I’d like you to get to know me as you read this. I think I have an important personal story to tell. Frankly, I don’t like that my story can be seen as an illustration or a parable because it came at a cost to me i.e. I could have had a much more placid life. And truth-be-told, I am also enraged at what happened to me. But I feel honored and blessed that I have the capacity to share my story and perhaps help others with it. I’ve now changed from feeling like a permanently unwell human being to someone who knows she is strong and resilient. I am also someone who has realized that she was painfully duped by psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.
I was a very skinny, petite, very shy, introverted young lady when I entered Yale University in 2000. I was very studious, and a little quirky with an ambitious nature. However, Freshman Organic Chemistry kicked my butt, and by finals week I was cowering and unable to study because of the pressure I put on myself to succeed and the pressure I felt from my father, who would accept nothing less than an ‘A’. I became very anxious and upset and had to postpone taking the exam and went home for the week. My dad took me to see my primary care physician and the doctor put me on Prozac. And that is when it all started, and I eventually became acquainted with mental places I could never have imagined.
I finished that semester (earning a ‘B’ in Freshman Orgo). Spring semester a new personality bubbled up for naas. I became sweet like syrup, but also histrionic and obnoxious at times and very extroverted. I became a performer and every interpersonal interaction I had was injected with intensity. Like the time Don didn’t say ‘hi’. Don was a classmate, and one time a group of girlfriends and I passed him, and I said a loud ‘hello’ and he didn’t say ‘hi’ back. From then on for the next week or so I would announce in groups about “Don’s not saying ‘hi’” and how I was deeply offended, sometimes with Don present. The guilt eventually overcame me for my acting out and I cajoled half the cafeteria to write a collective poem of admiration for Don, which I presented to him with bravado. This was quite a change from the shy girl who would hide behind pillars at social gatherings, hyperventilating from social anxiety. And boy, did I have energy! That summer I worked close to 60 hours a week, 5 days as a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center, and weekends as a ‘sandwich artist’ at Subway. I worked during the day, spent the nights staying up late with my boyfriend, slept 3-4 hours a night, and was cheery the next day. At Subway I would compliment every customer in line. I was super charming. Fall Semester of 2001 came, and my boyfriend and I broke up. But what I experienced in the aftermath did not even feel like a real human emotion. It was not sadness but a deadness, and I knew it wasn’t even about Stephen at that point. I didn’t understand it. I just wanted to die. That thought became an obsession. I would write notes to myself like, “Don’t drink the paint thinner” to try to preserve myself. It’s like I was programmed on ‘self-destruct’. All this led to a hospitalization and getting kicked out of school for being unstable.
As time passed my unusual states of mind continued and psychiatrists experimented with me by prescribing me different drug cocktails of mood stabilizers, more antidepressants, and neuroleptics. And I got diagnosed with the life-long illness of bipolar disorder. I didn’t feel like my natural self, and when out of frustration I went of my drugs cold turkey, I wouldn’t sleep for days, and my mind states and behavior got even more extreme and more bizarre. One experience was at work. We were all sitting around the table having a staff meeting. But for me, I didn’t experience it as just a staff meeting. Everyone became divine creatures, my coworkers became archangels, the coworker I had conflict with became the Devil, my boss became God. Nothing changed visually, just the feeling and meaning of the experience. When we read the Mission Statement it became THE Mission, and by that I mean a world/cosmic mission. When my boss/God presented a book to our team, it became the holy text, and the fact that I happened to be listed in the acknowledgements, made me a Messenger. In hindsight I think it was an archetypical experience. Experiencing it then, it was simply as it was, quite intense. Psychological archetypes are a Jungian concept. Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson writes about archetype in his book Inner Work: “The idea of archetypes is an ancient one, it is related to Plato’s concept of ideal forms-patterns already existing in the divine mind that determine in what form the material world will come into being.” He writes, “The archetypes are often presented by the unconscious in images that are divine, royal, magical, or mythical. If the archetype of the universal heroine appears in your dream, she may take on the visage of a legendary figure like Joan of Arc.” I was experiencing an inner process, experiencing the world at a different level of consciousness, maybe from a personal and collective unconscious. Surviving on the archetypical plane is very difficult in the normal, consensus reality world, especially also if a lot of personal trauma from your past is also resurfacing, as was happening to me. And I always, sadly ended up in the hospital when going through this process.
