If you’ve ever driven your car in a blizzard, you realize that the biggest hazard isn’t the snow or ice on the road; it’s mostly other drivers. You of course have your own vehicle (and welfare) to look out for, and it’s certainly stressful driving slowly, keeping traction on the slippery tarmac, maintaining concentration, watching out for black ice, and so on. But these variables remain somewhat under your control. Other drivers; not so much. Whether they’re speeding, overconfident in their bullying man trucks or SUVs, or just clueless about winter driving in general, there’s not much you can do to keep some blundering idiot from smashing into you other than not be in the path of said blunderer in the first place.
So too can it go with withdrawal from psychiatric medication. (Now, bear with me). You’ve become stuck in a massive blizzard, simply trying to hang onto the steering wheel of your life while others come careering at you from the gale, even those with good intentions who “just want to see you get better.” I say “careering” because unless you stay home alone, shut up inside your house and not answering the phone or email, you will still have to interact with the greater world to some degree in whatever parlous state you find yourself.
For me, that state was often one of extreme anxiety if not outright terror punctuated by flurries of panic attacks, while an overarching drab gray pall of depression, insomnia, and slowed cognition smudged the contours of the world. My thoughts felt obscure and muddied, I had no real sense of where the boundaries of self lay (and thus rarely stood up for myself, as I do now, also because conflict would set off my nervous system), I rarely knew what to say to people in most social contexts, my gaze was downcast, and I dreaded conversation. Especially when it came to why I was this way, why I wasn’t the person family and friends remembered me as or needed me to be, why it had been going on for so long. I never knew quite how to explain my situation, because as I quickly figured out, expressing the truth as I was experiencing it was often a tool people would turn right around and use against me.
E.g., in a general sense, “You’re so depressed and anxious. You should go back on your medicines.”
E.g., “I don’t know why you’d want to quit those pills: look at how long they helped you.”
E.g., “[I, my husband, my sister, my aunt, my best friend] is on antidepressants and benzos and mood stabilizers and is doing better than ever. If you have a brain disease, you need to take the medication that treats it.”
E.g., “I’m tired of hearing about [benzo, antidepressant, antipsychotic] withdrawal. There is no such thing, just like the doctors told you. And even if there were, there’s no way it’s still going on after all these months. You’ve dealt with [anxiety, depression, psychosis] all your life, and now your problem is coming back again because you stopped taking your meds.”
E.g., “We need to take you somewhere and get you some help.”
Sound familiar? Ever see these words of ultimate betrayal issuing from the mouth of a spouse or parent or best friend, and felt your stomach drop and heart break with grief? Ever wondered why the people closest to you often seemed the least helpful or the least likely to believe you — the least likely to support your choice to live free of medications?
If you’ve found your way to this site, read Robert Whitaker’s excellent books, or yourself endured psych-med withdrawal, then you know what a load of tommyrot this is: that over the long term, psychiatric medications instead of fixing anything are more likely to cause dependency, chronicity, deterioration in cognitive and emotional functioning, a worsening of your original condition, and side effects so numerous, debilitating, and frightening that they comprise life-altering syndromes of their own. Like me, if you’ve chosen to break free, it’s precisely for the reasons above, and also because you believe you will be much happier and healthier without the pernicious influence of chemicals over your brain and body. Unfortunately, this can also put you in a state of tension and at odds with the mainstream, either because those around you are true believers (on medication themselves) or because they don’t have both sides of the story, or are sadly too close-minded to entertain that there could even be two sides to this story.
If we must point a finger at anyone for this sad state of disinformation, it would have to be at the usual culprits, I’m afraid. We can start with Big Pharma’s/the FDA’s/the psychiatric profession’s/the mainstream media’s domination of the conversation; they have the most money, the most power, the greatest number of platforms, and hence the loudest bullhorn. For years, I bought it all hook, line, and sinker — until I educated myself out of sheer necessity upon spiraling further and further down the wormhole with each new pill, each new half-cocked diagnosis.
We’ve all long been indoctrinated in the official party line about “chemical imbalances” and “just like a diabetic needing his insulin…” when it comes to psychiatric medication. Click on any conventional news article about mental health, watch any news story, often sandwiched between advertisements for Adderal and Abilify, and there it is up in big blinking lights as if such matters were immutable fact: “mental illness” is a “brain disease” that “must” be “treated” with “safe and effective medications” that “get better and more targeted every year.” Never mind that there is no nor has there ever been any direct evidence for the deeply flawed biomedical hypothesis. It has become the gospel of the mainstream. Most people, including your family and friends, do not realize this or they are intellectually unequipped to hear otherwise. Thus when you, wishing to break free, find yourself in the confounding blizzard that comprises a withdrawal syndrome, people you’d counted on as your primary support can sometimes become the exact opposite: Enemies, those out-of-control cars skidding across the ice to smash up your vehicle.
So what do you do amidst the storm? How then do you talk to “civilians” while still protecting yourself and your decision? (I hate to use a war analogy, but finding your way off powerful brain-altering chemicals can be an all-out battle, a literal fight for life, so I feel it’s appropriate in this case.) Here are the five things I learned in my journey. Most of these I unfortunately learned the hard way, but so it goes when you’re mucking about half-blind in the trenches while shells rain down from burning skies.
