For a Paxil-free life, she’ll take the long route

Special to The Times

Some people can’t stand the word “irregardless.” A close friend of mine cannot stand hearing the word “panty” used in the singular.

My pet peeve is the misuse of the words “panic attack.”

My cohort of grad school classmates frequently drop the phrase when they’ve had a mildly difficult night putting the finishing touches on a research paper: “Oh my God, I had a panic attack when I couldn’t find that 2007 Caplan article I needed to cite!” I’ve heard others throw it around in other trivial ways: “Oh, I’m going to have a panic attack! I can’t decide which purse to wear!”

These are not panic attacks. Call them shocks, scares or dilemmas. But not panic attacks.

If I could replace all of my true-blue panic attacks with the twinge of uncertainty that comes from not being able to locate a needed item or the frustration of indecision over a fashion accessory, I would. Real panic is much worse, and for me, it goes something like this:

I’m driving on the turnpike. There’s no exit for another 20 miles.

What if my car breaks down? (Heart rate speeds up.) How will I get help? (Muscles get tight.)

Oh my God, why is my heart racing? Why are my muscles so tight? (Respiration grows shallow.)

What’s going wrong with my body? (Head feels light.) What if I pass out? There’s no exit for another 20 miles! Pull over!

My panic attacks began in college. They would occur during situations in which escape proved either difficult or embarrassing: in class, in my cellblock of a dorm room, on the highway. They became a daily event and interfered with my daily activities, so I did what countless direct-to-consumer television ads told me to do: I went to my doctor.

He gave me a script for Paxil, mumbled something about how half the population takes this sort of stuff and told me to take it easy.

After a week or two, the panic attacks just stopped. For this, I was thankful. I could drive, go to class and spend time in my dorm room. But Paxil had one pretty undesirable effect on me: I started to lose interest in just about everything. I stopped initiating social activities (who needs that sort of thing?) and was no longer motivated to perform well academically.

My emotions had flat-lined: I hadn’t cried in months, nor had I proverbially jumped for joy. I felt -- nothing.

I was free of those nasty panic attacks, but was the trade-off worth it?

No, I finally decided. It wasn’t. I figured it was time to see how I could manage without brain-numbing psychopharmaceuticals

The great withdrawal debacle began. First attempt: cold turkey. This was a regrettably poor decision, as I spent nearly a whole week with the “brain zaps,” an electrical shock sensation that would travel up my spine and into my head. Not to mention, I couldn’t keep my self awake, and I was terribly dizzy. (I remember sleeping on the floor through an entire staff meeting for our college paper.)

Second attempt: I devoted one month to slicing up pills and tapering my dosage downward from 10 milligrams. I still got the zaps -- as well as a racing heart, a weird sensitivity to temperature changes and migraines galore. I gave up.

Would I need to take Paxil forever?

When I started graduate school, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up academically if I were reading scholarly literature through a foggy, Paxil-coated lens. So, I started tapering, very slowly this time -- by just more than a milligram per month.

This proved to be the proper equation for me, although I still got the zaps, the headaches, the racing heart, as well as some major cognitive fog during the final month, a pinch of insomnia, nausea, anxiety -- and, you guessed it, panic. After some research, I found that panic attacks are a withdrawal effect of Paxil as well. Double whammy! Great.

I ached, zapped and panicked my way through the days and weeks that followed my final dose as I tried to devour research articles about computer-mediated communication and social identity theory. (I still, to this day, am not quite sure how I managed to not fail.)

After my motivation and emotions returned, I started doing what I should have done when my panic attacks began: I became an information-seeking machine. I read books. I sought out alternative therapies. I took an anxiety-management class, tried acupuncture and learned about mindfulness meditation.

Things started to improve, and the good news is this: Things are still, miraculously, improving. I’m now aware of how my freshly Paxil-free body reacts to anxiety-producing stimuli -- my heart races and my muscles tighten -- and because of this, I know when to start calming myself down.

We live in a quick-fix world. You want a burger? Go to the drive-thru and you’ll have one in less than a minute. You want to change the channel on the TV? Don’t bother getting up; just use the remote.

And likewise, for our panic attacks, we expect to find instant solutions behind the pharmacy counter. But quick fixes aren’t always the best long-term solutions. Paxil was a merely a bank loan that I had to eventually repay with interest.

I’m thrilled to be so young and so in control of something that had once stopped my life in its tracks.

See you on the highway!

Summer Beretsky is working on a master’s degree in communication at the University of Delaware. She can be reached at