Lindsay Greenberg shares how quitting her tumultuous relationship with pills helped her lead a healthier life.
Medication has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I feel like I was just born sad. Growing up, understanding my emotions was a continuous struggle. My constant temper tantrums and erratic mood swings led to tests for ADHD, depression, anxiety—you name it. And finally, in second grade, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed Abilify, an antipsychotic.
From then on, life is kind of foggy. Subconsciously, I've tried to push those memories aside. But I was always in and out of therapy and was constantly experimenting with treatments. No matter how big or small my issue was, pills were the answer.
My Relationship with Meds
As a kid, you trust the adults in charge to take care of you. So I got into the habit of just handing my life over to other people, hoping that somehow they would fix me and that someday I would feel better. But they didn't fix me—I never felt better. (Find out how to decipher between stress, burnout, and depression.)
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Life stayed more of the same through middle school and high school. I went from being too skinny to overweight, which is a common side effect of the medications I was on. For years, I kept switching among four or five different pills. Along with Abilify, I was also on Lamictal (an antiseizure medication that helps treat bipolar disorder), Prozac (an antidepressant), and Trileptal (also an anti-epileptic drug that helps with bipolarism), among others. There were times I was just on one pill. But for the most part, they were coupled together, as they experimented to find which combinations and dosages worked best.
The pills helped at times, but the results never lasted. Eventually, I'd end up back at square one—deeply depressed, hopeless, and at times suicidal. It was also hard for me to get a clear bipolar diagnosis: Some experts said I was bipolar without manic episodes. Other times it was dysthymic disorder (aka double depression), which is basically chronic depression accompanied with symptoms of clinical depression like low energy and low self-esteem. And sometimes it was borderline personality disorder. Five therapists and three psychiatrists—and no one could find something they agreed on. (Related: This Is Your Brain On Depression)
Before starting college, I took a gap year and worked at a retail store in my hometown. That's when things really took a turn for the worst. I sunk deeper into my depression than ever before and ended up in an inpatient program where I stayed for a week.
It was my first time dealing with such intense therapy. And truth be told, I didn't get much out of the experience.
A Healthy Social Life
Two more treatment programs and two short hospitalizations later, I started to come into my own and decided I wanted to give college a shot. I started at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut but quickly realized that vibe wasn't for me. So I transferred to the University of New Hampshire where I was put in a house full of fun and welcoming girls who took me under their wing. (P.S. Did you know your happiness can help alleviate your friends' depression?)
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For the first time, I developed a healthy social life. My new friends knew a little about my past, but they didn't define me by it, which helped me create a new sense of identity. In hindsight, this was the first step to feeling better. I was also doing well in school and started to go out and began drinking.
My relationship with alcohol was pretty much nonexistent before then. Quite frankly, I didn't know whether I had an addictive personality or not, so dabbling in that or any other type of drugs didn't seem wise. But being surrounded by a solid support system, I felt comfortable giving it a go. But every time I had just one glass of wine, I'd wake up with a terrible hangover, at times vomiting profusely.
When I asked my doctor if that was normal, I was told that alcohol didn't mix well with one of the medications I was on and that if I wanted to drink, I would need to get off that pill.
The Turning Point
This information was a blessing in disguise. While I don't drink anymore, at the time, I felt like it was something that was helping me with my social life, which was proving to be important for my mental health. So I reached out to my psychiatrist and asked if I could wean off that one particular pill. I was cautioned that I would feel miserable without it, but I weighed the odds and decided that I was going to get off of it anyway. (Related: 9 Ways to Fight Depression—Besides Taking Antidepressants)
This was the first time in my life that I had made a medication-related decision by myself and for myself—and it felt rejuvenating. The next day, I started to wean off the pill, the right way over the span of a couple months. And to everyone's surprise, I felt the opposite of what I was told I was going to feel. Instead of falling back into a depression, I felt better, more energized and more like myself.
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So, after speaking to my doctors, I decided to go completely pill-free. While this may not be the answer for everyone, it felt like the right choice for me considering I'd been constantly medicated for the past 15 years. I just wanted to know what it would feel like if I had everything out of my system.
To my surprise (and everyone else's). I felt more alive and in control of my emotions with each passing day. By the time I was in the last week of weaning off, I felt like a dark cloud had been lifted off of me and for the first time in my life, I could see clearly. Not only that but within two weeks, I lost 20 pounds without changing my eating habits or working out more.
That isn't to say that suddenly everything was perfect. I was still going to therapy. But it was by choice, not because it was something that was prescribed or forced upon me. In fact, therapy is what helped me get reacclimated into life as a happy person. Because let's be real, I had no idea how to function like that.
The following year was a journey of its own. After all this time, I finally felt happy—to the point where I thought life was unstoppable. Therapy is what helped me balance out my emotions and remind me that life will still have challenges and that's something I have to be prepared for.
Life After Medication
After graduating from college, I decided to get out of dreary New England and move to sunny California to start a new chapter. Since then, I've gotten very into wholesome eating and decided to stop drinking. I also make a conscious effort to spend as much time as I can outdoors and have fallen in love with yoga and meditation. Overall, I've lost about 85 pounds and feel healthy in every facet of my life. Not too long ago I also started a blog called See Sparkly Lifestyle, where I document parts of my journey to help others who've gone through similar things. (Did you know, science says the combination of exercise and meditation can work better than antidepressants?)
Life still has its ups and downs. My brother, who meant the world to me, passed away a few months ago from leukemia. This took a heavy emotional toll. My family felt that this might be the one thing that could lead to a breakdown, but it didn't.
I had spent the past few years building healthy habits to cope with my emotions and this was no different. Was I sad? Yes. Horribly sad. But was I depressed? No. Losing my brother was a part of life, and while it felt unfair, it was out of my control and I had taught myself how to accept those situations. Being able to push past that made me realize the scope of my newfound mental strength and reassured me that there really isn't any going back to the way things were.
To this day, I'm not positive that quitting my medication is what led me to be where I am today. In fact, I think it would be dangerous to say that's the solution, because there are people out there who need these drugs and nobody should be dismissive of that. Who knows? I could still be struggling today had I not been on those pills for all those years.
For me personally though, letting go of the medication was about gaining control of my life for the first time. I took a risk, for sure, and it happened to work out in my favor. But I do feel like there's something to be said for listening to your body and learning to be in tune with yourself both physically and mentally. Feeling sad or out of sorts sometimes is part of what it means to be human. My hope is that anyone who reads my story will at least consider looking into other forms of relief. Your brain and heart could thank you for it.