Mexico. Was. Amazing!! It opened up something in me that can never be taken away. There was a quiet freedom that followed me everywhere and buzzed in my ear like a sweet hummingbird. My original plan was to blog every night, but between visiting Chichen Itza, snorkeling in Xenotes, and parasailing over the Caribbean, I found myself utterly exhausted at night. I have so much to say and so much to share, and I promise that in time, I will give you all the juicy details of my trip!
In the meantime, there are some bigger things bubbling under the surface that long to be heard. Early on in my travels to Mexico, I realized that there were two trips happening at once-the adventures and pictures I shared with you all and the random tourists whose paths I crossed and a rich, complicated and sometimes dark inner journey I experienced daily. I am conflicted about sharing it though… do my followers want to hear about the significance of this trip or do they prefer pictures with witty captions? And what is the purpose of my blog anyways? Am I blogging to capture my travels and experiences or is it also about sharing impressions from my deep inner world? What if my co-workers stumble upon this post? How much do I share, how much is too much?
In the absence of certainty, I suppose the only thing one can do is take the leap and try. My hope is that when you read this, you will gain a more complete picture of my journey and find it in your heart to replace any judgments you may have about me, my journey and mental health in general with compassion. Many of you either know or gather that I have battled mental illnesses for much of my life. I have tried to exercise some caution when sharing the details, so as not to scare away any tender readers, but this is something I have to share. So, I am going to be completely transparent and incredibly vulnerable with you all.
EXACTLY a year ago to date, my grandfather’s funeral services were held in Los Angeles. He had been battling cancer for more than a year, a recent amputation from a diabetic related infection, and then a massive stroke. It was a horrible time for my family. My grandfather, George Evans, became somewhat of a patriarch after my Grandmother Na Na died. We all quietly, and often not so quietly, watched in agony as he suffered- coming in and out of consciousness, calling for his mother in his sleep when he crossed to the other side and silently holding onto hope when he held his great grandchildren in his arms.
And then there was me. I was battling the worst bout of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depression I had ever experienced. I had recently cold turkeyed off a cocktail of very powerful medications I had been on since age 14 for the treatment of bi-polar II disorder. Despite visiting dozens of psychiatrists and therapist every month for 13 years and trying a host of medications with unimaginable side effects, the cyclical depression and anxiety I experienced only increased from the time I was 14. By the time I came to Washington, D.C. , I was 26 and fed up with a 2 year bout of depression that I thought would never end. And so with intuitive guidance, I stopped all the medication-something I tried unsuccessfully 4 years prior after having enough of the drug seroquel. Then the craziest thing happened- I lost 60 pounds, my hair grew back, I experienced colors and tastes completely differently, the glow returned to my skin and I didn’t get sick anymore. And it was amazing– that is until I experienced protracted SSRI withdrawal and my brain went haywire.
Rather than go into all the details, I will try give you just the highlights. Read carefully because this is the only time I am going to write about what I experienced, cause it’s pretty depressing and heavy and I am still processing the trauma of it all…
Within two months of getting off the medication, my thyroid became overactive. I broke out in an itchy rash all over my body, I lost control of my bladder and bowel movements, I suffered chronic pain all over my back and arms. Strange knots appeared in my back that flared up when I became anxious. Sometimes I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes for hours at a time. I suffered migraines for a month and experienced electric shock sensations throughout my head and arms. Sometimes my muscled stiffened so bad it was painful to stretch my arms out. I woke up every morning for six months with extreme fight or flight that lingered the entire day. But the worst of it was the emotional roller coaster that accompanied the discontinuation syndrome and the fact that none of the psychiatrist or neurologists I visited believed it was from stopping the medicine abruptly.
The emotional roller-coaster was never ending, and the scariest thing I have ever experienced. I lost the ability to feel anything for days at a time, I experienced disassociation and cried for no reason several times a day. First there was the depression unlike anything I had ever experienced, then came the fight or flight feeling that woke me in the morning at 5 am and stayed with me until I went to bed. And then came the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, constant checking of locks, doors and windows, fear of food being contaminated, fear of contracting and spreading HIV and Hepatitis C, fear of touching dirty things like trash cans, fear of body fluids, intrusive thoughts, obsessions with morality and false memories.
I did everything I could during this time to survive. I visited a psychiatrist who said I looked alive off meds and told me my brain had to learn to process emotions again without medicine and reset itself. I created what I call a “prescription for life”, a daily check in system with friends and family alongside a schedule of weekly activities. I took vitamins and exercised and practiced special breathing exercises to help with the anxiety. I did acupuncture weekly and met with a therapist twice a week. I dragged myself out of bed every morning to go to work because I had no more sick days and needed the money to pay for my behavioral therapist appointments which cost nearly 650 dollars a month out of pocket.
