The Pitfalls of Comparing Healing Timelines

Reflections and insights about psychiatric drug withdrawal and injury symptoms, the question of how long they will last, and the potential pitfalls of comparing healing experiences.

“How Long Will This Last? When will I feel better?”

I remember early in my tapering and withdrawal journey being hit with symptom after symptom. With each new one, I would wonder if it was related to withdrawal injury or to something else, and how long it would last, and when I would feel better. These are the most natural things to wonder about, especially in the midst of such a scary, uncertain, and often debilitating process.

Sometimes it can be really helpful to ask others about their experience… whether or not they had x, y or z symptoms and how long they lasted. It can be particularly helpful to ask multiple people, or to post in a forum for multiple replies. Hearing about the scope of various people’s experiences can help provide some context for our own, and can help us feel less alone. That’s valuable, and if asking others feels nourishing then ask away!

But there can also be a downside, and sometimes asking is less helpful than we think. In particular, I have seen it be less-than-helpful when we use what we learn to judge our own experience.

No Two Healing Journeys Are The Same
Matt Howard on Unsplash

One of the hardest parts of a withdrawal and injury journey is that there is no way to predict how long anything will last or not (at least not yet). There is no way to predict when we will feel better. We can try, but we can never really know. And often trying to predict just leads to even more distress. The most consistent thing I have seen on my own journey and in the layperson withdrawal community is that experiences vary!

So what does this mean if I am asking other people how long something lasted for them and then trying to apply that to my own experience?

My pharmaceutical history is different than yours (psych drugs and otherwise), my medical history is different than yours, my trauma history is different than yours, my nutrition status is different than yours, my past and current relationships are different than yours, my support system is different than yours, my stressors are different than yours, my inflammation levels are different than yours, my gut microbiome is different than yours, my responsibilities are different than yours, my light environment is different than yours, my epigenetic expression is different than yours, my geographic location is different than yours, my thoughts and my beliefs are different than yours, my fitness level is different than yours, my personal care and household products are different than yours, my job is different than yours, my daily routines are different than yours, etc, etc, etc.

There is no part of our lives that doesn’t touch our physiology and have an impact in some way. This is what’s true. And it’s true even if the impact of each individual thing is too minimal for us to immediately observe, or to ever quantify in a meaningful way. This isn’t “good” or “bad” or anything that comes with a judgment attached to it… it simply is.

The Pitfalls of Comparison
Rebecca Chandler on Unsplash

So here is the trap:

Say that I ask someone else if they had itching, burning skin as part of their withdrawal injury, and if so how long it lasted. (I am using itching burning skin as an example here because it was one of my most severe and unrelenting symptoms.) Let’s say they tell me that yes they did, and it was resolved after 6 months. One of a few things might happen here if I am not careful. 1) If my itching, burning skin hasn’t been going on for that long I might assume that it will resolve in 6 months. If it doesn’t then I am in a panic. 2) If my itching, burning skin has been going on for longer than 6 months, then I become scared about why it didn’t resolve more quickly and what that means. I might end up convincing myself that I will never recover. 3) If my itching burning skin was delayed in its onset and the person or people I asked had it begin for them more immediately, then I might end up terrified that I am heading in the wrong direction. I end up spinning out about what that might mean for my future, all the while forgetting that healing is basically never linear and that it never looks exactly the same for any two people.

Now let’s say this person tells me that yes they had itching, burning skin, and it didn’t resolve for 6 years. In this scenario I might end up completely overwhelmed at the possibility that it will drag on and on, spiral into feeling like I cannot possibly live with it for such a long time, and I end up totally hopeless. But in reality I have no idea if I will wake up tomorrow to find that this has resolved for me. I may also have no idea about my own capacity to live richly, fully and meaningfully even if the itching, burning skin never goes away.

This is just one example of many. Have you fallen into this trap before? Yeah, I have too.

From Comparison to Freedom

Given how every facet of our unique experiences also uniquely affects our physiology, how relevant is anyone else’s healing timeline to me and my process? What if my body knows exactly what it’s doing, given my uniquely-lived life?

When I started asking these kinds of questions, instead of the “how long will this last” kinds of questions, it freed me. It freed me to learn how to approach my experience of immense hardship and suffering with more curiosity and hope, instead of comparison and judgment. It also freed me to begin (and continue) asking questions about how I could shift things to better facilitate my own healing, instead of spending that precious energy on comparison and the inevitable judgment and fear that comes with it.

Ian Taylor on Unsplash

And in case you are curious: It’s the winter of 2024 and I am three-plus years psych drug free at the time of this writing. I have had itching, burning skin to one degree or another every day since the start of my taper in the spring of 2015. It’s very gradually gotten significantly better than it was, but it’s not gone. I have been thoroughly immersed in the layperson withdrawal world since the winter of 2017. I have yet to hear from a single other person who has had this itching, burning skin stuff related to SSRIs and withdrawal/injury drag on anywhere near as long as it has for me. I could easily tell myself some really scary stories about what that means, and in the past I have. But today I make no such assumptions. My body knows exactly what it’s doing and I am healing every moment, whether this ever resolves completely or not (though I believe it will). And every day I live as richly, fully, and meaningfully as I can… itching, burning skin and all. That’s what matters.

We may not have the control we would like over the ways in which our bodies express both injury and healing, or how intensely, or for how long. What we do have some control over is how we make sense of those expressions, what stories we tell ourselves about them, and what questions we choose to ask. Even in the midst of unthinkable suffering and struggle, this offers us incredible freedom.