Archive for May, 2012

THE ZAPS, an exclusive Junk Talk guest post by William Dickerson

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 29, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

The following is a guest post by William Dickerson, author of No Alternative, a character-driven look at teenage lives in the grunge era. Will discusses his withdrawal experience from an SSRI, prescribed for anxiety, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 

by William Dickerson

I was in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attacks. While many watched the tragedy unfold live on television, I watched it live from the window of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, some sixty blocks away from the unfolding disaster. I would never dismiss the effect that 9/11 had on anyone, no matter how one ended up watching it, because we all did watch it one way or another. But the events of 9/11 had some very specific effects on me, and it’s those effects that I want to tell you about.

Several months after the event, which seemed so completely unreal and unfathomable as I watched it live, its effects began to manifest itself within me in a very physical and emotional way. I began to experience severe panic attacks when I entered the elevator of the building where I worked. I was working as a paralegal during the day at the time, while moonlighting at night editing my first short film. As the elevator door closed on me, I began to experience an instantaneous feeling of vertigo – the 90 degree corners of the floating box I was standing inside began to bend and encroach on me. My sense of equilibrium, my ballast, disappeared entirely and my knees began to buckle. All I could do was casually put both hands on a wall and lean. Sometimes I would have to face the wall, in order to shield my face from the co-workers around me, so they wouldn’t think anything was wrong—as if standing facing the wall in an elevator isn’t itself somehow wrong. The balance was a big problem, but that didn’t compete with the racing heartbeat and inability to breathe. Until the door opened and I was able to step out of it, it was an absolute chore to simply take a breath.

The thing that stands out to me now is the fact that, for the first few months following the event, I felt fine. But clearly the impact of seeing, and living through, such a horrendous catastrophe began to work its way into the shadows of my subconscious, ultimately manifesting itself physically through these panic attacks. It was debilitating, affecting both my personal and professional life.

I had to get help.

I explained my condition to my doctor, who recommended that I go on anti-anxiety medication. No need to see anybody else, no psychiatrist or mental healthcare physician. He could prescribe the meds himself and I could go on them immediately. There was an answer, and the answer was a pill. I was prescribed a standard dose of the drug Effexor, and I was told I would feel concrete results in a couple of weeks. Getting accustomed to the drug wasn’t that bad; I barely noticed it. There were some headaches here and there, but nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. Before I knew it, the panic attacks had ceased. I could ride the elevator just as I had before. There was no vertigo, no trouble breathing, no feeling that I was going to have a heart attack.

Now, as I departed the elevator and turned into the hallway where I worked, I could sense the walls around me – and the walls were as stable as ever, like they were built from titanium. The structure of the building now seemed almost impervious, as if it was better protected from an accident than the walls of a fortress or the deck of an aircraft carrier. What was odd, however, were the people who passed me in the halls. Somehow, they seemed like a part of these walls, as if they were nothing more than impenetrable, gesticulating statues. I felt completely disconnected from them; not like they were strangers, but almost like they were not actually human. I tried to get over this idea by reminding myself that these were only my co-workers. How much more disconnected could I possibly be from them? And did it really matter? In hindsight, this seems like a callous thought, but I was trying to protect myself from the horror of going back to the panic attacks. If the price of not suffering from those panic attacks was that my co-workers seemed like statues, I was willing to pay that price. It wasn’t until I also started to feel disconnected and numb around my friends, my family, and my sexual organs, that I began to consider the potentially dehumanizing effects of this drug.

My stint on Effexor lasted six months. In those six months, my panic attacks were rendered a thing of the past and I was grateful for that. All things considered, medicating myself seemed like the appropriate measure. Looking back on it, I suppose I would do it again. It got me over my hurdle. Presumably since I had never experienced anything like these attacks before, it’s possible that they might have gone away eventually, with or without the use of pharmaceuticals. The numbness became worse, or perhaps it just became more and more noticeable. The first three months were marked by relief after having overcome the panic attacks. The subsequent three months were marked by the realization that to overcome these attacks, I had sacrificed access to some of my emotions. While I wasn’t down as often, and I had certainly stopped panicking, I wasn’t high in the natural sense either. The pill had become an emotional limiter, like a blanket of numbness pulled up to the chin of my senses. I was protected, yes, but protected from what? Life? Life has its ups and downs. You either want to feel them or not. But you can’t pick and choose; you either feel both or you feel neither.

