In the course of sharing my story of recovery from the damage caused by psychiatric misdiagnoses (is there any other kind of psychiatric diagnosis?) and drugging, I’ve had the chance to correspond with people either still on the drugs and tapering off, or in the first phases of healing, the “early days” of being chemical free. One question that keeps coming up as I talk to people is: What did you do to get better? I’ll attempt to answer here in the most universal fashion I can imagine, since everyone’s path back to wellness is so individual and specific.
It has been 7.5 years since I got off benzos, the drug that damaged me the most, and 6.75 years off all meds; the final medicine I tapered was a tricyclic antidepressant, nortriptyline, in autumn 2006. Since that time, I have not taken another psychoactive medicine, nor have I had any desire to. Neither have I sought out therapy or the like. Personally, I’m sick of labels, sick of the industry, sick of talking about my “problems,” sick of navel-gazing, and would just rather live.
There is nothing left to examine, medicate, or discuss.
Despite the usual ups and downs of life, including losing two of my closest friends and climbing partners in 2007 and 2008, I remain saner, happier, and more stable than ever, grateful to feel emotions again in their fullness and to have an integral sense of who I am as a human being. I now realize, of course, that there are many other, much healthier and more natural ways than meds to deal with psychic pain, all tools I had in me all along.
Mainly, to put it simply, it’s what I didn’t do that’s allowed me to get better. If this sounds like a paradox or some sort of Zen koan along the lines of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” well, perhaps it is.
However, it truly was deliberate inaction that saved me: making a choice to simply be, to exist, to be present, to feel, even if what I felt for a time was the revulsion, weakness, and terror wrought by the toxic chemical agents that had reconfigured my neuronal receptors. It also represents a shift in thinking that I needed to impose, myself, in order to buy the space and time to heal through those symptoms, and to stay well for the rest of my life — because life, being life, will be difficult again, and I must learn to face it on my own terms. This represents a complete reversal of the worldview that landed me in the psychiatry trap in the first place.
For contrast, I’ve lately been pondering the terrible period at age twenty-one when I first started having panic attacks, at the inception of my pharmaceutical nightmare. I was an awkward and isolated college sophomore at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a massive state school with a teeming campus and a well-deserved reputation as party-town. If anyone can indeed fit in in such an environment, kudos to them.
I, however, did not. I didn’t care to binge-drink. Wasn’t into the brewskis-weed-and-Grateful Dead skier/stoner culture. As an introvert was socially inert both in class and at the few house parties I was dragged to by clueless but well-meaning peers. And, moreover, spent all my free time rock climbing, as far from campus as I could get.
I had serious self-hatred issues, a persistent case of virginity, and an eating disorder, and as fall semester wound down my self-care and self-esteem were in the toilet. I was barely eating, barely sleeping, and obsessed with exercising all the time. I was that classic lost, fragile college kid in search of a nervous breakdown.
And so it happened. I crumbled.
When you break apart this way, at least the first time, in these unfamiliar and dire straits, the first instinct is to reach out for something. Anything that will take away the pain. It’s in our basic human nature to want to not suffer, to want to remove the symptoms of our anguish as expeditiously as possible (and; damn the consequences!), because hunting for the root cause will of course take that much longer — a raw, fragile period during which we remain prey to our symptoms. With panic attacks, you’ll do anything for relief, both from the hell of an attack itself as well as the anticipatory anxiety and abject feelings of hopelessness that swell to fill your days as you brace for the next wave.
And so I did what so many of us do: I sought professional help. It’s the American way, right? When something hurts or isn’t quite right, you see a doctor. If the thing that’s gone wrong is in your head, you must surely see a psychiatrist. It’s how we’re brought up; it’s what we’re taught, from the first time we’re sent to the school nurse for a skinned knee to our annual checkups with a general physician. Got a problem? A doctor will fix it…he’ll have just the thing. The psychiatrist I saw that winter prescribed Pamelor (brand-name nortriptyline) for depression, as well as a few pills of the benzodiazepine lorazepam to hang onto in case of a panic attack. I’d started in with a low dose of the Pamelor, but, being a neophyte to medications, had been reluctant to try the benzo, and so it sat unused in my medicine cabinet in its little orange bottle.
I recall the day well, walking up the bluff from Boulder Creek to campus, mid-January 1993, back at school trying to re-engage with my studies after having further deteriorated at my parents’ house over Christmas Break. I was a sorry wreck, scared even to go for a jog because it might get my heart rate too high and trigger a panic attack. I’d white-knuckled through break hanging on, barely, by locking myself in my room and playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo.
