I have known altered states of consciousness since I was a child. I clearly remember staring into the mirror in my mother’s bathroom and thinking that I was not who I appeared to be and that I was separate from my body. Strangely, that is one of the few vivid memories I have of my childhood with the exception of a couple seemingly insignificant events. I am certain my mind files all the sorrow and difficult thoughts away in some heavily guarded place I cannot access until I am capable of tolerating the pain. I am fine with that. I have come to realize over the years that my past does influence me in many ways, and I work very hard to prevent it from ruining my enjoyment of the moment.
I am sure by diagnostic standards, my “mental illness” started when I was a child. And it was no better in my teens. Visions of self-mutilation and emotional torture started when I was twelve, and I am now in my thirties. Unimaginably beautiful feelings and powerful connections with the world and with people came along shortly thereafter. The first few years with those experiences were incredibly painful.
I fought with my parents incessantly, and I believe to this day that they deserved a great deal of it. I ran away from home, and I would be briefly happy. I drank, I smoked, and I experimented with drugs, and those things were relatively meaningless to me and still are. I dropped out of school in eighth grade despite having above average intelligence and an incredible curiosity. And I was living on my own and struggling to put my life together in some sensible way by the time I was old enough to drive a car. I was a survivor.
I always found my way through the pleasures and pains of those experiences and came out more self-aware and determined in the process. I always had a strong drive to make the next day better. While I occasionally gave into passion or anger, it usually made sense in the context and rarely caused any major disturbance in my life. If I quit a job, I had another one right away. If I destroyed a relationship, the jerk usually had it coming for destroying my trust. I certainly could turn on a whim, but there was usually some precipitating factor. For the most part, I lived in harmony with my emotional states. I learned to make connections between my feelings and things that happened to me in the past, which allowed me to appreciate my emotional states without allowing them to rip me to shreds. It was a process that was arduous, and I certainly understand why someone may choose a different route.
In all honestly, I thought I had psychological problems when I was a teenager. It certainly would not have come as a shock to me if I had been asked to take medication at that time. I remember sitting at the dining room table in my parents’ house crying and telling them that I could not take it anymore. My mother never believed in therapy, and she told me it was all in my head. In retrospect, I think she had more insight there than I gave her credit for because I believe in emotional reactions to life experiences, and I believe it is possible to work through those reactions with fierce dedication. While I have a lot of anger and a lot of animosity toward my family, I am thankful that I never saw a psychiatrist when I was younger and did not take medication until much later in my life. I might have avoided a lot of pain, but all of that pain made me the resilient and genuinely empathetic person I am today.
When I was in my twenties I endured some traumatic events, including the demise of a serious relationship with a partner I had been living with and had loved dearly. I cheated on him and accept responsibility for that, but he hurt me deeply, and my brain just reacts to negativity with negativity sometimes. Reacting negatively is something that I have worked on quite a bit over the years.
The brief and intense affair turned into an equally brief and intense marriage to someone who, while being an incredibly intelligent and kind person, simply was not right for me. It was during that three-year marriage that I began hearing voices and thinking I could hear other people’s thoughts.
At the time, I thought I was insane and that everyone knew it. Walking around the mall was the most excruciating event because I felt like I was plastic and that people didn’t see me the way I saw myself. I felt detached from my body and subhuman and thought every single person was staring at me. I was probably disheveled and scared, and it would not be a surprise if people were actually staring at me. I no longer appreciated dissociative experiences; I was terrified of them. The voices were telling me to kill myself, and I was starting to agree that it might be the best option. I was working as a legal assistant at the time, and I dreaded picking up the telephone at work because the voices would tell me that the client knew I was crazy. I began missing days of sleep and was so sensitive to light that even the light from a computer monitor in an otherwise dark house caused me pain. I started to panic so badly and so often that I refused to go anywhere I did not have to go and started disconnecting from life as I knew it.
