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!

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Some words on – “Stability”

I haven’t looked it up, but there must be several posts on my blog where I mention the importance of waiting for periods of emotional and existential stability in order to make changes to your medication regime. I believe it is important to remember that such stability is oftentimes ephemeral and can vanish without notice. This is not to scare anyone or to make them renounce from weaning off their drugs, but I´m saying this to make sure no-one out there is waiting in vain for a complete standstill of affairs that may never occur.

Many changes in life are not initiated by us, but by external factors we cannot control. On such occasions, we may find ourselves sucked into a stream of events we never chose to be a part of. One day, we can be enjoying great peace and contentment, and the next day all hell can break loose, with us at the center of it. All we can do is try to limit the damage through appropriate reactions.

Some months ago I perceived myself to be walking a pleasant, smooth path. Everything seemed wonderful, including my new job. It took nothing more than a co-worker, whom I scarcely even knew, to walk through the door and furiously accuse me of a serious infraction I had – honestly – not committed. She herself had not been a witness of it, but was acting upon hearsay. She also reported me to the superiors. With me being the new one and her well established at the workplace, she had all the credibility. She also informed me very loudly that “everyone” was talking badly about me anyways. She refused to tell me who “everyone” was, but insisted it was literally the whole staff of the institution. My immediate impulse was to grab my bag, leave and never go back. It took quite a bit of willpower to continue my workday and remain halfway functional. The following weeks, I was internally boiling over with outrage and couldn’t help but look at other colleagues wondering “Is so-and-so among those who are talking badly about me?” As for the woman who attacked me, to this day she has been unable to look me in the eyes. I believe this speaks for itself. I also admit I now find slightly perverse amusement in facing her with a calm I-am-Buddha smile whenever our paths cross.

To make a long story a little bit shorter – lightning strikes wherever it wants, whenever it wants. Even out of the blue. So how can you make sure life doesn’t throw you a curve ball as you are in the middle of a dose reduction? You can’t. There is just no way of telling. Yet, you can do a lot about how you react, and about whether you look for support from people close to you.

Let’s talk about the support. If you are trying to recover from psychiatric crisis, undertaking a medication switch or readjusting your drug dose, you should have a personal support system mapped out. Let people you trust know what you are going through, and ask them to help you with careful observations, attention, honesty, good judgment, constructive input, friendship and love. An open conversation, a firm hug and an outside point of view can work miracles when you find yourself in distress. Plus, when you have a history of mental illness and psychiatric treatment, you are probably very vulnerable to self-doubt. Am I crazy? Am I sliding into a crisis? Is my reaction healthy? Commonsense could calm down such self-interrogation, but it is very reassuring and comforting to hear from someone else they understand you and think you are actually doing fine. And, in the opposite case, should you really be at risk of derailing psychologically, having this pointed out by someone is a vital contribution to preventing the situation from getting out of hand.

Now let’s move on to the reaction element. Depending on your personality, obeying to your momentary impulse may or may not be best. In my particular case, it is generally not. Impulses typically cater to an ancient fight-or-flight mechanism which is very useful when you are being chased by an enraged mammoth. In an office or other postmodern setting it is less practical. As you can tell from the incident at my workplace, my spontaneous, gut-driven response was to wrap it up, show off my middle finger, shout “Fuck y’all!” and leave with flying colors, in pursuit of unspoiled horizons. Similarly, upon receiving offensive or otherwise inappropriate e-mails, my impulse consists in proving to the unfortunate emissary of the message that my rhetoric is better than theirs, and that I can be an even bigger cunt than they are attempting to be. It can take a few re-edits before my response becomes suitable for sending at all. Experience has taught me that cooling heart and mind down improves the outcome of my actions. This also goes for emotions other than anger. Fear is another bad adviser. As simplistic as it sounds, succumbing to impulses fueled by negative emotions is never a good idea. As refreshing as spontaneous displays of affection, generosity and joy are, as devastating can the uncontrolled liberation of their opposites be – for others and for yourself.

