In my most recent blog post, “The Unmedicated Life”, I attempted to answer a question I’m frequently asked by other survivors — “How did you get better from psychiatric medication damage/withdrawal”? But there is also a part two to the question that I didn’t address, which is, “How did you know when you were better?” Since the two topics are related but somewhat separate, I’ll discuss them in two different essays.
The only analogy I’ve been able to come up with, after pondering these matters for a while, is that it was like contracting a cold bug or virus that first announces its arrival with a fever. When the fever initially takes hold, it’s readily apparent that you’re coming down with something: You alternate between feeling too hot and too cold, you shake, you ache, your head pounds, and you’re a dizzy, sweaty, groaning wretch. You are unequivocally ill and must take to your bed and rest. But then after a day or two, the more acute symptoms subside — you’re no longer running a temperature of 101 or 102 — though you’re still febrile. You’re just not sure how febrile: 100.5 degrees? 100? 99.7? Finally, you can get up and potter around and maybe do some light chores, but you still know you’re unwell, just not to what degree.
The only thing that’s clear is that you’re not 100% yourself.
This might go on for a while. Five or seven days, say, of low energy, breathlessness, malaise, and vague, hard-to-pinpoint discomfort; but at least you’re functional, albeit to a lesser degree. But even this diminution of function can be hard to recognize, mired as you are in a long string of days filled only with suffering, with normalcy so long-gone you can recall only that “it probably doesn’t feel like this.”
Only when the fever disappears for good, when you wake up one magical morning and feel 100% like yourself again, do you realize that it’s over. By comparison, the return of everyday good health feels like euphoria or almost like you’ve been given superpowers, and only in the contrast do you realize how low you’d been brought.
Anyway; that’s the best metaphor I can come up with, though I’m sure there are others. For me, the earliest months off the meds were the high, spiking fever; while the months and years that followed were the low-grade malaise during which I knew I was “better,” in that I could function (well enough) but I was also not sure how much better or how much farther it was to the finish line, because I still experienced constant washout symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, emotional lability, fuzzy cognition, physical weakness, and depression. It was a muddy, gray, seemingly unending, and often dismal period during which the best barometer of healing was feedback from family and friends, who could better see the changes in me over time, having the advantage of separation from the immediate torment.
I remember well, in 2009, my friend and rock-climbing partner Ted remarking on how much faster I could hike to the cliffs, versus a year earlier, and how this surprised me because I thought I’d been hiking the same pace all along!
Anyway, this is all very easy to write about with the benefit of hindsight and a return to reliable health (90 or 95 percent of my old self), and I realize it was not always this way and that I’m very fortunate to have the nightmare behind me. Not everyone reading these words is in that position, I realize; or perhaps you are the friend or family member of someone not yet out of the woods. For many months and years I ran a “fever of 100.5,” and that was maybe the most desperate period of all, both because it went on for so long but also because it was so impossible to know how long that so long was going to be.
So really, the question “How did you know when you were better?” is perhaps best rephrased as “How, while you were still sick, did you know you would eventually get better?” This is the most pressing matter for those still healing from the harm caused by psychiatric drugging, because they are living within the process.
We all heal differently, with our own individual milestones. For me, the point at which I knew I would eventually get better — that the fever would someday break — came in 2006, year one, during which I was still very ill and often hopeless about the ruination that had become my life. The drugs, hospitalizations, and diagnoses had taken so much away, for so long, and I didn’t know if I had the simple physical strength to continue. My morale was likewise a tattered old battle flag: I continued to feel, as I had through all of my ordeal, that I was no longer the master of my own destiny — that, even though I’d finally escaped the unsympathetic, authoritarian grip of the psychiatrists and their Pine Sol–stinking wards, I was still too physically and emotionally compromised to influence the outcome of my decisions, even if I was finally free to make them again.
That is, I remained so cowed (screw it: traumatized) by my experience and so reduced by pain and fear that I had trouble navigating the world: speaking up for myself, dealing with difficult people, forming coherent thoughts and opinions that were discernably my own, making plans for the future, and so on. I did not feel adequately self-sufficient. I did not know where the world began and where I ended.
Then, all that changed. Let me explain.
In the sport of rock climbing, which I have been practicing since age fifteen, you have two climbers: the lead climber and the follower. The lead climber goes first, belayed by the follower (aka “second”), who uses a metal belay device to secure the rope, paying out slack as the leader climbs and locking up the device in a fall. As the lead climber moves up, she clips the rope into protection points to safeguard these falls. In a lead fall, you generally fall twice the distance you are above your last protection point plus a few extra feet for rope stretch (dynamic climbing ropes elongate under load, to disperse force); if you’re ten feet above your last protection point, you might drop twenty-three feet before the belay stops you.
Lead climbing is thus much more committing than “seconding,” where if you fall, belayed from above by the leader, you’ll remain hanging almost exactly in place. In a lead fall, it’s really isn’t the falling that’s dangerous, but the stopping, especially with obstacles like ledges, blocks, and sharp arêtes of rock below.
Lead protection, meanwhile, come in two forms: fixed and self-placed. Fixed protection comprises pitons (the “spikes”) that climbers once hammered into the rock in bygone days, as well as expansion bolts screwed into holes drilled in the rock, placed by the first climber to “open” the route. If a route has entirely fixed protection, then the way ahead is clear and the commitment level is low.
You need be neither entirely self-sufficient nor confident in your route-finding skills: you’re essentially “connecting the dots” between pre-existing protection points.
