I want to start this post with a giant disclaimer: I am not against zoloft. I am not against antidepressants, I am not against modern medicine. I truly think zoloft may have saved my life. I was in a dark place after the birth of my son, and Zoloft lifted me out of that pit (also prayer and friends and self-care and, and, and.) I want to be sure that no one - no one - thinks I’m trying to demonize zoloft or antidepressants or medication in general, because I am not.
Over the summer, I came off the antidepressant I’d been taking for 2.5 years. I’d been wanting to come off it for awhile, and tried twice without any luck, but this time it went so well and I wanted to share my method and what I learned, for anyone else who might be considering weaning off an antidepressant, but doesn’t know where to start.
why come off it anyway?
In general, I think our healthcare system in American does women - especially mothers - a huge disservice. In my experience, women are often offered a one-size-fits-all approach to their issues and ailments. It starts when we first experience puberty, sometimes as very young teenagers. Struggling with breakouts? Birth control! Have painful cramps? Birth control! Having mood swings and anxiety issues? Birth control! It continues as women become mothers, I’ve realized. Struggling to get out of the house with a new baby? Zoloft! Feeling trapped in your new life? Zoloft! Can’t stop crying about everything? Zoloft! I believe wholeheartedly that some women truly need medication - I am one of those women. But I wish that medication was viewed as one part of a holistic plan to get to the root of what’s causing the feelings/issues, rather than a bandaid, or an end-all-be-all solution.
When I was first prescribed zoloft, Xavier was four months old and I was in a DEEP hole of depression. It was almost unbearable. I sobbed as soon as Matt left for work everyday. I felt absolute panic at the idea of being alone with my baby. I remember staring out the window of his nursery one day in a daze, just staring at the gray sky and bare trees, wondering what it would be like to get in my car and drive away. Just keep driving until I get to California. I thankfully never really thought of hurting myself, but I often thought of running away, thought my husband and son would be better off for it. I cried to Matt that I had ruined his life, that I had “trapped” him with an insane wife and needy baby. I apologized over and over for not being the woman that he married, and I felt true grief at the idea that I would never again be my happy-go-lucky self, that motherhood had forever stolen who I was at the core. That, sisters, is depression.
I went to the doctor and filled out the questionnaire and lo and behold, was told I had severe postpartum depression and anxiety. My doctor prescribed zoloft, told me it was temporary, that I wouldn’t need it forever.
You guys, zoloft was amazing. I had an amazing experience in that I didn’t experience any negative side effects, and almost immediately I felt like myself again. I was so grateful. Medication afforded me the mental clarity I needed to climb out of the very deep pit I was in. I am forever grateful for it.
Six months went by, and then a year, and I started to feel convicted that I wanted to ditch the zoloft. I felt so much better, and I was pregnant again and didn’t want to be on it indefinitely. I wanted to find a way to be whole without medication. I was in a much better place than I had been when I first went on it, and I felt capable of coming off. It felt like now was my window, to get off medication and get adjusted before being thrown into the postpartum season again.
At the advice of my doctor, I went down to my regular dose every other day for two weeks, then quit.
And it was awful. I didn’t even make it the full two weeks. I felt worse than I had before starting the medication, which is typical when you withdraw too fast. I felt panicky, edgy, tense all the time. I couldn’t stop crying. I reluctantly went back to my regular dose every single day, silently despairing at the fact that it seemed like I would be on this medication forever.
Fast forward another year or so, after Zelie was born, and again I felt this desire to come off zoloft. I had weathered the first trimester with no real issues, no major relapse of depression, which felt like a big win. My doctor just kept saying “you won’t be on it forever” but never really hammered out a plan for coming off it. I felt very confused - everyone was saying the depression was a brain chemical imbalance, so was zoloft healing the imbalance, or just masking the symptoms? Was my depression actually going away, or were the symptoms just being suppressed? I wanted true answers, and I hated that no one was giving them to me. I felt silly for even splitting hairs over this, because zoloft helped me feel like my best self, so who cared if it was “fixing” the depression or not? But I cared, and I wanted to get at the root issue.
I tried again to go off the medication, this time on my own, without my doctor’s input (since her last advice hadn’t gone so well). I outlined my own timeline, which I thought was really slow and steady. Over the course of four weeks, I tapered from my regular dose down to nothing.
This time, I made it all the way to the end of the tapering phase, and went two full weeks without medication before starting it back up again. It’s common to feel okay for a week or two, maybe even a month, and then have a relapse of symptoms, which is exactly what happened. I got the pill bottle back out of the cabinet and dutifully started up my daily dose, with this deep sense of shame, disappointment and anger. How on earth was I ever going to be able to live without this? I hated being chained to it, yet felt completely incapable of coming off.
At this point, you might be thinking, “her body clearly needed medication. Why couldn’t she see that?” And my answer is yes, and no. I had done a lot of research at this point, and knew there were a lot of things I could do to help my brain chemicals get into balance, without zoloft. When Xavier was four months old and I was drowning, there was no way I could have fathomed that kind of research or trial-and-error methods. I needed something to work, fast, and get me back on solid ground, and that’s exactly what zoloft did. But two years later, I was in a much different place, and much more capable of pursuing other methods to function optimally, besides just taking medication. So that was my reasoning, and the basis for my desire to come off. I knew zoloft wasn’t the ONLY answer to healing depression, and I wanted to investigate other methods to see if I could feel okay - feel like myself - without it.
how I did it
In the spring, I started seeing a functional medicine doctor, partly for my endometriosis symptoms and partly because of the depression/anxiety label I’d been given and my deep desire to get to the ROOT of those things. In my opinion, the depression and anxiety I was experiencing was stemming from a dysfunction somewhere in the body. I agree with others in that depression and anxiety are symptoms of another problem, be it a medical issue, vitamin deficiency, stress or lifestyle issue, etc. I wanted to figure out the root cause - or causes - of those symptoms and work at fixing those. I had a bunch of tests run, and the results were so helpful. They showed that I was deficient in some vitamins and minerals, which could be causing the depression/anxiety symptoms. My progesterone was low, which could be a major cause. My diet was wreaking havoc on my body. We outlined a solid plan - what supplements to start taking, foods to increase and foods to avoid - and also wrote out a timeline for weaning off zoloft.
