I had the best of intentions of sitting down Friday morning (12/14) to write about how faith — belief in myself, intrinsic healing, and the basic goodness of the universe — helped me through withdrawal from psychoactive medications. Then, the woman who was going to watch our son couldn’t make it due to car trouble, so I decided to take the little man out in his stroller. Before I left, I checked email and saw a brief flicker on Yahoo about a “school shooting in Connecticut.”
Grim, but ultimately, and horribly, predictable: rarely does a day pass in America anymore without some public mass murder. In fact, just days earlier a man in a hockey mask shot up a mall in Portland then took his own life. And of course not far from my home in Colorado you have the raw wounds of Columbine in 1999 and the Aurora AMC Theater just last summer.
I bundled our son into his winter clothing and headed out under calm grey skies with him and the dog, taking a lazy loop around a wealthy neighborhood just east of us, passing big, silent houses punctuated only by the occasional construction or landscaping truck. In time we rolled home, I flicked on the computer again while “Crazy Bear” chased the kitty around my office, and then I recoiled from the big yellow banner on Yahoo: “26 dead in school shooting, including 20 elementary-school students.” Shaking, I picked up my son and kissed him right on his cheek. He grinned, giggled, and I told him that I loved him while the cat saw its opening and fled the room.
Well, there you have it, the universe is perhaps not such a benevolent, healing place after all. Or, not always. So when you find yourself, as I did for many years, fragile in the throes of a painful withdrawal from psychiatric medication, life with all its random darkness can seem even more hopeless and bleak. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the evening news for two years—and still rarely do, mainly out of self-preservation—because black and ultimately incomprehensible doings like what occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, would imprint on my brain. In fact, I couldn’t even watch violent TV shows, with all their stupid, hokey gunplay, or horror movies—which I’ve long enjoyed as escapism. Chemically compromised primarily by benzo withdrawal but also washout from a host of other medications, I had no filter. Everything I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt ran in an uncut mega-watt conduit directly into my brain, and I couldn’t escape the crushing sense of despair that came from sensory and information overload.
So here’s the thing: the world does not, unfortunately, stop while you’re in med withdrawal. You might not notice current events as much given the hermetic nature of your suffering, or be able to pay the world as much heed given the hypersensitivity of your brain, but life nonetheless grinds on in all its beauty, complexity, and horror. For me, to circle back to faith, it thus became very important to believe in myself no matter what else was going on around me, because I could never control external events. If I did not believe I was the better of my pain, if I did not trust that I was going to heal, then it was certain that I would never improve. And the world, of course, would continue to look the worse for it.
In correspondence with people less far out from their final dose of psychiatric medication than I am now, the question often comes up: “Will I really get better?” (And sometimes, “Should I reinstate?” I can’t answer this latter question, as it’s purely a personal decision and I’m not a doctor. I would simply encourage anyone considering reinstating to ask themselves why they stopped, and wanted to stop, taking meds in the first place.) It’s a natural response when, a year in, or even two or three, you’re still experiencing life-altering and limiting symptoms like terror, anxiety, insomnia, digestive issues, emotional blunting, tremors, sweats, flashes of rage, and so on.
You’re not yourself, it’s like you’ve been running a 103-degree fever of body and soul for years, and you often feel that you can’t live another second this way. I lost count of how many days I felt like a horse ridden too hard by his master, foaming at the mouth, flogged through an oily marsh into inky woods of infinite despair, tripping over tangled root balls in a cold gloaming, lurching, stumbling, heart fit to burst, not sure I could take the next step. And this, two years in or more, when I felt, at least by karmic calculus, that I’d paid my dues and by all rights deserved to be well again.
It had almost been easier in the early days, when the pain and terror were so immediate, acute, and so obviously correlated to the cessation of benzos and other medications that I had a clearer idea of what was going on—as well as greater hope that the future would hold peace and promise. (Because things couldn’t really get any worse in the present!) But later, in the limbo years out from taking the drugs but not so far out that I’d fully recovered, is where things began to fall apart.
