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Blog: Ploughing towards the finish line, coming off anti-depressants

Since November I’ve been weaning off Effexor 75mg. I’m just milligrams away from being medication free and wanted to share some thoughts about the experience.

 

IMG_3024After posting my last blog about embarking on coming off anti-depressants, I was overwhelmed with emails from people sharing their stories – whether first or second-hand experience. I was enriched and warmed by the response, the support and the bravery of people’s openness. Thank you for your brave contributions. It showed me we are not alone. There are so many people out there who battle through mental illness, or are close to someone with a mental illness. It’s far more common than we realise. It was vulnerable opening up about coming off my medication, and I feared the consequences. But to my wonderful surprise, with vulnerability and openness came connection (as Brene Brown says in her TED Talk). It opens communication, support, connection to our human experience. I thank everyone who has supported me through this part of the journey, the messages, checking up on me, boldly sharing experiences. It’s made it all the more doable. And now, only weeks away from going med free, I’m more excited than ever.

It’s been an interesting journey. A challenging journey, but also a rewarding one. I ponder the topic while I’m splitting pills each morning…

Brief recap: I went on anti-depressants in 2011. I had been sinking into a depression of sleeping, binge eating, disconnection, lethargy and perhaps an existential crisis. Alongside therapy, the doctor put me on Effexor. It helped kick me in the right direction and after a year I felt ready to come off them. But when I tried weaning down over a couple of months from 75mg to 37.5mg a day, then down to one pill every 48 hours, I found myself riddled with withdrawals, suicidal one day, fine the next, straining my relationships and career, till I relapsed and the doctor advised I go back on the medication. I have been on the meds 4 years.

IMG_5323Last November I decided to come off the medication and under medical supervision began decreasing. It’s always a question of when… when is the right time? When you’re feeling good… is it you? Or is it the meds? And when you’re feeling good do you really wanna jeopardise that by messing with what’s working, messing with the meds? And how do you cope with ordinary day-to-day stresses… as well as reducing meds? Living in a better environment, new friends, new love, and a new understanding of myself and the tools to handle life, I figured now was a good a time as any to come off the meds, and the doc okayed this.

This time I’ve done it a little differently. I decreased a LOT SLOWER, exchanging one 75mg pill for a 37.5mg pill each week (ie. Week 1: 7 x 75mg, Week2: 6 x 75mg + 1 x 37.5mg, Week 3: 5 x 75mg + 2 x 37.5mg … and so on…). Depending on what was happening in my life, I slowed this process down furthermore – ie. Live album recording, new relationship, needing a break from withdrawals.

But the next decrease was more challenging…

IMG_4266The thing is… drug companies don’t make any dose lower than 37.5mg of Effexor, yet there’s a label on the packaging that says “Do not stop taking this medication abruptly” as withdrawals would be almost unbearable with a high chance of relapse. So how does one do it safely and effectively?

I’m quite disappointed drug companies don’t provide safer/smaller doses and information to help people come off the medication. I suppose, in my now sceptical opinion, it’s to stop people coming off so they can make more money from people, and ultimately it’s not financially viable for them to manufacture lower dosages. It’s got me thinking about how these drugs are marketed to us and to doctors. Doctors/pharmacists seem quite uninformed and unsure about how these drugs will affect us when we’re on them, how to cope with withdrawals and side effects, and how to successfully and smoothly come off these pills, yet these medications are handed out like candy. It’s scary to think we know so little about medication, the brain, and how they interact. My weaning off attempts have been nothing more than trial and error.

