Waves and Windows in SSRI Withdrawal

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Tapering off of an SSRI can be very difficult.  It’s not like other ailments that have defined timelines and symptoms.  When a doctor treats a broken bone, there are long established milestones in recovery.  SSRI withdrawal is different.  Each case seems to be unique, with different length and severity of symptoms.  One of the frustrating parts of withdrawal is the way that symptoms fluctuate over time.  People call them waves and windows.  At first, withdrawal is unremitting.  There seems to be no respite from the symptoms.  After some time, which varies from person to person, symptoms begin to break up into cycles.  There are times when symptoms aren’t as bad, and other times when they are quite severe.  It’s not a universal pattern.  Some patients find that they have constant symptoms that slowly go away.  The wave/window pattern seems to be the majority, though.

Waves

Waves describe those times when symptoms are more severe.  Symptoms can be physical or emotional.  It feels like getting sick.  When you start to get a cold, you can feel little changes that presage the illness.  A sore throat or headache, then the full symptoms of the cold start in a day or two.  A wave has similar precursors.  Usually, physical symptoms are the first sign that a wave is coming.  A stiff neck, headaches, and dizziness are some of the symptoms.  A day or two later, the emotional symptoms become more pronounced.  These symptoms include obsessive or compulsive thoughts, depression, or anxiety.  It can be helpful to break waves up into different parts.  Knowing that each part of a wave is coming, and what to expect next, can make the whole process easier to handle.  The reason we’re so adept at knowing the cycle of a cold is that we’ve had them off and on all our lives.  we’re aware of the subtle changes in our bodies that tell us that we’re getting sick.  In the same way, it takes some experience before you can separate the parts of wave from each other.  It takes still more time to develop ways of dealing with each part of a wave.

Physical symptoms of a wave are hard to mitigate.  There isn’t much you can do about general joint pain, headaches, or dizziness.  You can try analgesics like aspirin or ibuprofen, but those aches are fairly resistant to those kinds of pain killers.  Dizziness is likewise difficult to deal with.  Withdrawal dizziness isn’t just something that happens when you stand up or spin around.  It’s hard to believe that you can feel dizzy when you lie down, but it happens in withdrawal.  Try to stay as still as possible until it gets better.  Try to use the physical symptoms as a sign that there are new symptoms coming that you need to deal with.

There isn’t really any way to avoid the emotional symptoms of a wave.  There is no way to “suck it up and get over it”.  Our minds create our reality in a fluid way.  The anxiety, depression, and obsessions of a wave are just as real as the screen in front of you.  The fact that our rational mind would recognize that it’s not real or overblown doesn’t mean much when you’re experiencing it.  That’s the essence of a wave.  It’s not rational or thoughtful.  Obsessive thoughts can be about almost anything from the benign to the surreal.  Self harm can suddenly seem like a rational idea.  In normal thought, the entire spectrum of emotions are right below the surface.  When you’re cut off in traffic, you have several choices.  You can ignore it, respond verbally or visually, speed up, slow down.  Even the psychotic is present in that moment.  We’ve become so accustomed to suppressing psychotic thoughts that we don’t even realize that the idea of ramming the other car didn’t rise up to our conscious minds.  In withdrawal, those thoughts that would normally be dismissed without a thought gain the same weight in our conscious minds as socially acceptable thoughts.  The only way to mitigate the emotional symptoms of a wave is to be mindful of the difference between normal thought and the unnatural power that irrational thought has in a wave.  It’s very hard to pick apart which thoughts are your normal responses and which ones are caused by the wave.  They mingle together in a chaotic way.  That’s what makes your reactions to a window just as important as your reactions to a wave.

Windows

Windows are periods of time when symptoms are not as pronounced as they were before.  At first, it feels like it’s over… you beat withdrawal, you’re free.  That’s the cruel joke of SSRI withdrawal.  Windows and waves are intertwined together.  The way withdrawal works for most people is that the windows slowly, ever so slowly, get longer, and the waves get shorter.  A window is more than a vacation from symptoms, though.  It is a huge relief to have some time off from feeling miserable.  Savor the good times in withdrawal, because that is what you have to look forward to in recovery.  More than relief, though, windows are an opportunity to prepare yourself to deal with waves in a better way.  Try to pay attention to how you feel.  Examine the way you think, the way you respond to things.  Try to recognize the way that you automatically choose responses and thoughts.  Emotionally, a window is a return to the normal way of parsing thoughts.  Instead of allowing all thoughts to rise to consciousness, you mind is automatically tuning out undesirable thoughts based on your personality.  Paying attention to the process during a window makes it easier to impose that same kind of structure during the next wave.  It’s that mindfulness that you’ll need during the next wave.  After a while, you can tell when a thought is out of character, and consciously dismiss it.

Withdrawal is a process of alternating good times and bad.  The more you’re able to mitigate the bad with mindfulness, the shorter the waves become.  Our minds often work in feedback loops.  One thought leads to another through association, creating the pattern of our minds.  Mindfulness allows us to shape the pattern to a certain extent.  The more you can recognize that a harmful thought is just part of a wave, and not a normal part of your normal mind, the faster you’ll get to the next window.  Eventually, that last window becomes reality, and the next wave never comes.  The mindfulness you’ve developed getting there will remain, though.

