Supermodel Speaks to 'GMA' About Her Experience With Antidepressants

Paulina Porizkova comes clean about her "love affair" with antidepressants.

May 23, 2011 -- Paulina Porizkova, the 46-year-old supermodel and actress, said she was devastated when she was thrown off the television reality show "Dancing With the Stars" in 2007, feeling engulfed by anxiety.

"I had been out of the public eye for a bit," Porizkova said on "Good Morning America" today. "The demands had changed after I got booted off. I became seriously depressed."

The Czechoslovakian beauty -- the second woman besides Christie Brinkley to appear two years in a row, in 1984 and 1985 -- on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition -- turned to antidepressants.

In what she calls a "midlife affair with meds," Porizkova said she hoped antidepressants would calm her nerves and make life easier on her husband of 24 years and their two children. Instead, she said, they killed her sex life and distanced her from day-to-day life.

"I took a vacation from myself," she told "GMA." "I felt like I was covered up in this cozy warm duvet cover. At first it was so nice to get out of the cold, but after awhile, you wonder, I wonder, what the outside feels like."

The supermodel is now speaking out about what she calls her "emotional Botox" and the negative effects antidepressants may be having on women.

"I felt like I was somehow less, that I couldn't do it by myself," Porizkova told "GMA" in describing her initial reluctance to tell friends that she had been prescribed the drugs. "I didn't want to tell anyone. I said it was just for anxiety."

But it was at a dinner among girlfriends, after Porizkova confessed her "dirty little secret," that she realized she was nowhere near alone.

"I was at dinner with eight girlfriends, and one by one everyone said, 'I'm taking it,'" Porizkova recounted to "GMA." "Eight woman in a room, all clinically depressed. It didn't seem right to me."

The number of Americans taking antidepressants has doubled in the past decade. According to a study published in 2009 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, about 10 percent of all Americans, or 27 million people, were taking the mood-altering drugs in 2005, the last year for which data are available.

Like Porizkova, half of those were prescribed these drugs not for depression but for back and nerve pain, fatigue, sleep difficulties or other problems.

"Obviously, there are many cases in which antidepressants are needed," she said. "But it's a struggle."

Doctors argue that these medications are effective, especially if used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. In mild cases of anxiety or depression, lifestyle changes such as exercise, good sleep hygiene and social contact and "fun" can be powerful mood enhancers.

"I agree with [Porizkova] that medication alone is not enough," said Dr. Sudeepta Varma, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at New York University's Langone School of Medicine. "But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Women also need to look closely with their doctor at what is causing worry and anxiety in their lives. "If you have marital problems, you need to fix them," said Varma. "In a profession where youth and beauty is important to you, of course the loss is going to be a big stressor."

The supermodel said she had experienced anxiety attacks before, but they subsided as she had children. But by the age of 40, they returned to "cripple her."

"I couldn't get in a car, a bus and certainly not an elevator without panic overwhelming me: a crippling, terrifying sense of dread," she writes in a column this week in the Huffington Post. "I couldn't draw a proper breath. My heart pounded and heat flashed through my body, making me break out in sweat."

Porizkova said that she had always been opposed to taking medication. But the short bouts of anxiety were stretching to two to three weeks at a time, coupled with depression and irritability.

Her doctor prescribed the antidepressants to "reboot the system," according to Porizkova, and suggested talk therapy. After a few months, she said, "the constant buzz of anxiety became noticeable only by its absence. It was like spending your entire life in a room buzzing with fluorescents, and then, one day, they stop. I wasn't even quite sure what to do with this silence, how to live in it."

When asked to join television's "America's Next Top Model," Porizkova said she couldn't get insured because she was on medication, and worried that she might be perceived as "unstable." But the woman in charge of the paperwork wrote the model a waiver, admitting she, too, was on the same drug.

Paulina Porizkova Experienced Anxiety and Depression

After Porizkova learned that eight of her friends were also on antidepressants, she said, "It also got me wondering. What was going on here? Was this a sort of universal malaise that hit peri-menopausal women?"

Porizkova calls it the "female midlife crisis." But she said that when the drug's side effects destroyed her sex life and her creativity, she decided enough was enough.

"It stinks to come back from vacation," Porizkova said on "GMA." "But if you stay on it, you don't get much done."

Varma said that antidepressants, like all drugs, come with side effects. Still, doctors can make adjustments in the medications. Some patients will stay on them for a minimum of nine months to a year, but others, who have three or more bouts with anxiety or depression, are considered chronic and can be on the drugs for a lifetime.

Though these medications are not addictive, they require slow weaning over several weeks to avoid the side effects of fatigue and some return of symptoms.

"Doctors need to differentiate someone with an adjustment disorder," said Varma. "The kids have left the house or you are renegotiating a career path. That is normal and not depression or anxiety. My job is to get to the correct diagnosis. Will someone get better, or is it crippling anxiety?"

Trying to get off the medication wasn't easy for Porizkova. She describes in her Huffington Post column the three tiring weeks of terrible dreams she endured before the anxiety crept back.

She wondered if all women experience her anxiety at the crossroads of middle age, and whether medication was not just the "emotional equivalent of plastic surgery."

"With them, we can stave off the anguish of change; we can take breaks from the afflictions of living," she said. "But is it also possible that through the serendipitous use of these brand new staver-'off'ers, we will ultimately pay a price: the price of going through life anesthetized and smooth with all the self-awareness of a slug?"

Porizkova agrees with psychiatrists who say that antidepressants have been lifesavers, but she questions whether women -- and perhaps their doctors -- are looking for a panacea for normal life crises.

"I also think that those who try to take the shortcuts -- the pill to lose weight, the pill to be happy, the pill to be smart, to sleep, to be awake, are just running up their tab," she writes. "My affair with an antidepressant reinforced what I already knew: I'm not one for affairs. I'd rather fight tooth and nail to keep and restore what I have than take a break from it."

These tools and resources can help you spot depression.