This time, I was advised to split pills. I split 37.5mg in half. But when I began reducing by the same method/rate: Week 9: 7 x 37.75mg, Week10: 6 x 37.5mg + 1 x 18.25mg, Week11: 5 x 37.5mg + 2 x 18.25mg… I couldn’t handle it. I found myself on the roadside throwing up after a gig, throwing up at night, headaches, restlessness, spasms at night, irritability, crying. It seemed that when I introduced the smaller dose one day and remained on the current dose the rest of the week, my body was going “WTF!” It never really got the chance to get USED to the next level cos the process was perhaps too slow and disjointed. I took 6 weeks off reducing the meds, staying on 37.5mg/day as my body desperately cried out for relief from withdrawals. From there, I split pills to create a 1/3 dose (25mg) and went straight on that, one third every day, rather than introducing it slowly/disjointedly. A couple weeks later I went straight down to 18.25mg. Now I’ve begun counting beads within the capsules and am down to 13.5mg. It seems going straight onto a lesser level is the way to go, none of this alternate dosages for alternate days business. I now wonder if the process could have been smoother had I started splitting pills between the jump from 75mg to 37.5mg

It’s somewhat nerdy, but I’ve been graphing my progress over the months. This graph below shows my daily mood (red) 1-10 with 10 being the happiest of moods. The blue shows the daily dosage of Effexor with 1 representing my original dosage of 75mg and 0 representing nil (with everything in between). graphI’ve found a mild correlation between the dosage change and mood. When I remained on the same dose for 6 weeks my mood was far more stable. When I introduced a lesser dose, the following day was often lower with multiple side effects. The changing of meds certainly threw things around. But over the months I’ve begun to realise the complexity of our wellbeing with the interplay of exercise, social interaction, career, period, PMT, falling in love, trauma/stress, diet, vitamins, and perhaps a psychological expectation or anxiety of what might happen, that perhaps overall this graph doesn’t show much at all other than a human living life….

It’s certainly been a rollercoaster of a ride. I’ve had periods of tearfulness where I cry at beautiful things, cry at nothing, cry at stressful things, cry cos I’m scared, cry cos I’m happy. I’ve had nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, neck and shoulder pain. I lined my house with notes of encouragement and reminders to call friends if ever I had thoughts of suicide… but thankfully I haven’t had them at all. I’ve had times where I feel like I can’t handle the smallest of challenges, or the mere sniffling of some inconsiderate person in the library.

 

IMG_3055But I’ve learned just to ride them, just to feel them, ride the wave, go through it, it won’t last forever. I’ve also had feelings of elation, happiness, being in love, enjoying TASTE and TOUCH far more than ever before.    My partner is a psychologist, but beyond that she’s a nurturing, empathetic woman, and I recall climbing up Mt Buffalo and stopping to have a cry. She held me and told me I’m doing really well. Those mere words empowered me and created a safe place for me to just weep till I no longer needed to weep. She says perhaps coming off the meds is like lifting a blanket that has numbed my feelings, both good and bad. And that perhaps now I am forced to face feelings I didn’t face 4 years ago, forced to FEEL feelings I didn’t let myself feel 4 years ago.

We have this perception that happiness is something we can obtain, something to aim for and possess, living happily ever after. But in fact that’s not what being a human is about. Being a human is about feeling. Experiencing the fullness of what it is to be human. FEELING sadness. FEELING happiness. FEELING anger, frustration, irritation, fear, loneliness, joy, boredom, ups, downs. FEELING it. Acknowledging it, moving through it, understanding it won’t always be this way.

One thing is for sure: I was on 75mg Effexor. I’m now on 13.5mg Effexor. And I feel great! I feel alive. And I am so determined to be medication free. It leaves me with a lot of questions about my mental health and medication. Medication certainly has its place, and there’s often the argument that mental illness requires life long medication just like asthma or diabetes. For some, medication is vital for quality of life and to go without would make existence nearly impossible. For others it can be a kick in the right direction, a little extra help while getting back on track. IMG_5317Other times, I think pills are handed out like candy with a trial-and-error approach to finding the right medication/brand/solution/dosage for that individual – so many people can experience worse symptoms than before they were on the meds. There are so many grey areas, so many uncertainties in our understanding, so many questions.

