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After Two Decades, I Decided to Go Off Antidepressants

I had my first panic attack when I was 9 years old. One minute, I was in music class, belting out “Camptown Races.” Then, in less time than it took to sing “all the doo-dah day,” nausea and weakness swept over my body. With sweaty palms and trembling legs, I asked my teacher if I could go to the school nurse. Within 30 minutes, my mom showed up and carted me to the local emergency room, where an ER doctor suggested I see a therapist for anxiety.

It wasn’t a one-time thing. After a few repeat panic episodes, my mom pursued the best solution she knew: medicine. On a spring afternoon in fourth grade, I walked into a child psychiatrist’s office for a consultation and walked out with a prescription for an antidepressant called Luvox.

The little pink pills relieved my anxiety almost immediately. I exchanged my fears of lockjaw and fatal car accidents for more normal grade-school worries about sleepovers and school play auditions. From that point on, varying doses of SSRIs — Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, Celexa — were a part of my life.

Then, last year, I decided to wean myself off the medication I’d relied on for two decades. By that point, I’d made a lot of progress in managing my anxiety through therapy and had begun to see antidepressants as more of a burden than an asset. Thanks to my Lexapro, my libido was nonexistent and my extra pregnancy weight wouldn’t go away. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t fully experiencing the joy of mothering my two toddler sons. Something about my way of being just seemed flat. Didn’t my kids deserve to know an unconstrained, unmedicated version of their mother? But in the process of quitting antidepressants, I realized there was something I needed to abandon more than Lexapro: the belief that being strong means being unmedicated.


As of 2017, 13 percent of Americans take antidepressants. The term “antidepressant” applies to several different classes of drugs, the most popular being SSRIs. Standing for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs are typically used to treat mood disorders like anxiety and depression. The drugs work by increasing the brain’s supply of serotonin, an emotion-stabilizing neurotransmitter. In one study, 60 percent of people who took an antidepressant noticed improvements in depression symptoms within two months; research also shows SSRIs to be more effective than placebos in treating panic disorder.

As for the fine print, SSRIs also have well-documented side effects, including decreased sexual desire, weight gain, insomnia, headaches and nausea. And it’s debatable how well SSRIs work for anxiety in particular; some experts argue they can do more harm than good.

When I announced my decision to part ways with Lexapro, my soft-spoken, ultra-zen psychiatrist supported me. “I think you can do it, but we’ll need to come up with a plan for a slow taper,” he said, after laying out the risks. Given how long I’d been on SSRIs, we agreed the one thing I shouldn’t do was quit cold turkey.

My psychiatrist switched me to a liquid form of Lexapro and told me to reduce my daily dose of 10 milligrams by one milligram every two weeks.

Discontinuing SSRIs can be an extremely difficult process. Studies on long-term use have shown that the longer someone is taking an SSRI, the harder it is to quit. Some people develop discontinuation syndrome, a real, diagnosable condition that comes with physical symptoms like restlessness, tremors, nausea and vomiting, along with neurological symptoms like dizziness, trouble concentrating and the sensation of “brain zaps.” People can also experience increased feelings of anxiety and depression during discontinuation, but Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, says flare-ups generally don’t last more than a few weeks, especially with a gradual taper.

Tapering is something of a hot topic among psychiatrists, and prevailing opinion in the field is changing. For years, it’s been standard for doctors to recommend 2-4 week tapering regimens. But two psychiatric researchers recently published a paper recommending an “extended tapering regimen, reducing [a patient’s] dosage by smaller and smaller increments, down to one-fortieth of the original amount.” This method takes months or even years, but researchers say it accounts for how antidepressants change brain chemistry, while the old way does not.

My psychiatrist switched me to a liquid form of Lexapro and told me to reduce my daily dose of 10 milligrams by one milligram every two weeks. He also prescribed supplements and dietary changes to support serotonin production in my brain.