I decided to take myself off Effexor. I didn’t tell my doctor, which maybe wasn’t the best idea. I simply began weaning myself off the pills. I was in control of my life, wasn’t I? I went from a full dosage to a half dosage and within a day, I started to feel the withdrawal. I’ve never been one to dabble much in the realm of recreational drugs. My expertise primarily extends to alcohol and marijuana. I rarely drink, at least heavily, and I can’t remember the last time I smoked weed. Part of the reason I don’t drink much is the horrific hangover I am forced to endure as a result of drinking heavily. The term “hangover” is a term we instantly associate with uncomfortable things like: headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and moderate to severe dehydration. I can say without a moment’s hesitation that, despite my negative feelings about hangovers, withdrawal from my prescription anti-anxiety medication was exponentially worse than what I would consider a bad hangover. It not only included the uncomfortable things associated with hangovers, but also things called “the zaps,” also known as “brain zaps,” “brain shocks,” “brain shivers,” “head shocks,” or “cranial zings.” If these terms conjure up images of electro-shock therapy in some medieval mental hospital, your visualization wouldn’t be that far from what I actually experienced. For two and a half days, about every 15 minutes, I would endure one of these zaps to my brain. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I’d nod off, WHAM! a shock to the cranium. It was like my brain was strapped into an electric chair, which some deranged executioner inside my head activated at random intervals, whenever he felt it was appropriate to punish me. But I couldn’t get to him because he was protected by the thick bone of my skull. No matter how hard I scratched and pulled at my scalp, there was no getting in there to stop this bastard or to pull the plug from his torture device.

My panic attacks had subsided, but now I was left panicking over whether I had permanently fried the motherboard in my brain. If that was the case, it seemed to me that no soldering iron or spare circuit in the known universe could fix what I had so nonchalantly screwed up.

How come I hadn’t heard any warnings of such a withdrawal? If I had, I just might have heeded them! I can recall horror stories from my youth of people falling asleep in bathtubs of acid and waking up legally insane for the remainder of their lives. I had heard this happened to one of Mick Jagger’s girlfriends. It wasn’t even my generation and the story was in earshot. It doesn’t matter if it was true or not, what matters is I heard it somewhere and it scared the crap out of me. Where is the REEFER MADNESS equivalent for Big Pharma? Where are the propaganda films? The commercials? This is your brain on…SSRIs (cue the egg in the frying pan)? Instead, it’s the opposite: slick commercials littered among our primetime television programs reassuring you that there’s an answer in a pill, and it’s only one doctor’s appointment away. Or mouse click, if you want to order meds yourself from websites outside the medical jurisdiction of the United States; the internet is, after all, international. The warnings today are mild; the horror stories are virtually nonexistent. Pharmaceutical companies no doubt have much better PR people on the payroll than your average LSD blotter chemist did in the 70’s. In the early 1990’s, SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) hit the anti-depressant market in a big way and the market did not exclude children. Not until over 10 years later did the medical community realize that prescribing such hardcore meds to children whose bodies and minds are still developing was probably not a good idea. Childhood SSRI prescriptions were banned in Britain in 2003, and in 2004, the FDA issued a black box warning against prescribing SSRIs and SNRIs to children. The reason for the concern was increased suicide risk, which was confirmed by a 2007 study that found that SSRIs increase the urge to commit suicide in individuals under the age of 24. There have even been cases of SSRI use in children leading to permanent, untreatable tics and spasms of the voluntary muscles. There have been links to Tardive Dyskinesia, a movement disorder that afflicts the voluntary muscles, including the eyelids, tongue, larynx, diaphragm, neck, arms, legs, and torso, for which there is no known treatment. In the early 2000’s, when I was under medication, the downside to these drugs were still ignored. It was not common knowledge that you could get the zaps.

After I withdrew completely from Effexor, the zaps stopped and I wanted to fall to the ground and hug the entirety of the planet Earth. I had thought that they would never stop. Everything around me was noticeably clearer. I felt connected again; to my family, to my friends, to myself, and even to my co-workers. Just as happily, I found I could ride an elevator again without experiencing panic. The pills had done their job, but not without a cost.

In 1987, the first SSRI, Fluoxetine (street name Prozac), hit the shelves. It hasn’t been that long since these types of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications first went on the market. Our knowledge of the long-term effects of usage is limited at best. In fifty years from now, will we know if cell phones have been proven to cause brain tumors? Will music still be left on CD’s? Will our digital photos remain on our hard drives? Will our brains be okay after years of lacing them with anti-anxiety meds? You can count me among the legion of test subjects who are planning to be around to find out the answer to that last question.

William Dickerson graduated from The College of The Holy Cross with a degree in English and received his Masters of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer/director whose work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His feature film, DETOUR, has just been acquired by Level One Entertainment. His first novel, NO ALTERNATIVE, a character-driven look at teenage lives in the grunge era, has been published this April. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rachel, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Duet. For more info, visit:

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