“You have no idea what withdrawal feels like,” I told Ming. We were headed toward home–I’d asked if we could go out for smoothies, then a walk at the park right there. My pumpkin smoothie was delicious.
“I’m sorry you feel despair,” Ming said.
“It’s not despair,” I said. “It’s not just being sad, but sad too. Can I tell you what withdrawal feels like?”
“Yes,” he said.
Withdrawal is a valid part of the human experience. Addicts are valid people. And psych meds are common; many of us need to get off them.
When I was a young person, I smoked cigarettes from age 16 to 24. I quit during grad school. I used nicotine and the smoking ritual for emotional regulation, mostly to help with anxiety. Not going to tell you how much I smoked, at my highest point–it’s embarrassing.
The whole time I smoked, there was a jonesing feeling when I “needed a cigarette.” But quitting is the first time I learned what withdrawal feels like.
I was incapacitated; I felt like a baby. I could use the bathroom and talk a little, but I just wanted to lie there. Angry, very tired, and shaking.
Why was I shaking? It’s not like I was so mad I was shaking, or cold. It felt like the need was vibrating me–the badness of addiction was vibrating me, as it tried to get out.
Certainly there’s some science reason, people shake from what withdrawal feels like. But in my experience, the shaking was scary. The whole thing was terrifying, like all the anxiety I was trying to stave off over my eight years of smoking was suddenly there to kill me.
sensation of badness
It was a suffering that I had never known. Not just wanting a cigarette, but the feeling that something was very wrong–deep discomfort. Physical, emotional, spiritual. My whole body felt wrong, with a hollow feeling inside, sort of like evil. A sensation of badness not attached to a certain fact or feeling. Bad was welling up in me, and I needed to wait it out.
I tried to have faith that I could suffer through and find freedom–I could get through this hell, and come out the other side no longer a smoker. My health would thank me, I’d no longer need to hand over money to asshole cigarette companies, and I’d no longer have this obnoxious need.
And that’s what I did. My ex-husband was reading a book of Japanese folktales to me, but concentrating on words was hard. It was spring break, and I spent it not leaving my apartment. I felt like I was going to puke, lying in bed or on the floor. I couldn’t cook meals or do much of anything.
content warning: brief mention of suicidal feelings
Then I did get through it–I never smoked again, after I quit. That was 21 years ago. I still smoked in my dreams for a long time. When I got suicidal, I used to want to buy a pack of cigarettes to smoke again before I killed myself. But I don’t even want to smoke now. I don’t see the appeal.
It’s not really a craving, though that can be part of it–it’s not a thought like, “Wow, I really need a cigarette.” It’s an all-consuming need. It’s discomfort so bad, it hurts. Discomfort times 100.
I told Ming it’s like if you’re really cold, when you need to be warm. Or really hot when you need to be cool. It’s like needing to pee really bad and not being able to pee. Really hungry or thirsty with no food or drink–so very sleepy, your entire body is telling you to sleep, but there’s a reason you can’t. That times 100, all that swirled together. It’s torture. It’s torture, basically.
quit or die
I need something–to be free of a substance–and the work I need to do, to be free of the substance, is torture. But I have no choice. The substance is killing me. I need to quit, or I will die.
That’s the only motivation that works. That’s what withdrawal feels like. Crying with grief, pain, extreme discomfort, and self-loathing, since sense of self-worth gets mixed in. That feeling of being a bad person hurts, the badness I feel pooling inside me.
Death is very present–withdrawal makes me think about death almost constantly. I need to do this, or I will die. I feel like I’m dying. This is so horrible, I wish I would die. Yes, the veil feels thin.
I told Ming about the reward pathways. People often gain weight when they quit smoking, not because they snack more to compensate for the cigarettes in a conscious way. More that the body has reward pathways that are met by doing basic bodily tasks, and when someone quits doing the addictive thing, required chemicals are missing. The body needs those chemicals, so tries to get them in another way, another activity that will meet the same reward pathway need.
Food, drugs, sex–these deep bodily needs are not controlled by our conscious choices. Partly they are, but partly we are puppets to our chemicals.
Like the guy who got tied to his mast, to hear the sirens sing. It’s not like you say, “That sounds good–I will go meet a siren.” We’re compelled by bodily need, beyond reason or anything that makes sense. The siren is going to kill you. Please don’t go meet the siren.
Then getting off psych meds years later, I learned more about withdrawal. Some things are hard to taper off. Pills that are coated especially, you can’t break them into a smaller pieces. Ideally people work with an understanding psychiatrist who can prescribe smaller amounts or even give a liquid form, to get the abilify down to 1mg increments.
I never worked with an understanding psychiatrist when I got off psych meds–I did it myself, and that was not always easy. Some drugs were ok, but going off the antidepressant was terrible. I’ve done it twice. That one is coated, and I asked my psych doc for a smaller dose, but she wouldn’t give it to me. She didn’t comprehend my request.
I was suffering so badly getting off that antidepressant, it was a lot like quitting smoking. At one point I was panicking with suffering, and I wanted to go back on it. But it was like–I’ve come this far. If I go back on it, I’ll just have to do this all over again. It was the feeling of being partway through a bog. So I suffered, and I feel sorry for Ming and the friends who saw what was happening.
Other withdrawals I’ve been through involve people. Doing an addiction process with someone I loved who hurt me, then deciding to stop speaking with them, I knew it would take two weeks to get the problem out of my system. And I would feel that horrible discomfort torture.
Contact with the person was doing the chemical thing inside my body, same as a drug. I’m not talking about happy, healthy love–I’m talking about a whole other thing, like domestic violence.
Thank you for hearing what withdrawal feels like for me. Other bodies have different experiences. I have an acquaintance who mentioned that quitting sugar was harder for him than quitting drinking. And I have a friend in protracted benzo withdrawal whose brain was injured by the drug experience. So sad, how doctors prescribe these drugs in an off-hand way, then are no where to be found, when it’s time to get off them.
I googled what withdrawal feels like some months ago, trying to find comfort in learning how others experience it. I was disappointed–I found a lot of sites mentioning the process briefly. The audience was family members of drugs addicted persons, trying to understand what their loved one was going through. And the website usually advertised some expensive recovery thing that would solve all the problems. The withdrawal descriptions were brief and sometimes horrific, but mostly vague.
So I hope this post could contribute to a pool of truth about how withdrawal feels. Kind of like when I recorded myself dancing and put that on youtube, to contribute to the pool of beautiful fat dancing videos.
What does withdrawal feel like to you? I would like to make another post soon with tips for withdrawal, explaining what helps me.
I wish I lived in the culture where what withdrawal feels like was more discussed, and other intense, important things, like death and sex. Too much is hidden away as impolite, when I need honest information. Thank you for showing up for yourself and the people you love.