But it wasn’t enough–my best wasn’t good enough. When my grandfather passed, I made myself get on the plane with my hand sanitizer, a head scarf, long sleeves and pants in the middle of the summer and boarded the flight because I was afraid I would become house bound if I didn’t and I was afraid I would regret not paying my respects to a man was so instrumental in my family legacy. While I was there I didn’t touch or hug any family members. I could barely leave my hotel room for fear I would leave the door unlocked and could hardly leave my rental car without feeling like I was going to have a panic attack. Up until the trip and after, I spent upwards of 7 hours a day washing my hands, showering, cleaning and ritualizing. At my grandfather’s funeral I was terrified by everyone’s tears and was afraid that I would get sick hugging people who touched my grandfather’s body in the casket. My mother came to stay with me while she mourned the passing of her own father. Meanwhile, she watched her youngest daughter descend into madness as I rocked back and forth on my bed crying, overwhelmed with fear. With her grace, selflessness and love, I made it that week. But when I got back to DC nothing was the same. The OCD had generalized, and so instead of certain items being dirty, the whole world was dirty and nowhere was safe.
Nothing was the same when I came back to Washington, D.C. I could barely touch my dog and I was so stressed I stopped eating, and drinking and avoided the bathroom or going outside whenever possible. Within 2 months of returning, I took a 6 month leave of absence, gave away my dog I had for 8 years and attempted suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt I spent the next 3 months in Colorado waiting for a bed to open up at one of the best treatment facilities for OCD in the world. And I went, and for 3 months I put myself through 4 hours of Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy where I touched toilets, trash cans, the floor, leaves, trees, dirty spots, shook hands with people wearing bandaids and a host of other items on my fear hierarchy without washing my hands or ritualizing, Instead I sat in tears with a coach, sometimes nervous ticks making me want to flail my arms and slur my words, until the anxiety went away on its own. I stabilized on a subclinical dose of Zoloft (I was on 100mg and most people with OCD don’t experience relief until around 200mg, which leads me to believe my brain just needed a little help from the ssri to stabilize). By the time I left treatment, I was hugging and shaking hands, riding public transportation, trail running, only washing my hands 3 times a day and got my showers down from 45 minutes to under 10. The doctors agreed my bi-polar II diagnosis at the age of 14 was wrong and that instead I suffered from severe bouts of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which mirrored the rapid cycling of bi-polar disorder. Finally I could return back to Washington, D.C. where my job and life were waiting.
So, two years after stopping my medicine cold turkey, one year after traveling to Los Angeles for my grandfather’s funeral, six months after returning from an intensive inpatient program and three months after deciding to live off the grid, I am sharing this with you from my hotel room on my last day in Mexico-tears flowing and all. I am thinking about all I experienced here and how full of life I felt when not so long ago I had lost the will to live. Thinking about the fact that I tapered slowly off my medicine over the last 6 months and how amazing and scary and resilient my brain is. Thinking about how crazy it is that I decided to make my entire life an ERP by living in my car and camping and how insane I must be to choose to treat OCD without medicine. Thinking about how my doctor’s dubbed my OCD subclinical (obsessing less than 1 hour per day similar to the rest of the population) less than 2 months after returning from treatment. Thinking about how terrified I am that at any time, for any reason despite all my planning and preparation, it’s possible that I could lose my fragile mind to depression and OCD again.
But this is life. And despite the shock from many of my peers about my decision to live a nontraditional life off the grid, and with hesitation from myself, my family and my doctors to manage OCD without pharmaceuticals, I am the freest and most connected to my own experience than ever before. And yes, I mess up sometimes- I wash my hands when I am not supposed to, ask for reassurance when I know I shouldn’t and make hasty decisions when I should be more patient, but this is my life. And in the end, the choices I make, the lessons I learn and any unforeseeable consequences are my own.
You have to know that all of this terrifies the shit out of me. And even as I write this, I can feel the OCD trying to be big again and doubt everything I have said and done and fill my body with fear. But I am different than I was six months ago. I am stronger, and equipped with more coping skills and insights into how my brain works than ever before. Most importantly, this was my choice- to conquer OCD med free and “walk like everyone else” as a friend told me in a beautiful analogy. I may stumble at first, I might walk with a limp, and I might fall on my face and need to go back on medicine again and that’s okay too, because this is what I signed up for when I decided I wanted to live again.
Thank you for reading this. I hope this gives you greater clarity about the significance of this trip and the importance of my tumble weed journey.
For information on the brain’s ability to heal itself, I recommend Bruce Lipton’s youtube video, the Biology of Belief.
Lastly, if you have considered weaning off your medicine, I recommend first viewing Survivingantidepressants.org to better understand protracted SSRI withdrawal syndrome from thousands of others around the world who want to walk like everyone else too.
If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, reach out to friends and family and call the suicide support hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
All views expressed here are my own. If medicine works for you, go for it! As always, question everything and do your own research!!