The healing process is such an interesting topic to explore. Every story is unique but often the same as well. We’re all working towards something in regards to a better future and improved health, among other things. It isn’t an easy journey to navigate nor is it ever one that seems particularly black and white. In this series, we will hear from different individuals within the mental health community about their healing process, how it began, what the journey has been like and where they are today.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name is Alissa I’m 24 and I just graduated college in Southern California. I come from a family of artists and I grew up in a small town deep in forests of Massachusetts. I have been anxious as long as I can remember and I was diagnosed with OCD when I started high school. At the end of high school, I lost one of my best friends to suicide. For the first two years of college I really struggled to manage my grief and depression. At that time I was also diagnosed with depression and complex PTSD. I was showing signs of substance abuse and everything seemed to be moving in a downward spiral. When I was 21 I left for a wilderness therapy program where I spent the next 3 months learning how to deal with my emotions in safe and healthy ways. From there I moved to Portland, OR where I attended a transitional program and got back on my feet. Then I transferred to a smaller all women’s college in SoCal and that’s where I have been living for the past 4 years. While finishing my Media Studies degree in California I really immersed myself in art as a form of healing and that’s what brings me to this moment right here!
First and foremost, where did the name of your Instagram, @bigpharmaslut, come from?
To be honest, it started as a joke! I was saying that I was a slut for bigpharma since I take so many pharmaceuticals for my anxiety and insomnia. As soon as I made the joke I was struck by the truth of the statement. I realized that it wasn’t just a joke- it was important commentary on a part of our society that is often stigmatized and hidden. I personally struggled with feelings of shame and it took me years to feel comfortable openly talking about my mental health and the treatment that I sought. Once I started talking about my experiences I realized that more often than not people could relate to what I was telling them. I started to wonder, “If we’re all feeling this way, why do we pretend that we’re just fine when we’re not? We could be supporting each other!” Once I opened up to people I could feel a weight lifting off of my shoulders. Soon I found myself seeking out deeper conversations and connections. After years of talking about mental health I began to make art about it. That’s when bigpharmalsut was born. For my thesis, I wanted to see if it was possible to create a safe place on social media for healing and sharing. That’s when bigpharmaslut made her debut on Instagram.
It’s interesting to see that many people seem to be hesitant or even ashamed of needing to take medication, but there doesn’t seem to be as many people who are outspoken the other possible outcome of taking medication. What made you decide to stop taking it?
So this is where I would like to clarify my intention and goals this project. Bigpharmaslut does not promote or idolize the use of pharmaceuticals. It also is not about pill shaming. For me this is about transparency and sharing information. I believe that treatment for mental health is unique. What works for one patient might not work for another and for most mental illnesses there are no cures, just management strategies. In my experience many mental illnesses come with feelings of loneliness and isolation. The sharing of experiences on social media platforms not only connects people but it creates a place for consumers of pharmaceuticals to exchange knowledge and experiences. Often medications have unexpected side effects. I found that on my posts people were discussing not only the negative experiences but also ways to deal with them. It became a real source of information for me and others. With medications that can cause so many side effects it is crucial to have as much information on the drug as possible which is why it is important for consumers to be able to communicate with one another. That’s my goal.
Both therapy and pharmaceuticals have played a major role in my recovery and I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have made it this far without them. Medication makes my anxiety and depression manageable and gives me a chance to really live my life. I have been trying different medications for my anxiety and insomnia for 10 years now. In that time I have tried more pharmaceuticals than the average person will take in their entire life. Anyone who has tried medication can tell you that it is a process of trial and error. In the past decade I have taken medications that have helped me immensely but I have also tried medications that had very serious and scary side effects. When I was 20 I was prescribed the SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Paxil and I took 80 mg for over 4 years. Initially, all SSRIs were considered non-addictive; but in the time that I was taking Paxil my body became physically dependent on it. With the help of my doctor I tried to wean off of it and I was hit with a severe case of SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome. At first I thought it was just me but then I googled “paxil withdrawal” and that was when I learned that I was on one of the most addictive anti-depressants on the market. I was angry at the doctor that put me on it and I was angry at myself for not doing the research sooner.
The thing is there’s a lot of people that benefit from the use of Paxil and while I was taking it it helped me as well. But when I started to go off of Paxil I was met with severe and life-changing side effects. It wasn’t like going off of Cymbalta or Prozac, this was completely different. Personally, I think that people should know and understand how severe the side effects/withdrawal can be if they’re going to take a medication. It’s not fair to be surprised like I was. At the end of the day our bodies are all different and no two people will react the same way to a drug. For some people Paxil can be lifesaving and I respect that but I also want there to be space for conversations about the dangers that it can pose. This goes for all drugs, not just Paxil. I believe that the more information that is available to consumers the better.