It was my second day on Pamelor and something felt “off” about taking it — not only in terms of the dry mouth, slamming heart, dizziness, and unpleasant spaciness I felt, but also in terms of just “taking something” in order to feel better. I’m not sure why, but it just felt wrong on some level, as if I were cheating somehow or running from my problems. As if the old “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” were not applicable here. As if I owed it to my emotional self to do better than this chemical crutch. As if maybe, just maybe, I was making a poor choice and one that risked deepening my personal hell, as parlous as my mental state had become, or causing some physical illness.
I had come up a service road behind the athletic center and walked across one of the northern quads toward class. Low golden light bounced off a hard crust of midwinter snow, other students crunching purposefully hither and thither, and I caught myself thinking, “Maybe this just isn’t for me.” My breath was reedy and high in my chest — too high — after the hill climb, my heart slammed erratically, my hands felt leaden and funny, too susceptible to the cold, and I walked in a robotic, uncoordinated gait.
I was not, in other words, myself.
What was I doing, trying to kill my pain with pharmaceuticals? Why would anyone want to do this? These side effects were terrible.
I felt more depressed than ever.
I stopped the Pamelor a few days later due to some (possibly related) heart palpitations, but sadly, this did not mark the end of my journey down Psychiatry Road. I still thought someone else — these doctors — held the answer. By the time I broke free, fourteen years later at age thirty-five, I’d been on every class of psychiatric medicine chasing my damnable tail, from SSRI antidepressants to benzos to neuroleptics to mood stabilizers to off-label anti-epilepsy drugs. Not only had these drugs perpetuated a chronic and worsening iatrogenic disease state, they’d also conditioned a learned chronic helplessness.
That is where I’d gone wrong: looking outside myself for an answer. Thinking there was some problem in need of a solution, when in fact the problem was the solution, the “depression” and “anxiety” pushing me to make the changes in my life I’d been evading for too long.
What I did, then, to get better was to unlearn this helplessness. Again, this is how I got better, not how I managed withdrawal symptoms, which, while facing these down is an integral part of healing, has less of a role in keeping you healthy over the long term. In other words, it’s what I did not do — set foot in a psychiatrist’s office again, once I no longer needed their ilk to prescribe the drugs I was tapering — that has kept me well. (I also sought out a GP to help me off my final medicine, since my psychiatrist was quite unwilling to do so.) If I’m making it sound “too easy” here on paper, I apologize: it’s not like I woke up one morning with a light bulb over my head and said, “Aha! I’ve got it!” It was a process, and a long and extremely painful one, but every process begins with that initial impetus toward change.
I understood that psychiatry was, at best, a hammer in search of a nail, and that I needed no longer volunteer myself as that nail. I went with the instinct I had had all those years earlier as a younger man but had chosen to ignore in pursuit of the false Shangri La promised by pharmaceuticals: I looked inside. I understood that accepting suffering — the withdrawal symptoms; any “suffering” caused by my own intrinsic internal darkness; and just the plain old suffering we encounter in life, from job loss to grief to financial hardship to physical illness — was going to be the only way to connect to the source, to see that there was nothing to be scared of.
And I was right. Boy, was I right. It’s been so long now, the horror of withdrawal such a long-gone sensation, that even as acute, as terrible as it was, I can now recall only details but not the texture. This despite swearing to myself while in the claws of the beast that “I will never forget how bad this feels.”
I suppose I learned, as it’s best any of us do, to suffer.
Try this little experiment, to see how much power you actually have to shift your attitude toward discomfort. The next time a rainstorm comes through, do the completely counterintuitive thing and walk outside in a light T-shirt, no rain jacket, and just stand there letting yourself get wet. Your first thought will probably be either I’m freezing-cold and need to get back inside! or I need a raincoat! However, try this instead: tell yourself, All I’m feeling is a sensation — let’s call it “cold” or “wet” — and I can choose not to react or to feel anything at all. In fact, I’m not even cold; I feel nothing. I’m warm! I love the rain!
Notice what happens. Notice how much warmer and safer you suddenly feel. Deliberate inaction: let the raindrops wash over you. This is our world, where it rains sometimes and where we’re sometimes cold, but where such is also the natural order of things.
Matt Samet, a freelance writer and editor in Colorado, maintains a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mattsametauthor and has detailed his story in a memoir, Death Grip, available from St. Martin’s Press.
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.