I followed his instructions to the letter. Every morning, instead of swallowing a pill, I poured unflavored liquid into a syringe and squeezed it into my mouth. And every night I swallowed a handful of vitamins. Each time I cut my dose, I felt out of sorts for about a week, which Lembke says is typical. “At first, we expect people to feel worse, but that may be withdrawal-mediated anxiety and depression,” she said. “Once their brain adapts to the new dose, a person might go back to their original baseline. It’s important to wait until the withdrawal is complete, then reassess.”

Some days, when I felt too anxious and uncomfortable to engage fully with my kids, I parked myself on the couch and let Curious George marathons do the parenting for me.

I couldn’t tell if my anxiety had resurfaced or if I was just experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Either way, I was struggling. In addition to brain zaps and dizziness, I felt like I had the flu. My appetite waned. I was irritable and restless. My whole body felt achy and fatigued. Some days, when I felt too anxious and uncomfortable to engage fully with my kids, I parked myself on the couch and let Curious George marathons do the parenting for me. Then I felt guilty. It was all so overwhelming.

But I didn’t want to undo my progress, so I forged on, reducing my dosage to 5 milligrams over three months. Once I adjusted to this dose, it felt like a comfortable midpoint between panic-stricken and emotionally clogged. Still, I assumed I should continue tapering until I hit zero. There was just something so intriguing about the prospect of living without medication.

Still, my doctor urged me to stay put for a while. If I wanted, I could resume tapering in a few months, or a few years, or whenever I stopped feeling like myself at my new, reduced dosage. By winter, 5 milligrams no longer felt right — but not in the way I’d hoped. Pummeled by the flu and the oppressive darkness of Minnesota in January, my anxiety came back in full force.

I holed up in my room, terrified I’d never get better. After two months of debilitating anxiety, I did what I swore to myself I wouldn’t: I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist and begrudgingly increased my dosage to 10 milligrams. I felt like I was giving up my chance of being an emotionally authentic person, but my doctor wasn’t having it.

“Don’t think of it as a failure,” he said. “You’re doing what you need to take care of yourself.”

I couldn’t appreciate his advice until my anxiety calmed down enough for me to put my tapering experience in perspective.

Originally, I wanted to quit Lexapro, or at least drastically reduce my dosage, to show myself and my kids that I was strong enough to thrive on my own — without pills to keep serotonin coursing through my synapses. But after coming full circle, I was able to see that being strong isn’t about taking (or not taking) medication. It’s about taking care of myself.

“Don’t think of it as a failure,” my doctor said. “You’re doing what you need to take care of yourself.”

If I were taking medication for epilepsy, diabetes or any chronic illness with more acute physical symptoms, I doubt many people would call me strong or courageous for choosing to manage my disease naturally. The truth is, I’ve summoned plenty of strength and courage since I first went on antidepressants. I’ve spent years learning how to control the anxious thoughts that plagued my 10-year-old self. I’ve worked hard to build and maintain relationships that give me the stability I didn’t have as a kid. I pour myself into writing and parenting, both of which lend an empowering sense of purpose to my daily life. I advocate for my mental health needs whenever I can, and ask for help from friends, family and professionals when I need to.

So many times during my taper, I was motivated by self-discovery. I wondered if a “real version” of me was hiding beneath the medication I’d been taking most of my life. I envisioned the emergence of a resilient, vibrant, does-it-all woman. But I didn’t need to go looking for her. She was there all along.

Show Comments (28)
  1. Ella

    I appreciate your reflections and thoughts on the tapering process, and find it a relief that you have a psychiatrist who not only supported your decision to taper but suggested a slow taper. That is rare to find and I am hoping the awareness of antidepressant withdrawal/discontinuation can grow within the medical field. The advice from many MDs is simply antithetical to what the literature shows, that there is an exponential drop in receptor occupancy and that to have a successful taper, one must decrease by 10% dosage increments every month (not every two weeks).

    I am someone who went through the horrors of a too-fast taper which included debilitating anxiety and violent thoughts, beyond anything I have ever experienced, as well as physical symptoms like excessive sweating and brain zaps. Would never wish this experience on anyone, but far too many go through this pain without connecting it to their taper. For further reading on this subject, for anyone who may be taking ADs and wishing to taper, I highly recommend the following resources: the Mad in America website, the book “Your Drug May Be Your Problem” by Dr. Peter Breggin, and the online forum Surviving Antidepressants.

