Is Medication Helpful or Harmful? Here are my thoughts.

by | Nov 12, 2023 | Anxiety | 39 comments

When I first started doing this work over twenty-five years ago, I had very strong views about medication. I had been raised to believe that medication was a “cop out”, a belief that was reinforced by my studies in graduate school that, informed by a Jungian depth model, sought to heal symptoms at the root. I don’t recall anybody outrightly telling us that medication was “bad” when I was graduate school, but the message was in the subtext: If you’re taking medication, you’re not really doing your inner work.

My early work with clients was also filled with stories about the downsides of medication, which reinforced to my negative view.

Clients shared their horror stories of being put on one medication after another until their brain was a confused cocktail of chemicals that caused more anxiety than they had had originally.

Clients talked about how they would go to their general doctor to talk about anxiety and, instead of discussing diet, meditation, or therapy, would only be given a prescription for Prozac.

Or clients who had been on medication for years and hadn’t noticed any difference except for a slew of negative side effects.

However, in more recent years I have come into contact with dozens of clients who have benefited enormously from medication and would not have been able to delve into the deeper work without it. I have clients who have taken medication for a short run – 6-9 months – then weaned off it. I have clients who know they’ll need to be on medication for the rest of their lives. And I have many in between: they stay on meds for two to three years and then slowly wean off of them.

I’ve also noticed that there has been a shift in the field of psychiatry over the last several years where psychiatrists are much more mindful about dosing and seem more aware of the deleterious effects of changing medication too quickly. There has also been a rise in holistic psychiatry, which seeks to use traditional medication alongside natural supplements to treat anxiety and depression. These shifts give me more faith in the field.

So what do I think about medication now? I am completely supportive of each person finding their own way with it.

And do think that medication is a cop out? Absolutely not.

Here’s the thing: People who are drawn to my work aren’t looking for a quick fix. They’re not seeking to bypass doing the hard work of emotional healing. So there’s really no danger of  emotional bypassing. And, for some people, it’s the medication itself that allows them to do the deeper work as it quiets the mind enough for them to drop into the body.

Here’s the bottom line: Life is hard. Very hard at times. Within reason, I support anything that helps take the edge off and give us some relief. I am grateful that medication exists and I’m blown away that some brilliant humans figured out how to create a pill that can offer psychological relief.

I felt compelled to write this post because several people over the past few years have shared with me that they were nervous to tell me that they wanted to try medication. That makes me sad, and yet I completely understand their hestation because of some of my early writing on the subject. So, I wanted to clear the air and tell you that my purist has calmed down :). Writing that makes me think about our Gathering Gold episode on Purity and Perfection. Time for me to listen to my own medicine – hahahahaha!

I hope this post helps clarify my position. I’d love to hear your thoughts on medication in the comments below.

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39 Comments

  1. A wonderful and very wise post. My thoughts, very roughly, are that if medication helps you to be more yourself, then it is a good thing, and if it causes you to be less like yourself, then that’s probably not good. Speaking personally, my own journey involves medication, and probably will, in some form, for the rest of my life. I’m OK with that.

    On a related note, you and your readers might be interested in an article I wrote recently, around the term ‘disorder’. It’s called ‘ON DISORDER AND SUFFERING’ and can be read here:

    http://joshuaseigalpoet.blogspot.com/2023/11/on-disorder-and-suffering-short-article.html

    Peace

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    • What a beautiful, wise, and vulnerable article, Joshua. Thank you so much for sharing. I love that you quoted Lionel Corbett and I LOVE this:

      “Now I’m not saying pills and manuals can’t be part of one’s mental health journey. They have both certainly been part of mine. But I am not a broken machine. I am not a computer with a missing bit of code, or a radio that has been wired incorrectly. I suffer, yet I am whole and loveable and OK as I am. I am not disordered. I do not need to be fixed or patched up or made to work properly. I am worthy of love, and capable of giving love, just as I am. I suffer, but I am not defined by my suffering. I suffer with other people, but my suffering is not the same as other people’s. I am wholly myself, and yet at one with everything. I am running out of profound statements. Anyway, peace and love to you all, wherever you are on your journey.”

