbell, who has a charming voice and a very unique story to tell as the daughter of infamous “spin-doctor” Alastair Campbell. This woman is unashamedly herself from the outset: sex-positive, political, intelligent, hilarious and surprisingly very vulnerable, opening up about the kind of experiences we all have as young women, but very often fail to articulate. An example of this is when she looks back at a history of accepting shitty behaviour from men and throws down some hard truths, before asking us readers to hold up a mirror and face our truths, too:

“Mostly I was ashamed that I didn’t back myself more, that I didn’t know this wasn’t acceptable. But the truth is, I was in a bad place and I didn’t rate myself enough to say no to just a bit of attention. That’s what happens when we don’t rate ourselves highly- we self-destruct. You’ve done that, too, right? For my sanity, I hope your answer is yes.”

p. 20.

This book has made me resurrect my journal and, honestly, when I deliver my comprehensive write-up on the revelations I’ve had during this pandemic in my next session, it will be my therapist’s wet dream come to life.

For that, I thank Ms Campbell.

There are also a few other things I thank her for, things that I absolutely loved in this cutely illustrated lil’ book that I will definitely be passing onto friends:

I love her celebration of female friendship groups and how they can provide the same sort of value, if not more, to our sense of self than romantic relationships. I totes relate to this and have genuinely wondered on many occasions how I would still be standing were it not for the lovely interventions of my fab friends when I’m up shit’s creek or about to make a very bad life decision at a house party full of strangers that don’t have my best interests at heart. I love her ability to talk about how messy anxiety and depression can be, and how utterly normal it is to consider medication for such ailments. Again, I can’t commend her enough for using her platform to bring awareness as to how common these illnesses really are and how important it is to try whatever it is that works for you, in order to recover.

What I admire the most about Grace Campbell is that there’s no hiding behind a performance for her readers: her life is her literal material and she delves into it with a bravery that has me shook. There’s no attempts of beating around the bush or ignoring the elephant in the room: Amazing Disgrace literally reads like a very personal journal with no censorship or conformity, in order to try and seem palatable to a universal audience. I love Grace Campbell’s frankness about people. There’s frequent jabs at the stiff upper lips of Etonians, middle-aged white men oblivious to their privilege and stale conquests who make you feel like shit for a bit, but serve their ultimate purpose when you’re going through a glow-up, as a solid reminder of what not to settle for.

On the surface of it, I shouldn’t relate to Grace Campbell at all. I’m a brown 26 year-old girl living in Bradford and my dad is nowhere near as influential (thank god?!) as her father. I assumed I wouldn’t relate to her shenanigans on account of the fact she’s white and has grown up with privileges I couldn’t dream of ever having. She proved my judgmental British-born, Bangladeshi blooded ass completely and utterly wrong.

Most people will likely judge Grace for her relation to her father, as I unfairly did, but it’s refreshing and real empowering to see that she actually isn’t afraid of calling out anybody or anything. She isn’t living in the shadows, adhering to the strict protocol of appearing dignified and poised to perfection 24/7. She’s in her own limelight, talking about really difficult stuff, making the world her stage and being very brave in doing so. Thank fuck for that, or else she’d be denying us her fabulous Instagram stories and advice on “Politicians as lovers”.

Grace doesn’t hide her disdain for anybody, especially a certain Mr Tony Blair. I would say, actually, that she celebrates it. She remarks, at the beginning of the first chapter, “So, Tony Blair stole the thunder of my birth.” (p. 23) and then goes onto highlight every instance of this disgraced PM’s attempts to derail her childhood. This is how she begins her depiction of an entire childhood lost to media scrutiny and fears about the welfare of her family, as paparazzi took up residence outside their home and delivered their barrage of heated opinions on the Iraq war. After reading this, I felt like a right dickhead. It is so easy to write off somebody else’s experiences due to them appearing to have more privileges than you, but I’d never thought about what she had in relation to what it cost her. Things like her right to privacy or her relationships with her parents, which were inevitably strained by the bucktoothed allure of Blair.

Another reason I related so much to the book was that there’s a self-awareness that runs throughout the chapters, acknowledging the intersectionality of women and their experiences, the common grounds and the vast differences across socioeconomic backgrounds, racial identities, sexualities and beyond. As a brown female reader who is so used to reading the entitled perspectives of predominantly white men and women, who can’t really see outside of their own experiences, it’s been so wonderful to actually read a sincere voice who is reaching out to “other” readers and is capable of identifying, flat-out, why it’s so important to check yourself in today’s climate:

“Just because I know there are people out there with more privilege than me doesn’t mean I don’t have to acknowledge the power structures that I’ve benefited from… Checking your privilege is a good first step, but saying that isn’t enough. We can all do more to dismantle white supremacy.”

p. 63.

By the end of the book, I felt like I could have been Grace’s best mate if I’d just happened to live across the road from her or gone to her secondary school (also attended by Dua Lipa and Campbell won’t let you forget it). She’s the same age as me, of a liberal ideology (she hates Tories as much as I do, OMG!), a massive feminist and she’s gone through alarmingly similar situations with regards to having mental breakdowns whilst abroad and being sexually assaulted/treated like a Kleenex by far too many members of the Dickheads Club. On top of that, she’s at a point in her life where she just doesn’t give a shit anymore about playing up to other people’s expectations at the expense of her mental health. We love to see it.

I am a self-professed alcoholic bookworm who has spent a substantial period of her life falling into very similar traps as Grace Campbell. I am only now beginning to realise how futile it is, trying to impress everybody (especially when they’re not worth my fantastic drunken renditions of Whitney Houston) and I genuinely feel a relief at having accidentally found an ally through the pages of her debut book. This is an open invitation to Grace Campbell, which will undoubtedly be rebuffed (I don’t blame her, in retrospect, this is reading as a little bit stalker-ish but I’ve come so far so I can’t turn back), but when you’re up North for your comedy tour (definitely will be buying tickets), please let me buy you a cocktail and tell you how awesome you are? That is all, j’adore.

You can buy Amazing Disgrace here.

And you should most definitely check out her Insta for daily fabulousness, you will not regret: