How I Came Off Psychiatric Medication

My journey on to psychiatric medication, and the 8 year path I took to get myself off of them. 

by Sarah Petruno, Shamana

I was 18 years old and struggling with severe depression.

I contemplated suicide nightly.

And finally, I got the courage to ask my parents to take me to the doctor for help. Specifically, I wanted medication.

My father at the time believed psychology was a pseudoscience and was reluctant, but my mom convinced him.

Not long after that, I was prescribed my first antidepressant. Paxil.

With the help my psychiatrist at the time, we slowly increased the dosage to a safe level.

It wasn’t long before I started noticing the side effects.

Within the first week, I was at the mall with my mom when my vision started failing. Notably, when I turned my head, my vision would slip into slo-mo and I could only see blurred lights as my eyes caught up with my brain. In the same episode, moments later, I felt sudden, zapping electric shocks run through my body.

It was weird and unsettling, but I was hopeful that my symptoms of depression would subside. In about two months, they did.

But then I developed new symptoms for a different mental disorder - anxiety.

Back to the doctor and off to college, I was switched to a different medication that was purported to treat symptoms of depression AND generalized anxiety disorder, my new diagnosis.

Throughout college, I was in and out of the campus psychiatry office to play with my medication, try medication combos, and alter dosages to get my symptoms under control. I saw a therapist too.

On top of all that, my dad was dying of alcoholism at the same time.

That I can remember, I’ve tried, tested, and taken over 10 different medications and medication combinations.

Some worked with minimal side effects, some had horrifying side effects, and some made no changes whatsoever in my mental state.

During the 8 year period that I was medicated, I was also diagnosed with 4 different mental disorders:

Major depressive disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder

Social anxiety disorder

Bipolar disorder

In that time, I completed a 4-year college degree at a top research institution while working two near-full time jobs to support myself. I started an on-campus support group for Adult Children of Alcoholics that still exists to this day. My father slowly killed himself with alcohol and passed away when I was 21, the week before fall semester finals. I graduated on time and moved across the country to explore my dreams, and I moved again, to Southern California to work for some of the top research labs in the country at UC-San Diego.

I didn’t have insurance after graduating college and after my had father died, so during this time, I had no choice but to wean off of medication. I was taking a drug for which there was no generic formulation and monthly costs soared over $400 without insurance. I couldn’t afford it as a recent grad, and there was no low-income program available.

I weaned off medications with the help of my doctor not because I felt I could, but because I couldn’t afford them.

In the months following, I was mostly fine until about 2 years later when a small car crash triggered something in me.

The anxiety came back full force. Panic attacks occurred when I drove the Southern California freeways and I couldn’t take myself to work.

I knew I needed help, and I reached out.

In San Diego, I found a therapist that changed my life. By the time I met her, I had been medicated and bouncing around from doctor to therapist to doctor for 6 years.

Michele taught me tools to restructure my perceptions and belief systems using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She helped me work through the loss of my father. And knowing that medication by and large did not relieve my symptoms, she taught me alternative methods of coping. The most successful was a meditative technique I shared in this post.

After a year of weekly appointments together, she told me she was moving several hours away. I was devastated, but before she left, she encouraged me to follow my dreams. At the time, this meant applying for a graduate Ph.D. program in the sciences.

Michele moved away, and I resolved to continue my healing journey, I searched for another therapist to help me. I made appointments and visited with 4 different therapists before I gave up - the bond wasn’t there. There was no connection, and I was tired of starting from the beginning.

I stopped going to a therapist but continued to take medication and practice the techniques that Michele taught me.

2 years after Michele moved and I quit therapy, I made a decision.

My journey on to psychiatric medication, and the 8 year path I took to get myself off of them. 

My husband and I wanted to start trying for a baby and then, I was going to apply for graduate schools.

There was just one catch, though. I was currently taking a medication to treat bipolar disorder (Lamictal) that was largely considered dangerous for developing fetuses. It worked extraordinarily well for symptoms, but the neurological side effects were some of the worst I’d ever experienced.

I made an appointment with the psychiatrist handling my dosages and pleaded my case.

I told her that I thought my symptoms were manageable now, that’d I’d been working on meditative techniques and addressed much of my anxiety provoking thoughts by restructuring my beliefs. I wasn’t a threat to myself or others, and if I did experience anxiety, I knew coping methods.

I went on to explain that I wanted a baby and I was going to apply for graduate school too.

She wasn’t impressed. In fact, she tried to convince me not to have a baby (I was 27 at the time), because she waited until she was 35 and out of school to have kids. This, she reasoned, is what I should do. I was resolute and she continued to resist my plan of going off medication, becoming a mother, and going to graduate school.

Defeated, I left and I made another appointment for 2 weeks later.

When I returned, I was firm in my convictions and asserted that this what I wanted to do and I wanted to wean off medication safely. After all, it was my health and my life and I was confident in my ability to handle any anxiety attack or depressive symptom that should come my way.

She agreed and we started reducing my dosages immediately.

Withdrawal was terrible. I couldn’t go to work at times because I was so sick - puking and unable to stand. Electric shocks ran through my body, I was dizzy, had symptoms of vertigo, and my eyes wouldn’t focus.

It wasn’t the first time I weaned off medications, but it was the worst.

After several weeks, I was done with withdrawal and done with medications. And I was fine.

It’s now been several years since that time and I haven’t gone back on medications. My symptoms never reappeared, and I’ve not been to see any therapists.

By all accounts and purposes - I was free.

My psychiatrist back then didn’t agree with my choice, but it was my choice.

I knew myself the best and I knew my emotional state the best.

And it turns out, I was right.

It was my choice to wean off medications and I’m glad I made it.

Looking back, there were two huge factors that impacted my ability to make this choice:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A type of therapy where the therapist has you address and come face to face with cognitive and perceptual distortions about the world. In essence, you restructure your view of the world and the weight you give the opinions and perceptions of others. You teach yourself see the world through a different lens.

2. Meditative breathing

A calming technique where you use breathwork to release and cope with anxiety attacks.

Both of these techniques are scientifically validated AND widely accepted practices for healing and coping that exist within the spiritual healing community.

Without knowing it, I was learning spiritual coping techniques - and they were the only things that worked.

I was medicated for 8 years and during that time, some of them DID work to remove my symptoms. But nearly all of them also made me feel nothing emotionally, along with the physical, neurological side effects that they came with.

The only practice that removed my symptoms and allowed me to feel were also spiritual techniques.

It took me years to get to the place where I was able to wean safely and I’ve long hesitated to share my experience because medication is such a personal journey.

But here it is.

My journey on to, and eventually, off of, psychiatric medication.

With love,


LAST UPDATED: August 21, 2015

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