This does in no way mean you should sugarcoat all your negative perceptions. They are there for something: they warn you of unfavorable situations, toxic relationships, bad intentions others hold, and so on. You need to recognize unhealthy circumstances for what they are in order to protect yourself from harm. The art lies in distinguishing impulse from intuition. Impulse is a reactionary force which can be laden with either positive or negative emotions, and serves to vent those. Intuition, on the other hand, is your inner voice expressing the observations and needs of your personal essence. Impulse is the lightning that strikes where and when it wants, blinding you as you act out. Intuition is subtle, constant and truthful, providing you with insight and strength. Impulse will say: “So-and-so is such an asshole, I totally hate him/her!” Intuition will simply advise you not to engage with that person because they might be harmful. The coworker who attacked me was being impulsive, and I almost would have been the same in response.

The million dollar – or yen, or euro, or pound – question is: how to make out your intuition among all the thoughts, feelings, images and ideas scrambling about inside you? There is no standard recipe, and finding out how to do it is one of the great tasks in life. It seems nobody ever masters this skill completely, otherwise disgrace would not continue happening all the time and everywhere on our planet. However, everyone is able to improve.

Finally, I shall tie the know with the subject of psychiatric treatment and life skills. Even if you have been in crisis and are taking one or more drugs, you can and should exercise your intuition, as well as other life skills. Never assume that, because you have been labelled mentally ill and prescribed neurochemical crutches, you are doomed to be handicapped forever. Consider yourself in the process of rehabilitation and keep in mind that most people are in need of healing, too. Just because they have not been diagnosed does not mean they are healthy. Society is sick in many ways, and will imprint some of its illness upon its members. Within countless families, toxic emotions and destructive behavioral patterns are handed down through generations like old, creaky furniture. And one traumatic experience with an abusive individual can throw formerly strong people off kilter for years to come. It so happens we call such wounds “psychiatric illness” when they are particularly evident or render someone dysfunctional in regard to the current social norms. However, it is a type of injury everyone suffers from in varying degrees. There would be nothing for us to learn and grow by if this were not so. Walk ahead. Always walk ahead.

How it´s going – Completion of phase three

Hello Everyone!

I am now taking half of my original dose on both medications. So now I am on 75mg of Sertraline and 150mg of Quetiapine. There have been no unfavorable reactions to the dose reduction whatsoever. Again, I have to stress that I do not simply switch to a smaller amount of any of my medications from one day to the next. Every decrease in dose takes me about three weeks to complete. Also, I never modify the dose of both medications simultaneously, but do it one after another. This adds up to a total of six weeks for the change to be complete. I always start with the antidepressant, and finish with the anti-psychotic.

Given that I am feeling so well, I have decided to continue dose reduction throughout the month of December. I will take the Sertraline down to 50mg. In January, I will be travelling abroad, which is why I intend to wait with the further reduction of the Quetiapine dose until after the trip. I should point out that we will be visiting my partner´s family, and that I have made this same trip twice before. In other words: we will not be exposed to exotic stimuli and strange locations, but rather be welcomed into some sort of home from home. I find this important to mention because dose reductions are safest when there is no stressful situations or emotional turmoil ahead. Of course, these can come up unexpectedly at any moment and even in the middle of a dose reduction, but why deliberately risk any instability in the face of anticipated psychological pressure?

Once I am down to 50mg of Sertraline and 100mg of Quetiapine, which corresponds to one third of the original dose, I will not make any further changes for at least half a year. Frankly, I have not even clarified for myself if I should ever be completely medication free. The habit of popping those pills every morning and evening has become so strong and reassuring that the idea of not having them as a safety-net gives me vertigo. Knowing myself, I might be able to overcome that fear once I am getting closer to the right moment, but I am more of the one-step-at-the-time type, so for now I will be dealing with the next dose reduction and nothing beyond that. This tactic has worked fine for me until now, and not just regarding my medications but also other matters in life, so I shall stick to it.

I will keep you updated.

Felicia.

Finally, Moving On

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Hello Back.

I have kept this blog dormant for quite a while now, which I really feel lousy about. Luckily for me, it has been for all the right reasons. My life has changed considerably and kept me very busy.

After bringing a shitty contract with an abusive employer to a necessary end and having worked three jobs at the time throughout the month of June to bridge the gap, I am now very content with my new placement. Knock on wood, may it continue to go as well as it has begun.