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    • Yes! Yes! I learnt the tough way to move from rigid (spiritual) ideas, judgement and contraction around taking painkillers and sometimes valium, to love and wisdom.
      I came to see that when I dó take a valium, it reveals all that drops away, all that subsides, all the relief…of whát?! Of the shoulds, the pressure of perfectionism, the fears, the aloneness. It felt like two arms holding me, in which I could let go and look deeper. Like being carried, wrapped in love, so I understood what was needed in daily life.
      I am totally at ease now at taking pills to relieve pain or panic. And because of that I need less. Way less over the years.Trust grows, a sense of safety deepens, I feel a ‘back up’. Knowing I don’t have ‘to do it alone’, struggling, suffering, and trying to live up to some standard. I am free. I am fine. God is in a pill too….

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  2. Thank you so much for voicing this, Sheryl. I think it is really important for people to hear. When I went through my Dark Night about 12 years ago, I took anti-depressants for about 9-months, and I am sure they were key to my being able to stay with the difficult, deep inner work that I did with you at the time. As Joshua said – they made me (ever so slightly) more myself. I couldn’t do meaningful inner work from the fist of self-loathing and despair that I was in the grip of at the time. I now have sons with severe ADHD, and finding the right dose of medication for them has been life-changing – for them and us. Again, it makes them more themselves, and they can access the fullness of their beautiful minds and souls and lives with greater ease and joy. Importantly, I think medication is not a substitute for inner work / life-skills building – but it can be such an important tool in order to become available to therapeutic processes.

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    • Thank you, Clara. And yes, Joshua’s succinct thoughts are very helpful: if it makes you feel more like yourself, that’s a good thing.

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  3. When I saw the title of this, I rushed to read. I can relate. I was anti-meds my whole life. There are so many people in the spiritual community who bash medicine and even condemn it as evil. I always felt like I just needed to work harder to be ridden forever of my anxiety and depression. Years of therapy with different therapists and a year of EMDR later, I was still suffering. My mom begged me to try it and I finally gave in. It has changed my life. I was so afraid of feeling “numb” or like a “zombie”. I actually feel like myself again. Nothing more, nothing less. Just me. I still worry about taking the medicine sometimes. What are the long term effects? Will I regret this one day? But honestly, I can see clearly now how much I was suffering and how hard I was trying. Three therapy sessions a week sometimes and still very little relief. That wasn’t living. The motivation I have now has inspired me to take more chances in life again. I’m so relieved to read your updated opinion now, because I value your opinion so much. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Thank you!

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    • Yes, it’s stories like yours that changed my mind. Thank you for sharing!

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      • Thank you for this, Sheryl!! For years and years I rejected the suggestion of medication for anxiety. I am a high-functioning anxious person. Even on days where anxiety was debilitating, I’d get everything done the way I wished to and (sadly) know one would know how I felt inside unless I told them. I masked it so well! Finally about two years ago, after several loved ones shared their personal stories of medication helping their anxiety (and several conversations with my doc and therapist), I started on a low dose of antidepressants. I can vividly remember a few days into taking them, driving home from work feeling so light- like I had returned to a version of myself who I had not known for years. I joke that my silliness and sense of humor has returned, which were key characteristics of me before I fell into deep anxiety during young adulthood. Things don’t feel quite as heavy. I am not sure how long I will be on them- maybe another six months, maybe forever, maybe on and off… In any case, I am glad I challenged my own thoughts!!

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      • This is my story too. Hear hear!

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  4. I really worried about the possibility of taking medication because I didn’t want to do the quick fix and really resonate with healing it at the root. But, as even my naturopath pointed out to me, “when you break your arm we put it in a cast, and then support it’s healing.” And especially in the last year, since about March I’d say, my anxiety was so bad I actually did start having panic attacks almost daily, and it was affecting my eating, and my ability to function in daily life. Since I started taking Pristiq in August that significantly calmed down, and while I’m also dealing with ADHD and motivation issues that make it hard to remember to do inner work, it’s gotten significantly easier because I don’t feel panicky all the time now.

    I kind of think of it the same way I approach my IBD. I take mercaptopurine because without it, my symptoms are uncontrollable just through diet and acupuncture and things like that. When my symptoms were really bad, I also took prednisone. But at the same time I see a naturopath, I avoid GMOs and eat organic as much as I can, compared to the general population I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and it’s not refined sugar (sometimes it’s coconut sugar which is actually good for you!), I go to acupuncture (which is wonderful for anxiety!), and I take supplements that are supposed to help gut health and brain health. Now I’m working on my sleep, which has not been all that good, but it’s the next area to improve. So I do both. I know I can’t control my IBD without a medication, and right now, I have not been able to control my anxiety without a medication. Some day I might be, because I’ve started to learn to recognize anxiety as just that, and not as something actually wrong, and to do opposite action (like go for a walk instead of sit down and stew in it, or go out and have fun even when I feel scared). So someday when I have more of those skills, I may not need Pristiq anymore, but luckily for me it seems to be working and I haven’t had any bad side effects *knock wood*. I flew by myself from Alaska to Boston this September, after starting the medication. When I went to Boston in May I felt panicky traveling WITH people.