With self-placed protection, so-called “traditional climbing,” the leader places removable protection in natural cracks, seams, and holes, protection the second then removes when he follows the pitch. The leader will carry a “rack” of metal protection, often weighing many pounds, and must like a chess player plotting multiple moves in advance scan ahead for protection options. So many overlapping factors come into play on a traditional lead, from a need to mete out protection in equidistant intervals, to avoid over-long falls; to finding stances, often on strenuous terrain, to place the protection; to sizing the protection correctly; to making sure you’ve placed the protection in reliable rock; to making the good decisions that keep you “on route,” from straying into unprotectable terrain.
It is much more of a head game and requires expertise, calm, and total self-sufficiency.
At my sickest, I’d for many months put climbing and most other athletic pursuits on a back burner. I had just enough strength to do therapeutic yoga, walk a bit, visit the bouldering gym where I could do easy moves near the ground, without ropes, and lift light dumbbells at home, but that was about it. The few times I tried to climb outside, it felt both too taxing physically and too stimulating mentally. It’s hard to explain, but in the acute withdrawal state (the main culprit was benzodiazepines), I was too jacked up and divorced from reality for anything that stimulated my nervous system, because then I’d feel even worse. The screen of my vision was too bright and fuzzy, I swayed to and fro with mal de debarquement, my hands and feet tingled, I had a fierce electrical current running along my spine and into my gut that fueled a constant internal tremor, and my thoughts were rushing, repetitive, doom saturated, and self-castigating.
There was no peace.
Finally, one day in 2006, I’d had enough: I needed to prove to myself that I was more than just one big ball of suffering. And so I asked a trusted friend, Majka, who knew what I was going through and who also happens to be a mountain guide, if she would lead me up some easy rock climbs in Eldorado Canyon, south of our hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Eldorado is an elemental place, split by a roaring creek that spills over mammoth brown and red boulders, the steep-sided canyon walls above beetling with vibrant red and green buttresses, ramparts, ridges, and minarets towering up to eight hundred feet high. Ponderosa pines and talus fields spread upward from the canyon mouth, fanning into a great hanging basin beyond and then, eventually, the high Rockies.
I can’t recall which climbs we did that day, but I do remember that with Majka in the lead I felt safe, and that we kept things mellow and never climbed high off the ground. I moved slowly, lethargically, seconding her leads, rarely looking down, conserving my meager stores of energy and trying not to let my heart rate get too high or breathing become too rapid, so that my nervous system stayed calm. It was a bright, windless day, swifts and cliff swallows darting about in the ether and the belay commands of other climbers the only sounds audible over the crashing of the creek.
Finally, near day’s end, having done OK thus far, I told Majka I wanted to try a traditional (self-placed protection) lead, to see if I were still capable even in my hellish state. Without so much as a tic or a clearing of the throat, Majka said, “Cool, let’s do it!” She still believed in me, even if I wasn’t so sure myself. I could have easily seconded her up another climb, but it seemed important not to take the easy out. It had been at least a year since I’d done any lead climbing, but perhaps if I chose a route well below my technical abilities, I would be able to push through the fear and confusion, and sort out the things like route-finding and protection that needed sorting out.
The route we did that evening was called Breezy, given a technical rating of 5.5, meaning it’s less than vertical and covered in ample hand- and footholds, ledges, and incut “bucket” holds the size of toasters — a route any novice could do. My first-ever rock climb was a 5.5, so here I was back to square one, but now I was going to make myself lead it! A traditional climb, Breezy climbs a wide crack and broken arête up a spire called the Wind Tower, at the canyon mouth.
It’s hard to recall the specifics (and blow-by-blow descriptions of climbing are like watching paint dry), but I do remember that I made it. I started off slowly, feeling vulnerable and naked and exposed and half-panicked as I moved higher off the ground: five feet, then ten, then twenty, picking my way up the dark cleft, sliding my feet up one wall, my back up the other, the rope dropping like an umbilical cord to Majka. It felt like swimming against a strong ocean current, but still I persisted. I dithered for a while slotting in the first piece of protection, not trusting the rock, myself, or my “feel” for sizing the gear, knowing that if I blew it, it would be a long, ugly fall to the ground.
Then something clicked. I had been doing this for twenty years, and instinct and muscle memory took over. I even started to have what might pass for “fun” for someone in med withdrawal, moving more naturally and shouting a joking word or two down to Majka, who belayed patiently off a flat patch of ground in the gully below.
Here I was on the rock again, making my own decisions and guiding the outcome. If I wanted to make it to the top safe and sound, then I needed to take the correct route, place my protection correctly, clip the right length of nylon runner between the protection and the rope for smooth ropework, and select which hand or foot I would move up next so as to execute each move in a stable fashion. No one could tell me what to do up there, up off the ground in my own little world. And no one could help either if I got stuck — at least, not immediately.
Every last decision was my own, and I took full ownership.
For those thirty minutes it took to reach the big ledge atop Breezy, I was free. My body still hurt, my muscles still burned, I still felt the ever-simmering brew of chemically induced terror that had become my constant companion, and I was dizzy and thinking slowly, but I was free.
My own person.
And that’s when I knew: If I can be free this once, I will be free again. I realized that the next time I broke free I would feel a little stronger, and then stronger again the time after that, and so on, until eventually it was over, until the fever had broken.
Little victories: That’s how I knew I was going to get better. Whether you’re a climber or not doesn’t matter. Perhaps you have some other passion you can try again, even in baby steps, to measure progress and see that your core, integral self is still intact. Or perhaps it’s just that first time you drive to the grocery store alone or walk around the block or meet friends for dinner.
You make your decision and you work to influence the outcome. You do something for the “first time again” that you were previously unable to do.
You earn a little victory.
This is how life is lived. This is how you know you’re on the road to getting better. This is how you know it will eventually end, whatever ups and downs may come. This is the face of healing.
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.