Another source of stress is the disappearance of three of our pets, probably at the hands of a sociopath neighbor who had actually menaced us with “doing something” to them. We would love to denounce him, but unfortunately we have neither proof nor witnesses other than ourselves. Not knowing what happened to your little friends, nor where they are and how they are doing, weighs heavily on the heart. So does the inability to do anything about it.

Close friends have moved out of the country, but I hope to keep up contact with them – after all, this is the age of the internet! Hopefully, my partner and I will be able to visit them at some point. I do miss them.

I have even “survived” a reunion with close relatives without the feared psychological breakdown and without seeing anyone, including myself, resort to the dysfunctional patterns of behavior that have spoiled family meetings in the past.

My beautiful partner has supported me through all the changes and his part in everything having come out so positively is major.

I still have nasty nightmares on most nights. It had become better for a while, but they have returned. My subconscious keeps bringing up topics it wants to process and apparently fails at it, making another attempt the next night, and so on. In spite of this, I seem to get enough rest. I am productive at work and creative in my spare time, and enjoying both. My cognitive performance and concentration levels are fine.

A big setback, though, is that I am pretty much back to my original weight. It’s not like I have been binge-eating or anything. It has just come back on. Seven pounds lost, seven pounds gained. At least I am not heavier than I used to be. Still, I am frustrated at how I look. I have always had issues with certain body parts, as most people do, but these weak spots seem especially annoying now that I am not in my best possible shape. Back to square one! I’ll have to devise a good workout-plan.

Since my last post, I have not made any new modifications to my medication regimen. I decided that too much was going on to risk any additional instability. Today I’ve begun to lower my Sertraline dose. I have been taking 100 mg in the mornings for a few months, which is 30% less than the original dose. My next aim is to go down to 75 mg, which would be half of the original amount. Once this is achieved, I will follow up with the Quetiapine. I am confident it will work out. However, my partner will have a watchful eye on me and tell me if I act even weirder than I normally do.

I’ll be in touch.

Felicia

 

 

How It’s Going – Completion of Phase Two

I am now permanently on 200 mg of Quetiapine (Seroquel) and 100 mg of Sertraline (Zoloft), which means I am concluding phase two of my withdrawal plan. According to this schedule, as I had originally laid it out, I am supposed to stabilize these doses over the course of two to three months. However, given that I am experiencing no withdrawal symptoms or other anomalies at all, I might reconsider the duration of the stabilization period and possibly reduce it to somewhere between one and two months.

My current doses correspond to a 30% reduction of the amount I was prescribed when I first started taking my medications. I believe my organism is already perceiving some degree of relief. My overall well-being has been improving, certainly also thanks to a healthy diet and regular exercise. Mentally and emotionally, I feel perfectly functional and healthy. My partner is a great source of support, and I know I can trust him to report any unusual observations to me.

I am also pleased to see how each prescription of a hundred coated tablets now lasts one month longer than it used to. The medication supply that was meant to be good for three months is now sufficient for four. One could say I am 30% less stressed about getting my new prescription.

As for this blog, it has been slowly, but steadily, attracting more readers. My hope is for them to find useful or at least interesting information on its pages, be it for themselves or in order to help loved ones. I want to stress once more that your comments, questions and suggestions are more than welcome. Reader’s contributions make this kind of blog so much richer and so much more helpful. Feel encouraged to send me your thoughts and experiences – they will all be considered and responded to.

Some Words on: Nightmares and Restless Sleep on Psychiatric Medication

As for all states of distress, APA also has a fancy name for nightmares: nightmare disorder or dream anxiety disorder. It is known that everybody has nightmares from time to time. They are believed to be caused by our mind trying to process conflicts, fears and stressful life events. In other words: nightmares are a healthy and necessary phenomenon that helps us deal with our issues and move on. Yet, when unsettling dreams become so frequent and so intense that they disrupt our sleep patterns and affect our mental and emotional balance during the day, they no longer help us to cope, but they add to our problems. Not only do nightmares leave an ugly aftertaste and cloud our mood. Deprivation of restful sleep can exacerbate already existent psychoses. Sleep, and in particular restful sleep, are a vital component of mental health.

