My Story

In June 2012, I fell into the lowest place I’ve ever been.

I slept most of the day because I didn’t want to be awake. I drank an entire bottle of wine every night to quell bone-shaking anxiety. Horrible, self-hating thoughts ran through my head 24/7. Every time I had to go to the store, I ended up having a panic attack — I was absolutely convinced that every single stranger in sight was disgusted by me and wished I would disappear.

I was 25. I had a successful writing career. I was happily married and had two cats and a big backyard garden. Anyone with reason would say I had a good life.

My depression didn’t come out of nowhere, per se. I fought through an incredibly difficult childhood and adolescence, and I’d struggled with poor self-esteem and low mood for years.

Early 2012, a few months before I sought help. I looked OK on the outside, but inside, I was falling apart.
Early 2012, a few months before I sought help. I looked OK on the outside, but inside, I was falling apart.

This was different, though. This was debilitating. I decided to get help.

I started seeing a therapist, who told me I had major depression and PTSD. She immediately referred me to a psychiatrist. After a 90-minute evaluation, the psychiatrist told me her diagnosis: bipolar type II disorder, social anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, and agoraphobia.

Whatever the heck I was, I was a wreck. I started on generic brands of Zoloft (an SSRI antidepressant) and Lamictal (a mood stabilizer).

Weeks went by, and between the therapy and the meds, I felt a little better. My psychiatrist upped my dosages and my mood improved even more.

But when the holidays hit, difficult subjects came up in therapy. I was feeling like a mess again, so I asked my psychiatrist if upping my Zoloft would help. At the time, I was on 50 mg, along with 200 mg of Lamictal.

She bumped me to 75 mg and gave me a prescription for as-needed Xanax.

This pattern went on for months — I’d feel a little better, I’d hit a slump, and my psychiatrist would increase my Zoloft dosage.

By April 2013, I was taking a whopping 150 mg of Zoloft, along with the Lamictal and Xanax. I also noticed that I wasn’t feeling good, but I wasn’t feeling bad, either. I just … wasn’t feeling. I was numb.

Despite the fact that my diet hadn’t changed, I’d packed on 25 pounds. I completely lost my sex drive. Activities that I usually enjoyed were replaced by hours-long marathons of Seinfeld. My creativity was shot. I had difficulty concentrating and was constantly experiencing brain fog.

25 pounds turned into 30. 30 turned into 40, and before I knew it, I’d gained 50 pounds over the course of a few short months.

Sure, I’d “beaten” depression — but now I had a whole new set of things to be depressed about: Clothes that didn’t fit. A double chin. Stretch marks everywhere. Self-esteem that had once again hit rock bottom.

Determined to lose the weight, I started hitting the gym harder. I tried counting calories. I did the low-fat thing. None of it worked, and despite my efforts, I continued to gain.

July 2013, attempting my first Whole30.
July 2013, trying to enjoy my vacation.

I told my psychiatrist I’d had enough of the side effects, so we agreed to start tapering. I dropped my Zoloft dosage by 12.5 mg to 137.5 mg, but the results weren’t pretty.

Extreme fatigue. Crippling headaches. Dizziness and nausea. Little floaters in the periphery of my vision.

I was trapped. A mere 12.5 mg dosage decrease made it impossible to go about my day. There is no way I’m ever going to get off of these drugs, I thought. What have I done to myself?



I threw myself into research. I scoured online message boards trying to find people with my symptoms. I found them by the hundreds, but no one seemed to have any answers.

“You can be fat and happy or skinny and depressed” was the most popular refrain I came across.

The scale had moved up by another 10 pounds — putting me at a 60-pound gain — but I refused to accept “fat and happy” as an answer. I wasn’t happy. Sure, I wasn’t suicidal, but I was a different kind of low: I barely recognized myself.

I continued to do more research, and I switched psychiatrists because I felt like mine wasn’t listening. I quit therapy because I no longer found it useful.

My new psychiatrist wanted to try different SSRIs, so I did. After a merry-go-round ride on Lexapro and Prozac, I told him I was through. I wanted off the drugs and I didn’t care what it took.

Was I scared that I’d slip back into depression? Of course. But what scared me more was the idea that I’d never stop gaining weight. That I’d never think clearly again. That I was a prisoner to these pills, doomed to become a morbidly obese, placid shell of my former self.