By the time I saw my first psychiatrist, I would have agreed to anything to just shut my brain down. That first experience was not a pleasant one. The doctor did not ask me how I felt or what happened to me, but rather, gave me a lengthy assessment followed by what I would consider a mental interrogation. I had to push through this while feeling like my cells were going to explode out of my body into an atom pile at the doctor’s feet. I remember a few questions from my initial visit, which had to do with feeling hopeless, sleep patterns, and illicit drug use. But I will never forget the doctor asking if I had a history of schizophrenia in my family. I told her I did not know. Then she rephrased the question. I may have been losing my mind, but I knew she would not be asking that unless she thought I was schizophrenic. I was terrified. And I was terrified because I had been taught to be terrified by the media and by my psychology professors. The doctor handed me a prescription toward the end of that appointment. I asked what the prescription was for, and in a rather matter-of-fact way, she stated “Amanda, you have schizoaffective disorder, and you will have to take medication for the rest of your life.” I lost control. And for the first time in my life, I had no hope for my future.
I do not recall that doctor asking me about my marriage, about trauma, or whether I had recently taken any psychiatrics medications. In my mental state and in the interest of being a good patient, I would not have thought to tell her anything she did not ask. She was the expert. I had, in fact, recently taken Wellbutrin on the advice of my family doctor for smoking cessation. It was discontinued because I began having impulses to jerk my steering wheel and cause my car to go off the road. I was also confused about my marriage and mourning the closing of a cherished chapter in my life. I cannot say for certain which of those things caused my breakdown or whether they all worked together in some way, but I can say I had a lot to talk about and nobody asked the right questions.
I struggled with various medications for about two years after that initial visit. I tried over twenty of them in that short time. I probably tried half as many psychiatrists, as well. I had a new label and new pill with every mood change or unusual sensation. Some of the pills made my thoughts, urges, and altered states significantly worse. Some of them gave me terrible side effects. And some of them did not seem to do a thing. I reached a point where I hated psychiatrists, and I trusted no one. During those two years, things would get better for a time, and then they would be worse than ever. I would panic for days and think people were trying to poison me. The surreal feelings would come back, and I would feel like a clay character in a human movie. The only thing that assured me I was still real was physical pain. I started looking for a way out, which ultimately resulted in two psychiatric hospitalizations. I barely remember the first one because I was on the upside of down and having a great time. It was also a very brief stay. My second hospitalization was life changing, in part because of the events leading up to it.
My mind had been racing for days. I wanted everything and nothing. I could not sit still. I could not focus for more than thirty seconds. I was not caring for myself. I was a mess. I had been on several different medications in a matter of months, and the most recent had been especially difficult for me. One day all of this was particularly bad, and I was afraid of myself. It felt like lightening was gathering in my wrists and would shoot out of my hands at any moment. I handcuffed myself to my bed in an effort to save me from myself. I laid there twisting, jerking, crying and trying desperately to fight the fleeting thoughts and sensations of electric shocks in my back and legs.
After a couple hours of that hell, I got loose, and I cut and burned myself and then overdosed on the several bottles of psychiatric medications that had accumulated in my medicine cabinet. A lot of incredibly humiliating and traumatizing events transpired as a result of those actions, not the least of which involved some type of medication that causes you to defecate uncontrollably before your brain has time to signal your body to stand up and bolt toward the bathroom. For someone who is distrustful and in a constant state of self-preservation, waking up in an emergency room with a locked restraint cuff on my arm was especially horrifying. Yet, there I was at mercy of the person that the sign on the wall referred to as my “babysitter.” That was not the last time that day I would feel extremely vulnerable – later that evening I had the misfortune of being transferred to inpatient psychiatry, in handcuffs, by two police officers.
Being committed is a distressing and overwhelming process. Three or four staff members gathered around and looked at me in a menacing way while one of them explained every detail of being a mental patient in less than half an hour. A nurse sat behind an oversized desk with a packet of papers about an inch thick. A male staff member sat on each side of me and at least one other lingered in the doorway. The nurse informed me of my rights as a patient, where my belongings would be stored, and what it meant for me to be involuntarily committed. They also explained to me that I would was on a suicide watch and that someone would follow me and have to keep an eye on me at all times, which included while using the bathroom and showering. Someone was nice enough to bring me a lot of food, and I am still grateful for that. Then I just signed whatever they put in front of me, and I decided to deal with the consequences later because I was exhausted and defeated in so many ways. Again, I was told I was sick with a mood disorder, would have to take medication for the rest of my life, and that if I did not comply this time, I would not get to go home. I reluctantly started a new medication there, and I did indeed get better.
