Free Your Mind: How I Finally Tamed My Anxiety

Free your mind…

This is part 3 of 4 in a May series titled “Free Your Mind”, where Carlen Altman shares the tips and tricks she’s learned on her quest for inner peace (and hopes they can help you too!)

Hi, dear Free People blog reader, it’s your friend Carlen. Being that the title of of my Free People mini-series is Free Your Mind, I should give you some backstory to how I came to be so passionate about “mental self help”. (PS- did you know May is Mental Self Help Awareness Month?)

For as long as I can remember, I have been a sensitive, anxious person who never understood our “modern” society. I remember sobbing on the floor of my first grade classroom, secretly covering the glue traps the janitor set out with wooden toy building blocks in an attempt to spare the lives of innocent mice from a terrible sticky fate. (Seriously, imagine how terrible it would be to die on a pile of glue! Or don’t actually! They say thoughts become things!)

From the rules and restrictions of school (sit in your chair; be quiet; pay attention; don’t share your notes with others) to the similarly restricting guidelines of adulthood (work 9-5; don’t question authority; no naps allowed) I have truly never felt like I was born on the right planet. If it were up to me, I would spend my days daydreaming, reading books, writing and walking around nature with friends. This is my idea of being a “Free Person” and unfortunately, unless you have the good fortune of financial independence, this type of  lifestyle seems to be only restricted for weekends (after the laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping,and bill paying get done of course…)

As I became a teenager, I would come home from school most days and numb myself in front of the television watching MTV or living in my head, imagining I was in a faraway place that didn’t exist in the real world. How could there be wars? How could we let homeless people go to bed hungry? How could we accept greedy companies were cutting down the rainforests and contributing to climate change for the sake of money?

In an attempt to feel a sense of control in the world, in 10th grade I founded my high school’s Environmental Club and signed so many “save the world” petitions all day long I developed what felt like juvenile carpal tunnel syndrome. But alas, despite all my efforts, I still felt out of control and anxious about everything. Since about the age of 15, I have been what you would call a ‘vitamin junkie’, always looking for natural cures for anxiety. First I tried fish oil, then B12, then Ashwaghanda. I am sure these supplements all have tremendous benefits as research suggests, but no matter how many vitamins I swallowed, an intense feeling of anxiety always kept creeping back up on me.

It was on my 21st birthday that my mother suggested I take antidepressants. I was initially insulted and immediately said no; afraid that antidepressants would take away the one thing I had – my imagination.

So, after months of contemplation, I finally said yes to the possibility of antidepressants. My mom and I made an appointment with a recommended psychiatrist, who after listening to me for 50 minutes diagnosed me as anxious, depressed, and obsessive compulsive (oh my!) and immediately gave me a high dose of the antidepressant Paxil.

01_carlen_

Despite my all my reluctance to take medication, I have to say Paxil worked almost immediately. My anxiety, sadness, and fears about our planet became manageable.  After only 2 weeks of taking it, life stopped feeling like such a struggle; I began leaving the house more; I even had a boyfriend. I still felt alienated from society but it didn’t cripple my life in the same way it did. I continued signing petitions to “save the bees” (and everything else) and I would even feel moments of happiness from time to time.

But for the next ten years, things felt ‘off.’ Mainly, I couldn’t cry. I literally couldn’t cry. Not when I watched a sad movie. Not when my grandfather died. Nothing. Not even a single tear.

For the entirety of my 20’s, I think I cried once. It was in 2012, when Free People sold out of a floral maxi dress I was about to buy. (Just kidding.) Sure, I felt some emotion throughout my days – I wasn’t completely an apathetic robot, but I just felt disconnected from reality (not to mention, basically asexual – but that topic is for another post…)

In February of 2015, on the 10th anniversary of being on antidepressants, I decided to do something very unusual to celebrate – attempt wean myself off of them. In so many ways, antidepressants have been a lifesaver for me, friends of mine, and certainly millions of other people – but I decided I wanted to see if it were possible for me to experience life without them.

02_carlen_

Why did I want to wean off of them, you ask? I wanted to know what it was like to feel – and maybe even shed a tear – not to mention a heap load of research suggested that the use of antidepressants long-term would have some pretty unhappy side effects.  (A little note: I only advocate weaning off antidepressants with the help of a professional; I also do not mean to imply that I think antidepressants are a sign of weakness or something to get off of; I just knew for me it was the right time to try something else!)