For me, I question… Did I ever really need medication? Was the doctor looking for a quick fix that was ultimately just a blanket for the human experience? Could my mental health issues have been helped some other way, with some other combination of things, more exercise, therapy, diet, yoga? Did I come to rely on meds, fearing coming off them? Do drug companies enhance fear of coming off them with the endless list of withdrawals so you remain on their product? Or did meds give me the necessary leg up 4 years ago and guide me in the right direction? Was I not ready to come off 3 years ago, or was the method of coming off an unrealistically drastic method suggested by drug companies to set you up for inevitable relapse? Is my success now because I am READY now, or because I listened to my body during the process of weaning off, and tailored the reduction to suit the rate at which I was comfortable decreasing the medication?

We all have our different experiences, and I feel for those who have also been battling anxiety, depression and other mental health issues as we battle trial and error with drugs, side effects, quality of life, stigmas and more. I’m by no means qualified to be handing out advice on this, but I just wanted to voice my experiences in the hope that it might open communication and help us feel connected as humans.

IMG_3764

As I plough strong towards the finish line, I say thank you so kindly for your support, for checking in on me during these 5 months. Huge thanks to my friends and family, especially my loving partner for riding the wave with me and being a rock when I could not, for your words of wisdom, your grace, letting me be who I am, feel what I feel. And thanks to Sal for your DAILY picture messages of encouragement over the last 150 days (dedication!).

 

Love to know your thoughts and experiences if you’d like to share them.

Xo

Coming off my anti-depressants

I debated whether or not to blog about this topic. But I figured it’s a way to start discussion, open communication, get people talking and perhaps hear about other people’s stories.

 

I’ve decided to come off my anti-depressants.

 

I went on a low dose of Effexor (75mg) in April 2011. At that point it had been some months where I’d lost enthusiasm for life, for everything I enjoyed. Everything was an effort. I had to force myself to go to work to entertain people, force myself to go busking, force myself outta bed. And when I wasn’t binge eating or sleeping, I would lie on the floor in the dark in my tiny shoe-box apartment and write depressing songs. It was getting harder to face people, harder to face the day. I decided to nip it in the bud and saw a doctor about it. I was shocked to hear I was depressed. It was hard to admit. Hard to accept. I didn’t want to be given that label, as it seemed so… real… permanent… like it would frame me to BE depressed. I was depressed. Eventually I came around to the idea of pills, along with therapy.

 

effexorThe pills helped take the edge off the depression. The lows weren’t as scarily low. And gradually I started to change my life and feel better. Found love, moved house, tried to find balance with work/personal life, developed some new tools to cope.

 

I tried to come off the meds a year later. I thought I was doing all the right things in my approach to come off them – I saw the doc and psych and had their support, I was exercising, and I weaned off really slowly over a couple of months. But when I got to the point of half a pill every 48 hours, I couldn’t handle the withdrawals; dizziness, headaches, pins and needles in the face, suicidal thoughts. I was most terrified on the day I went looking for a rope. I knew they weren’t real suicidal thoughts. I just had to keep telling myself “This is not real, this is not real, it’s the drugs, it’s the drugs.” But I didn’t trust myself. I was afraid to be alone. I ended up falling back into depression, I literally cried over spilt milk (and I spilt milk a lot), my relationship couldn’t handle the withdrawals and neither could my body/mind, so I went back on 75mg before I could reduce them anymore.

 

It’s been over two years since then. Life has changed significantly. I’ve moved to the country, which suits my soul and personality far more than the city. It gives me space to breathe, write songs, be creative and reflective. I’ve got to know new beautiful friends and be part of the community. I do tours here, there and everywhere and come back to my little bungalow sanctuary in the mountains. My music career is full of things to excite me and help me grow and I’m about to do a live album in December. I’ve done a lot of soul searching, reading, self-reflection, journal writing, and got some new tips and tools for life. And… I’ve found new love! I think it’s time. I think it’s time to come off the meds.

 

I’ve been thinking (and talking) about this for 6 months or so. It seems to be a controversial topic. Some say “Well if you don’t have any side-effects, why come off them and potentially ruin a good thing?” Others say perhaps I’m born with a chemical imbalance and need the meds. Then there are peeps who say “Sure, why not try and come off them? You’re in a good place. You can always go back on them?”

