I stopped taking Citalopram: what did it feel like?
Medication didn’t fix my anxiety and depression; it was a crutch in a moment of crisis, prescribed without an exit strategy.
Back to the beginning
I wrote an article in 2018, outlining what it felt like when I started to take the anti-depressant Citalopram in 2017. Across four years, my dose changed from 20mg, to 30mg, and 40mg. This was to address an elusive ‘chemical imbalance’ in my brain.
Why did I quit? After increasing my dose, year after year, and trying and failing to reduce it, I saw a life sentence ahead. I became disconnected and unthinking, unconscious. My behaviour grew self-destructive and life was grey. My ‘balance’ felt artificial.
I didn’t quit cold turkey and I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Instead, I lowered my dose by about 10mg each month until I finally reached zero. After that came two weeks of trepidation, during which time I felt shaky, but I promised I wouldn’t go back on Citalopram just because I was scared.
What was I thinking?
I’m going to quote my previous article directly as a way to talk about what I’ve learned, but it’s worth noting that my medication was prescribed in the UK; there’s a range of anti-depressants different from mine and we, of course, are all different too.
I was hospitalised before I finally decided to see my doctor about medication.
I had a few major panic attacks the night I finished editing this video about politics in 2016. I remember it well: I couldn’t feel my arms, I totally lost my sense of balance, my heart rate shot through the roof, I couldn’t breathe, and everything told me I was going to die. It wasn’t quick. I was in and out of this state for a long time and after some conversations at the hospital, I was reprimanded by a nurse. She told me I shouldn’t have let my condition become so severe.
We agreed that I would seek ongoing medical care.
This is important because I still believe medication can help people escape their pit of despair — it helped me do that — but I did not receive ongoing medical care. And this is where things fell down.
Eventually, I settled upon an agreeable dose and saw my health improve long-term.
It’s worth remembering that my definition of ‘long-term’ here was one year (since beginning the medication). Four years on, I realise that’s not what it means at all. Anyone who’s about to take anti-depressants should ask their doctor: what happens when you’re out of the pit?
Do you run? Do you lay down? Or do you begin the real work? And what is the ‘real work’ anyway? My doctor decided that, after years of ineffective on-and-off counseling and short spurts of NHS-funded Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medication was not only viable but vital. If that didn’t work, he shrugged, what would?
Counseling had been great for dealing with current issues but it always fell short in tackling underlying trauma. I didn’t know where to start on that. What’s more, I didn’t understand the difference between doing things that provided a distraction or an escape and those that offered a connection. I wasn’t putting the effort in to find out, either.
I was trapped and looking for something that made me feel better — not become better. I wasn’t in the condition to ask how my past, my belief structure, my priorities, habits and hobbies, were contributing to my overall wellbeing (or lack thereof). But all of that would need to be addressed.
‘Yes, you’ll feel sick, constipated, depressed, anxious, suicidal, half-asleep, itchy, and forgetful — but other than that you’ll be fine’.
My doctor told me there’d be some side effects. Indeed, there were: repercussions in the bedroom, headaches were common, and I felt sick. A lot. My stomach was deeply upset. Four years later, it was wrecked. My gut health dramatically impacts my mood, which is true for most of us. So, did the negative effects of the drugs outweigh the good? On balance, it’s hard to tell.
What else should I have been told? This is only the first step. These pills aren’t the answer, they’re a crutch. They will help you for now, for a short time, to start figuring things out long-term.
I truly cannot specifically recall ever feeling this normal or sane before.
After years of untamed anxiety and depression, no anxiety and no depression feels like a huge relief — even if it comes at the expense of the depth of other emotions.
As time went by, my reliance on these drugs caused a numbing sensation overall. As my resilience grew, so did my dose. All my emotions, everything, fell to the same level. I was calm, collected, but empty. I could calm others too; I became a calming influence, which people liked. And this kept me from expressing myself in an honest and open way.
Of course, the strongest emotions still broke through — love and heartbreak — but day by day, the little things brought less joy, less sadness, and (as we know from Pixar’s Inside Out and Soul) it’s these little things that enrich our lives.
Years of counseling and therapy, self-help, experimental sleeping patterns, abstinence, over-indulgence, escapism, and soul-searching always took me, one way or another, back to the same devastating psychological battle.
I felt like Citalopram was the silver bullet that could give me the boost I needed to suddenly become productive and proactive. I’d keep a tidy bedroom, become a beefcake in the gym, write a novel, and excel at work — because I wouldn’t be plagued by depressing thoughts or worries. But that's not true. I wasn’t thinking much at all. My room was a mess. I didn’t appreciate my body. What I wrote felt worthless. And I lost my focus at work.
Despite this, I felt content.
But I couldn’t get out of bed.
This was wrong: we shouldn’t be OK with feeling empty.
Life called upon me to ask some difficult questions. For the first time, I stopped trying to get away. I acknowledged my trauma and accepted that it’s a part of who I am. I decided that I needed to be honest with myself — and with someone else — and really try to untangle things.
I paid to see a therapist who was qualified specifically to deal with my problem areas. This wasn’t cheap. I had to make sacrifices. But I promised to be transparent and vulnerable so that I got my money’s worth: I made the effort and read as much as I could. And the more I opened up (like a concertina) the deeper we went.
Simultaneously, I weaned myself off the anti-depressants.
Talking about therapy sounds mysterious and vague without getting into the specifics, but trust me — there’s no point doing it without devout intent. I feel like I’ve only just started chipping away at ‘the real work’.
I’m making an effort now to do 0.01% better than yesterday. I challenge myself and my compulsions. I’m more honest more often, and I accept that life is hard, but that it’s harder when you opt out.
My depression and anxiety are justified. They are in response to my lived experience. Assuming I’d drawn the short straw was a deeply isolating way to think.
After I quit Citalopram, I read a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari. He explores how depression and anxiety function as the symptoms of a collective disconnection from our own pasts, nature, community, meaningful work, and a secure future.
This affirmed my own suspicions. I recommend it to anyone questioning the effectiveness of anti-depressants in their own lives.