Like so many of us, I needed an anchor, a guardian angel, a ghost of Christmas future that revealed a better reality to come. A big part of the solution was connecting online with other survivors, hearing their stories, comparing their symptoms to my own, and seeing that I was not an anomaly in terms of how long I was taking to heal. Primarily it was one person, Alison Kellagher, who was my lifeline, and I was lucky enough also to spend time with her in person, to see firsthand the tangible proof of her return to health.
Alison, who passed away in summer 2010 after a cycling accident, was an amazing woman, a kind, intelligent, soft-spoken, gentle soul who was also a ranking competitive cyclist and who had survived a cold turkey off 7mg of Klonopin and gone on to reclaim her life. She in fact had turned her experience into a positive one, earning a master’s degree in counseling so she could help others through benzo withdrawal. I found Alison through a flyer on the wall at Boulder Community Hospital, where I’d been hospitalized in 2005 after six days and nights without sleeping and some scary parasuicidal behavior, the result, I discerned later, of an increased dose of the SSRI Paxil while in a parlous state near the end of my benzo taper.
In 2007, two years off benzos and a year off antidepressants, I ended up living just a quarter-mile from Alison and her husband, and Alison and I would often take walks around the lakes nearby. Being Alison, and being so tuned into others, she would naturally slow her pace to match my huffing withdrawal shuffle, even though by then she was fully healed and handily winning master’s bicycle and cross-country-ski events. I don’t specifically recall asking Alison if I would get better, but I do remember having many timeline questions, most often, “When did you feel like yourself again?”
As a milestone, Alison offered up three years, or between years three and four; it was then, she said, that she was able to return to competitive athletics, her bellwether for healing. A full immersion back into her pre-benzo life.
As we walked one day in spring 2007, I told Alison I was still having some bad nights, especially trouble getting to sleep.
“You poor thing,” she said. “I remember that. It was terrible.” Then she expressed what at the time seemed like the oddest sentiment: That each night when she went to bed, reading her book calmly under the covers, switching off the light, and dropping easily into sleep, she almost felt guilty because she knew that it was otherwise for “all you poor people still out there in benzoland.”
Having lived this very nightmare, Alison knew that such a simple, taken-for-granted nicety remained elusive, almost a Holy Grail to those of us in benzoland. As the months and years wore on, I hung onto that image—Alison reading calmly and then drifting into slumber—as a symbol of wellness. Today, not a night goes by that I don’t, after I set my book on the nightstand and just before my eyes close, say a silent, internal blessing for being able to do so myself again.
This is all a long way of saying that despite many moments of enormous internal doubt I did get better. One of the biggest concepts Alison professed was what she called “intrinsic healing,” including the brain and nervous system’s abilities to right and repair themselves after a chemical shock. Think about people who’ve made miraculous recoveries from hideous physical trauma like car accidents, amputations, and burns, and who compensate for any new deficiencies by working around them or learning new skills. The brain and the mind are no different; they are strong, elastic, perfectly designed, and also have the power to mend themselves if you trust that they will do so, and let them do their thing.
Today, looking back from the other side, I absolutely share Alison’s conviction in intrinsic healing. Absent further chemical interference, even a brain as insulted and poisoned as my own was able to heal—I simply needed to step aside and let time work its magic. I needed to believe in the process. This is what I mean by “faith,” though obviously “Faith” with a capital F doesn’t hurt either. Perhaps even a diehard atheist could by way of scientific credence place his trust in the perfectly ordered system of the human body and its ability to self-repair.
I’ll continue to offer myself as proof, but would like also to share this story of a seven-month-old girl who seems to have swallowed a feather. Her body, recognizing the object as foreign, slowly rejected it, and over time it emerged through the skin of her neck. Her body took action and knew exactly what to do, and did so in its own time. Certainly a feather is more innocuous than a long-running dose of Klonopin or Seroquel, but in both cases there has been some initial adulteration of the natural order of things. And in both cases, left to its own devices, the body can and does sort itself out.
A world where the worst problem children have is feathers lodged in their necks—this is the world I’d much prefer to live in. In the meantime, reality being what it is, keep placing faith in yourself and in intrinsic healing. I’ve been very pleased with the results myself.
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.