 

I have faith, if I can JUST get through the withdrawals, my brain will find its own balance and I will be able to handle life without meds. Part of me thinks that “you need the meds cos you have a chemical imbalance” is a cop out – A) it’s a quick Band-Aid solution, B) it stops people having to deal with the fact that I might be depressed and C) stops ME taking responsibility for the way I feel/process/operate only to rely on drugs. In saying that, I know there are certainly cases where people are born with chemical/hormonal imbalances and have a far better life with medication. It’s an individual case. I had depression as a teenager and it was believed that maybe there’s a chemical imbalance. But I don’t think so. I may just be in denial, but I think I was just really struggling with stuff teenagers struggle with – grades, being accepted, being gay, family, friends, religion, society, the media, body image, eating disorders, what to do with life, identity, balance, growing up, sexuality, becoming your own adult person with your own choices, opinion and pathway. That’s not to say I’ve got all my shit together, but I have faith that I’ve learned a few new tools to handle every day – like learning to say no and finding balance between work and social life, recognising that many of my problems are how I perceive them, working on finding self-worth from within rather than expecting it to come from external sources.

 

I think anti-depressants have their place. For me, at this point in time, I don’t want believe I’ll need to be on them for the rest of my life. I don’t wanna reside in “it’s a chemical imbalance, just take the pills.” I don’t wanna be tied to them. I don’t wanna spend the money. I don’t want the withdrawals on the odd day I might forget to take a pill.

 

So I am going to attempt to come off them. I saw the doc yesterday. I’ve been prescribed the half dose. This time instead of going from 75mg a day to 37.5mg for a month, then one every 36 hours for a few weeks, then one every 48 hours, the doc has suggested reducing by 75mg over each WEEK. A new plan. And when I get to the end of the 37.5mg script just stop altogether. I also plan to create a list of things to do when withdrawals hit: go for a walk, call a friend, write, sing, etc.

 

I’m scared. I’m scared of the withdrawals. I’m not really scared of “failing”. I think once I get through the withdrawals things will balance out. I could be wrong. In which case, I’ll go back on them. But I have to try. I’m at the point where I just have to try.

 

If you have a positive success stories to share with me, with us, give me a li’l pep talk, I’d love to hear your experience and insight (remembering that it’s an individual case).

 

I also ask that you just… check up on me. Every once in a while. It might be a rocky few months. But when’s a good time to do it really? Life is always gonna be there. But I’m pumped (and scared!) and I’m excited (and nervous) and ready!

 

Blog: Oh the School Belly Ache…..

I had a school belly ache this morning.

Today I set foot back in my old high school. To sing and to speak. It’s been 12 years since my year finished up and I hadn’t been back since.

School is a rollercoaster for all of us, aint it? I have vivid memories. Good and bad. The experiences at this time in our life that can make us… or break us.

I walked back through the gates and was flooded with memories. Everything was kinda the same, yet… so different. I remember the table where I sat on my very first day, reluctant in a skirt, with my hairy legs (I didn’t know you were supposed to shave back then), shy, very dorky, but eager to please, and aching to fit in. (It didn’t take long before I was shaving my legs…). The buildings, the teachers, uniforms, the quadrangle, the hall, everything was as I remembered it. Students were lectured about etiquette on public buses… just as I remembered.  They all have the hots for the young male teacher… just as I remembered.

But I’m a different person today.schoolblog2

It was like the new me was meeting the old me. The teachers who knew the old me were meeting the new me.

I was greeted by a friendly and familiar face. Ashamedly I didn’t recall her name, she wasn’t my teacher, but she knew all about me and the guitar I made and won a Design Tech Award for 12 years ago! And suddenly I’m reminded that teachers are human. With passions, visions, their own hopes and dreams, their own opinion, their own flaws, failures and mistakes. They don’t seem human when you’re a student. It’s us versus them. There are the ones who are like heroes to us, who inspire and encourage, who plant seeds that we take with us for life. And there are the teachers whose harsh words can define and limit us for the rest of our lives. I am grateful for the teachers who saw something in me and believed I was worth their time, effort, patience, and guidance, despite my troubled teen years. Unforgettable.

