I was prescribed Sertraline (Zoloft) in 1998 when I had postnatal depression. I was told to take it for a year to 18 months. I went from deep depression/anxiety to euphoria in the space of about two weeks, I felt pretty damned fantastic, there was nothing I couldn’t handle. As time went on I continued to feel well but my emotions were dampened down, so I was functioning well, no depression, but no “joy” either. After a few months of feeling well I decided I didn’t want to be on Sertraline anymore, didn’t read the patient information leaflet or talk to a doctor, not that that would have helped anyway. I just stopped taking them. My head felt terrible, it began to feel water logged, if I turned my head there was a time lag between my eye balls catching up with the fact that my head had turned, so dizzy, gradually intense sadness would kick in, really really intense sadness and anxiety, oh the anxiety, pumping adrenaline and nerves shot to bits. I went back on the Sertraline.
The doctor told me to do the alternate day thing, alternate days for a fortnight,then every third day for a fortnight, then one tablet a week, I did this various times over the next few years to no avail. I tried a pill cutter and halving the tablet, it wouldn’t break down easily without crumbling so that was unsuccessful. Every time I tried something, I ended up in worse shape than the time before, it was all getting steadily worse. I tried meditation, healing, exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling, fish oil capsules, NOTHING touched it. I pressured my surgery to refer me to a psychiatrist for advice,but the psychiatrist had no clue and could only recommend switching to another drug. I did switch to Citalopram for a while, and Mirtzapine, I felt constant fatigue on Mirtzapine, and then back to Sertraline. Yet another psychiatrist recommended halving my dose of Sertraline and taking diazepam to mitigate the withdrawals, so replace one powerful drug with an even more powerful addictive drug.
This is my description of how withdrawal felt from my blog, I only recently found out that what was happening had a name,akathisia:

“5am and for about the 3rd night in a row I’ve barely slept, I can’t stop the adrenaline pumping round my body, my stomach is tightly knotted, I’ve barely been able to eat properly it makes me feel sick. I’m clammy, sweating and crying and P is trying to reassure me, but he has to go to work. I get up and drag myself through all the motions of the day and making sure boys get to school, I feel like the living dead, I make sure they get fed and make sure they and no one else is aware of what’s going on, I don’t hang around at the school gates. Oh I do kind of tell a few people I’m not really feeling right but I play it down.
The constant adrenaline is tormenting me on the inside and I can’t stop it.It’s been building up over a period of months and I’ve been fighting and fighting the feelings but it seems to have reached a peak of exquisite torture.It’s like being at the top of a roller coaster that never stops. Someone else mentioned birdsong, and it was a funny thing, the torture was worse in the mornings and over the summer months while it was slowly building, birdsong in the morning outside the window had become a kind of torture as well. I had to go to work only 2 days a week and God only knows how I managed it. I had taken
my last Sertraline tablet months ago, and come off it as per the doctors instructions, and now my depression/anxiety was back tenfold to punish me for daring to presume I could stop taking it. I must be wired up wrong, no one else feels like this do they? What is wrong with me? Maybe I really am insane, maybe I just can’t cope with life without my tablets, how come everyone else can cope with life, and I can’t? There must be something fundamentally wrong with me. By now the Orwell Bridge was beginning to look a bit attractive and I just wanted to escape the adrenaline surges torturing me, my nerves were in shreds”.
This was 2003,at the end of 2003 I gave in and went back on the sertraline.