I knew I had to take the risk.

In January 2014, I began an antidepressant tapering method known as the “Prozac Bridge.”

Because Prozac has a relatively long half-life, it washes out of your system more slowly than other SSRIs, thus making the withdrawal process gentler.

While withdrawal certainly wasn’t a cakewalk, I knuckled my way through it. My will to get off meds remained stronger than my discomfort.

Left: February 2014, withdrawing from antidepressants.. Right: November 2014, 4.5 months paleo.
Left: February 2014, withdrawing from antidepressants. Right: November 2014, 4.5 months paleo.

 

The whole process took a little over a month. My doc tapered me faster than he should have, and I didn’t know any better. I threw up a lot. Every day, I had dizziness, headaches, and crying spells. I missed a lot of work. I got irritated by the smallest things.

Fortunately, The Antidepressant Solution taught me that withdrawal symptoms can mimic depressive relapse. Even though I felt like I’d stepped back into depression’s quicksand-like grip, I knew that the symptoms were my body’s way of sorting through the chaos.

By the end of February, I was off meds. I wasn’t feeling my emotional best, but I tried to be gentle with myself. I knew it would take time for my body to readjust.

Spring emerged out of one of the worst winters in history (in Michigan, to boot), and even as the days got longer and the weather got warmer, I still felt “meh.” I wasn’t back in a bad place, but carrying around an extra 60 pounds made me incredibly self-conscious. I also spent a lot of time just being angry — angry that I’d chosen to take meds, angry with the outcomes, and angry at the pharmaceutical industry at large.

Left: June 2014. Right: November 2014. 25-pound difference.
Left: June 2014. Right: November 2014. 25-pound difference.

In June, my husband and I went on a weekend trip. It should have been amazing, but it wasn’t — I spent the entire time in my head, beating myself up about my weight, feeling hyper-conscious about every inch of space my unfamiliar body occupied. That weekend, I decided I was going to fully commit myself to getting healthy. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was going to do it full force.

After trying conventional approaches yet again, I stumbled across It Starts with Food and the Whole30 (the program outlined in the book). Even though it was wildly different than anything I’d ever tried, I decided to give it a shot.

It worked. That first month, I lost six pounds, moving from 228.7 down to 222.7. But it wasn’t just the weight that improved — my mood was much brighter, too.

The weight kept coming off and I kept feeling better. Eliminating grains and dairy and eating unprocessed foods had me feeling far better than any psych drug ever had, both mentally and physically.

Left: Withdrawing from antidepressants, February 2014. Right: November 2014, six months paleo.
Left: Withdrawing from antidepressants, February 2014. Right: November 2014, six months paleo.

I turned into a paleo fanatic and became obsessed with the connection between nutrition and mental health. I started reading every book and blog I came across, itching to know as much as I could about why this particular lifestyle was working wonders for me. The field of nutrition is full of contradictions, and paleo was the first thing that made sense to me — and provided real results for my body and mind.

Eventually, I knew I wanted to bring this information to as many people as I could. After starting this blog, I went back to school to become a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, and today, I work with people one-on-one to get to the root cause of their mood disorders.

Left: 2014, withdrawing from antidepressants. Right: 2016, down 55 pounds and feeling healthy and happy.
Left: 2014, withdrawing from antidepressants. Right: 2016, down 55 pounds and feeling healthy and happy.

 

I’m very much a work in progress — and will always be! — so you can continue to follow my journey through my blog. I’m also on Instagram and Facebook, and if you want to email me, you can shoot me a message at holly@pillstopaleo.com.

I wish you the best of luck on your path to health and happiness. You CAN do this!

Holly Higgins, NTP

19 Responses to My Story

  1. Wow! Bravo to you! You are such a motivation and I truly appreciate you sharing your story for people like me who are trying to get away from anxiety and be healthier and happier. Can’t wait to read more about your journey! Thanks for inspiring me 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I found your instagram account a couple weeks ago when i was in the middle of my first whole 30. I have struggled with depression for my entire life as well, and i am hoping to come off my medication within the next year or so. I feel great eating paleo, and I really want to continue with the lifestyle….. but it is so hard! I would love to hear your tips for keeping on it, and making it easier for yourself!