Although it is meant to improve symptoms of mental illness, psychoactive medication commonly causes sleep disturbances, including nightmare disorder. In general, psychotropic drugs will affect your sleep cycles in one or the other way, for whatever acts upon your mental functions during your waking hours, logically also does so when you are asleep. Both my antidepressant (Sertraline) and my anti-psychotic (Quetiapine) list nightmares as a frequent side-effect, along with other sleep abnormalities, such as insomnia or excessive sleepiness. So far, I have gotten away with only the nightmares.

Ever since I got on psychoactive medication, I have had hardly one night without unsettling dreams, and this is not an exaggeration. The topics are nauseatingly repetitive. Being far from home at a place I perceive as threatening and fearing not to be able to leave, is a classic. Typically, in my dream I am anxious to leave that place before the onset of winter with its cold and darkness. A variation of this scenario is my having to travel to a threatening place. Luckily, my dream-Self has learned by now to just say “I am not going. I have a right to be where I feel safe and happy.”. Often, these dreams are coupled with scenes of confrontations between me and relatives whom I am also in conflict with in real life. Typically, they would attempt to tear down my self-confidence or force me into life choices I feel strongly opposed to. Before I moved in with my partner four months ago, I also used to dream I was living in a house that was crumbling. Cracks would appear in the walls, or big chunks of plaster would fall off them. In those dreams, it was understood that the structure could collapse and crush me any minute. I believe I can see clearly which fears all these nightmares spring from. My interpretation is that, after having seen my existence and my personal autonomy disintegrate during my psychotic break, my psyche is still fearful of it to possibly happen again. Over the last years, I have returned to a good life. In fact, I would say my life is now happier than it has ever been before. To me, it seems only logical that my not-so-subconscious is afraid of losing it all again.

Plane crashes are another frequent dream. I am actually afraid of flying, so the source of this scenario is also quite obvious. The origin of other nightmares is less evident. An interesting one is the vision of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption or simply a nearby active volcano that scares the crap out of me, but apparently out of nobody else. In my dreams, I regularly find myself in groups of enthusiastic people who absolutely want to climb up to the crater, while I am desperately trying to convince them not to. In reality, I do live in the proximity of three volcanoes, but I have never witnessed an eruption. I realize such an event is a possibility, but it is not something that occupies my conscious mind. So far in my life, I have scaled five volcanoes and slept at the foot of another three without being overly concerned about it.

A few posts ago, I had already mentioned that I am beginning to have less intense nightmares than has been usual for me over the last four years. And finally, last week, I got a break from my nightly horror-marathon. I actually dreamt something pleasant! I will abstain from going into details, but the sweet afterglow of that dream stayed with me throughout the day. It has been a while since this last happened to me. I am quite delighted! Placing the dream in the context of my current life situation, I have to assume a huge part of the improvement is certainly due to my moving into a new, lovely home with my partner and us both making healthy changes to our lifestyle. And although I have only just started to wean off my medications, I also hope the reduction of my medication dose to have something to do with the improved quality of my sleep. Could it be that my brain was too numbed down to process topics of conflict and therefore brought them up again and again through my dreams, similar to a broken record that can’t get past a certain content, but replays it in an endless loop? Could the dose reduction have begun to reactivate those parts of my psyche, allowing me to finally deal with and eventually overcome the unresolved issues? I cannot know for sure, but it is a hypothesis that I find logical.

Whether or not you consider weaning off your medications, you can – and should – attempt to improve the quality of your sleep. Actually, some speak of “sleep hygiene”. Taking measures of sleep hygiene is recommendable for everyone, even “healthy” individuals. The equation is simple: the more restful your sleep is, the better you feel all over – mentally and emotionally – and the better your cognitive functions are. If you are tormented by insomnia or by nightmares to a point that you perceive sleep as an unpleasant duty, try the following:

  • Establish regular sleeping habits. Try going to bed and getting up approximately at the same time every day, and allow yourself at least seven hours of rest. Even if your sleep gets interrupted during the night or you can’t fall asleep in the first place – stick to those seven hours and get out of bed at the established time. Eventually, your organism will recognize this resting period as its opportunity for distension and revitalization.
  • Create an optimal sleep environment in your bedroom. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and your pillows allow you to rest your head without straining your neck and upper back. Switch off all the lights and, if possible, do not keep any electronic devices in your bedroom. Use curtains or blinds which block street lights and the morning sun effectively. Try out if you prefer complete silence or soft noises like the gurgling of a small fountain or the regular ticking of a clock. Make sure temperatures in your bedroom are moderate. Neither excessive heat nor cold will help you sleep.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages, stimulant medication or other energizing substances during the late afternoon and evening. Funnily, although alcohol can make you feel drowsy in the beginning, it is a major sleep disruptor because it messes with your sleep cycles. Same as for stimulating substances, take care not to have booze right before going to sleep. Personally, I know some people who actually have a cup of coffee or even espresso right before going to bed. They insist it helps them sleep. If you are one of that kind, fair enough, but probabilities are that you react to caffeine like most other mortals do – by staying wide awake. To be on the safe side, stay away from coffee and maybe have a glass of hot milk or soothing herbal infusion before going to sleep.
  • Just before going to bed, give yourself 30 minutes of time out. Spend them on a relaxing activity: meditation, reading, cuddling with your pet, chatting with your partner, watering your plants or just putting things in place around the house. Give yourself an opportunity for winding down and cleansing your mind and emotions at the end of every day. Studying for an exam or watching an action movie and then hitting the hay immediately is not a good idea. Just like a train can’t come to a dead halt, you need to gently let your mind come to rest.
  • Eat at least two hours before going to sleep. Going to bed with a full stomach is almost certain to make you toss and turn. If your schedule doesn’t allow for this, prepare a light snack rather than a full meal in the evening.
  • Exercise! Any type of workout, especially if performed several times a week, will not only help you burn off calories, but it will also improve your mood significantly. It is not necessary to do anything extreme or spectacular. Yoga and long walks are perfectly fin. Of course, if you wish to go for something more intense, feel free! Regular exercise will help you find a more restful sleep and balance your mood. Just remember that, if you exercise intensely in the evening, you need to come off your adrenaline rush before going to bed, so don’t hop right from the treadmill into bed. Maybe do a short yoga routine, have a nice warm shower or engage in some activity you find soothing.
  • Follow a healthy diet. Prefer whole, fresh foods to highly processed ones. Processed foods are typically rich in all the wrong things: sugar, fat, sodium, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colorants. At the same time, they are almost devoid of vital nutrients and contain very little dietary fiber, which you need to cleanse your intestines. Thinking you can make up for your dietary deficiencies by taking supplements is a wrong assumption. Cover as many nutritional necessities as you can through your food intake. My partner and I, for example, are going low carb and mainly eating vegetables, lean meats, soy and dairy products. We have also developed the habit of drinking vegetable smoothies every morning. They taste great, and depending on which veggies and fruits you combine you can obtain different flavors, colors and nutritional benefits. We use kale as a main ingredient, and from there we just improvise according to what we have at home: spinach, strawberries, beets, celery, raspberries, carrots, apples, lettuce, and so on. Be creative, it’s your call to design your own liquid salad!

As you can see, there is a lot you can do for your sleep quality, even if you choose to stay on psychiatric medication for now. Try any or all of the above measures before asking your prescribing doctor for tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Adding medication to your treatment plan may seem like a quick fix. Yet, it only delays your getting to the root of your problems, compromises your liver and will make it even more difficult for you to ever wean off your medications. When you’re lost in the jungle, don’t add more trees. Consider taking further medication as the very last resort, or as an emergency solution to treat acute insomnia or psychosis temporarily.

Last, but not least, make sure you have the support of those living under the same roof with you. You can make your room as dark and as quiet as you like, but if your roommate insists on having noisy reunions or listening to loud music during the evenings, you will have a hard time finding sleep. Whoever you share your space with – family members, your partner, friends or fellow patients – explain to them why and how you wish to improve your sleeping habits. You might even be able to make them join in! Everybody needs restful sleep, and certainly everyone enjoys it. Personally, I find it extremely helpful that my partner and I are on the same page in terms of looking after our health. We share the same diet, do yoga together and follow the same sleeping schedule. Doing all of these things together is also a beautiful occasion for bonding. We research and discuss new food recipes, try out different yoga routines and have a small chat before going to sleep. Incorporating healthy habits into our lifestyle has been a wonderful contribution to a harmonious relationship and a happy home.

