Close Encounters with Biopsychiatry

Joanna Badura
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Editor’s Note: The author has written her story using a different name.  Here, she’s explained why: “In my country, Poland, the stigma attached to the diagnosis of schizophrenia continues to be very strong; extremely few people (and no well-known figures) have publicly disclosed their diagnosis. As a junior professor at the University of Wroclaw, I am painfully aware of the possible consequences of disclosing my diagnosis and the fact that I have spent some time in a mental hospital. This is why I have decided to use my mother’s maiden name instead of my real surname.”

I will always remember this conversation: I was talking to a young psychiatrist with a rather impressive list of scholarly publications. I told him that I was having serious doubts as to my diagnosis. I told him that I felt a strong wish to come off neuroleptics. I described in detail the effects my drug had on me. I mentioned what I had read about neuroleptic-caused brain damage. I emphasized the fact that I felt happy and healthy. I talked at length about my life and relationships.

The doctor’s reaction was like a blow. According to him, the diagnosis was correct and I should take a neuroleptic for years. And coming off my “medication” was highly likely to lead to “drug-resistant psychosis” and might even make ECT necessary. The psychiatrist did not realize that I was not one to be easily frightened and cowed into obedience, and that his being an “expert” did not impress me in the least. I came off the supposedly indispensable drug more than three months ago and feel very happy about this decision, even though many believe that I am conducting a highly dangerous experiment on my own supposedly irremediably unbalanced brain.

I will always remember, too, the words “chemical lobotomy”. The effect of the drug Largactil (chlorpromazine), which I trustfully swallowed when I knew nothing about neuroleptics. I remember sleeping for hours, feeling like a zombie and having difficulty in getting up from a chair, and the intense pain in my joints. Even before I read the words “chemical lobotomy”, I knew that these drugs could not be good for me.

Only less than seven months ago, on my thirty-secondth birthday, I would have never guessed that I would soon make a close acquaintance with psychiatrists and powerful, neurotoxic drugs. I was simply a quirky, cheerful, adventurous and insatiably curious person. A young, radically leftist sociologist and lecturer, passionate about many issues and impatiently awaiting my first trip to Africa, the continent that has fascinated me for many years. No signs at all of an irremediably unbalanced brain and a “severe mental illness”. I remember reading with sadness about the inquest into the death of Sean Rigg, a young British black man diagnosed with schizophrenia who died in police custody, without the slightest premonition that I would be soon diagnosed with the same disease.

Biopsychiatrists love talking about dopamine, dopamine imbalance and dopamine receptors. None of the psychiatrists I have come across has made an effort to find out about the exact circumstances of my mental breakdown. They all seemed to believe that I was simply yet another individual who had something wrong with her brain. The nicest psychiatrist mentioned John Nash, which was quite pleasant and flattering, but even this doctor firmly believed in the biopsychiatric dogmas.

As to myself, however, I knew since the very beginning that I suffered a highly spectacular breakdown because of intense emotional distress. I was simply unable to cope with it, in spite of my obstinate efforts to remain strong and equanimous.

Some issues once seemed too intimate to me, but I no longer think so. I was deeply in love and believed that I was loved, too. The object of my love was also my closest friend and a kind of guide and mentor. Much older, much more experienced, worldly-wise, often bitterly sarcastic. The author of countless romantic and passionate letters that filled me with exquisite joy. I used to think that this was a love that surmounted all kinds of seeming barriers.

Last July, I travelled to Nigeria to spend two weeks with my friend. To my shock and disbelief, he increasingly withheld affection from me, without providing any explanation. I tried to remain as serene and peaceful as possible. I found Nigeria breathtakingly beautiful and greatly enjoyed the company of my host’s relatives and friends. I bravely decided to focus on the positive. I thought that it would not be too difficult for me.

I realized how wrong I was only near the end of my stay in Lagos. It began to seem to me that I was overhearing my friend’s phone conversations with some mysterious lover and that they were talking about me. Then I began to think that I might be hearing messages recorded on some kind of device. In any case, I began to hear a male voice that was saying increasingly demeaning things about me and expressing his love for another woman. My friend kept repeating that the voice was only in my head and I did believe him, but I continued to hear the voice, especially at night.

One night, the male voice started saying extremely contemptuous and hateful things about me. And a little later it was joined by a young female voice. Yes, a late night conversation between lovers was running in my tormented head and I just could not stand it. I tried to talk to my friend who obviously did not realize what was happening to me. The two voices became silent only when I began to hear, with immense relief, the heavy tropical rain outside my window.

I continued to hear voices, and above all this male voice, for four more weeks. I heard them both in Nigeria (where they spoke mostly English) and in my country. It has always been obvious to me that I began to hear the voices because I felt rejected as a woman and was not strong enough to cope with the pain.

Psychiatrists were not interested in my bizarre voices and the things they were saying. I was simply prescribed various neuroleptics. The doctors, imprisoned in their biopsychiatric beliefs, seemed to be totally unaware that my breakdown might be a reaction to a psychological shock.

After some days, I was committed to a psychiatric hospital. I was told that if I were not compliant, I might be put into restraints and injected with a drug. I chose, of course, to be very compliant, even though the nurse who took me to the ward behaved almost as if I were a young offender. I very soon began to be forcibly given neuroleptics: I knew that if I resisted, I would be injected with the drugs.

