Some words on: Splitting the atom with pill-cutters and patience

Logically, as I move on to lower doses of medication, also the adjustments on the way to the next smaller dose need to become finer. Pill-cutters work great when it comes to halving tablets, or even splitting sufficiently large, round tablets into quarters. But unless you can get hold of low-dosage pills, the utility of this gadget has its limits. More often than not, my attempting to cut pills into exact portions smaller than one half, has resulted in me plucking minute white crumbs out of the pill-cutter and piecing them together to approximately one day´s dose. Some pills simply resist being cut precisely. To avoid such hassle, I prefer using my pill-cutter in combination with a method of spacing out the intake of the old, higher dose in favor of the next lower one. The underlying idea is to gradually diminish the average amount of the respective substance in my organism until reaching the following lower target dose. Here is an example of how I have been doing it:

graphic sertraline withdrawal

I came across this procedure in Dr. Peter Breggin´s book Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal, and have mentioned it briefly in an earlier post on this blog as well. The graphic above does not reflect the exact way Dr. Breggin helps his patients decrease their drug intake, but it is an adaptation of his idea to my own circumstances. Another way of doing it by blocking high and lower doses according to a weekly plan would be to take the new dose on one day of the first week, two following days of the second week, three following days of the third week, and so on. It could look something like this – red spaces represent the old, higher dose of a drug and blue spaces the new, lower one:

suggestion weekly withdrawal plan

As you can see, the concept is flexible. You or your doctor may come up with other variations, even shortening or lengthening the duration of each step in your withdrawal process according to your own needs. In addition, I have to point out, once again, that I am not a professional in the medical field. This blog documents my individual way of handling medication withdrawal, but I am in no way qualified to give anyone else instruction in this matter. My hope and purpose is to encourage you to acquire the means and the support you need to improve your health. If you believe the method of psychiatric drug withdrawal I am describing in this article might also be helpful in your case or for someone you know, please seek further information with professionals and consult relevant literature. I am sorry if I am repeating myself with this sort of disclaimer, but I truly do not wish for anyone to get hurt in the execution of domestic experiments with psychoactive substances.

Up to now, I have been faring well using this method of dose reduction. All that is necessary is to keep track of where you are at in your plan – and to have your plan for each dose reduction written out for your reference. Personally, I keep a handwritten list of days and corresponding dosages, and tick off day by day. This way, each decrease in dosage takes me around five to six weeks. After completing the change, I wait for another couple of weeks before I make any modifications to my intake of the other drug I am using. Thereby, I hope to make sure each alteration of my medication plan is well under control in that I can recognize any adverse reactions and, most importantly, relate them directly to specific changes I have made. In order to take psychiatric medications, and also in order to wean off them safely, it is vital to notice the effects using them – or ceasing to use them – has on you. When you experience negative side-effects or withdrawal symptoms, you need to find out what caused them. A clear-cut medication and withdrawal plan helps generate such transparency, provided you follow up on it diligently. Being structured also allows for making well thought-through modifications to your plan if things should not go smoothly. Suffering adverse effects is, in itself, a destabilizing experience. The less panic-driven and better informed your subsequent actions and decisions are, the more likely you are to get back on track and prevent a full blown crisis from developing.

At this point, I would like to remind you always to remain process-oriented, rather than goal-oriented. Diminishing psychiatric drug intake is not about reaching the lowest dose possible in the shortest amount of time possible. Your success in this area is not defined by numbers. Drug withdrawal is not a sport. It is a process, which in turn will be accompanied by further processes regarding your overall health, your attitude towards life, your relationships with others, and your personal development. All those processes and gradual shifts are what you are after. Do not attempt to force spectacular changes. Instead, care for yourself and intend to remain grounded enough to weather your everyday life. If, at some point, looking back you can say you are feeling better about yourself than a while ago, you are headed in the right direction. Let every step forward and every choice be the natural result of your inner development and a subtle stimulus for further growth. Do what you can, but never try to find out where your breaking point is by challenging yourself to your limits. Do not hurry. Keep in mind it is better to walk calmly and securely than risking to stumble, fall and having to pick yourself back up all over again. Take all the measures you can to stay at peace. Protect yourself, nourish yourself.

Funnily, at present I am reading a book about writing and just came across a sentence I wish to quote here: “We´ll see progress in time. But we can´t expect to every day.” (Louise De Salvo, The Art of Slow Writing). In other words: do not drive yourself bonkers with undue pressure, nor let anyone else do so. As long as you are honestly working towards your health and your life´s improvement, you are doing well. Or, regurgitating a quote De Salvo took from Stephen King, describing his return to writing after a devastating accident which forced him to undergo long and painstaking rehabilitation: it all is about “[…] getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, ok? Getting happy.” King was referring to his writing, but really these words describe the essence of healing. Take note, in particular, of how King uses the verb “getting”, which clearly denotes process. PROCESS! This is what you are looking for. Getting healthier and, why not, happier!

