After a lifetime of fear, anxiety and control issues, I’ve given up the fight and turned to Sertraline (Zoloft) for help.
When I started iamcicero.com it was designed to be a place for me to journal my anxiety and worry journey. The funny thing is that once I had it registered and set up, I was in a good space and didn’t have a lot of anxiety to talk about. For anyone that has struggled with mental health issues, and anxiety you will know that it can change in an instant.
And it did.
I’ve been a worrier all my life. I love to say I’ve been a warrior all my life – I’m a lover, not a fighter but really, anyone who has struggled with mental health issues is a warrior.
It takes incredible strength and internal power to live every day when you are always looking for a way out of where you are (I mean like wanting to run away from your job, staying in your apartment for fear of being out in public, running out of fear of anything really, etc not, a ‘final exit’.).
I spent my early years up to 7 years old in relative comfort and luxury but after my parent’s divorce, my remaining years were spent in a rough (violent at times), racially charged small town with no father figure as a little skinny white kid ripe for bullying.
It can always be worse but I think this didn’t help frame my later years. In truth, I’ve always been an optimistic person who uses humour to win people over (I learned this at high school as a tool to avoid being beaten up – make your bullies laugh and you can avoid a beat down).
I’ve been very successful in my career and anyone who knows me would probably be surprised that I’ve spent most days in the last 15-20 years trying to survive one day at a time.
15 years ago I moved country (I’d already moved Country once before with no side effects) and the change disrupted something in me. I took a busy job at a start-up and didn’t cope well with the stress. I grew the company and the team but at a cost to myself and my marriage.
Every lunchtime was spent trying to vent my fear, frustrations, and issues on my colleagues in an attempt to form a ‘posse’ to feel better supported. Really, I was just afraid of failure.
Eventually, after a long year, I bailed out. The stress was too much. This was my first experience of what can only be described as a breakdown. Something snapped in my head.
It was at this time I found the book by Robert Leahy called The Worry Cure.
It didn’t take away my anxiety but I cried reading it because for the first time in my life I realised that the feelings I’d been carrying for years were, normal. I wasn’t unique and these feelings were common in people all around me.
I managed to find a safer space to work and got back into a really good place for a few years. At this point, I should have realised that I wasn’t built for high-stress jobs but, I seemed to do well in them and got bored in anything less.
What is that push-pull we have where we want a challenge but we don’t want the stress? A rollercoaster I’d like to resolve with the right job one day.
At this point, I was ready for a new adventure so moved country again, for the 3rd time.
The first day I landed it was raining; a cold airport and a long drive to a new house. I was tired, had a 3-month-old baby, and arrived in a house where the floor was paper thin and you could hear everything downstairs. That also meant they could hear us.
I felt afraid.
This situation broke me on day one. Tired, far from home, a young family, no income, and the feeling that I wasn’t safe in my own apartment broke me.
This started a 3 month journey of absolute darkness.
In times like these, you call your Mum. At this point, I’m in my late 30’s. Mum said, “go see someone”. So I did.
Off to the doctors, I went the next day and after breaking down in the appointment room was given Ativan and Cir-something-or-other.
A benzodiazepine and an SSRI.
12 years ago doctors knew there were side effects when you onboard an SSRI but they didn’t suggest a gradual uptake. e.g. Take half a pill for 2 weeks and then a full tablet.
They did might take a few weeks to work and it might be tough for a while.
The onboarding was horrible. Sweats, terrors, panic attacks, fear.
My trigger of having people downstairs basically in my house was too much to cope with on top of a 3-month-old baby in our house that cried at all times of the night and needed me available.
My wife didn’t understand what I was going through but she was an incredible support and carried a lot of the day-to-day I couldn’t.
So, about those SSRI’s.
They were terrible. Either the wrong drug, wrong dose, or wrong instructions. After 3 months I came off them as I felt like a Zombie with no personality and I was still anxious a lot.
Finding a new job, in a safe space helped.
The first job I took I left after 3 months as I was too stressed. The second job I found I stuck with for 5 years. It was a great place to be. A bunch of broken people all working towards a goal.
I wasn’t alone in my issues.
At the end of the 5 years, you guessed it, I moved countries again.
This time it was back to my home country, close to my family. I carried a job with me but the travel and stress again got to me after 3 years I had to quit.
