I Took an Anti-Depressant, And It Almost Killed Me
Side-effects of an anti-depressant caused me to almost take my own life
Warning: This post contains details about suicidal ideation and difficulties adjusting medication. This is not an endorsement against medication, which can be incredibly helpful when administered responsibly.
W hen I was fifteen, I started going to a pain management clinic. The birth defect I’d been born with, bilateral club feet, was causing me bone, nerve and muscle pain in my feet as I grew. Every waking moment was spent in an agonizing combination of aching and burning. I’d tried every remedy I could find in the local CVS aisle — from ibuprofen and Tylenol to Icy-Hot patches and Vitamin D — but none of them could significantly extinguish my pain.
The orthopedic doctor I saw was perplexed by this, and after the failure of his own solutions, wrote me a referral to the only nearby pain clinic that would accept pediatric patients. “These people are experts in pain,” he told me, “I can help your mobility issues, but they’re more qualified to treat the pain you’re experiencing.”
Eager for relief, I begged my mother to make an appointment as soon as possible. I had no idea this would be the defining moment that almost led to my death.
My first visit to the pain clinic was an enlightening introduction into the world of pain management. My doctor was a straight-laced woman with a tight smile. I didn’t like her. Even though I was fifteen and fully capable of having an intelligent discourse, she spent most of the visit talking to my mother. I might as well have not been in the same room.
“We have a non-opioid policy here,” she explained to us in a stern tone, “Which means we won’t be prescribing Lindy any kind of narcotics like Vicodin or Percocet.” The way she said it sounded almost accusatory — as if she was trying to work out whether or not I was a teenage drug addict looking for a quick fix.
At the time, I had very little knowledge of the medications she referenced. I didn’t know that people could get addicted to opioids, or that our country was teetering on the brink of an epidemic. I was just a kid in chronic pain who wanted to stop suffering.
Unfortunately, there was no magic pill at my disposal. The first treatment she prescribed was a selection of topical ointments and creams that I could apply to the surface of my feet. Technically, these medicines were prescription, but I had a feeling their generic counterparts could also found in the pharmacy aisle.
Unsurprisingly, the ointments didn’t work. It was like throwing a cup of water onto a forest fire. The pain resided deep into my bones, in the makeup of damaged nerves and tight muscles. It wasn’t going to be thwarted by a combination of aloe vera and lidocaine.
So, two weeks later, I ended up back at the clinic with my mother, and I was beginning to feel a little hopeless. The activities I used to enjoy — like hanging out with friends or drawing — were becoming more difficult to do. Even concentrating in school was a challenge when it felt like someone was shoving a dull butter knife into my ankle.
Even worse, I was starting to realize that the treatment of chronic pain was not simple or quick. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
“I’d like to try something a little more invasive with your daughter,” the doctor said at the next visit, “There’s a medication we’ve had a lot of success with treating musculoskeletal pain. It’s an anti-depressant called Cymbalta.” She then went on to explain how Cymbalta belonged to a group of drugs called SNRIs that influenced the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.
An anti-depressant? Seriously? How is that going to help my pain?
Both my parents and I had a lot of doubts, but the doctor answered all our questions like a practiced politician. She clarified that the FDA had approved Cymbalta for the use of chronic pain back in 2010 and that several studies had shown its effectiveness for treating pain. More than that, she insisted that many of her patients used Cymbalta and loved it. It practically cured their pain, she said.
Finally, after all of her pushing, my parents relented and decided to try it. I agreed too — and I was actually kind of excited about it. If the medication was as effective as my doctor made it out to be, then maybe I could live an active, pain-free life like I used to. I pictured myself as one of those actors on drug commercials, who smile and play tennis and walk their dogs on sunny days.
We picked up the first prescription a couple of days later. It came with a paper that listed the long list of side-effects in tiny print. It also said that the medication would take a couple of months to work, which meant that I needed to start right anyway. We didn’t make it in the driveway before I’d popped the first pill into my mouth.