I would love for you share your own experiences with nightmares or other sleep disturbances, and with measures you have taken to overcome them. Feel free to comment. I will read through everything you send me and publish it here on my blog. Looking forward to hearing from you!

How It’s Going – Completion of Phase One

Yesterday night was, hopefully, the last time I ever took the old dose of Quetiapine, 300 mg. So from today onward I will be taking 250 mg of Quetiapine at night and 125 mg of Sertraline in the morning. If you have a look at my dose reduction plan, you will see that I originally planned to stay in this place for a while. However, as I have had no withdrawal symptoms or other adverse reactions to the dose reduction so far, I feel I should move on to the next dose reduction sooner. Thus, I shall begin lowering the Sertraline dose further next week, in the same way I have already done it once. This modification is to be followed by another dose reduction of the Quetiapine. My next aim is to reach a plateau phase with 200 mg of Quetiapine and 100 mg of Sertraline. This corresponds to a 30% reduction of the original dosages, which I find to be quite a significant change. Once I get there, I still plan to remain there for at least a few months.

The question now is whether I have noticed any changes so far. As for negative ones, luckily not! On the positive side, I do feel slightly more alert in the sense that I make faster decisions, seem to have an improved concentration and feel more open towards learning new things. A lot of this, admittedly, has to do with my recent changes in lifestyle and the accompanying shifts in priorities. Logically, I have some restructuring and decluttering to do. Nonetheless, I feel that I am mentally and emotionally better disposed to pull through with these reconfigurations. Lowering the dose of my medications may be contributing to that.

Physically, there have been slight improvements as well, although these most likely have to be attributed to factors other than medication withdrawal. My weight has been going down very gradually, which is probably mostly a consequence of my doing daily yoga routines and eating a low-carb diet complemented with veggie shakes. I have a very sweet tooth, but lately I have managed to steer clear of too much self-indulgence in this area. My partner and I have agreed we can be naughty – in culinary terms – every once in a while on special occasions, but certainly not on a daily or even weekly basis. Our naughtiness in other areas seems to be improving. Our relationship is thriving, yet it is impossible for me to say whether lower medication doses have anything to do with that. I suppose, and hope, that we are simply doing things right.

Lately, my sleep is less plagued by nightmares. I used to have them every night, and they were intense enough to have me wake up screaming every so often. Since I have moved in with my man, this has not happened again, although most of my dreams are still weird and unsettling. They very evidently deal with traumatic experiences as well as the fears and conflicts derived from those. As a result, my dreams are quite repetitive in topic, which makes me assume I have a considerable quantity of psychological knots to untie if I want to get rid of them. Several sources on psychiatric drug withdrawal explain that as you lower doses, emotions and thoughts may resurface that had been lingering under the surface of your drug induced stability. To me, that makes perfect sense, as the drugs do seem to suspend you from hammering away desperately at your worst conflicts. So, as a consequence of medication withdrawal, I expect some serious processing and coping challenges to lie before me. At this point in time, such challenges have not occurred to an extent that would make me consider seeing a psychotherapist. My partner is a great source of support, encouragement, comprehension and love. The list of his wonderful characteristics could go on and on. My close friends are caring and sincere. In other words, I have a support network that wants for nothing. Thanks so much for that!

All in all, I am happy about how everything is going. My initial fear of lowering medication doses has receded. I am still very careful and slightly apprehensive about the process, but so far I have felt motivated to think that as long as I proceed in a sensible way, I should be able to minimize risks. I am glad I have started this process.

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.

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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

Why Wean off Psychiatric Medication?