I managed my stress through these times and I think in hindsight, had I gone on the right SSRI earlier I would have coped so much better. That goes for the last 20 years though really…
Coming home, what a great feeling
Coming home was a great feeling but it didn’t solve my issues. I was up in the night stressing about work all the time.
It’s the pressure of being the money earner for a family of 4 and not seeing an out. Knowing without my job I had no idea how we would pay the bills. This thought pattern isn’t reasonable as I’m highly employable but my imposter syndrome gets the better of me every time.
A family member told to me I needed to settle down. Change is a trigger in itself. Home felt like a good place to settle down. Being around family was a massive help, not a cure, but a great support.
So, we’re almost at the Sertraline (Zoloft) bit
I changed from a stressful job to a slightly less stressful job. 3 years into that I felt the need for a new challenge so I took a new senior-level job at a great company with lovely people.
This is where I was meant to remind myself that I don’t do well in stressful jobs but, it was Summer and I was feeling gooood.
I lasted 3 days.
I started the new job and lasted 3 days. 3. Days.
A new record for me. My previous record was 2 weeks before I got too stressed and had to leave.
I was hit on all sides as soon as I walked into the building with information and stuff that was irrelevant to me. In hindsight I realise the job was good, the first 3 days ruined what could have been a beautiful thing.
I was tense, I couldn’t sleep, think, or function.
I walked in the door at home at the end of day 2 and collapsed in the hallway, curled up in a ball, and couldn’t move. I passed out asleep for a while – all the adrenaline and energy were running out in my body.
I was a late-40s shell of a man.
I called the old company I previously worked for and asked for them to have me back. They said yes. I walked out of the new job and didn’t go back. I couldn’t.
This in itself was all a trigger. I had failed in something I was more than qualified to do. But my anxiety and imposter syndrome beat me down.
I would be a pariah in town, no one would hire me again.
Big. Fat. Loser. Failed my kids, wife, me, the company. I would die a poor, sad hollow lonely human being.
But I did go to the Doctor.
And the doctor said ‘we have drugs if you need them’. I didn’t take them because I saw that as a failure. My inability to manage my own feelings was a failure. I was a failure.
2 weeks later after going back to my old job things had changed there too. They had leveled up after I had left so, boom, there goes the anxiety again.
Back to the Doctor we go.
“Those drugs, that Sertraline you mentioned? I’ll take it.”
And that’s where things got worse, then way better.
I was more afraid of the drugs than my anxiety
I think I had put off going on SSRIs for so long because of the awful experience I had had 12 years earlier.
I was more afraid of the onboarding effects of the drugs than the anxiety in my mind.
But this time, I was at the end. I couldn’t do it any longer. I can only describe what I was feeling as trauma. An overwhelming fear of failure was so strong it was like I was suffering from PTSD.
My brain as a bathtub
The Doctor drew a nice picture of a bathtub. He said, the bathtub was my brain and the water was my serotonin levels. My bathtub was emptier than most people, this was the cause of my issues.
We had to plug the bathtub so it could fill up with serotonin again. SSRIs would do that.
It was a nice, simple way to understand what I had always believed – that my brain was chemically ineffective. This is a chemical imbalance.
It’s not me, my thoughts or personality that are broken, it’s the chemicals in my brain being out of balance.
We started slow. That’s the key.
Sertraline has been available for many years but the Doctors I spoke to referred to it as a ‘newer’ solution that did a great job on anxiety specifically.
I committed. Whatever the onboarding was like, I had to reach the other side.
I started on 25mg of Sertraline (also called Zoloft in the US). For 10 days I did 25gms.
There were still days I could hardly get myself out of bed to go to work. It took everything in me. Everything. I was so tired, so afraid, so exhausted from it all.
Why does it have to take so long to work?!
Why does it have to get worse before it gets better?
How can I be this broken when only a month ago (before the job change) I was on top of the world?
On the 10th day, I was making progress, slowly, but there was a conflict that day in the office that was triggering. Raised voices, slammed doors and I went on a little downwards spiral.
That night I had two strong drinks and levelled up to 50mg, wanting the drugs to kick it faster!
This might have been hasty, or not. It’s hard to know as I was making mistakes I didn’t even know about.