 

Meta symptoms of SSRI withdrawal

Derail

SSRI withdrawal causes many symptoms, both physical and emotional.  In some cases, the emotional symptoms can combine to create larger symptoms, meta symptoms.   Renewed or new depression is one of the most common symptoms of withdrawal.  Depression is an inward emotion.  It forces the patient to examine themselves in an overly critical manner.  In that compulsive self examination, other symptoms can emerge.  It’s not the healthy self examination of mindfulness or self awareness, it is an uncontrollable focus on the negative.  The patient doesn’t see themselves in a mindful light, but through the dark lens imposed by the depression.  Even joyful memories are seen in that distorted way.

Regret and Guilt

The depression of withdrawal forces the mind to pick negative aspects out of any event and focus itself on that exclusively.  That single minded focus creates regret in the patient.  Many times, it is out of proportion to the event itself.  Regret and guilt are very similar to each other.  They feed on each other.  Withdrawal pushes the mind to see guilt in places that the patient normally wouldn’t.  Withdrawal depression narrows the focus of the mind to see only the negative in an event.

I only remember a few things from my 10th birthday.  My parents had organized a party for me and invited several friends to come over.  I had wanted toe clips for my bicycle for a long time, and was very happy that I got them for my birthday.  Being 10, I wanted to install them on my bike right away.  During withdrawal, the nature of that memory changed.  Instead of remembering the happiness of the event, I focused on the fact that my parents scolded me for installing toe clips instead of playing with my friends.

Compulsive memories

One of the symptoms of SSRI withdrawal is renewed memories.  While taking the drug, memories are largely suppressed.  Many patients report that they do not have a good sense of what happened to them while they were on the drug.  They know the larger arc of events, but many of the details are missing.  The emotional nature of memories is likewise suppressed.  During withdrawal, the emotional tie to memories is reawakened.  It doesn’t happen in a linear way, though.  Instead of recalling memories in an associative way, where one memory reminds you of another, memories flood into the conscious mind without context.  It can be profound or trivial, the only commonality is that the memory is not recalled, it is imposed on the mind.  It is a sign that the mind is reordering itself, cataloging memories and emotions into a new order.

For more than a month I couldn’t get the image of a fast food restaurant out of my mind.  I ate lunch there 2-3 times a week for a year, 4 years ago.  The restaurant didn’t have any particularly strong memories associated with it for me.  Every time I tried to go to sleep, though, the image of that Wendy’s just wouldn’t leave my mind.  There was no guilt or other emotion associated with the image, I just couldn’t see anything else when I closed my eyes.

Fear of relapse

At first, withdrawal is unrelenting and overwhelming.  The symptoms occur continuously.  As time goes by, symptoms begin to break up.  Withdrawal becomes a cyclical thing.  There are times when symptoms are severe, and times when they are light.  People call them Windows and Waves.  A window is a period where symptoms are lighter, waves are times when symptoms are more pronounced.  There is an inevitable fear that arises from feeling better.  It’s not intuitive to an outside observer, but it is a real phenomenon for the person going through it.  Withdrawal creates a mental relativism where the way you feel at the moment feels like a permanent state.  Combined with uncontrollable negative self examination, waves begin to feel “realer” than windows.  That breeds a distrust of windows.  There is always the fear that a window is just a prelude to another wave.  Windows and Waves are closely connected, they are part of the cycle of recovery in SSRI withdrawal.  There is some validity to that fear of relapse in the beginning.  Windows will revert to waves, just as waves will break up into new windows.  As time goes by, the windows become longer and the waves become shorter.  There is no point in time that the patient can point to when the severity of waves falls below the level of awareness.  It’s one of the subtleties of withdrawal that progress can only be measured once it has occurred.  You just realize one day that you haven’t experienced a wave in a long time.  The last window has just extended longer than the others, with no wave afterwards.  The fear of relapsing into a wave lingers, though.  It becomes one of the central thoughts during recovery.  Slipping into a wave feels like getting sick, just mental instead of physical.  It begins with a subtle feeling of instability.  It then progresses into more profound feelings of despair.  Waves are very difficult to deal with.  The entire context of the mind has been altered.  There is little memory of feeling better, just the emotions associated with the wave.  So, when the wave breaks up into a window, there is a legitimate fear of the next, seemingly inevitable, wave.  The inevitable thing about withdrawal is that recovery will happen, though.  Many people have experienced prolonged feelings of despair, even suicidal ideation, and recovered themselves in the end.

The best way to deal with the window/wave cycle is to recognize that it is occurring.  It’s difficult to think of waves as temporary phases in recovery.  Somehow, it’s easier to believe that the windows are the temporary phases.  Being mindful of the cycle between windows and waves helps.  Just as windows are temporary in the beginning of withdrawal, waves likewise become temporary as recovery progresses.  Think of the last time you started a new job.  At first, all the new information felt overwhelming.  It’s easy to think that you will never absorb it all.  You quickly become accustomed to the new routine, though.  Eventually, the daily tasks lose their overwhelming quality and become easier to accomplish.  Withdrawal is similar in some ways.  At first, it’s very hard to believe that it will ever end.  Eventually, you begin to reclaim yourself, and it gets easier the longer you do it.