    1. Erica Gerard

      Thank you for this, Ella! I’ve tried to go off anti-depressants twice in the decades I’ve been taking them, and both times were so unbearably unsuccessful that I’ve been turned off from trying again even though I desperately want to be pharm-free. I have heard that many times people who go off their anti-depressants relapse even worse than the initial episodes that brought them to the drugs in the first place. Have our brains changed this much? I feel totally stuck and hopeless that I will ever be able to go off my stupid drugs, even though I swear they aren’t even doing anything anymore at this point. I will check out the forums and book you suggest. Maybe I will find some hope there! Or maybe I just need a REALLY slow taper, like you mentioned. Anyways, thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      1. Jennifer

        Erica you nailed it. You can get off this if you do an extremely slow and cautious taper. I’m 97% off Lexapro after being o it 17 years. Praise Jesus. My taper is going to take over 2 years but I’m glad I’m doing it.

    2. Tammy Smiley

      Thank you … I hope to find some hope with your suggestion from Dr Peter Breggin. It’s been 2 .5 years off them for me and my body is doing crazy things I think very well could be from being on Prozac 20 years. I enjoyed your article Ashley. Sending best wishes to you. And all in this horrible battle!

  2. Sarah

    Can you tell me how to find a medical professional who can help me taper slowly? I live in the Twin Cities.

  3. Robin

    I weaning off right now after 28 years of antidepressants that I only started taking for PMS because that time of the month I would get well PMS. I’m struggling right now with my emotions. Praying it gets better when its all out of my system. The good things are I am losing weight, my libido is coming back and my “feelings” are too. But its not been an easy ride yet.

    1. Elaine

      I went off Lexapro after 18 years on it and did a 4-6 weeks taper. I had so many withdrawal symptoms that I didn’t realize what they were until I was a month in. I have a lot of anxiety issues, like breathlessness, feeling of a lump in my throat and insomnia. I don’t want to go back on Lexapro but I hate feeling like this.

      1. Taylor

        I’m in a similar position. I was on celexa for 7 years. I tapered off and I’m now experiencing blurry vision, lump in throat, breathlessness, and stomach ache. I don’t know if it’s withdrawal or a relapse. I’m going to ride it out and hope for the best. I hope yours gets better too xoxo

      2. Jennifer

        Please go to the surviving antidepressants forum. They can help. http://Www.survivingantidepressants.org

    2. Maia Marron

      I too started on SSRIs to help with severe PMS…now that I’ve stopped the SSRI the PMS has come back like clockwork (along with a debilitating withdrawal). Have you noticed the same thing?

  4. DeLee

    Thanks for your article – I have been on Lexapro for about 10 years and thought I needed to try another antidepressant because I had some break through anxiety as menopause approached – this has been an awful process with all sort of awful physical and mental feelings … I think I just need to go back on My Lexapro

  5. CB

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I have been on Lexapro for the past 10 and have recently started the taper. The doctor I currently see suggested what I thought to be an aggressive taper and I took it on myself to slow down the process. I have been completely off the drug for two weeks and I am experiencing many of the side effects mentioned above. While not severely debilitating, they are irksome and have me wondering if I should just return to my 10mg regimen. I have decided to wait it out, use some meditation and see if my body will adjust. Long term, I will do what it takes to take myself.

  6. Scott wi

    I was on Max dose of venlafaxine for 20 years. I missed doses before and would bave reaction in a a day or two, eg. Being on acid. I decided a month ago I was going to quit cold turkey. It took about 2 weeks for me to level out. Now i feel again dream again I am my old real self again . I am healthier than I’ve ever been doing and enjoying.

    1. Annette S.

      I was on 40mg of lexapro (30-40 over time) for about 15 years, on one or another AD for over 17 years. I hated the way I felt on them, refused to add another Med. After all, the pharmaceutical industry MAKES CUSTOMERS, NOT CURES.
      So about 2 weeks ago I went off it, completely, cold turkey. I hate docs, but I hate meds more. The withdrawal sucks. But I’m not sure it’s any worse than the way I felt on the meds. I’ll take my chances. Good luck to all, follow your gut.

    2. Antidepressantangel

      Are you completely off the meds now?

    3. Sue H.

      Thank you for your success story. I need to hear more like that.

  7. Cathy Chirnside

    I was on first Paroxetine and then latterly Citalopram (in NZ) over a period of 20 years being treated for depression. I put on a huge amount of weight becoming pre diabetic developed fatty liver and generally became very unwell. Over several attempts I tried unsuccessfully to wean myself off the drugs and had decided that it just wasn’t possible as the discontinuation symptoms were so unbearable. I told myself and everyone else that my antidepressants were like insulin. I believed my brain didn’t produce serotonin so I had to take the drugs for ever just as a diabetic needed to take insulin. However in 2018 I tried once more and I am delighted to say that by reducing my dose very very gradually over a number of weeks and months from 40mg daily I finally took my final dose at the end of November 2018. However the fun is not yet over as I found out that my brain is not yet over its need for support and I have had issues with extreme anxiety. Something which I have never had issues with before. This appeared over Christmas and New Year last year initially and I sought the help of a Naturopath who treated me with Vitamin B complex, Magnesium and a herbal blend of passionflower, magnolia and a couple of other things. As a Registered Nurse this journey into the world of natural medicine was something new but I was determined to avoid any more pharmaceuticals for my mental health and the natural products did the trick. I was well for several months when here in Christchurch we were hit with the tragedy of our first experience of terrorism and I was plunged once again into another bout of intense anxiety much to my disappointment. The increase of the products I have been on has dealt with my symptoms and I am pleased to report that my depression has not returned and my anxiety is well under control again now. The only good part of it all is that the anxiety has caused loss of my appetite and I have lost around 35kg in weight which has been to the benefit of my overall health. Reversing my pre diabetic condition and fatty liver.
    However what I do want to say to anyone who has been on antidepressants for many years. You can come off them. Its hard work and not very pleasant at times but as long as you get good advice and you are well supported. Look after yourself and be aware of your mental health. Natural health products may be a way to do it and help with the discontinuation symptoms.
    I hope this is of help.

    1. Will

      What a great story, and just what I needed to hear!

  8. Heather Hubbard

    Your taper was way too fast….I am reducing 5% monthly. You should join a Facebook group called “Zoloft should be illegal” (even if you are on a different SSRI). It will give you the correct tapering method. Unfortunately the doctors have no idea how to taper patients off of these drugs successfully. You are better off listening to those of us in the trenches.

  9. Matt

    Google taperstrips. They are made to help people ween off meds.

  10. Steven

    This nightmare started in 2006 a doctor trying to build a client base, I can see now looking back on it. It started with celexa and lexapro. Im a single parent of 2 boys . One of which has spina bifida , i the weight gain was from lifting him , OH BOY WHISTLE WHISTLE , not so my dr kept telling me to loose weight, I am very active, 5’4″ 190 now after being at 240 . I finally got mad and told her that the only thing i have done different is take your PILL so I quit a year ago what a mistake. My skin feels like an over coat . I was told I had COPD nope it was the Pills. Now my arms don’t even feel like mine . I slept like 2hrs a night for 11 months if I was lucky . We all so don’t deserve this . I am lifting again trying to get through this. Please any encouragement would help. I am 52 and confused.

  11. Emily Pearson

    Thank you for sharing your story! Its so hard to know whats best for yourself. Ive struggled alot with wanting to be off SSRIs and wondering if it was the right thing to do to come off them. Ive recently just taken my last pill 3 days ago! I weaned off Zoloft from 100 mg over a 5 and a half month period. Its been a struggle, but Ive also been trying out different diets to see if it helps with my moods. Right now on a more Paleo diet, no processed carbs (no gluten), no added sugar, trying to limit my alcohol. Im listening alot to Evan Brand on youtube, hes all about natural healing. I really think diet and a balanced gut microbiome can drastically help us with mental issues. Ive been feeling pretty good! I hope it helps for the long run!