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    • All great to hear, Riley. I love that you’re addressing your symptoms from all angles, and seeing positive results.

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  5. I have started dabbling with CBD. Sometimes thc but that’s few and far between.
    The first time I took CBD I was at home, doing life with the kids. After school for them, making dinner, heading to a meeting etc so it was a hectic time of day.
    I feel as a highly sensitive I felt it kick in fairly quickly (10-20mins), I felt like I do on THC but without the paranoia, overthinking etc. I felt present and, most predominantly, I was feeling feelings as they came up. It was very strange because I cannot recall ever feeling feelings!
    I felt whatever it was WITHIN me and let it ride away.
    I continue to take when I remember to as I have a wild mind at times and I forget or talk myself out of it.
    Continuing on this CBD journey and curious about how it will all unfold:)

    Reply
    • I am very interested in your expert if you could help me? I have tried cod oil but it just does nothing, can you advise on the dosage you take and also about thd? I am in the UK but can get hold of things if I need to🔥😉thank you x

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      • Rachel I am not sure if this comment was in reply to mine but to share:
        Cannabis is sold legally in stores across Canada. I live in Manitoba. Try googling Delta 9 and you can purchase online. CBD gummies are what I use and contain 10-20mg per one unit (one gummy).

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  6. I had one experience of taking medication, after the birth of our first son, when I was diagnosed with post natal depression. The medication stopped the sobbing that would wrack my body at 3.30pm each day and allowed me to make some really positive physical and mental changes that allowed me to do the deeper inner work. Maybe I was on it for 9 months? It was about 15 years ago.

    My younger brother after the death of our father in 2020 has now found a medication that works for his ADHD and depression. He also quit alcohol and sugar and the calmness I see in him where he has so much more clarity and peace is really such a gift. He doesn’t share too much, but I am thankful he has taken care of his health.

    I think this is a wonderful post. I recently started HRT to help with menopause and again I liken it a little to my experience of taking Lexapro, my hormones are a beautiful even level and the therapist I see on a regular basis who is helping me navigate mid life, grief etc is the best gift I have had this year. I am truly blessed to live in a time where we discuss our mental health and seek help. Thank you again Sheryl for all you do.

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    • All good stories to hear, Jo. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  7. Thank you for addressing this topic. From age 17 to 28 I suffered from severe depression. I ate a plant based diet, did yoga, pranayama, meditation everyday, saw a therapist, attended church, had a low-stress job, a great family, great friends, etc. So it didn’t add up that I would spend everyday crying and thinking about ways to end my life. After a total breakdown after the love of my life proposed to me, my sister who is a doctor recommended I try medication. After so many years of silently suffering, I took the leap. It took 2 tries to get my medication dosing right but with out being brave and giving it a try I sadly wouldn’t still be on this earth. Medication saved my life. It also allowed me to marry the man of my dreams, and have the baby of my dreams. I wouldn’t have the beautiful life I have with out it. It’s ok if people judge me for taking it. I am alive and happy and so grateful for the huge blessing it’s been in my life. I feel very lucky to be on a medication that works so well for me and I do not have side effects. The fog and constant sadness has lifted and I am happy every day to be alive! I hope people can be more compassionate to others whose situations they may not understand. Thank you Sheryl for all that you do, you have also helped me tremendously and have been a great blessing in my life.

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    • Incredible story, Allie! Thank you for being brave and what a blessing that your sister stepped in.

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  8. Thanks for writing this, Sheryl. It’s good timing as I’m coming to the conclusion that I may have to try medication again myself and have felt a lot of shame around it. I’m armed with so much information that I feel I should be able to apply the work, but poor mental health and constant chronic pain has worn down my resolve so much that I’m not able to consistently apply the tools, or remember anything I’m supposed to be doing (despite keeping endless notes and having posters and post-its all over my house). My system is on high alert all the time, hence the constant pain, and I need something to help me generally calm down enough so that it doesn’t feel like my brain and body are on fire all the time. I’ve been trying without the right medication for years and I feel it’s time to admit defeat.