I took that medication dutifully for over three years, and during that time I finished college summa cum laude, I remarried, and I began working as an apprentice to an attorney. I am sure the medication helped me control my emotions so I could focus on those things. But it also prevented me from being able to feel what I needed to feel to truly heal. It was like all of my awful life experience was in a tiny padlocked box in my mind, and I could see it every day, but I could not open it and examine its contents. Side effects eventually became unmanageable, and I switched to a different medication, which I also dutifully consumed until June 7, 2012, when I decided that, for better or worse, I wanted to feel something again.
I came off medications slowly and carefully with the support of my doctor. It was painful. Some days I felt gorgeous and amazing and others I felt mentally and physically disgusting. Some days I thought my husband was putting lithium in my food and others I was certain people were talking about me when they probably were not. After about three months, things got better, calmer, and almost annoyingly normal. That is no longer the case. Who I am at my deepest emotional level came back very slowly at first. It was like flashes of photographs on an old projector. It was a split-second thought reminding me of how beautiful and mysterious the world once seemed to me. Now it comes in waves. Sometimes they gently flow around me, and other times they topple on my head and push me to the ground and make me want to take my medication.
I am once again learning to be thankful for every experience whether dark, exciting, or humiliating. For years I feared myself and felt morally wrong for everything I ever was, which in actuality, is a most complex person who is incredibly insightful and capable of navigating the horrors and highs of life with brilliant resiliency.
I will never forget that many well-meaning people in my life told me there was “something wrong with” me. I will not forget my kind and gentle boss in the law office suggesting I leave work to “see a doctor” when all I wanted was to be left alone because I was ashamed of my voices and ashamed of my fear. I now see voices, moods, and fear as a necessary and valuable part of my psyche. It makes sense that I learned to hide my experiences and to panic in public because I had been conditioned to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Fear and shame are often unintentional, yet programmed, parts of the mental health system in America.
I believe deeply that fear and shame are dominating factors in many of our lives, often because others have ingrained those feelings in us. I know that is true for my life. I do still have fears. I fear loss, I fear regret, I fear unknowns, and I do indeed fear my own thoughts sometimes. There are times that I feel overwhelmingly awful for thoughts I cannot avoid, minimize, or repress. And I want to hide inside myself for eternity. I fear myself because, like so many other patients, I have been taught to fear myself.
I have been fortunate to learn that, while I may very well be unable to control my thoughts, I am able to control my behavior with maturing precision. It is in the moment between having the thought and desperately attempting to deliberately choose my course of action, that I inevitably realize there is some deeply buried meaning underneath the thought I am so vehemently resisting. The nurturing of those meanings whether they surface gently or fiercely erupt shapes my personality and often for the better.
I cherish my capacity to have a profound appreciation for my thoughts and feelings despite the torment that sometimes comes with them. It is in those thoughts and feelings that I have evolved and will continue to evolve. If I were to conceal my thoughts and feelings from my consciousness, I would never understand and appreciate myself, and I would never feel safe in the world. I am grateful for intensity, for passion, for anger, and for fear, for reminding me every day how fascinating it is to be a human being even when it terrifies me.
I am often asked what recovery means to me. In essence, it means appreciating my thoughts for what they are: my thoughts. Sometimes the thoughts come from some place in me that I have forgotten, and sometimes they are trying to tell me something I do not want to hear. But they are nothing more than thoughts until I assign them meaning or choose to see them through. I do still think in ways that might be considered bizarre, but I am keenly aware of it, and I am in control. I believe that I would never truly heal from my trauma and my emotional states without self-reflection and the ability and opportunity to make connections between my thoughts and sensations and things that have happened to me in my life. I no longer believe that my thoughts make me dangerous or horrible or ugly.
They make me human.
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.