Nightmares, numbness, panic - what coming off antidepressants feels like

By Juliet Rowan

After almost two years on antidepressants, this is what it's like to stop.Photo / Thinkstock
After almost two years on antidepressants, this is what it's like to stop.Photo / Thinkstock

Last night, I was visited by bloodied, haggard corpses of people with holes where their eyes should've been. Just as I was getting to grips with their horrific appearance, they started stabbing at me with huge, skewer-type needles. I had no defense against their relentless attack until someone managed, with an almost pathetic gesture, to fend them off with a plastic lid. Just long enough for me to wake up.

This is my world at the moment. Nightmares when I sleep, headaches while I'm awake and, if I succumb to it, a rising sense of panic that threatens to swallow me whole. I'm getting chest pain, nausea, a numb face, and today I spent the morning trapped in a horrible haze, trying desperately to ground myself and focus on looking after my two small children.

After almost two years on Citalopram, one of the world's most prescribed antidepressants, I have decided to stop.

I was not prepared for a difficult withdrawal (and neither it seems were the many others who have Googled "side effects of coming off Citalopram").

There was no warning from my doctor; I was just told to take it slowly, reducing my dose a week or so at a time. But reading what others say of failed attempts to quit Citalopram after suffering the kind of withdrawal symptoms you might expect from hard drugs, this is obviously too fast for most. Months, even years, of gentle reduction seems to be the consensus among Citalopram users themselves.

Whatever the case, the uncomfortable comedown (and mine is by no means worst-case) is making me realise the strength of the drug I have used to tame my mind. It is also giving me renewed drive to try life without antidepressants.

The decision to stop Citalopram is part psychological, part practical - I feel like it's no longer doing anything for me (in fact, I wonder if it's doing bad things) and I'm about to run out of pills. (I could get more, I know, but I'm living in France and need to get them shipped from New Zealand after I tried the local version - same manufacturer, same dosage, theoretically the same pill - and spent two days hallucinating with a tingling/burning sensation in my limbs and feeling terrified I would die. And that was from just one dose.)

My current discomfort aside, Citalopram was my wonder drug when I began taking it in January 2012. It carried me out of one of the most desperate depressions of my life, giving me perspective when I had none and stabilising my highly erratic moods. The depression was the result of a year of stress and no sleep following the birth of my second child, a sickly baby, coupled with chronic low-grade depression, or dysthymia, which I have suffered since childhood.

After just a few weeks on Citalopram, I was sleeping better, feeling less anxious, less sad, less angry, and I'd stopped hating myself so much. I'd also stopped fantasizing about shoving my wrists through broken glass or putting a gun in my mouth to end the misery in my brain.

In fact, citalopram made me feel so stable, perhaps for the first time ever, that I imagined I would stay on it my whole life.

It was by no means a casual decision to start taking antidepressants - let's just say my hand was forced by a counsellor and my husband, both of whom could see the depth of my despair and knew talking alone was not going to fix me. In my husband's case, I had also become impossible to live with.

I was reluctant to go the drug route to treat my depression, but once I started on it I felt so good, there was no looking back. Now though, in the midst of cutting back and feeling decidedly average, a part of me wonders if I unwittingly became part of a tide of modern-day middle-class drug addiction.

Our government's drug-buying agency, Pharmac, says antidepressant use has doubled in the last six years and one in 10 New Zealanders now take antidepressants. Worldwide the figure is estimated at 50 million, two-thirds of who are women. All of which leads me to an uncomfortable thought: Are we any different from the American housewives of the 1950s and 60s who got high on benzos and hooked without knowing?

Call me naïve, but I started Citalopram without fear of addiction too. (My reluctance to try antidepressants was based instead on a belief I should be able to mend myself without medication.) None of the health professionals involved in my care raised the issue of dependence. I was simply told that Citalopram - as one of the current generation of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) - would help rebuild the severely depleted serotonin in my brain. One doctor said it was the anxiety/depression equivalent of using antibiotics to treat a cold.

However, three weeks into weaning myself off, it is obvious that I am physically dependent, yes, addicted, to this drug. So despite it being my touchstone for 20 months, I feel more determined than ever to stop.

Citalopram has done its job for me, I don't deny, but I'm also in a better place thanks to a great and caring counsellor and cognitive behaviour therapy. I worry the drug is at least partially responsible for me gaining an unhealthy amount of weight (one of its acknowledged side-effects) and I hope this might stabilise once I'm weaned.

I haven't told my husband I'm stopping yet as he is terrified of a return to the wreck I was before Citalopram. But already, despite the nightmares and headaches, I feel a sense of wonder and rediscovery at drug-free reality.

Last night, when the nightmare woke me at 3.30am, I felt like I'd already been asleep much longer. It made me realise how previously my 20mg dose of Citalopram knocked me into a kind of drug-induced coma - functional but somehow fake.

My love for my family feels more poignant too and I want affection again. Now when my 2-year-old daughter strokes my face, it feels amazing and real in a way touch has not for quite a while.

If I were to come off the antidepressants again I would definitely do it slower but I also relate to a woman whose story I read on the Internet. She said once she made the decision to stop, she went cold turkey just to be free.

I will always be grateful to Citalopram, and may even call on it again, but for now, I want a return to a more feeling, real me.

* If you want to understand more about depression call 0800 111 757 or visit

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