But after this experience, when I returned to a more normal reality, I really did take the organization’s mission with a divine passion. I had felt stuck and unhappy in my job then, and after this experience I was ignited. The job was Certified Peer Specialist Trainer and Coordinator in Philadelphia and I became a bit of a celebrity in the Philadelphia Recovery movement, with my fierce advocacy, deep honesty in my trainings, going above and beyond, and my love for the Certified Peer Specialists. It felt magical, like a door to my heart was flung wide open. In his book Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process, John Weir Perry describes how the inner journey that is clinically labeled as ‘psychosis’ is really a visionary self-renewal process that helps people shift world views and values. It is sad to me that mainstream society can’t accept that a person can view the world differently (and intensely) when they are processing something big in their lives.
Even though I did have positive experiences in these altered states, a lot of them were living nightmares, such as having my whole reality dissolve into a feeling of non-reality, time slowing down and almost stopping, so that 5 minutes lasted 3,000 years, and it feeling like a purgatory. In hindsight this happened at quite silly places, like I felt like I was thrown into everlasting damnation while my mom did a credit card transaction standing in line at Burlington Coat Factory. But it was still everlasting damnation! I also saw the figure of Death quite often in people and inanimate objects. The list goes on but it’s quite intense, so I’ll leave you this taste.
Where did these experiences come from? I knew that I was diagnosed with life-long bipolar disorder, but labeling these giant experiences (no matter how divine or dark they were) and minimizing them into a DSM category, seemed to be disrespectful, demeaning, and downright disgusting. I felt very isolated as I searched for their meaning. Then I found people in psychology, such as John Weir Perry, C.G. Jung, and Stanislav Grof, whose ideas had a spiritual nature and resonated with me. I felt validated and started to blossom. And then I read Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, and my world did a back-flip.
I learned by reading the thorough review of clinical studies in the book that antidepressants like Prozac can worsen the course of depression, that antidepressants can trigger mania and bipolar disorder, and that neuroleptics can cause vulnerability to psychosis, especially when withdrawn. This explained exactly what had happened to me. My bipolar disorder with psychosis was induced and maintained by the very drugs that were prescribed to help me. Huge waves of relief overtook me. And waves of anger did too. When asking for help, I never asked to be taken to deep psyche places, some of which were torturous. I never asked to be obsessed with dying. I never asked for massive sleep deprivation. I never asked to feel that there was always something profoundly wrong with me and that I had life-long illness. And then on top of being labeled with a stigmatizing mental illness, I was hospitalized six times, forced to leave college 3 times and reapply 5 times, and was estranged for a long while from my family and some friends.
I feel young in my recovery process. A lot of my healing process has been undoing the harm that was caused by the psychiatric establishment and pharmaceutical industry (not just the drugs, but the coercion, aggressiveness, and condescension) and my label of bipolar disorder. I am not denying that kind people were genuinely trying to help me as I think they were duped too. I’ve worked with a mindfulness coach on dissolving big assumptions that came from my ‘bipolar identity’ that hurt me from reaching my goals. I’m working with a nutritionist to help counteract the massive weight gain from the drugs. I’m weaning off the drugs cautiously with the help of my therapist and peeling away the ‘bipolar identity’ that still clings. I’m repairing relations with my family slowly. True, I have used my ‘bipolar identity’ in my career for good, and being a peer has helped me be a part of a wonderful community of peers. Do I feel like a broken person? No. I am a strong person with lots of loving support. I am pursuing my dream of being a therapist who acknowledges the spirituality and deepness in experiences labeled as ‘psychotic’ through attending the California Institute of Integral Studies in the fall of this year. I am a person whose sense of justice moved her to write this recovery story. I hope it helps others avoid or alleviate pain.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.