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    • So glad you clarified your feelings towards medication Sheryl & here is my story. I started taking them in 2000 & they enabled me to live a normal life & work. Each time I reduced them I became unstable ………. and when I abruptly stopped taking them, I had what can only be called some kind of mental breakdown. All my demons surfaced at the same time and overwhelmed me. The feelings I experienced were horrendous and I regularly reached out to you (although you wont remember). You suggested counselling & it was the best advice you could have ever given me. I started my meds again and found an amazing counsellor which enabled me to do the deep inner work I so desperately needed. When I saw her for the first time I felt like I emptied a suitcase full of demons onto the table & they were like a tangled ball of wool. Gradually each thread was unravelled, talked through, I felt the raw emotion of each one & they are now filed away properly so that they wont ever trouble me again. In the past I tried to ignore my thoughts (demons) because of the anxiety they provoked, but now I can let any thought come into my head & feel peace. I realise that before councelling I used meds to try to obliterate both my thoughts & feelings but now they are used just to quiet my overactive mind. I’ve been advised never to come off them again ……. but I know now that counselling was also needed. So for me it was a 2 pronged approach. Without meds I couldnt have done the inner work and I now view them as my best friend keeping me stable. I hope this helps others going through the same. I feel I’ve been to hell & back but it was needed to get to where I am now. Sending love & peace to everyone reading my story.

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      • Beautiful story, Lynn. I think for most people who find their way to my work it’s at least a two-pronged approach, and medication is often one of those prongs. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    • It sounds like it might be time to try again, Frances.

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  9. Hi Sheryl, thank you for this wonderful post!
    I want to share my experience regarding taking medication. Last winter, I experienced a very severe Dark Night of the Soul, and a few months later, I found your work and started treating my relationship anxiety. As someone who didn’t eat, sleep, or function normally during those few months, I allowed myself to take Xanax a few times in the evening to give my body some rest and be able to get through the next day. Various medications for anxiety crossed my mind, but deep down, I knew that wasn’t the path I wanted to take. Your holistic approach convinced me that it is possible to overcome this, but it requires changing my entire life. Some may find this overwhelming, but what I wanted to convey is not that we need to change everything in life to heal from anxiety, but rather to start paying attention to ourselves every day, multiple times a day, listening to our needs, feelings, body, and spirit, and to stop living on autopilot.

    Medication just wasn’t for me. But I have seen my sister’s journey with bipolar disorder, who has struggled for years with alternating phases of depression and mania, which in total was one big torture. Medication saved her life and she was able to function normally and live a happy life, and maintain her job, social life and many more.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story, Marija. Medication definitely isn’t for everyone, and it’s so good to trust yourself enough to know when it’s right or not right for you. I think it’s generally agreed upon in the psychology world that there are certain disorders that require medication, and bipolar is one of them.

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  10. My story has ended up under a reply to Frances in error. Can it be moved so that it is seen properly. Thanks

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  11. Thanks, Sheryl! Your open-mindedness speaks to my heart and the timing couldn’t better! ♥

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  12. Thank you for this post Sheryl. I have found your work back in 2015 when I was going through one of the hardest times in my life. Constantly remunerating whether or not I loved my partner. I had bought the course and really delved deep into working on myself. However it was only when I started taking medication that I finally found relief within myself. It happened just 2 DAYS after starting the medication. it was unbelievable. Your work has helped me so much as well because I had so many false beliefs on what love should be.. but without the medication I honestly can say I would not be here alive today. It took me a year and a half until I took the courage to start the medication and I thank God everyday for taking that leap.

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    • Thank you for sharing your story, Melissa, and I’m so glad you’ve found some relief and clarity.

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  13. want to share that many years ago I had a terrible experience with medications. Due to recurrent urinary infections and pyelonephritis, 4 different doctors (I asked for many opinions) told me that the only option was antibiotics for life.

    I took them but kept looking until I was healed by the help of a naturopathic doctor.
    Today I continue with the idea of looking for the root cause and that is why I am in this course.
    Yes, I have implemented the protocol of Dr Patrick Nemecheck (for autism and dysautonomy too) and the nutritional protocol of the psychiatrist Georgia Ede, Dr Crhis Palmer and the supplements that Dr Isabella Wents recommends in her generous blog ….for y life and my family.

