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Heidi Carlson started taking antidepressants in her mid-30s, when, as she puts it, “Things got to be too much.” She had recently gone through a painful divorce, and in the years following, she went on and off of the drugs. Then, in 2004, her son was deployed to Iraq. “That’s when I started having panic attacks and really significant issues,” says Carlson, now 56. “I’ve been on antidepressants ever since.”
When, in the last four years, she began experiencing a number of issues — balance problems, spasms, difficulty remembering things — she suspected the antidepressants she was taking could be to blame. So she asked her psychiatrist about quitting. He was willing to let her, but Carlson was thrown by what happened after she stopped taking the SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). “I was thrown into such horrendous side effects — crushing fatigue, constant anxiety, headaches, GI problems — that I've been sick ever since,” she says.
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Carlson’s symptoms are consistent with antidepressant withdrawal, something she says no one ever discussed with her. “I was always told ‘You’ll be on this for life.’ I didn’t get a lot of information about side effects — much less withdrawal — before I started taking the drugs.”
Antidepressants are vital treatment tools for those with debilitating depression, but users can become dependent on them. “That doesn’t mean that antidepressants are addictive,” notes psychiatrist Michael McGee, chief medical officer of the Haven at Pismo, an addiction treatment facility in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and author of The Joy of Recovery: A Comprehensive Guide to Healing from Addiction. “People don’t experience cravings for antidepressants or take them to get high. It’s more a physiological dependence rather than an addiction.”
Lots of factors can make you more or less likely to experience withdrawal — including the choice of medication, says psychiatrist Megan Schabbing, medical director of psychiatric emergency services at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus. “As a class of drugs, SSRIs are pretty likely to cause withdrawal in general, and they’re also typically our first-line treatment for depression,” she says. “Within that class, though, there are certain drugs that have a shorter half-life, meaning they stick around in your system for a shorter period of time, and those are more likely to cause withdrawal — sometimes even if you miss just a dose or two.”