The timeline took four months, but it was so worth it.
Over the course of four months I slowly tapered down my regular dose to nothing. I’ve been off zoloft for two months now, and I feel great. I wanted to wait and write this post after I was sure that I felt okay, and I’m so grateful to report that I truly feel like myself, without medication, which is an amazing thing.
I strongly advise you to work with a doctor to create your own tapered timeline, but here is what worked for me: half dose every day for one month, then half dose every other day for one month, then half of that dose (so a quarter of my original regular dose) every other day for a month, then a quarter dose every two days for a month. It worked like a charm, with zero withdrawal side effects.
THINGS THAT HELPED
This is probably super obvious, but prayer was a huge component of this process for me. Prayer was already a regular part of my life, but I began to pray specifically for my brain chemicals to be balanced without medication, for the taper to be successful, and for God to show me ways to care for myself well so I could feel okay without medication. I also found so much solace in the Psalms, which have many chapters of lament - passages that scream “depression” to me. To know that even in Biblical times, people suffered these dark feelings, but found hope, and clung to their faith in God, was so helpful.
PAYING ATTENTION TO INPUT
I was very aware that I was going to be extra sensitive and extra vulnerable while my body adjusted to less and less medication, so I paid attention to how things were affecting me. I cut way down on my screen time while I was tapering off, and eliminated any sources of stress from people I follow. I unfollowed every single person on my Facebook friends list, so that I didn’t see anyone’s updates when I logged in. I knew my emotions were going to be haywire, and I didn’t want someone’s political status to send me into a frenzy for no reason. I also unfollowed a ton of people on instagram and really culled who I was allowing to speak into my life. No reading news stories, no googling tragedies, nothing.
Regular counseling has been HUGE in my mental health game. Having an unbiased third party to just talk things out with has been such a gift. She helps me see clearly, get to the root of what I’m feeling and create action plans for the future. Call it therapy or counseling or life coaching or whatever you want, I believe everyone should do it. A lot of insurance plans cover a certain number of sessions per year, and many counselors offer a sliding scale based on income for session cost. Also, lots of churches offer counseling services free of charge, so definitely look at what your options are. If you’re struggling with anxiety, I recommend finding a counselor who is knowledgable in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a method of interrupting and challenging thought patterns and changing patterns of behavior. It’s been helpful to learn how to intervene in my anxious thoughts and redirect them into something productive.
VITAMINS + SUPPLEMENTS
A good probiotic is key for emotional health - the gut can wreak havoc on hormones, which regulate emotions. Vitamin D is also really important - most Americans are vitamin D deficient. Fish oil/Omega-3s have also been shown to help with symptoms of depression and anxiety, so I doubled my fish oil dose daily. Also, progesterone is a huge factor for female mental health, and many, many women are progesterone deficient. I truly think adding progesterone to my daily routine was one of the biggest factors in weaning off zoloft successfully.
DIET + EXERCISE
This is obvious, but diet and exercise also play a major role in mental health. Making time to move every day - even just a walk with my kids - helped tremendously. I also love The Balanced Life Sisterhood for realistically doable Pilates workouts I can do from home. I also love wearing a FitBit to help motivate me to get moving, and compete against myself (and Matt) to get my steps each day!Drinking tons of water (I aim for 120oz per day!) and eating nutrient-dense, whole foods is also key. I’m not following any specific “diet” right now (Paleo, Whole30, Keto, etc.) but rather trying to focus on high-quality protein, lots of fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. I know that sugar and caffeine are major sources of depression/anxiety symptoms, so I try to limit them as much as I can. I cut out caffeine entirely (including decaf!), and in my opinion, it was a major factor in being able to feel okay sans medication.
There is something so powerful about fresh air to help settle the mind. When I start to feel anxious thoughts creeping in, I do my best to get outside, even if it’s just to stand on the porch for 60 seconds. The feel of fresh air on my skin - whether a cool breeze, biting cold or warm sun - is so therapeutic for me. It’s a reminder that things keep on keeping on, regardless of what’s going on in my mind, and helps me get outside myself a little bit.
Essential oils have played a huge role in helping me feel okay without medication. I use a whole line-up of emotional support oils daily to help support my mental health. My favorites are Valor, White Angelica, Release, Joy, Bergamot and Grapefruit. The progesterone I use is also an essential oil serum called Progessence Plus, which is available from Young Living. When I start to feel those heart flutters or racing thoughts, breathing deep from an essential oil bottle helps so much. Lavender is my favorite for feelings of acute nervousness, and Stress Away is another go-to. If you’re curious about utilizing essential oils for emotional health, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. I’m certainly not an expert, but they’ve worked so well for me.
I hope this was helpful! If you desire to come off zoloft or another antidepressant, if you feel like you’ll be on medication forever, I hope you feel a bit of hope that that might not be the case. Of course, there’s no shame in being on medication - I hope that’s loud and clear. There’s also no shame in not wanting to be on medication, either. You have to do what feels best to you and make that decision for yourself. And know that no matter what, I’ll be here cheering you on every step of the way.