Pain relief, here I come.
It wasn’t until about two weeks into taking Cymbalta that I began to feel something. More accurately, I began to feel euphoric. I was so happy. Cymbalta made the sun shine a little brighter, the people a little nicer, and the world around me seem welcoming. The frustration and hopelessness that accompanied the onset of my chronic pain seemed to wash away. Even the pain itself seemed to lessen.
I didn’t just feel good, I felt amazing.
At times, this euphoria bordered on mania. One time, I called my mom and asked her to bring me home from school because there was a light inside me that I couldn’t contain. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest because I couldn’t control my emotions.
And, then, very slowly, the same anti-depressant that made me feel like I was standing on top of the world pushed me over the edge. The good days — the days where I could conquer everything around me — dwindled. They were replaced by bad days.
Every feeling of frustration, anger, and sadness I had about my pain returned stronger than ever. I wasn’t just plummeting from the top of the world, I was falling into a sinkhole, and I couldn’t crawl out.
It only took a couple of months for it to happen. At first, I stopped caring about my appearance — I regularly showed up to school with uncombed hair, sweatpants, and a scowl. Then, the activities I’d recently found rejuvenated joy in, like drawing and writing, felt useless to me. I had no creativity or energy to do them anymore. I used to love to eat, but suddenly, food no longer had a taste. I ate to survive, but I could care less about what filled my plate.
My parents noticed this swift downturn that I’d taken. They started to discuss going to a therapist with me, but we couldn’t agree on where to go. They wanted to send me to Christian counseling — so I could resolve my feelings in a biblical way — but I refused. I hardly believed in God, and I certainly didn’t believe in Him enough to listen to some pastor lecture me.
Eventually, they decided that — until they could find something better — I should just visit the school counselor whenever I wanted to talk. And I did.
As my life continued to spiral downwards, I spent a lot of days talking to my guidance counselor under the fluorescent lights of her office. She didn’t have the training or skill set of a psychologist, but she did let me vent. I cried almost every day in her office and told her how nothing in my life seemed to hold meaning to me or bring joy. I was trapped in an endless cycle of pain and monotony.
She offered me some tissues and even gave me a few suggestions to revitalize my spark for life, but ultimately, she could do little to resolve the situation.
I’d been on Cymbalta for about three months when the suicidal thoughts began. At first, I simply imagined running away from my life, but over time, thoughts of escaping transitioned to suicide.
As someone who hardly believed in God, I didn’t know what would happen to me in the afterlife —or if there even was one. As much as that uncertainty scared me, I didn’t really know what else to do. The weight of depression and chronic pain was crushing me, and I didn’t feel like I could function anymore.
My suicidal thoughts became sharper. Suicide didn’t just feel like an option, it felt like the only option. I started to plan. In my spare time, I researched the “best” way to go and began drafting a suicide note.
I didn’t really know what to say. What are you supposed to say in a suicide note? What words could possibly console my parents while they grieved me?
I never actually finished the note, but I didn’t stop planning. I had a very specific idea about how I would kill myself. I won’t disclose what my actual plan was, but it was designed to be foolproof.
During this dark period, there was a part of me that knew these feelings weren’t coming from me — but from the anti-depressant whose side-effects included “depression” and “suicidal thoughts”.
But even that realization didn’t stop me. I didn’t truly want to die, but I felt like I was headed downhill in a car without brakes. I couldn’t control myself. Suicide was inevitable, and I was only waiting for something to set me off — for my parents to yell at me or have a bad day. Each day was marked with the possibility that it could be my last.
One rainy morning in my Sociology class, my older sister texted me to ask how I was doing. Of my four older siblings, she was the second one to reach out. I suspected that my parents had told them I wasn’t doing well emotionally — although they had no idea I was experiencing suicidal thoughts — and had encouraged my siblings to contact me.
