An Update: Antidepressant Withdrawal, Brain Zaps and Other Pre-Tripping Diversions
When I was pregnant forty years or so ago, it seemed like the whole world was pregnant. Everywhere I looked there were baby bulges forcing apart the front openings of winter coats and women displaying the latest “maternity smock fashion.” I don’t notice pregnant women so much any more but these days, the same mechanism is at work when it comes to psychedelics. Perhaps because a lot of people are aware that I am planning and preparing for a psychedelic experience, they are referring me to articles, videos, scientific reports, and other materials that they know may be of interest to me. Many tell me stories of their own experiences. (One person told me that she’d been to a wedding recently where, at the reception, the father of one of the central players offered mushrooms to the guests. What??? I don’t think tripping promotes the kind of behaviour one anticipates at wedding receptions! Sociability is one thing, falling in love with the universe during the toast to the groom is another. Bad trips on the dance floor would also be a downer. But what do I know? I’m still a psychedelic virgin.)
On a more serious note, several people have reached out in person, in emails and on social media to say that my blog is relevant to their own depressions or those of loved ones, and has engendered hope in them for a prospective treatment. This pleases me considerably, because that is one of the reasons why I started to write this blog series in the first place.
But it’s not just material that is brought to me by others that I’m noticing: my awareness antennae are up in the same way as they were to “baby bumps” (not that we called them that) back in the day. Thanks to the growing public interest in psilocybin and LSD, these days it seems like I am seeing references to psychedelia everywhere. On May 19, for example, The New York Times Sunday Crossword offered a clue at 28 Down that read “Tab inits [initials].” My first thought was of computer tabs, so I tried “ESC” but I soon realized that the correct answer was “LSD.”
My husband and I watched Nine Perfect Strangers for at least one episode before twigging in to the fact that the plot revolves around the non-consensual administration of psychedelics to the clients at her “health resort” by a very peculiar healer (played to a T by Nicole Kidman), who has more method to her madness than it may at first appear. We did watch the rest of the series, mainly because we couldn’t stop watching it, and we were surprised that as critics we were ultimately satisfied with the outcome, but I was quite unsettled by a lot of it because the whole conceit was far more “oogie boogie” than I am interested in contemplating when it comes to my own psychedelic trip next month. Fortunately Melissa McCarthy was there to cut through the bullshit on a regular basis. (Note: I think there should be a warning to those who contemplate watching Nine Perfect Strangers: if you have endured the agony of losing a child, you should be aware ahead of time that this is an issue that is explored extensively in the series. I have since learned that people on LSD and psilocybin trips often feel as though they are in the company of friends and relatives who have died, but whether this is a beneficial or negative experience is certainly a personal decision.)
I am now half way through the tapering of the antidepressants (duloxetine, the generic form of Cymbalta, which is a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor or SNRI) that I have been on for more than a quarter of a century. In the study I am in, going off them is a requirement before receiving a dose of psilocybin. “Tapering” is not fun, and as I must decrease my consumption from half of my former dose to zero at the end of this weekend, I don’t think it’s going to get any more fun for a while.
I am having the kinds of experiences one might expect from being depressed and not being on antidepressants: a tendency to burst into tears at just about everything personal or circumstantial; paranoia and anxiety (yesterday, I was desperately worried that something I’d said on Facebook had offended a dear friend. Fortunately it had not); and even more anger than I normally carry around with me. The news in recent weeks/months has not helped, of course: you’d have to be a psychopath not to be moved to tears and rage by a lot of recent news stories, and I know my response is not unique to those suffering from depression. But I can get into disproportionally massive twists over things I have little capacity to control: such as the fact that a lot of therapists are already making a lot of money from patients who now believe that ketamine is a psychedelic, which is isn’t. As I have said before, there is evidence that ketamine and MDMA administered therapeutically can alleviate depression for a few weeks or months, giving patients some breathing room in which they are able to undertake some cognitive-behavioural or other kinds of therapy, but these substances do not occasion the kind of dramatic and permanent change in awareness reported by many who have used psilocybin or LSD. They can also be addictive, which psilocybin isn’t. I will do whatever I can to straighten out people’s thinking on this subject, but if we can’t even get people to agree that masks prevent Covid transmission, I’m not making it my life mission. I might as well tilt at windmills. (Speaking of which, I wrote a novel a few years ago with my friend John A. Aragon that is based on the great Cervantes tale of Don Quixote. Entitled The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, it’s funny and heartwarming. Sorry. But I couldn’t just let the windmill metaphor go by without a plug for the wondrous DV, whom my co-author and I continue to cherish.)
The worst side effect of the antidepressant withdrawal is a phenomenon called “brain zaps,” a symptom I’ve never before experienced and with which I can’t wait to finish. They are explained at Medical News Today as “electrical shock sensations in the brain. They can happen in a person who is decreasing or stopping their use of certain medications, particularly antidepressants. Brain zaps are not harmful and will not damage the brain. However, they can be bothersome, disorienting, and disruptive to sleep.” The article goes on to say: “In a study that surveyed people who were experiencing brain zaps, people described them as:
- a brief, electrical shock-like feeling in the brain
- a short period of blacking out or losing consciousness
- dizziness or vertigo
- a zap paired with a buzzing sound
- “hearing their eyes move”
- feeling disoriented (a “brain blink”)
I am experiencing the first, third and sixth of these brain zap manifestations almost constantly (thank god I am not “hearing my eyes move”!), and I do not like them one bit. However, I know that with any luck they will go away after a few weeks of total cessation from the medication. The psychiatrist to whom I’ve been assigned in the clinical trial said if they were bothering me too much, I could increase my dosage again for a little while, but I’ve come this far and I am not retreating. I’ve withdrawn from much worse drugs than this (alcohol and nicotine). By the way, I am impressed by the support I have received so far by the investigators on the research team: they check in with me regularly to see how it’s going, and have offered a one-on-one zoom call with the psychiatrist about the withdrawal symptoms, which I have “happily” accepted.
It is only because I am hopeful (albeit also scared. More about all that in a future post) about the psilocybin treatment that I am willing/able to put up with how I feel at the moment. All I can do is move forward, one day at a time, and request the indulgence of my friends and loved ones as I go through this. (They are gentle, kind and understanding, and I am grateful.)
My hope has been fed recently by several things I’ve read. The primary one is Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, which I am reading slowly with an intent to review it in the next post here. Another was an article in The Guardian about the American writer William Brewer, who said of his most recent novel, The Red Arrow, “The writing really got going in 2019 after I finally underwent psychedelic therapy for the depression that had controlled my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I hadn’t before because my brain had just been so clouded. [….] I was given a dose of psilocybin mushrooms at 10 in the morning, and by 4.30 in the afternoon it felt like a 50 lb tumour had been cut out of my back.” Brewer describes the experience thus: “It isn’t a wild and crazy light show so much as an elegant revelation of how things are connected. Psilocybin, especially, gives you this real sense of momentum, and I wanted that for the book.”
That sounds like an outcome for which I am willing to put up with a few weeks of brain zaps.