    Thanks so much for sharing, I will defiantly be following along, and coming back!
    Megan

    • Hi Megan,

      I really appreciate your comment! Congrats on your Whole30 and health journey. It can be really tough.

      Here’s what keeps me going: Yes, this stuff is hard and it takes commitment and planning. But for me personally, it’s much harder to feel like crap, be sad and anxious, and live with the fact that I COULD feel better if I put in the effort. There are a lot of other strategies I use to keep myself on track, but I’d say 80% of it has been mental for me. Reminding myself WHY I eat paleo, exercise, and get plenty of sleep is key. Stay tuned for more posts on this soon. 🙂

      In regards to your own journey, I definitely think establishing a healthy baseline diet-wise can be incredibly beneficial for a medication taper. I did it backwards — I tapered while eating a crappy diet, THEN I went Whole30. Things probably would have been a lot easier if I’d done it the other way around. Also, don’t rush yourself. You’ve gotta go s-l-o-w when tapering, and you’ve gotta do it when the time is right.

      I’m always here for support. Thanks again for checking out my site!

      Holly

      • Thanks so much for the reply! I’ve been thinking about your story a lot, and after trying to reintroduce other foods back into my diet, i’ve pretty much given up on my old lifestyle. I am going to do my second whole30 starting January 1. But i’ve pretty much gone back to whole30 in the meantime. I just don’t want to “officially” start over the holiday’s. I am still amazed at how much whole30 has changed me, and i think it’s shaken me to my core. I think i’m still grieving my old lifestyle and way of eating, and that has probably got to be the hardest part! Did you go through that as well, giving up your old way of life?

        • Hi Megan!

          As far as grieving, I did and I didn’t. By the time I got to Whole30, I was so desperate for a way to feel better that I didn’t care how restrictive it was. I was thrilled that after trying so many things to lose weight and feel better, I’d finally found something.

          I’m not Whole365 — I do “by the book” Whole30s as needed (I’ll be joining you in January!), but the rest of the time, I pretty much stick to the plan, but I do allow myself paleo “treats” and I don’t worry about added sugar. I’ll also have butter here and there.

          But yeah, it can be hard and I do “grieve” from time to time. Today, there’s a freaking cream cheese-apple-cherry danish wheel in the break area, and I LOVE cream cheese danishes. But I know that if I have one, I’ll get sick, and then I’ll beat myself up about the choice I made.

          There are also social inconveniences. I do get sick of feeling like THAT person — e.g., when a meeting is catered at work and there are sandwiches, I have to order a salad or bring my own lunch, etc. I really hate sticking out in that regard, and it can be very uncomfortable.

          But, any time I’m tempted or feeling sorry for myself that I can’t have something, I ground myself and remember my reason for doing all of this. I remember my worst times and remind myself how far I’ve come. I DON’T want to go back to where I was.

          It does get easier with time.

          Life handed me some pretty crappy genes and some terrible situations. I have to fight harder than most people to maintain a good disposition. That stinks, and it’s not fair, but I’m thankful that I’ve FINALLY found something that helps — the alternative is much worse.

          Sorry for the ramble. I hope that was helpful!

          Holly

  3. What an amazing story and how wonderful that you are taking this information out into the world to help others! I love the resources you are sharing here!

    And yes to the power of paleo and real whole food for mood!

    You’ve commented favorably a few times on facebook about the amazing amino acids but I don’t see them mentioned in your story. I ‘d love to know…did you use/do you use tryptophan or 5-HTP or GABA or DPA or tyrosine or glutamine?

    • Hi, Trudy! I am such a huge fan of yours! Thank you for your sweet comments.

      I haven’t used amino acids personally YET, but I plan to. Several months after I successfully got off of antidepressants, I found out I had adrenal fatigue, so I have been working with an amazing functional medicine doctor on that. He has a very specific protocol he has patients follow — first stabilizing blood sugar, then providing adrenal support, then providing hormonal support, and then supporting the brain through amino acids. My work with aminos is a couple of months out, but it’s coming! I honestly can’t wait, because I did take a neurotransmitter saliva test and I’m super low on everything across the board. Especially serotonin.

      However, my husband recently came off of antidepressants, and we used your book as well as Julia Ross’ book to transition him onto aminos. He was having a very rough time, but a combination of 5-HTP, DLPA, and GABA have absolutely saved him. I think he would have ended up reverting back to Prozac if it weren’t for the aminos.