My school was a great school. There was opportunity, respect, education, some wonderful teachers. But it wasn’t always easy. Adolescence is a tough time for anyone, only to be made tougher by the idea of grades and “figure out who you and what you wanna do with your life NOW”

I approached the school wanting to come back to talk and sing. I wanted to share a bit of my story, my time at school, and where I have landed today, in the hope that if I could get through to just ONE person and make their life a little better, it would be all so worth it.

I stood in front of the school of 1000 people. I spoke about my high school years. I was a good student, but I struggled with an eating disorder. I struggled with being gay, lying about it and pretending I wasn’t to avoid bullying, I struggled with depression, anxiety and self-harm. How school can be so tough. I felt fear as I shared my story today, and that fear could have disabled me if I gave it too much weight. But the message I wanted to leave people with is bigger than that fear. It’s the message that we’ve all got our stuff; home life, abuse, disabilities, religion, sexuality, social/peer pressures, sickness, poverty, etc, but you WILL get through it. It all feels so intense at the time when it’s happening. It’s important to try your best, but school is not the be all and end all. There IS life after year 12. “I dare you to be yourself”, I said (perhaps easier said than done). Part of me wishes I had the guts to be myself back in school (but if we were never there, we’re never be where we are today – and today I had the guts to be me). It’s liberating to not place so much emphasis on what the world thinks. I came out of school alive. Not only alive, but I’ve prevailed. I’ve followed my passion for music, despite the hurdles and setbacks. We don’t HAVE to be bad at maths, cos our maths teacher tells us we are. We don’t have to follow the straight and narrow through the bottleneck society creates to success. And we don’t have to hate ourselves for being different.

It was an empowering experience. And if it could offer one student hope, it’s a job well done.

I stood on that very same stage where I once sang my little heart out and tied for first place at the School Talent Quest. The stage where I sang to my peer group at our graduation, and received a goosebumping standing ovation. Today I sang Hero in Me to the most appreciative audience. A song I would never have been brave enough to compose in high school. When the school applauded, it was like no applause I can ever recall. It echoed endlessly through the hall, and I felt their sincerity and enthusiasm as  I stood there, struggling to accept their humbling praise. I felt a sense of empowerment and pride. I was proud to have found the courage to reach beyond my comfort zone and stand before those young people as the true person I am today, and inspire them to become the true person they are.

It’s all gonna be ok, ey.

What was your high school experience?
Was there an experience that made you?
Was there an experience that broke you?
Where are you now? Who are you today?
Tell me a fond memory?
Did you also draw a mustache on your face with eyeliner in the 8th grade?
Who are you grateful to?

PRE-TOUR BLOG

Monday 7 May 2012

 

I’m about to head on tour for the launch of my new acoustic album “Little Treasures”. I thought I’d get a blog happening about the tour, wins and losses, emotions (ew!), and stories for a li’l inside into what happens on the road as a travelling musician. Hopefully inspire some aspiring touring artists and take ya’ll with me while I’m away.

 

I leave tomorrow. I’ll be on the road in my little Yaris for a month, get back for a few weeks, then hit the road for another week. Driving all the way up to Brisbane and beyond, and back to Melbourne. It was going to be a solid two months on the road, including 3 weeks of recording in Sydney in the middle, but I decided to postpone recording to focus on the tour (what was I thinking starting ANOTHER new album before I’ve really launched this one! Keen pants or what???)

Continue Reading →

New Song: Big Bad World

When I was a young lass, one of my beautiful neighbours became my surrogate grandmother. I used to go over to her place to feed her chickens. We’d have tea and cookies (with about 4 sugars in my tea) and yarn the afternoon away. Sadly, in her final years she became quite senile, paranoid, and incredibly frightened of the world and its potential harm. She put up fences, walls and bars around her house, slowly closing herself in from the outside world, till she became a prisoner in her own home. Eventually she had a security camera installed on her front veranda and I used to have to ring the doorbell and smile sweetly into the camera before she let me enter her home. Continue Reading →