During our conversation, I pretended like I was doing fine, but she knew me too well. Finally, I confessed that I wasn’t fine and that I felt like I needed to die. “I can’t control it,” I told her, “I just feel like I have to do it. Like there’s nothing here for me anymore, and I’m just going to snap one of these days.”
In a frenzy, she urged me to get help now — not even wait to tell my parents when I got home but to immediately talk to my guidance counselor at school and tell her everything. “This isn’t you,” she texted me, “This is the medication.”
Hearing someone else say it felt like a wakeup call. I went straight to my counselor and expressed the extent of my suicidal feelings. She called my mom, who rushed over from work. By law, I could only be released into my parents’ custody if they promised to check me into a psychiatric ward.
Both of my parents were a little blindsided by the news and hesitant to hospitalize me, but they were legally forced to.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind. For one, the pain clinic was notified of the side-effects I was experiencing and started to wean me off Cymbalta. While the medicine got out of my system, I attended day therapy at the pediatric psych ward.
For the next week, I spent eight hours a day in the psych ward’s outpatient program. It was an interesting experience: my mom dropped me off every morning, and I was strip-searched before I could walk into the ward. For most of the day, I attended activities or classes — some of which made me bored out of my mind. At 4 PM, my father picked me up and brought me home. He was under strict orders to supervise me.
As much as I didn’t want to attend day therapy, I actually learned a lot. There were several other kids there — all of whom were incredibly nice and welcoming. Many of them lived in circumstances worse than mine and struggled with depression as a disorder, not as a side-effect of medication.
By the time I’d finished my therapy, my head was a lot clearer — like someone had doused me with cold water. The medication was mostly out of my system, and the soul-crushing weight of depression was no longer there. I no longer felt suicidal, either. In fact, most of what I felt bordered on, Wow, I can’t believe I really wanted to take my own life.
It still took me about two months to really get my head on straight again. Weaning off Cymbalta came with drug withdrawals — I was exhausted, shivering and lightheaded — but I was alive. I wanted to be alive.
The experience with the anti-depressant scared my parents enough that they didn’t take me back to the pain clinic. They feared that my doctor, the same one who had raved about Cymbalta, would stick me on another mood-altering drug. Instead, they began corresponding with another orthopedic doctor and started taking me to see a pain psychologist.
It’s been years since any of this happened. My life, the same life I wanted to end, is a lot better now. Although I’ve experienced periods of depression with my pain, none of them have ever been so bad as to make me contemplate suicide again.
As an adult, I now attend a pain clinic and have a treatment plan that works. On my first visit, my doctor asked me about pain medications I’d been on before. When I briefly recounted my experience with Cymbalta, he cringed. “Yeah, that one can really screw you up,” he said.
And that’s the thing. What some doctors don’t always tell you — what my previous doctor didn’t tell me — was that anti-depressants are a lot like taking a shot in the dark. You have no idea what medicines will jive with your body chemistry, and what medicines will not. I experienced adverse effects with Cymbalta — but who knows what would have happened if I’d taken another dosage or different anti-depressant?
Studies have shown that anti-depressants increase the risk of suicide in people of all ages, and double it in healthy adults without a mental disorder. A case study, highlighted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Demark, showed that a 19-year-old college student participated in a drug trial for Cymbalta, and later hung herself.
I don’t say any of this to scare people away from taking anti-depressants. I’m well aware that thousands of people benefit from them, and rely on them to keep their mental illnesses in check.
What I will tell you, from my own experience is that, if any drug — anti-depressant or otherwise — begins to make you feel more depressed or suicidal, seek help. No possible benefit from medication is worth dying over.
All it took was a couple of months on Cymbalta to make me feel like I wanted to die. Yet, as I reflect over those feelings with a clear head, I can recognize that they weren’t from me. It was the medication that amplified the frustration I already had and produced depression and suicidal thoughts. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not glad I confided in my guidance counselor. My life was worth living then, and it’s still worth living now.
If you feel suicidal, please confide in someone you trust and reach out to the suicide hotline: 1–800–273–8255.