    My pain disappeared and my anxieties and mood changes are like any other situation that happens to anyone. Or at least everything for me today is approachable with inner/spiritual work, study and faith in love as the only source.

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    • I’m so sorry about your terrible experience, Esmeralda. And also very happy that you’ve found you way to healing modalities that work for you.

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  14. I appreciate this post, Sheryl. There is no one path that is right for everyone when it comes to healing. Medication can be an invaluable triage tool when it comes to addressing acute symptoms, as well as certain chronic conditions. Sometimes the burden is too much to bear without medical assistance, There should be no shame in that, and those are exactly the times that modern medicine was built for. I recently saw an ad for a once monthly HIV drug with minimal side effects. I am NOT someone who is easily moved by pharmaceutical ads to say the least, but this one had me near tears. This is a disease that was a death sentence just thirty years ago and people are LIVING NORMAL LIVES with it now! Amazing!!

    Unfortunately, as a woman who has dealt with deep anxiety as well as chronic physical conditions who grew up at a time when every kid on the block was being put on something (often with catastrophic results), my personal experience with psychiatric drugs hasn’t been entirely positive. It was thrown at me (early and often, and for everything from situational anxiety to stomach cramps to PMS) not as a life raft to a drowning person but as a pillow to smother unpleasant and inconvenient feelings with. The suggestion of anti-depressants became code for “your problems are sticky and unattractive and I don’t feel like discussing them with you”. And my response of “Umm….I’d really like to pursue alternatives first if that’s okay?” was inevitably met with snorts of derision and a prompt withdrawal of care. I once expressed concern about side effects of a drug to a doctor and his irritated response was, “Look, if you want to suffer, that’s YOUR choice. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

    Granted, that was then. Now, I’m happy to say more and more medical professionals are better placed to openly discuss the nuances of drug therapy without looking “disloyal” or backward. Women are not just routinely handed a pill the minute they get weepy, and the people who DO need the help of drugs are more supported in finding it. But I am always going to have trauma associated with the use of psychiatric drugs, and any physician who offers them to me is going to have a hard time gaining my trust. I do not resent the existence of these drugs by any means, but I do resent the fact that if I AM ever in the position to need them, their potential efficacy will be hampered by those past negative experiences in my case and probably in the cases of countless others.

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    • Niamh: Thank you for sharing your story with so much grace and honesty. It’s stories like yours that led to my negative view of medication. I, too, am very happy that the field has evolved, but your trauma around it makes perfect sense, as does the experience of many others.

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  15. Hi Sheryl, thank you for clarifying this here. The only way I’m able to be in your Break Free from Relationship Anxiety Course right now is because I’m also doing a mixture of medication and ERP (and my therapist agrees that this course is helpful for me too!). Thank you for what you do in the world. We HSPs value it so much.

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  16. Hello Sheryl, just wanted to say that I missed your weekly e-mail ❤️ and that I hope you are fine.

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    • Hi Marie. I am well! Thank you. There will be a weekly email this week :).

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  17. If I would have responded a year ago, I would have said how I’ve been on medication for depression and then anxiety since I was 17 (I’m 40 now!) And found it really helpful.

    But this email made me look at things a little closer. My mother instigated putting me on Paxil at the time. As I was growing up, she always told what she thought I should feel. ‘Get over it’ was a common response of hers. Identifying my feelings is something I have worked on for a long time.
    She has said recently that I have too many feelings that are too intense.

    All of these realizations made me wonder if medication was another way for her to make me seem more normal, which always seems to be her goal — without really addressing the root causes of my feelings. So, in retrospect, the story is more complicated.

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  18. Hello Sheryl ☀️ What a great post. I’ve been dealing with my own battle of “intuition” surrounding tapering off of Lexapro to prepare for pregnancy. I get a lot of instructive thoughts that the medication is just a way to patch over the real problems, but the truth is that I did so much good and healing work over the past 4 years. As I’ve been tapering off, I’ve felt a lot less like myself and have been feeling fear around “going back to what it felt like pre-medication”. It’s almost this intrusive image of me waking up four years later and comparing life on medication to a dream, or a made up reality. It’s a strange sensation. I’m trying to figure out the right path (keep tapering off and trust this journey, or go back on medication because it made it less terrifying and traumatic to do the work). I’m stuck feeling like if I go back on that I’m failing and just ignoring the root problems. Quite an interesting journey!

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