A new study is claiming women who take antidepressants including, Paxil, during pregnancy are at risk for an increase in miscarriage and two potentially dangerous conditions: pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, especially if use extends beyond the first trimester. Premature birth was the most pressing obstetrical complication in more than 30 studies researchers reviewed.
There was also a strong signal of birth abnormalities, most notably between the antidepressant Paxil and heart defects in newborns. In 2005, the FDA asked GlaxoSmithKline to change Paxil’s risk factor to demonstrate that the fetus could potentially be harmed.
In 2001, I started having panic attacks. They would characteristically come out of nowhere. I would be in class at The University of the Arts and suddenly my heart would pound. I would feel clammy and then I would start feeling dizzy. I would make a beeline for the door and end up crying hysterically in the bathroom. This went on for weeks before I saw my doctor. Those were horrible weeks. The panic was so bad that I would find myself walking down Walnut Street to class in a twisted, wonky fog. I was on edge. My fingers tingled. There was a looming feeling that something terrible was going to happen or that I was going to pass out. And I did.
And finally I went home to New Jersey to see my doctor.
I wasn’t looking for a mental health disorder diagnosis. I was not and would not be Girl Interrupted. I imagined that I had something else going on. The idea of being diagnosed with Panic Disorder was not something that I wanted to hear because the stigma surrounding mental health disorders is that … you’re crazy. But like any other condition or disease, it’s something that is treatable. If I had cancer, I would get chemotherapy or have surgery. If I had strep throat, I’d take amoxicillin. (I did, last month—thanks, JD.)
My doctor ran blood tests to make sure my thyroid was OK, as anxiety and thyroid conditions are linked. There was nothing wrong with my thyroid. My doctor told me I could take Paxil once a day and go back to living a normal life within 3 weeks, or continue to live in sheer panic, pass out, and not function. I took the perscription. He also wrote me a perscription for Xanax that I used to diffuse a panic attack in the weeks when the Paxil was still building up its strength. Honestly though, once the Paxil kicked in, I didn’t need Xanax, but having it in my purse did make me feel better. Call it a crutch, because I, to this day, still do.
Life got better, or should I say got normal, once again. I graduated college with a 3.8, I found a job writing obituaries for a small newspaper. A lot of life-changing stuff happened in between, but the medication and therapy helped me deal with it. I still felt my feelings. I cried. I laughed. I dated. I treated that tiny little Paxil pill like my best friend treated her tiny little seizure medication pill. It was something we both needed to take to maintain our health. And it was something that we both needed to take to maintain our health while we were pregnant.
After five years of blogging, it’s no shock that my pregnancy was unplanned. My boyfriend and I conceived JD about 2 months into our relationship and I discovered that I was pregnant three months in—I was taking Paxil when this went down. My OB-GYN knew it, as did my GP doctor who prescribed the medication. The Ped who takes care of JD today had a console with me. Everyone gave me the same advice: The dose is low. You need to stay on the medication. The benefit to you, outweighs the risk to your fetus. Imagine a panic attack and passing out—while pregnant. Imagine your accelerated heart rate and what that would mean for your baby.
I stayed on the medication, but had my doctor taper me week by week to a lower dose. To say I didn’t panic during pregnancy is a tremendous lie, but I don’t blame it on the lower Paxil dose. I don’t blame it on the dad who left. I blame it on being alone in a time where women are often not. I went to sonograms alone. I baby shopped alone. I moved (with help from Carlo, Bri and Kateri) 3x in 1.5 months. I lost my job. I had normal reasons to feel anxious. I liked my feeling this way; I was alive.
Soon, I got used to the alone stuff and I grew to just deal with it and even like it. I regained my job at the same publishing company that laid me off (and freelance here today). I take the lowest dose of Paxil to this day and have Xanax as a crutch that I hardly ever take. I go to therapy when I need to. I workout. I do yoga. Washing dishes (yes), art projects and walks with my child also keep me calm when I’m feeling … that feeling.
And I’m not alone. According to a reported feature in Glamour magazine, “40 million Americans have anxiety disorders that are debilitating and omnipresent, and women are twice as likely to suffer as men, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.”
I have no shame admitting my disorder, or the fact I seek help for it, so I can lead an active, productive life as a mommy, writer, daughter, sister, friend, bada*s and all around human being that contributes to society. In fact, in 2007 I felt better and my GP helped me taper off the meds that had already been lowered during my pregnancy. I was clean, lol, for a few years—but the anxiety came back. Back with a BANG. I was back to panic attacks. Fainting spells. Tingles in my fingers. Crying. Hyperventilating. That doom and gloom feeling. What made it 1000x worse? Knowing I had a tiny human to protect. I went back on Paxil, take the lowest dose made and call it my yellow vitamin. I feel great! Or maybe I just feel normal. I feel … that’s what counts.
Kimberly Yonkers, a professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University who served on a 2009 panel tasked with creating depression treatment guidelines for pregnant women, told WebMD that the study’s finding of “no evidence of benefit” for depressed pregnant women who take SSRIs is ‘nonsense.’ For many women with severe major depression, treatment with an antidepressant is not optional, just like treatment with insulin is not optional for a woman with (type 1) diabetes… To give these women the message that treatment is optional and that it doesn’t work anyway does us all a disservice.
Other experts agreed.
“I would say the authors of this article went overboard in terms of their negativity,” Gregory Moore, director of health services at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and a member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ committee on ethics, told USA Today, “Depression can be a fatal disease.”
I’m not a doctor. But I can say that my son does not have a heart condition or any side effects regarding my Paxil use during pregnancy. I had a normal, healthy pregnancy. And if I were to get pregnant again, it would (Dear God!) be planned. This means I would talk to my OB-GYN, GP, and Ped BEFORE I conceived. If they wanted me to taper off and be meds-free while pregnant, I would agree. I would cross my fingers, but I would agree.
I want you to know that I expect criticism and strong opinions. But please also know that the drug Paxil made me a better person. Thanks for reading!
Full disclosure: Nope, Paxil didn’t pay me to write this blog. I take the generic anyway. Four bucks a month.