1. Need to Know: If someone doesn’t need to know what you’re going through, it’s simple: Don’t tell him or her because it could potentially backfire on you. I believe this especially holds true for coworkers and casual acquaintances, those who might harbor gossip or career motives or otherwise use the information to satisfy their morbid curiosity. I was very forthright with people early on, when I was at my sickest from the chemicals and it was clear I wasn’t up for doing the things “normal” people do; I believed that it was incumbent upon me to do so, to be open and honest so that they wouldn’t be uncomfortable around me. It was a mistake. I once confided my story in a coworker who was at the time a friend and climbing partner only to have him use the information against me a year later in a coup attempt to divest me of my job title, falsely portraying me as unstable due to my situation. So beware. If someone keeps pushing for information, I quickly found it easiest to say, “I have fatigue issues related to a dangerous medication that I was on and am in the process of healing,” and leave it at that.
(I was also fortunate to be surrounded by open-minded folks and genuine friends who never once questioned my experience, and so was also rewarded for my openness. It’s hard to know where to draw the line — you don’t want to be too paranoid about others, but then again, it was trusting people [specifically, doctors] that had helped land me in this mess in the first place.)
2. Surround Yourself with Your Own True Believers: As I learned, it’s almost immaterial whether someone believes that psychiatric medications are deleterious to one’s health or not; what’s important is that he or she believes you’re telling the truth about the drugs’ effects on you and that your suffering is real. I think many people early in med withdrawal feel a need to convert anyone who will lend an ear, but the reality is that we won’t convince everybody or it’s simply a subject they’re not comfortable with or interested in. So, if a friend or loved one trusts you enough to understand, support, and believe your story, that’s often good enough — keep that person close to you. They’re an ally. As your health improves, you yourself can be physical evidence of the real truth of the matter…and perhaps gain another convert.
3. Rid Yourself of the Naysayers: This probably seems obvious, but if someone doesn’t believe you when you present your case, consider exiling them from your life for the duration of your healing or just put the topic off-limits in their presence. It’s not worth arguing or expending what little energy you have on such as these. Their doubt will only drag you down like an anchor, and the last thing anyone in withdrawal needs is second-guessers or, worse, well-meaning friends and family who consign you back to your tormentors: doctors and hospitals who will place you on yet more pills when your goal all along has been to break free. With friends and family this can be tricky, because you don’t want to close a door even temporarily and risk losing a cherished person forever. Once I was farther along, I found it simplest to say things like, “If you’re not going to believe me or support the choice I’ve made, then it’s better that we not talk about this or communicate until I’m well again.” Today, having seen that their love was conditional, I’ve maintained an emotional distance from certain people even though they’re still in my life to a lesser degree.
Another thing I noticed among “civilians” was a tendency to frame my story in terms of the addiction and recovery movement, which wasn’t especially helpful. Thanks to films, TV shows like Intervention (I must confess, I watch every episode!), and so on, we’re often presented a very linear, tidy, causative picture of “chemical dependency,” one in which normal life is restored by the third act, the addict faces down his or her demons, and everyone gets back to feeling good about themselves in a clean, sober milieu, usually in the space of a few short months. This might very well ring true for recovering alcoholics or cocaine addicts, but my experience coming off psychiatric meds, especially benzos, was that the timeframe was much longer, the healing much different, the chemically induced torpor, depression, and self-loathing at times bottomless.
Many people on psych meds were told neither of the pills’ addictive properties nor how hard it can potentially be to taper, and many were abandoned by the very doctors who hooked them when they wanted to stop. They are the classic “accidental addicts.” Even, as in my case with benzos, if you went into it with some knowledge of the perils or even complicity in taking a pill with some personal allure, I never found it useful to be “blamed as an addict” when all I was trying to do was navigate my way back to health. Essentially, the pain of the withdrawal was for me so profound, so revelatory, so shocking, so scraping-existence-down-to-its-raw-exposed-bones that any soul searching I needed to accomplish was completed in the act of survival itself. The last thing I needed was someone blaming me for taking the pills or for having the gall to not yet be well again according to some fictional Hollywood timeframe.
4. Don’t Burn out Your Support Team: Be cognizant of how much you talk about withdrawal or complain about symptoms while around others who aren’t going through it. People’s empathy only extends so far, and it’s easy to burn out friends or caretakers. Once it’s been established that this is what you’re going through, and you know your friend/spouse/family member believes you, don’t belabor the point. When giving a status update focus on the gains you’ve made, and remember that if they haven’t been through it themselves they likely won’t be able to connect with or even understand your laundry list of bizarre symptoms. (I found most of my “symptom” support online, on forums and groups set up specifically for med withdrawal.) I almost found it more helpful to not talk withdrawal around my “civilian” friends, to just immerse in normal life as best I could as a temporary distraction.
5. Use the Language that Feels True to Your Experience: On the flip side, when talking about your situation, I believe it’s quite permissible to use whatever language you want when describing your reality to others. I quickly became fed up with Pollyannas telling me I shouldn’t qualify myself as “sick” or “ill,” or else my brain would imprint the negativity and I’d stay in this state forever. Malarkey, baloney, hogwash: I disagree. I was extremely ill for months on end, with painful, tangible, limiting symptoms much worse than anything I’d ever felt physically or emotionally and that, as surely as an extreme bout of the flu, constrained and restricted my day-to-day life. At that point, I had earned the right to call it what it was, and in all reality nothing I said was going to change the course of my healing anyway. The truth was, I was sick, poisoned, iatrogenically ill, and the only cure was time, the ameliorating forward momentum of time away from the drugs and doctors. If I needed to report to others that I still felt sick during that period, then so be it. Anyway, it was usually them who asked how I was doing! I was just giving an honest answer, albeit one they perhaps did not want to hear.
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.