In 2006 I attempted another withdrawal, but at the same time we found ourselves going through a stressful life event, I tried to tough it out but ended up back on the Sertraline again.
So here I was, several years later and no further forward, and not for wont of trying! Everytime I went in a book shop or library I would try and find anything I could about antidepressants and depression, but nothing really enlightened me. I rummaged around on the internet but couldn’t find the answers. Until one day, I was browsing around Waterstones, and “Coming off Antidepressants” by Joseph Glenmullen jumped out at me, I read it avidly, and discovered TAPERING!!! But, all the examples in the book referred to liquid Seroxat or Prozac, I was really upset to find Sertraline was not available in liquid form. Armed with my new information about the simple concept of tapering, further digging led me to Dr Healy’s protocol of switching to the equivalent dose of liquid Prozac. These two pieces of information became my secret hope, I latched onto them. I decided to take a leap of faith and switch to liquid Prozac. At the beginning of 2007 I marked up my calendar with a schedule, I was going to go down from 5ml to 4.90ml the first week, 4.80ml the next week and so on, as my sons would say “epic fail”. By about mid February the nightmare was unfolding again and I had to give in and go back to the top of my Prozac dose, I was devastated.
Still I hadn’t given up hope, P was sympathetic but he couldn’t understand why I didn’t just give it up and accept I “needed” the drugs like a diabetic needs insulin. After lots more research, and P having interesting and enlightening conversations with a client who was a pharmacist about my problem, I started my taper again in May 2008, this time much much slower and here I am four years later down to 1ml liquid Prozac and still sucessfully tapering. It has needed a lot of self-discipline. I kept this blog/diary of my progress; I’ve been amazed to meet a few others who have been tapering longer than me. Nowadays my withdrawals are fairly benign, but I still feel a bit scarred from the experience,the akathisia has left me still feeling like my nerves are quite raw and very close to the surface but I can live with that now.
There is a huge assumption that these drugs are benign and harmless, they are not; they can cause extreme agitation and internal torture. They are dished out like smarties and people left to deal with the results. Starting them is like playing a game of Russian Roulette, you might be a lucky one who can take them and come off them with ease, or you might not. My understanding was that they were meant to be taken for only a year or so after you feel “well” but many many people are stuck on them for years or forever, I know many people who’ve given up hope of coming off SSRI’s and I hear many people say “oh I’ll be on these the rest of my life”. There is NO support or advice in place through doctors or psychiatrists on how to taper safely off the drugs.....if anyone does find any help in the UK, please let me know, although it’s a bit too late for me now as I’ve almost done it myself, but I know a lot of other people who might like to know!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

When it Comes to Depression Serotonin isn't the Whole Story


Yesterday, I was lucky to have three interesting articles shared with me, thanks Bobby Fiddaman and Carolyn Anderson. I think I've only got time to get one out this morning, the other two will have to wait til this evening. I like this article because it covers everything I've been banging on about for ages, particularly this : "Frazer says it's probably because it has had, and continues to have, important cultural uses. For one, he says, by initially framing the problem as a deficiency — something that needed to be returned to normal — patients felt more comfortable taking a drug.

"If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting," Frazer says, then taking a drug was OK. "They had a chemical imbalance and the drug was correcting that imbalance." In fact, he says, the story enables many people to come out of the closet about being depressed, which he views as a good thing."
The chemical imbalance theory is absolutely rife, I see it and hear it everywhere, it's more socially acceptable than "I feel really rubbish/depressed/overwelmingly anxious".


When it comes to depression serotonin isn't the whole story




The antidepressant Prozac selectively targets the chemical serotonin.

When I was 17 years old, I got so depressed that what felt like an enormous black hole appeared in my chest. Everywhere I went, the black hole went, too.

So to address the black-hole issue, my parents took me to a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She did an evaluation and then told me this story:

"The problem with you," she explained, "is that you have a chemical imbalance. It's biological, just like diabetes, but it's in your brain. This chemical in your brain called serotonin is too, too low. There's not enough of it, and that's what's causing the chemical imbalance. We need to give you medication to correct that."

Then she handed my mother a prescription for Prozac.

That was the late '80s, but this story of a chemical imbalance brought on by low serotonin has remained very popular.

"I don't know of any story that has supplanted it," says Alan Frazer, a researcher who studies how antidepressant medications work. He is also chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

"It definitely continues to live — absolutely," agrees his colleague Pedro Delgado, the chair of the psychiatry department at UT. "If you go to your community doctor, you're likely to hear some version of that."

But for many scientists who research depression, this explanation is no longer satisfying.

"Chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It's much more complicated than that," says Dr. Joseph Coyle, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. "It's really an outmoded way of thinking."

Coyle, who is also the editor of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, says that though serotonin plays a role in depression, low serotonin is likely not the cause of depression. Scientific thinking has clearly shifted, he says.

Still, the story of serotonin remains. Why does it continue to have such a powerful grip on the popular imagination?

The Link

According to Frazer, to understand how the story of low serotonin came to dominate our understanding of what causes depression, you need to go back to the late '50s, to a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland.