From February to May of 2015, under medical supervision, I tapered down my dosage into smaller and smaller quantities until I ran out. CVS Pharmacy would call me daily with their robot automated voice “Your refill is ready for pickup” and I would just hang up… At first, life without antidepressants was great! I felt fine being unmedicated and solely supplementing with a multivitamin and B12. However, 3 months later, I began to feel what I assume are withdrawals , as I experienced a level of anxiety and panic I had never felt before. Remember my wish and longing to cry? Well, that wish came true! Big time! If I saw something upsetting about the environment on Facebook, I would cry immediately. If something good happened or an elderly person smiled at me on the street, I would cry tears of joy immediately as well. If I saw someone yell at their child on the subway or if someone said something mean to me at work, I would have to take a walk around the block just to cry in private.

I have to say, although I preferred this colorful and overwhelmingly emotional way of living over the apathetic asexual robot life I left, I wondered if there was some sort of middle-ground between the two… Sure I didn’t want to feel numb but I also didn’t want to be controlled by my emotions! After a particularly rough day, my mom kindly encouraged me to go back on antidepressants. “Maybe there are different, ‘more improved’ ones since you started taking them 10 years ago,” she said. But something deep in my gut told me that this wasn’t the solution either. Did I really want to go deeper down this rabbit hole?

03_freeyourmind_

I remember hearing a quote It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” and it really resonated with me.  Although crying at the drop of a hat wasn’t healthy (I mean literally, I cried when my hat fell in a puddle), maybe it wasn’t “me” that was the problem, but our society instead? Could it be that feeling sad and scared about climate change and homelessness was normal and that our society’s decision to go on with business as usual was what was actually crazy? Could it actually be that sitting quietly in an office chair under fluorescent lights 8 hours a day with lunch and social media being my only solace like I was doing was actually a crazy way of existence and that I wasn’t the problem?

With so many questions in mind, in February of 2016, a year after I began weaning myself off antidepressants, I decided to do something even crazier. I impulsively quit my job at a TV news station, bought a cheap ticket to Los Angeles, and left New York City (without even so much as posting it to Facebook.) I didn’t have much of a savings account and didn’t know exactly what I was doing but I knew that something needed to change.

And something did change. For the better! When I got to Los Angeles, I took a break from the news, from social media, from everything and cried. I cried for our planet, I cried for our current insane election, I cried about everything.  You wouldn’t know it was a drought in California with all the water expelling from my eyes (Sorry, terrible joke – but they say laughter is the best medicine, right? Does that count if I am the only one laughing? Don’t answer that…).

I have good news. Over the course of the next three months in Los Angeles, I think I may have ACTUALLY figured out how to manage my anxiety and experience my emotions without letting them take control of me… There is no one-size-fits-all way to naturally deal with anxiety and depression as we are all so very different but I will share with you how I finally felt better with the hope that it will help you too.

  •  I discovered a life-changing (and controversial) new book called A MIND OF YOUR OWN: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies To Reclaim Their Minds by Kelly Brogan, which advocates dietary and lifestyle changes as a means to deal with depression and anxiety – If you are dealing with anxiety or depression, THIS BOOK IS AN EYE OPENING MUST-READ! (Sorry for the caps, I am not yelling.)
  •  I got a blood test to detect whether I was receiving enough vitamins. Through one bloodtest (which I did under the guidance of a naturopathic doctor named Emily Glasser) I learned I was deficient in vitamin B6, vitamin D, (and suffered from Adrenal Fatigue and a parasite! Who KNEW?) – and immediately started supplementing. As an (almost) lifelong vegetarian, I had heard all about the importance of supplementing with vitamin B12 but  nobody had ever talked to me about the importance of vitamin B6! As soon as I started supplementing, I immediately began feeling better.
  •  On the suggestion of Dr. Glasser, I began taking many supplements including a probiotic and magnesium, two things most people are lacking which are known for helping to alleviate anxiety. (If you are in LA, I highly recommend making an appointment with Dr. Glasser!)
  • I incorporated more fats, oils and protein into my diet (Consult with a doctor first to see if this is right for your body. Everyone is different.) and cut out almost all processed sugar, gluten, soy, corn, grains, non-organic produce and alcohol. This has been the most challenging, cost and willpower-wise, but I have tried to make it my top priority.)
  • I joined a gym and began to exercise at least 4 times a week (along with meditating for 10 minutes everyday, which I mentioned in my previous post) – If you don’t have time to go to the gym, that’s okay. Any activity that makes you move your body is helpful. Check out some great exercises to do at home on the FP blog here!
  • I began volunteering with causes I believed in. Remember how I tried saving the mice in 1st grade? I am now volunteering with non-profit organizations who are trying to change the world! Even an hour a week, put your energy into what you care about – it will help the world and give you a sense of control over the situation. Find volunteer opportunities at Idealist.org! WE HAVE MORE POWER THAN WE THINK!
  • I started a daily gratitude journal (learn how to make one here) after reading another life-changing book called THE MAGIC by Rhonda Byrne which explains the Law of Attraction and how gratitude is (truly) the attitude you have to adopt if you want your life to get better. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK!