If everything is going so well, you might wonder, why am I intending to give up my tablets? For several reasons! A variety of sources claim that using psychiatric medication over long periods of time can have dangerous consequences. Quetiapine, for example, is associated with altered blood sugar levels and diabetes. Damage to the liver is another risk. Tardive dyskinesia and tardive dementia (involuntary movements and dementia occurring after long-term use of psychiatric drugs) are other potentially irreversible side effects. Cognitive impairment and chronic brain impairment (CBI) are not uncommon. The long-term effects of psychotropic substances on the brain are virtually unknown, but they are suspected to be devastating. Apart from that, case studies indicate psychiatric medication can induce manic states and drive people to commit suicide or other violent acts. The very companies who designed the drugs I am using admit they don’t know how exactly their products act within the human organism. Looking at the monetary aspect of taking antipsychotics and antidepressants, it can get very costly! Either insurance rates are insanely high if you declare needing treatment for a chronic psychiatric condition, or you have to pay for your medication out of your own pocket. We are potentially talking expenses of several hundred dollars every single month. Many of you may also find that having to swallow tablets at certain times during the day is tedious and violates your liberty. I, on the contrary, find no reason to complain about that. Being a woman, I have used contraceptive pills for many years, and those need to be taken at the exact same time every day. You can never forget one, even if you are still spaced out from last night’s party – now THAT sucks! In other words, I find things could be much worse. I simply take my antidepressant at whatever time I choose to get up and the antipsychotic at whatever time I decide to go to sleep. I have even forgotten to take the antidepressant a few times – no problem at all, I simply make sure to take it the next day.

This blog is no manifesto against psychiatric medication. Psychotropic substances put the fire out in my case. They brought the acute crisis to a halt and gave me time to pick up the pieces. I am fortunate my organism accepted the current combination of an antipsychotic and an antidepressant well. Yet, I emphasize it is absolutely vital for recovery to find complementary, non-chemical therapeutic measures to extinguish the embers after the big fire is out. Because they might alter your brain forever, I consider psychotropic drugs the very last resource to be employed. In my eyes, they are an emergency switch that should only be thrown when a temporary shutdown of the system is necessary.

While in some cases medication may be useful, most people with prescriptions from their psychiatrist would be better off facing their crisis and managing it with their psyche unaltered. Soliciting the attention of a psychotherapist, counselor or priest, spending time with loving friends or family, regular workouts, healthy nutrition and decluttering an overloaded agenda often prove more healing than pills. It is important to remember that stress is a natural and even necessary condition. All human beings eventually experience crises. They will occur repeatedly in everyone’s life, so it is important we learn to deal with them. Rough patches are part of the natural course of our biographies, same as joyful times are. Instead of suppressing emotional tension chemically, we’d do better learning to get over it and thereby grow stronger. Only when all measures fail and the individual sinks into utter dysfunction and alienation, as I did, should medication be prescribed – temporarily. This is my personal and subjective opinion. I make no claim of being in the right.

Not all psychiatrists would agree with me, yet even within the discipline there is no consensus on when to administer psychotropic drugs to patients, nor on how many, nor for how long. Scientifically unfounded affirmations such as “psychiatric medication has to be taken for life” or “mental illness is incurable” are spooking around under the guise of objective information. However, the entire concept of mental illness is still hypothetical in many aspects. Preoccupied about my future, one day I phoned the psychiatrist who had treated me during my last hospitalization. I asked him whether I needed to take my medication for the rest of my life. He did not hesitate one moment. Much to my relief and surprise, his answer was “No.” He said I could start weaning off by lowering the dose of the antidepressant a bit, and take it from there step by step. The conversation with the doctor happened a while ago. I wasn’t ready then. Today I feel secure enough to have a go at it. I am aware one should never go “cold turkey”, that is, stop taking the medication from one day to the next. After over three years of using those substances, my brain relies on them to be around. Also, reactions to spontaneous or rushed withdrawal have been reported to be just as dangerous and terrifying as some of the unwanted side-effects of psychotropic drugs. I shall write more on the perils of withdrawal in another post.

Withdrawing from psychiatric drugs being such a delicate undertaking, I must remind you again: do NOT use this blog as a manual on how to proceed in your case. If you wish to benefit from my posts, read them attentively, share them with others, or even let my blog inspire you to put together your own action plan. So, if I may use an already overused line: don’t try this at home! Unless, that is, you have researched carefully and designed a strategy for modifications in your treatment that is tailored to your specific needs. I will later describe in detail about how I am planning my withdrawal process and which sources I am using for information.