      Which reminds me … I need to update my resources section to include your work! I am going back to school through the Nutritional Therapy Association, and I have been so busy.

      Thanks again for all that you do. It changes lives. I’m thrilled that you were interviewed for The Depression Sessions!

      Best,

      Holly

      • I’m so pleased to hear you’re working with a great functional medicine doctor and are getting answers. I would like to share that I have my clients start trials of amino acids on day 1 as this helps the adrenal-healing and blood sugar balancing (with glutamine)and also starts to help overall hormone balance (progesterone/GABA link and estrogen/serotonon link). It also gets them feeling great mood-wise right away. I don’t mean to put a damper on your enthusiasm but I feel obliged to share this with you.

        Do you mean neurotransmitter urine test? if yes, please be cautious as they don’t often correlate with symptoms. I find using the amino acid questionnaire and trials to be so much more effective. This is likely what you did with your husband. I’m so pleased to hear he did so well!

        All the best with your studies and thanks for your very kind words and support!
        Trudy

        • Hi Trudy,

          Yes, I meant urine test — I did it through Neurolab, which bundles the cortisol test (saliva) and the neurotransmitter test (urine), so I got confused. The results match up with the questionnaires — I’m basically pooped out on everything. I have heard that the tests aren’t always reliable, though.

          You certainly didn’t put a damper on my enthusiasm, and I am grateful for your perspective. I have also been curious as to why he doesn’t want to start me on aminos. My mood has been pretty low lately, and I would love to feel better. I think I might schedule a quick phone appointment with him to get more clarity on why he doesn’t want me to start.

          With my husband, we used the questionnaires in the book. He was getting back to a very low place after his withdrawal from Prozac, and the aminos made an immediate difference — literally within a few hours! I have been recommending your book to lots of people.

          Take care!

          Holly

          • Hi Trudy,

            Of course! I spent almost a year on a pretty in-depth adrenal protocol, and I also used several amino acids over the course of treatment, including tryptophan, 5-HTP, Mucuna, L-tyrosine, and a few others that I’m probably forgetting. I did very well on most of them, but had some pretty bad mood swings with a few of the catecholamine boosters. I have been off of all amino acid supplements and adrenal supplements for about a year, and am now just on a few basic supplements for maintenance. I am in wonderful health and my mood is fabulous!

  4. Hi Holly,

    How did you find the energy, focus, and determination to begin and then stick with such a restrictive plan? I’ve been wanting to do a Whole30 for a while now but still find it all so overwhelming – from the pantry planning to the food schedule to the limitations to actually finding the energy to cook for myself and to resist the bad influences who live with me.

    I too suffer with long term and hard to treat chronic depression, and I too have gained over 60lbs as a result of one or more of the drugs I’ve been taking (esp Abilify). I just tried to get off that Rx but my mood dropped, my energy is gone, and I spend most days in bed now. So my Dr & I decided that I wasn’t going to get any better until I had the positive mood and energy to move forward…. which meant going back on the Abilify that had caused all the weight gain.

    So now I’m back on the problematic (but effective) med and I need to find a way to throw myself into a Whole30 session or three. Unfortunately I live with an enabler with food issues of her own, have a tiny kitchen, and strongly dislike to cook.

    Any tips to help me commit and follow thru on a Whole30 when all I want to do is hide in bed all day?
    Thx

    • Hi Cat,

      Kudos for wanting to make positive changes, even though it’s hard! Many people struggle with this. Some of my clients have to make smaller changes at first (e.g., giving up gluten, or giving up sugar), and those motivate them to go all in with a Whole30. It’s different for everyone, and you will have to find what works for you.

      For me personally, I just got to a place where I was so tired of being sick, depressed, and overweight that it literally filled me with rage. I channeled that rage and used it to make positive change.

      I hope you found at least some of that helpful.

      Wishing you the best,

      Holly

    • I’ll also add this: I don’t know anything about your enabler situation, but it is worth a heart-to-heart talk. Make the conversation about YOU, not her. “I really want to make some changes, and part of that is trying an elimination diet to see if certain foods are triggering any of my health issues. This is really important to me, and it would mean a lot to me to have your support.” Then, let her know the ways that she can be supportive of you during this time.

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