The (Scary) First Step – Test Dose Reduction

The time has come! From tomorrow onwards, I will be taking a slightly reduced dose of my SSRI antidepressant. I will go from 150mg of Sertraline in the morning to 137,5mg for a week or two. This corresponds to a reduction of slightly less than 9%. Various sources recommend not to start with dose changes any greater than 10%. Therefore, although my next short term goal is to reduce my dose of Sertraline to 125mg, I will be going there through an intermediate step that will function as a test period at the same time. Both I and those closest to me will be monitoring my response – or the absence thereof – to this initial dose modification.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My new toy – a “deluxe” (of course, I’m posh) pill cutter.

Now, how do I go about the dose reduction technically? I have 100mg and 50mg Sertraline tablets. They are of an oblong shape and dented in their middle in order to make halving them easier. But if I wish to try 137,5mg for a while, I will need to quarter the 50mg tablets. Even with my pill-cutter, that will hardly be possible. Reading through Dr. Peter Breggin’s book Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal (see sources), I found an easy enough solution to this problem. Breggin describes several drug withdrawals he was helping his patients with, and especially with very small dose modifications it was sometimes necessary to be inventive. This is what I’ve learned:

 

  • If a pill cutter won’t do the job, you can find out if your medications are available in liquid form as well. If they are, you can control your doses drop by drop.
  • Some drugs come in capsules filled with tiny pellets. Same as with drops, this gives you the possibility to make very gradual changes by removing some of the pellets from the capsule.

But careful: your mathematics must be very precise for both the drop-by-drop method and the pellet removal strategy. You need to figure out how much of the active ingredient is in a drop or in a pellet. If you are taking generics, you also need to make sure you are always using the same manufacturer, as concentrations and excipients may vary from brand to brand. And needless to mention, if you have trouble concentrating due to cognitive impairment caused by either your condition or your medication, you need to put an extra effort in getting your doses right. In the latter case, you may keep lists or put up sticky notes to remind you of how to proceed. If you live with someone who is willing to support you, you can also ask them to double check if you are handling your medication correctly and according to plan.

  • Given that I haven’t got hold of either Sertraline drops or capsules, I decided on another dose reduction method mentioned by Dr. Peter Breggin. I will be taking 125mg instead of 150mg every other day, simply by halving the 50mg Sertraline pill with the pill cutter and taking it together with the 100mg pill. Over time, the alternating doses of 125mg and 150mg will result in an overall dose reduction of 12,5mg.

If I tolerate this initial step well, I will proceed to definitely reducing my Sertraline dose to 125 mg. I am quite optimistic it will work because of experiences I have had with involuntary – alright, neglectful – dose reductions. For varying reasons, I have skipped taking my Sertraline altogether a number of times. Normally, I am rather disciplined and take the antidepressant immediately after getting out of bed and brushing my teeth in the morning. However, if a day is particularly eventful or something unexpected gets in between my waking up and my going to the bathroom, I run a slight risk of forgetting my Sertraline. The first few times it happened to me, I was extremely worried the omission was going to cause weird withdrawal symptoms or render me useless temporarily, but none of it was the case. My suspicion is that having used the same amount of Sertraline for about four years now, there might already be a certain concentration in my blood that keeps me stable even if I forget one pill every once in a while. This is just my personal hypothesis. Right now, I can name no sources to back it up scientifically. Also, so far I have never skipped more than one dose. Hence I don’t know how I would react to a permanent, if small, dose reduction. Still, for the above reasons, I am confident it should be no problem.

I will keep you updated on how things are going in my “withdrawal diary” section.

My Personal Withdrawal Plan – Sources and Outline

Although I seem to tolerate my current medication plan quite well, I have been striving to wean off my pills, or at least decrease the dose I am taking. But before I altered anything, I needed information. Despite my recovery from psychosis I have developed a profound mistrust towards psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Out of all the professionals who saw and treated me, maybe 20% actually knew what they were doing. The other 80% either didn’t care to help me, or they wanted to be helpful but didn’t have any idea how, or they were abusive of their authority, or they needed therapy themselves. No joke.