That's where psychiatrist Roland Kuhn gave a newly developed drug to 10 patients who had been paralyzed by depression for years. Over the course of three weeks, he watched a near-miracle occur.

"There was this lightening of their mood," Frazer says. "They became more energized, more interested in things around them."

This was the birth of the very first antidepressants, called tricyclics. And with that birth came a question: How could these drugs possibly be working? Researchers had some ideas, but it really wasn't until the mid '60s, when the cause of Parkinson's disease was discovered, that a real narrative began to take shape.

It turned out that Parkinson's — a brain disorder — was caused by a deficiency of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. This discovery influenced the way scientists thought about depression.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the Parkinson's story had a strong impact on the way that people were thinking about depression," Frazer says. "It became easy to speculate that depression was due to a deficiency."

The question, of course, was what was deficient? Which chemical was too low? For decades researchers argued this question, but no one candidate took the lead. And then came Prozac.

Prozac's Pull

Almost as soon as it was introduced in 1987, the antidepressant Prozac, which selectively targets the chemical serotonin, became a blockbuster. "Prozac just blew everything else out of the water," Frazer says.

This had less to do with the efficacy of Prozac (it is not better at treating depression than tricyclics, the earlier generation of antidepressants) than with the fact that the drug had relatively few side effects.

"It was very free of side effects," says Pedro Delgado. "And so it began to be used very widely, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for it."

That understates the case. In a very short time, Prozac became wildly popular, and again, Prozac worked on just one chemical in the brain: serotonin.

And really, it is because of the popularity of Prozac that the low-serotonin story took hold, even though, Frazer argues, the scientific research has not borne that out.

"I don't think there's any convincing body of data that anybody has ever found that depression is associated to a significant extent with a loss of serotonin," he says.

Delgado also makes this argument. In the 1990s, he carried out a study that showed that if you take a normal person and deplete them of serotonin, they will not become depressed. He says he feels this demonstrates that low serotonin doesn't cause depression.

Coyle is less absolute in his dismissal of the evidence on serotonin. His take is that while low serotonin probably doesn't cause depression, some abnormality in the serotonin system clearly plays a role. But most researchers have moved on, he says, and are looking at more fundamental issues like identifying the genes that might put people at risk for developing depression.

"What's being looked at are processes that are much more fundamental than just serotonin levels," he says. "We need to move beyond serotonin, and I think the field is."

Serotonin Sticking Around

So why are so many people still talking about low serotonin causing depression?

Frazer says it's probably because it has had, and continues to have, important cultural uses. For one, he says, by initially framing the problem as a deficiency — something that needed to be returned to normal — patients felt more comfortable taking a drug.

"If there was this biological reason for them being depressed, some deficiency that the drug was correcting," Frazer says, then taking a drug was OK. "They had a chemical imbalance and the drug was correcting that imbalance." In fact, he says, the story enables many people to come out of the closet about being depressed, which he views as a good thing.

Still, there's no question that the story also has downsides. Describing the problem exclusively in biological terms has convinced many people to take antidepressants when other therapies — like talk therapy — can work just as well.

One critic I talked to said the serotonin story distracted researchers from looking for other causes of depression. But Delgado agrees with Frazer and says the story has some benefits. He points out that years of research have demonstrated that uncertainty itself can be harmful to people — which is why, he says, clear, simple explanations are so very important.

"When you feel that you understand it, a lot of the stress levels dramatically are reduced," he says. "So stress, hormones and a lot of biological factors change."

Unfortunately, the real story is complicated and, in a way, not all that reassuring. Researchers don't really know what causes depression. They're making progress, but they don't know. That's the real story.

It's not exactly a blockbuster.


When it comes to depression serotonin isn't the whole story

2 comments:

Someone You Know said...

Just discovered your blog, really interesting reading. Having been put through the wringer by 5 different Anti-depressants since I was 17 and never having any improvement, I have a little insight into some of what you write about.
Thanks for writing, keep it up :-) You will get there but as I've written a few times before; sometimes the journey is more valuable than the destination.

www.thinking-about-leaving.blogspot.com

SMH said...

Thanks for your comment, some parts of the journey I could have lived without though ;)