What has the process been like slowly tapering off of Paxil?
I can easily say its been one of the scariest and most difficult things that I have done in my life. I began the tapering process on November 12th 2017 at 80 mg and a year later I was down to 15 mg. Since then I have had to go a lot slower with my tapering. Now I will only go down by a milligram at a time. When I started I would go down by 10 mg or 5mg. I quickly learned that my body needed me to go slower. Today I am at 5 mg and I have been using a liquid suspension of Paxil so that I can get a much more accurate dose. I didn’t even know this taking a liquid suspension was an option until I read a New York Times article titled, “Many People Taking Antidepressants Discover They Cannot Quit,” by Benedict Carey and Robert Gebeloff. Reading that article and hearing stories like mine gave me hope and knowledge that made the process so much easier. That article showed me the power of consumers sharing knowledge and inspired me to talk more publicly about what I had been going though.
In the process of tapering off of Paxil, I have watched myself turn into a person that I don’t recognize. I’ve lost weight and most of my energy. I’ve become more anxious and depressed which has led to more isolation. I’ve watched my memory start to fail and then completely disappear all together. Where is my love for food? My energy? Why have I become a hermit when I used to be a social butterfly? And where in the world did my memory go? My brain has become a piece of swiss cheese. I also started experiencing severe mood swings and I would find myself filled with rage unlike I had ever experienced before. It got to a point where I felt I had no control over my emotions or how they affected me. It’s been really difficult dealing with all of these psychological and physical changes but the worst part of this entire process was watching my love for life slip away.
When it comes to mental health I am comfortable talking about literally anything- except my own struggles with suicidal thoughts. I’ve always had severe OCD so naturally my mind goes places that I don’t want it to. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize that as a symptom of my OCD. Up until the past few years I had dealt with anxiety and depression but never suicidal thoughts. When I began tapering off of Paxil last year something deep inside me shifted. A wave of depression knocked me down and the combination of pharmaceuticals that I was on caused me to struggle with suicidal and self harm thoughts throughout the year. My OCD would amplify the thoughts and it became hard to tell what I really felt and what the pills were making me feel. It was scary, it felt like I had lost control of my own mind. Though I had told others countless times that it was nothing to be ashamed of I found myself consumed with shame which pushed me deeper into isolation. I kept this from most people in my life simply because I found it so difficult to talk about. The stigma surrounding suicide is so large that I was scared of how people would react if i shared how I was actually feeling. In fact I’m scared writing this now because I don’t know how it will be received. But we can’t continue on like this, it’s unproductive. There is nothing to be ashamed of here.
At what point did you begin creating artwork based on your experience?
I started making art about my mental health about two and a half years ago. I was in such a dark place that I didn’t know how else to cope with my thoughts and feelings. When I started making art, I found that it gave me moments of peace and serenity that I couldn’t find anywhere else. When my thoughts would become really dark and obsessive I would turn to art. There were times when I was obsessing about self harming but I made art instead. It sounds cliché but art calmed me down when nothing else could. At that time I was doing a lot of post production work on my black and white film photographs so I was using a nail to etch off the top layer of emulsion and the physical process was so therapeutic. I would sit down to work on a piece in a horrible mood and then I would look up at the clock only to see that hours had passed and my mood had changed drastically. Making art was the only positive coping mechanism I had that could remove me from the overwhelming rush of emotions. Once I found that it made me feel better I started to do it more, and at that point I was making art daily.
I was making art for so many reasons. I was using art as a lifeline to keep me alive. I was using art to tell my story when words failed me. I was using it as a way to communicate with the world around me.
Where are you at today in your journey?
Today I am at 5 mg of Paxil, so I’m pretty close to being off of it! That being said I do take two other medications to help manage my anxiety and depression. Once I am fully off of the Paxil I hope to go down to just one medication and then see how I’m feeling. My plan is to take things day by day. I hope to see how much of my symptoms I can manage through exercise, diet, and health coping mechanisms. Mental health has been one of the most defining aspects of the last 10 years of my life. In the past few years I have become an advocate for mental health awareness. I know that mental illness will always be a part of my life but I am excited to see how much of a change we can make with this next generation and our evolving views on vulnerability and strength.
Where can people follow you on social media?