Lifting the Bell Jar: Zoloft

Lifting the Bell Jar: Zoloft

Disclaimer: These are my personal experiences. What works for me might not work for you. Do not start or stop taking medication without consulting your doctor.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it was about time that I put my experiences with Zoloft into words. Because to be honest, it was a blog post like this that encouraged me to look into treatment options and make an appointment with my doctor.

Stigma exists when silence is the loudest voice in a conversation. On behalf of your story and so many others’ lives and journeys, we will not be silent.To Write Love on Her Arms

What is anxiety like?

I could write whole books about my anxiety, but I will pin it down in ten points. As with everything in life there are good and bad days, so the following points can occur all at the same time; they can last for days or weeks; they can happen individually; or not be there at all. Everybody experiences anxiety differently, so these points might not resonate with you.

  1. Brain shifts into survival mode. That means adrenalinenorepinephrine, and cortisol are flooding through your body, preparing for fight, flight, or freeze. This is one of the most important functions of our bodies, and keeps us safe from danger. However, my brain does not distinguish between real and perceived threat, it likes to keep me super safe and sends threat alerts in both situations. This can result in emotional rather than logical responses and being unable to think clearly.
  2. Difficulties organizing and structuring thoughts. In high-pressure situations, my thoughts are often racing and it feels like I have a hundred things to say at once, but then when I try to order and communicate them, they are all gone.
  3. Fighting. My anxiety often presents itself as anger. Instead of communicating my anxious feelings, I revert to fighting because it feels safer than confronting my anxiety and hides what I am really feeling.
  4. Inability to remember. If I don’t record or take notes during or right after stressful situations, I will not remember what was said. This can be anything a fight, a presentation, a doctor’s appointment. For example, during my PhD interview, it was so intense that by the time the interviewer finished their question, I had already forgotten the beginning.
  5. Irritability. I usually am a kind and somewhat patient person, when I’m in an anxious state, however, I can snap at the smallest thing and sometimes not notice what is going on.
  6. Strong need to feel safe. I need a lot of reassurance. When anxiety hits, I need others to stay calm and be patient.
  7. Close friendships. I have a great support network that I can share my anxiety experiences with and send SOS messages to. I can be completely open and vulnerable with them and receive understanding, encouragement, and support in return, and vice versa.
  8. It is not a choice. I cannot control what makes me anxious. Often it is irrational and I am fully aware of that. If I could just switch it off, I would. I can however learn ways to cope with feeling anxious.
  9. Exhausting. It’s like constantly being on alert, overthinking, worrying, not being able to relax. And let me tell you, it takes A LOT of energy.
  10. Breakthroughs are f****** amazing. Learning to cope with anxiety is extremely hard and takes a lot of time and effort, but reward is incredible and empowering.

Deciding to take medication

I remember that in the beginning of 2018, I compared my mental state to an abandoned ruin. I don’t know what triggered the downward spiral, but I reached a point where I knew something had to change, and I knew this would be a long journey. Previously, taking medication to get my anxiety under control seemed weak to me, like I was choosing the easy way out (I never thought that about anybody else who takes medication, I just have double-standards 😉 ). But then I realized that I was stigmatizing myself.

It’s getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you’re just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you’re not actually in the prison cell. You are the prison cell.John Green

After talking to my friends about their experiences with SSRIs and hours of reading what researchers had to say, I decided to give it a try. I had an open and honest conversation with my doctor, and after a couple medical checkups I started Zoloft (Sertraline).

Zoloft is an antidepressant, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). To put it in simple words, SSRIs make more serotonin available in the brain by blocking its reabsorption (reuptake). Serotonin is generally thought to improve mood and feelings of well-being and happiness. Low serotonin levels can contribute to anxiety (but is generally not the only factor). SSRIs or other anti-depressants are not the only form of medication or treatment available, for more information, see here.

If you are thinking about starting medication:
  1. Find a doctor that you feel 100% comfortable and safe with. I cannot emphasize this point enough. It is extremely helpful to have a doctor who listens to you and whom you trust. Being honest with your doctor is key.
  2. Talk to your doctor and discuss possible options.
  3. Don’t rely online discussion boards (e.g., about side effects or effectiveness), but scientific research.
  4. There is no shame in taking or not taking medication. Do what feels right to you.

Starting Zoloft

See point #3 up there? What follows is my personal experience with Zoloft, which doesn’t mean that your will be the same or similar. Nevertheless, I found personal stories helpful to not freak out as I was hit by the full wave of side effects. For the first seven days I took 25mg each day, and since then I have been on 50mg. The first day of taking Zoloft, I felt like hell and thought “how am I going to make it through 6 weeks of that?”. I got nauseous; I couldn’t think clear,; I felt tired; I was dizzy, and my head hurt and felt like a huge bubble. I decided not to fight it (also I think I wasn’t in a condition to fight anything) and be compassionate instead. My boyfriend put me to bed, lit some candles and incense and put on some Rick and Morty for me. I spent the rest of that day in bed. The second day was much better already, only nausea and a small bubble head. I was able to work and felt like I had a minor cold. By the fourth day, the side effects were pretty much gone (I still felt a bit tired for another two weeks).  However, I was extremely sensitive to alcohol until after the third week. I would be drunk after two glasses of wine, which I would usually feel ever so slightly. Also, this was not the fun kind of drunk and I wOke up with the worst hangover.

All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung suspended a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. Sylvia Plath

A week after starting Zoloft, I woke up and the bell jar had been lifted. I felt happy. It was such a strange feeling because I had been miserable for so long that I had completely forgotten what it was like to feel happy.

If you are starting SSRIs:
  1. Do what your doctor tells you. If you are unsure about something, call them again.
  2. Be kind to yourself. SSRIs change your brain chemistry and it is likely to affect your body. And will take some time getting used to.
  3. Take it at the same time every day.
  4. Don’t stop taking them abruptly. Talk to your doctor.
  5. Remember that SSRIs can take up to 8 weeks to work.

Zoloft – magic cure?

It would be nice if all we had to do was take a pill in the morning and all our problems would turn into pink fluffy clouds and evaporate. That’s not the case. It still requires a lot of work and effort for me, and to learn new coping mechanisms (I am currently getting into cognitive behavioral therapy). However, Zoloft has been incredibly helpful for me during these last four months; it has given me my life back. I still get anxious. A lot. But it is nowhere near as bad as before. Now, I am able to stop and think (most of the time). It gives me that extra second between trigger and instant emotional response to acknowledge what is happening.

Usually when I feel anxious, I feel the need to address it immediately. This often leads to clumsy conversations because I am unable to properly communicate what I am feeling or go straight into fight mode. But now I even have situations where I tell myself “Yes, you are feeling anxious but that doesn’t mean that there is an actual threat and you need to respond to it right now. Think about it for a while”. Sometimes, I slip and I respond with fight but often I am able to step back and see what is happening much quicker than before and can counteract it. Other times, I slip all the way, but that is okay too because I am only human. Zoloft is not a magic spell that fixes my problems, but now I have a starting point to learn to understand and work with my anxiety instead of being overpowered by it.

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