02_carlen_

From these 7 steps above, I can say that I honestly feel happy and balanced for the first time in my life. There is no one size fits all solution to anxiety and depression but if there is one takeaway from this whole lifetime of ups and downs, it is that if you are feeling anxious, depressed or hopeless, you should never give up! Sure, the world is not entirely ‘saved’ and I still do not want to ever work a 9-5 job in an office (which is something I am figuring out how to do now and will share with you shortly), but I finally feel a sense of inner peace for the first time ever and hope that somehow, my words and experience help you on your journey too.

Images by FP Emily.

Comments

  1. Wow – thank you for sharing your experiences so openly! <3
    I can truly connect with what you describe. Well, I'm on my journey too. I was so happy to read about your feeling of justice and that you do not seem to make any difference between the souls of animals and human beeings (the glue-mice-story – that could have been myself, since I can remember I "rescued" all kind of animals and I still do and for me every snail or worm counts). I can also relate to your thoughts about health and society.
    What helped me a lot (and still does) is the connection with the universe (oneness) and it really calmed me that almost all indigenous cultures knew about that and some (unfortunately few) still live accordingly. To me your experiences sound like the lines of a very old soul.. Once again, thanks so much for sharing your journey so openly; I think global change will only happen for good if we start to openly share our feelings – I'm sure most people still have the connection to universal love hidden somewhere deep down inside. Sharing openly like you do will help them to reclaim their freedom if the can relate to it even if it's subconcious.
    One love to the US,
    Simi

  2. As a graduate student studying Professional Counseling and a true lover of Free People, I get so happy when I see blog posts about the importance of taking care of your mental health. I love reading all the suggestions here on how to improve your mental health through basic cognitive and behavioral changes. I think it is really easy for people to think of depression and anxiety to be out of their control, but the I truly believe anyone can overcome obstacles through the power of their own mind and behavior. I wish you the best of luck on your journey!

  3. Yay! Good for you to finally get off the pills! I mean, it’s great that they worked for you of course but I can see why you wanted to feel what it’s like to be off them again, especially after such a long time. And the fact that you can now feel at ease without the help of anti-depressants is wonderful.

  4. I am 36 years old and was put on Effexor when I was 16. I was in my early 30’s when I took myself off of them. I stupidly did not wean myself off and the withdrawl was a nightmare. However, I am happier now than I was on them. As you pointed out, exercise, healthy food, and focusing on what I can do and what makes me happy have for the most part kept the depression away. When I feel it coming on, I don’t wallow in it. I recognize it for what it is and my husband notices it, too. We’ll do something–even just a date night or go to the beach to raise my spirits. Depression will always be there for me, but it’s manageable now. I don’t knock the pills because they helped me when I needed them, but there’s no need for them anymore.

  5. You have the other half of my soul- I feel your troubles. Currently on the generic of Lexapro and wanting to wing myself off it also, thanks for the encouragement!

  6. Thank you for posting this! It really spoke to me. I’m o grateful for people brave enough to share their reality. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life and never really understood why. Although I’ve never been on antidepressants, I’ve known what it’s like to need something to lift you out.
    Being very connected to the well-being of life on earth, I’ve wondered if that has been part of my anxiety. I’m glad to know someone else has thought the same!
    You’re a beautiful person and I’m so happy you’re finding your path to inner peace.

  7. I really loved this post! That quote is amazing & i immediately ordered the two books you recommended. Thank you so much for all this info!