As a result, my first thought was that I needed information to be able to distinguish a competent psychiatrist from a quack, so I could pick the right support for my undertaking. Yet, by continuing to read about mental illness, treatment options and psychoactive drugs, I became more knowledgeable and eventually felt I was able to make informed and more autonomous choices regarding my recovery and withdrawal process. One book in particular stood out as being clearly understandable for any reader and for promoting a holistic approach to the treatment of mental illness and to medication withdrawal: Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal – A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients, and Their Families. It is one of the more recent publications of Dr. Peter Breggin, who draws on over half a century of medical experience in psychiatry. As a defender of the patient’s freedom of choice, Dr. Breggin promotes what he calls a “person-centered, collaborative approach”. Instead of turning the patient into a depersonalized and passive onlooker of their own treatment, Breggin places the patient at the very center of his therapeutic model. Around the patient, he constructs a support network consisting of a prescriber of psychiatric drugs, a psychotherapist, and significant others (family members, spouses and friends). The prescriber and the therapist can be one and the same person, but do not have to be. What is indispensable, though, is that the patient’s wishes and decisions are taken into account at all times, and that all participants in the collaborative, person-centered approach are communicating efficiently and monitoring the patient’s health development. As the title of the book reveals, Dr. Breggin writes for health care professionals, patients and their significant others alike. None of the information he gives is classified exclusively for one or the other. All people involved have the same right and access to knowledge. The patient and his or her loved ones are empowered rather than patronized. You might be able to guess by now that I highly recommend this book. Further on, I will be reviewing more literature, but for now this is my starting point.

First of all, it is important to understand that there is no standard recipe for withdrawing from psychotropic drugs. Every organism reacts differently to changes. Also, it is impossible to foresee how long it will take to wean off medication or to securely establish a new dose. As a general rule, however, slower is better, and small changes in dose are safer than big ones. This is especially true for those who have been on psychiatric medication for a long period of time. Certainly, you often hear stories about individuals who have successfully gone “cold turkey” or got rid of their pills in the course of a few weeks or months, but they were taking a high risk and were extremely lucky. They were literally playing Russian roulette with their lives. Reducing medication doses is not a sport, and there is no competition going on in who gets there first. The only reasons for withdrawing on the fast lane are life-threatening or disabling side-effects, dangerous drug interactions, pregnancy and medical conditions that turn the use of psychoactive drugs into an additional health risk. Personally, I am not in a hurry. Luckily, nothing in my life forces me to withdraw, and I can take it as slowly and safely as I like. And I like it very safe.

Evidently, withdrawal is easiest to plan being on only one drug. Now, I am on two different medications which counteract one another and are thereby meant to keep me in balance. In the morning, I take 150mg of Sertraline (SSRI antidepressant), which should have a stimulating effect. At night, right before going to sleep, I take 300mg of Quetiapine (atypical antipsychotic), to sedate me. My aim is to reduce doses alternately, maintaining the proportion between both drugs. I will start with the antidepressant. If everything goes well, the antipsychotic is to follow. Again, if the new dose works fine for me, I will keep it up for a period of time and eventually attempt another reduction.

As for the monitoring of my progress, my partner is around me every day and is in the know about my withdrawal plan. He will communicate any observations and concerns to me, is reading the same literature as I and is following my blog. Other friends will also be part of my private watch team. I do have a prescriber, yet I admit I haven’t decided on the involvement of a psychotherapist. Frankly, I feel reluctant to do so. Right up to my psychotic break, I had been seeing a shrink for several years, and she was unable to identify any warning signs or put her finger on the deeper causes of my troubles. I believe I’ve had it for now, as far as psychotherapists go. Also, after the ride I’ve sat through, I am quite confident I know myself better than a therapist who sees me once weekly could. In order to boost my general health and well-being, I will work out regularly, stick to a healthy diet, sleep enough and enjoy relaxation therapies – occasional foot reflexology and back massages.

The following is an illustration of how I ideally wish to proceed. This plan, as for now, has five phases that may be subject to changes, depending on whether I tolerate the dose reductions. If I don’t, I may need to return to the previous dose and postpone further changes for a long enough while to become stable again. You will notice I haven’t planned a complete withdrawal. While I was figuring out the graphics, the thought of actually putting this plan into practice made me feel all wobbly. In the attempt of outlining a sixth and seventh phase I might have fainted and slipped underneath my desk. So, let this be good for now.

I apologize for the miniature format of the graphics. The originals are a good size, but for some reason, they won’t come out bigger once inserted into this post. You can upscale your view of this page on the bottom right of your screen.

withdrawal plan phase 1

withdrawal plan phase 2

withdrawal plan phase 3

withdrawal plan phase 4

withdrawal plan phase 5