What I would say is if you start on a quarter or half (25mg) for the first couple of weeks your onboarding will go so much better. Going straight to 50mg would be a lot harder to manage…in my unprofessional opinion.
Here are the mistakes I made in the first 3 weeks
The first mistake – the two strong drinks that night made everything worse. Elevated my anxiety and left me with sweats and panic attacks. Bad idea, especially in the first month or two. (I had drinks at the end of week 3 and felt good the next day but the days following I seemed to be a little wobbly, might have been other factors like having to isolate again because of COVID.) Stay off the drink for at least 4- 6 weeks I’d say.
The second mistake – I was taking Zopiclone (sleeping pills) as the Sertraline was keeping me up at night. I wasn’t waking up stressed or anxious but I just couldn’t sleep. After being awake for too long I did start to loop unhealthy thoughts about work so I started taking half a Zopiclone.
This was a terrible cocktail, for me. The Zopiclone was helping me to sleep but I was then waking up at 5:30 am with sweats, panic attacks, and extreme thoughts. I didn’t connect the two together for about 2-3 weeks and then the penny dropped – it was the Zopiclone that was the bad mojo in the mix.
I was OK in the afternoons and evenings. I was OK at bedtime. I was OK when I woke up at 2am. The drugs were working! But then I would take a sleeping pill and wake up at 5:30am panicked as all-get-out. Then I’d come right once the sleeping pills were leaving my system midday.
So glad I figured that out.
Immediately stopping that solved it almost overnight. Relief! I thought I was having a repeat of 12 years earlier.
I moved to Unisom instead to help me nod off if I awoke in the night. Fewer side effects and still managed to get myself off to la la land.
Things I added which helped
There were a few things I added that helped. Some are in this post also.
The first was exercise. I could feel the fight or flight anxiety in me like a ball of negative energy. Going for a run, bike ride or even doing some push-ups right there on the lounge floor was a great way to convert it to positive energy – good sweat, tiredness and a boost to all the good feels you get after exercise.
It was a great way to tell my body that I had run away from the Lion in the bushes and survived.
I’m not an athlete but even skipping, a brisk walk can help.
The second was 10 minutes in the Sunshine (if it was shining!). I would stand and look towards the Sun, not at the Sun, and let the rays warm me and boost my overall positivity.
They say 10-20 minutes of indirect sunlight into your eyes can help boost your good vibes (overseas I owned a SAD daylight which can mimic the sun in Winter.)
The third was cutting out Coffee. I like coffee so I switched to Decaf. It’s a small sacrifice to make for a while. Maybe I’ll go back on it later. But at least I have decaf for now.
The fourth, which I look forward to, was a grateful journal. These CBT techniques came from my reading The Worry Cure book I mentioned above but I never really did it.
This season of anxiety I did a journal and it really helped. I just write a list in the morning and at night of all the things I’m grateful for. Usually, it’s similar but it helps me add positivity to my thoughts. My kids, my home, family, sunshine, decaf, my commute (it’s a chilled-out trip listening to the news which I like), safety, etc.
So 4 weeks in, how’s going?
The first few weeks would have gone so much better without the sleep issues but I think I’m getting there. I changed from taking it at night to taking it in the morning too.
I no longer go down extreme thought patterns. When I’m triggered at work, it passes much quicker and I can focus on a solution.
I get grumpy quite quickly but I think that will pass. I think I’ll start to sleep better, I already am.
I’m looking forward to the 6-week mark which for many they say is the pinnacle, or close to it.
My Doctor said I can go up to 75 or 100mg if I feel the need but for now, I think I’m so much better that I might be OK on 50mg.
The stomach issues, tiredness during the day, heavy heartbeat have also started to pass.
Stick in there
It’s hard. I know. And we all react differently.
The first few weeks can be brutal, extreme, terrifying but you will come out the other side and it is a great place to be.
If you need to, take time off work, school, life to stay in bed and hug your pillow. I marched in to work every day because I had to do at least that. It was hard but I made it.
Work is still hard but the drugs make it more manageable, and I hope they will continue to do so.
When my life circumstances change I’ll probably look for a less stressful job but for now, we need the money.
People care about you. You are important. You matter.
Need an ear? Have a question? Drop it in the comments below.