This was a mixed ward, which undeniably worsened my mental state. I was offered absolutely no form of psychotherapy and I was not allowed to go outdoors for a month. When the first neuroleptic (Olanzapine) did not seem to have any effect on me, I was given Trilafon (perphenazine). The effects terrified both me and my family. I found it increasingly difficult to make any movements, I developed severe Parkinson-like symptoms and I finally began to have difficulty even in eating and brushing my teeth. I was also unable to read. My psychiatrist needed some convincing before he agreed to change the drug to another one, Abilify.

I spent more than a month in this hospital, doing everything I could to be let out as soon as possible. Fortunately, I was not devastated when I found out, on the last day, that I had been diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia”, but I felt sad and had the strong feeling that the diagnosis had little to do with my experiences.

The idea that someone like me must take neuroleptics was becoming increasingly disturbing to me. I suffered from akathisia and had some difficulty in having conversations with other people. I had attacks of drowsiness, often even at work. Symptomatically, doctors seemed to believe that I should just put up with all the unpleasant effects of the drug. And they did not tell me that my difficulties in reading (longer texts began to frighten me!) were caused by the drug: for several months, I believed that it was due to my “illness” and thought with sadness that I might never again enjoy reading as much as in the past. When I told my psychiatrist about a worsening of my eyesight, he claimed that it had nothing to do with the neuroleptic, which later proved to be blatantly untrue. When I mentioned my fear of tardive dyskinesia, he was just as dismissive. When I told other psychiatrists that I woke every night to realize that the fingers of my hand were numb, they simply chose not to comment on it.

Very fortunately, I kept reading a lot about “schizophrenia”, “mental illness”, biopsychiatry and neuroleptics, and increasingly came to realize that, contrary to psychiatrists’ claims, it was perfectly possible to come off neuroleptics and that the very concept of schizophrenia is heavily challenged by many authors. I came across some incredibly uplifting websites (Mad in America, MindFreedom International and The Inquiry into the ‘Schizophrenia’ Label are among them). I came across Robert Whitaker’s and Peter Breggin’s books.

I firmly believe that I am now more resilient and equanimous than before my breakdown. I have changed my way of thinking about life and largely freed myself from some earlier worries and fears. I have stopped being anxious about what others think of me. My family has been a source of enormous support in this process. I absolutely do not think of myself as a “schizophrenic” or “mentally ill”. I have simply had a serious breakdown, but have managed to regain my inner balance. I find it really depressing that many Polish people diagnosed with ìschizophreniaî firmly believe that they have to take drugs for years or even until the end of their lives.

Sadly, my Nigerian friend has put an end to his friendship with me. Who knows, maybe he has not been able to cope with the fact of my dramatic breakdown … But I am now able to think calmly and serenely even about this painful break-up. Yes, I must have become stronger than before.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for you heartfelt story, and congratulations on the courage to tell it. This means a lot for people who may be going through the same thing; and just to hear someone witness the starkness of the political environment around “schizophrenia,” will help others who might feel completely abandoned.

  2. Thank you for this confident and well told witness to the ignorance and abuse of the typical psychiatric treatment of distress. I am ashamed that the US export of such a brute, unscientific treatment for profit knows no boundaries. We are now using this same treatment to control the behaviour of toddlers. If you are ever on the West Coast of North America, come speak in Vancouver BC.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story and experience of psychiatric treatment. No doubt your “quirky, cheerful, adventurous and insatiably curious” character and personality has stood you in good stead in your recovery and coming to terms with what happened to you in the system.

    I live in Fife, Scotland, and have got to know your mother through my blogs about local and national mental health issues. Aren’t mothers wonderful? All the best in your continuing recovery and growing resilience, Chrys

  4. Thank you for sharing your courageous and heartfelt story. The loss of love is a frequent cause of severe emotional distress. I, too, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19 after the loss of a love. I was simply extremely sad and needed kindness. Instead, I was given combined insulin and ECT and masses of Thorazine. It was a terrible and sad 3 years for me. But, in the end, it was the kindness of one gentle doctor who saved me, told me that there was nothing at all the matter with me that had not been caused by the terrible “treatments.” He gave me hope, the best medicine of all. I have not had any drugs at all since leaving the hospital in 1963, and I have been fine for over 50 years.
    Dorothy

  5. Ms. Badura (Joanna),

    I see that it is months since you put your story here, which I just got to read, but without reading any comments yet. (It’s very nice that you know English.)

    In America, it is almost impossible to frame one’s beliefs in terms of real world conflicts and emotional needs anymore, if ever once anyone with whom you are known to relate has pointed to a brain state or indicator of a brand of psychiatric diagnosis and away from your distress and the contents of your statements as these deserve responses.

    But there is no reason, if you feel right and are not tormented by your thoughts regarding your enduring fate, to go on looking to understand more and more of your reactions to things changing among your circumstances, and so forth, and jsut concern yourslef with brain health like anyone, and “mental health” in general, like anyone.

    However things are going for you, I know it is safe to say that your posting remains widely appreciated, by those of us who identify as consumers or survivors, even if disbelieved in by persons who think that you should not choose your own way.