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I have struggled with depression and anxiety all my life and I’m 54yrs old. I to have been on the antidepressant’s and got myself off because it only helped for so long. And yes it does suppress emotions (doesn’t help your sex life either!). Also gone down the CBT route, which helped some. So I try to except its part of me and who I am, knowing some times are harder to deal with than other times is the way it is. I’m a very sensitive soul, especially about animals, I love them so much! Reading everyone else’s comments is so lovely, we are truly a special bunch, thank you. Trying to be healthier with exercise and good food and also have an interest to focus on, such as my arts & crafts does help. So hang in there guys and don’t feel alone, we are in this together. Thank you Carlen. X

  9. ✌ THANK YOU LAUREN, SIMI, SAVANNAH, “KISS & MAKEUP”, JENNIFER B., HANNAH Z. , SIENNA, KERRI, LISSIE, TAY, CAROLYN (and everyone else who has read this article of mine!) – Wow, you are all so incredible; so grateful you read this and let me know it has helped you and for sharing your own experiences with me in these comments! ✌ I hope we all meet one day and hug at the top of a mountain! (I see it in my mind at least!) – Such a rare and beautiful community Free People has helped foster! – If you do read those books or visit Dr. Glasser, let me know what you think in the comments below (I will check back!) – and feel free to share this article with anyone you know if you think it might help them! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! xoxo Carlen ✌

  10. Just read Kelly Brogan book ..a mind of your own. Very informative. Im confused though. Is the only way to regulate my hashimotos by following a 100% gluten free diet. (Seems almost impossible).. ive been gluten free ish for 8 months. But now her book says mayo and ketchup can have it!!Then taking alternative to synthroid. Any one have ideas? Fyi. I am 65 years old and femalr. . stopped taking celexa after 20 years last year since beginning bio identical hormones. I have too many ups and downs. Experiencing a “down” now. Ugh. Sick of it. Thanks.

  11. This is so extremely helpful, thank you so much! So much good advice that does not seem impossible for me to try. I just started taking antidepressants and I have decided to discontinue them as they are not for me. I will look for a naturopathic doctor to help guide me to better health as well!

  12. I have enjoyed your story and all that you have gone through. It’s the experiences in life that shape who we are today and how we see the world around us. Why I’m really commenting, though, is because you said the world want totally ‘saved’. The understanding and care that you have taken to nurture your body are great but Jesus came and He did save! The Comforter, The Lover of your Soul, The Price of Peace: He came, He loved And He calls to you and me. Bless you and the rest of your days. Amen.

  13. I have constantly battled with my mental health, much like you have! I am overwhelmed by the atrocities that are committed against nature and the horrifying political climate our country has come to accept as normal. I am a pescetarian and constantly feel like I am lacking some essential vitamins. Your post has inspired me to get a blood test to see what I am lacking! Thank you for this post. It’s so nice to know I am not alone in this.

  14. Ever since watching The Color Wheel I knew I liked you, but now I think I love you.

    I too was an anxious and sensitive child/teen (with OCD to boot) and a few months shy of my 18th birthday I decided to try Paxil (after seeing a commercial for it. A. COMMERCIAL.) I can say without a doubt it was the worst decision of my life as I have spent the next 18 years trying to withdraw from it. It is the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through. Despite going painstakingly slow I still have so many issues and my life has been greatly diminished. If I had to do over again I would have tried therapy, nutrition, exercise, etc. but we are a nation that prefers quick fixes. We’re also a nation that allows direct to consumer advertising for powerful pharmaceutical drugs to be aired on television when other countries have banned this practice. Unfortunately for me I started Paxil in the late 90s before they added the “Beware: this drug may cause insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts, uncontrollable muscle movements and basically ruin your life” disclaimers they have now.

    Long story short, antidepressants have not been proven to work any better than placebos and if they do “work” for you it can come at a high price. But if you love your drug, more power to you. If you do ever decide to come off though, I hope you have an easier time of it than I have.

  15. I enjoyed your story and I am glad that life is getting better for you. You are a good writer.
    I also wanted to tell Chrissy Mack that a naturopathic physician can prescribe an alternative to Synthroid as well as bioidentical hormones. I use Nature-throid now, prescribed originally by my N.D. currently by my D.O.

  16. Thank you very very much for your inspiring words. Grateful to have come across this article. :)

  17. Hi Carlen, oh my you speak my language! So happy to have read this. I completely relate to everything you have written. Am going to check out idealist.org and am keen on how to get out of this 9-5 work thing?! I feel stuck. Thanks for your thoughts and wish you all the wellness in the world! J

  18. We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new
    scheme in our community. Your website offered us with useful info
    to work on. You have done a formidable task and our
    entire neighborhood shall be grateful tto you.

  19. Thank you so much for sharing so openly about your experiences with mental health! As someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety and PTSD, I want to thank you so much for taking the stigma out of mental illness and telling your story as it is. I am studying art therapy, and love the idea of natural remedies for mental health issues- of course our mental health is connected to our biology, emotions, etc! What a great read.. again thank you very much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.