  12. Jennifer

    To the writer if this article your doc tapered you way too fast. Especially given the fact you started at age 10 and were on it so long. I’m tapering off le apeó after being on it 17 years. After starting my taper 2 years ago I’m down to 0.3 ml/mg of liquid Lexapro. Lexapro is a very powerful SSRI, much stronger than other ones. There is a fantastic website called survivingantidepessants.org. I can’t recommend them highly enough. These are extremely ha d to get oof but it can be done if you know how. This site, which is free, has people who will walk with you through this journey of getting off this stuff. It’s amazing how little doctors know about these drugs and how to properly taper off of them. Disclaimer. Do NOT go off your meds without your doctors support

  13. Marion

    I gather that all the people on this site want to get off anti-depressants. I had a severe post partem depression for 5 years through both my children. I had talking therapy and it helped me immensely, but after still being tense and down and even physically depleted, my therapist recommended I see a psychiatrist who specialized in anti depressants. I didn’t think I’d walk out with a description but he said it was very low dose–which it was. That was in the early
    80’s (!) and I felt very guilty and looked forward to when I could quit.

    In a short time I felt better–not high but even. I found a new peace. Still carrying the belief that it was a cowardice thing to do, I had to stay on them to bring up my children safely and without such pain; no one gave you support in those days. As time went on I had serious losses: my mother, father, younger sister, and older sister. More recently I lost my son and 6 months later my husband. I myself have cancer. I am still an active person even though I’m (incredibly) turning 80. People say I look 60, even late 50’s. But besides that, I have upped my dose during 35 years from 10 mg (or maybe 5.) to 80 mg. I did get a lower dose for a time, but
    I immediately regressed.

    My sister was hospitalized with deep depression and my mother suffered from it too.
    As a mature person, I realize that I do need this medicine. I DO believe it’s like diabetics taking insulin. It has made my life richer, more productive, and more enjoyable to be alive. The pill is Prozac. I haven’t had any bad side effects; even my libido and weight are the same. For anyone who is only worried about the stigma–which it no longer is–I want to say that I feel “myself” with it and am grateful for it.

    Sadly, I had a good friend who suffered from extreme depression. The doctors couldn’t seem to find the right drug for her. (Once when I saw her she was obviously over-drugged.) When they changed her meds for the 4th or 5th time–her husband was away–and she killed herself and her two children. (A blow to all of us). I count myself lucky that the pill has worked for me; I’m barely aware that I even take it. I have weathered a lot and enjoyed a lot. Also,
    being a writer, I have to endure a LOT of rejections! Still, I do not regret taking Prozac.

  14. Lisa

    I feel you quit too soon. That was not long enough through the Withdrawal phase. I had to go through a difficult withdrawal for 3 years, you have to stick it out. Sometimes we get rebound anxiety that’s worse than ever-but then it goes away. Those symptoms were not going to last forever.

  15. Linda

    Be extremely careful with medications; both going on and off them. Thinking we all need exercise before hitting medication. Our brain is the best organ in the body. Proceed. With. Caution.

  16. Karen

    Depression and anxiety are seriously some of the worst afflictions in existence. They attack us by making us desperate enough to try medication to treat our symptoms. And then they creep into our minds to taunt us, saying that we aren’t strong enough to live without them.

    I took Effexor for a year maybe I forget. But I just recently used Prozac to wean off of it because that is a hard drug to stop. Anyway, The Who tapering process took about a month and I feel the depression returning full force. It’s so bad. I feel like life isn’t even worth living and that nothing will ever get better. I also know I will not harm myself because I have my daughter. It’s just hard to feel so hopeless. I seriously feel like life will never hold happiness.

    I messaged my doctor about possibly taking Effexor again. I felt like it wasn’t working for me because I didn’t feel that great when I was on it. But I realized by stopping it that it was working because it’s so much worse to feel like this. I am so negative right now people don’t even want to talk to me. It’s hard. I’m sorry for everyone on this message Board who struggle in the same ways as I do.

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