As I write this, it’s a quiet, cool-enough Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado, one day after the solstice and with a diffuse brown haze fuzzing the high peaks to the west. Colorado, as much of the American Southwest, is dotted with wildfires, some small, some massive, and the air has been smoky. Our forests are sere with drought, grey with massive swaths of beetle-killed ponderosa, and choked with deadfall. All it takes is one lightning strike or one poorly extinguished campfire or one tossed cigarette and a strong wind, and Poof, the next fire ignites.
And rages across the hills.
It’s hard to qualify wildfires. They have always happened and always will, and certainly when you’re in the path of one, they can feel “evil,” like conscious beings with a will of their own, rampaging Lovecraftian behemoths hell-bent on destruction. With all the newer homes and so many Colorado towns in the wildland-urban interface, the toll these fires take on humans, from the destruction of property to the loss of life, is tragic. But is a fire burning by itself up in the mountains with no one around similarly “tragic”? It’s long been known that fires are natural occurrences that also restore forests, by thinning the canopy, and clearing old trees/deadfall and making room for new growth. So perhaps in the end it’s difficult to put a value judgment on a wildfire. It’s simply there; it simply is. We fight the fires that threaten us because that is mankind’s way: to protect what is ours and to survive.
I have similar sentiments about the whole psych-med withdrawal/recovery conundrum: it’s simply there; it simply is. We fight our way through it because it is our will to survive, but it’s difficult to put a value judgment—a qualitative assessment—on such an internal and subjective experience, as hellish as it is, as unfair of a sandbag as it can be. I realize I can take such a view only because I’m lucky enough to have the horror mostly behind me, and can thus afford to be more detached. But it wasn’t always this way: at first, when I was sickest, I was mad as hell. However, having gotten better and now with seven years since that last psych drug, I’ve realized that putting a value judgment on my experience got in the way of healing, in particular wasting my energy looking for somewhere to lay the blame, even on myself, for the ruination that had become my life. Or worse yet, having my energy drained by others looking to blame me for what I was going through and how my struggle had impacted their lives.
No matter how I came at it, the blame game was pointless and counterproductive, an exercise in futility, turning a smoldering campfire of anger into a roiling conflagration of rage that served only to perpetuate negative emotions and to get an already-jacked-up nervous system firing into hyperdrive.
I was better off focusing on stillness, calmness, patience, and the gains I was making each day, and to hell with what anyone else thought. If they didn’t have anything positive to add, well then, screw them.
But here’s the thing: It’s hard not to be enraged when your life is in shambles, you want nothing more than to get it back (and it’s happening barely, slowly, if at all), and you feel betrayed by the very people who you thought, at least at one point, meant to help you. I understand why we get angry, and why we are in our rights to do so. It’s harder yet to control others’ reactions to our experiences because, for most people and especially for those true believers who work in or subscribe unquestioningly to the psychiatric system, your experience lies so far beyond their parameters that they are simply unable to entertain it, also because to do so might dissolve the tissue-paper walls with which their fortress has been so shabbily constructed.
Yes, very frustrating! Still, I hold that wasting energy—any energy—on this crap gets in the way of the primary goal of healing. Think about it: when a wildfire starts and is bearing down on homes, the first thing we do is try to extinguish or contain it. It doesn’t matter how the fire started or who or what is at fault; what matters most is taking action and averting tragedy. The search for a cause, for something to blame, comes later, in its due time, so that we might learn from it.
Here are the two Blame Game responses I’ve most often seen or experienced, and the reasons I consider both to be equally fruitless. 1) “My idiot psychiatrist never told me how dangerous these drugs were, and when I went to get off of them he didn’t give me any help and just wanted to put me on more drugs.” And, from “well-meaning” friends, family members, or if you’re unlucky enough to be trapped in the system, people in the mental-health or recovery industries (or who subscribe to that paradigm), 2) “You were the one who put chemicals in your body; how could you not know they were dangerous? You need to take responsibility for what happened.”
I’m guessing that if you’ve read this far, this all sounds familiar.
To the first response, chances are that if you’ve decided to come off psych meds, you have already had your awakening—have hit the wall and done your research, and clued into the fact that mainstream psychiatry is a broken business indeed, focused on labeling, controlling, and drugging, such that anyone who steps through a psychiatrist’s door will in all probability be kept on the hook for life. Told fallaciously that he or she has some mystical underlying biological disorder that must always be “corrected chemically” with psychotropic agents or things will get even worse, so that the person remains a patient in perpetuity, in thrall both emotionally and financially to their all-knowing demigod of a doctor.
Yet now you’ve woken up and seen that your doctor is trading in murky, unprovable half-truths, and that what he’s selling is little more than snake oil. So really, is it so surprising that this person, operating within his or her hermetic reality, is going to be less than supportive in your quest to break free from his “care”? Is going to deny any culpability in putting you in this jam in the first place? And probably has not studied or considered the most humane ways to help patients off drugs? Even if your doctor was a well-intentioned general practitioner, he or she was still hawking nostrums off the same Big Pharma cart, still assured in the knowledge that the “drugs must work” or otherwise they wouldn’t be on the market.
Blaming someone for his essential and probably unchangeable nature gets you nowhere— only angrier. I know; we all do it. As an analogy, I tend to launch into F-bomb-laden tirades when I’m stuck behind some pokey driver on the two-lane roads near my house. I know I shouldn’t and I know it’s pointless, but I do it anyway. But really the simplest solution is either to distract myself, and think about something else, or to bide my time and then pass the other car without investing any emotional energy into the scenario. Along the same lines, railing on your psychiatrist for doing what most psychiatrists do simply wastes your energy, energy that would be better spent tending to yourself.
Now to the second response: For whatever reason, the whole “addict makes good” model seems to be primary way in which people conceptualize stories of chemical damage to the body and the brain. As in, you need to “work the steps” and “atone for the damage” and “get right with yourself” or whatever, or it’s all going to happen again because of your “broken thinking.” What a bunch of rot. If you really want to change your life, and not lean on pills or substances of any type, you can and will—it takes determination, insight, and willpower, but we all have these attributes inside us. A few criticisms I’ve received from family, friends, and also in response to sharing my story in a book were that I wasn’t taking full responsibility for what happened, as if only in doing so could I “truly heal” or somehow, by accepting “full blame” for my drugged-up past (I was both on prescribed psych meds and also had substance-abuse issues), prove myself worthy of rejoining the human race.
We love to look down on our junkies, and in my case I was addicted to/dependent on/strung out on benzodiazepines, which in addition to being particularly addictive are also quite difficult to withdraw from, and can also foster recreational abuse. But again, whatever: your brain and compromised neurons care little on a social or psychological level how they came to be damaged or how you’re going about ingesting the chemicals. They desire only to find their way back to equilibrium, and negative messages hurled your way from people who take an absolutist stance on chemical dependency serve only to obstruct healing.
I need think only of the substance-abuse group I attended for a time in western Colorado. On most days, our facilitator was a kind, even-tempered, open-minded woman, and the group discussions went well and had honesty and emotional resonance to them. But one day when she couldn’t make it, we had a substitute, your archetypal unkempt “recovery professional” replete with a silly little ponytail, neon-green fleece jacket, and the sense of humor of a cinder-block wall. For a good hour and change he hurled abuse at us, telling us we needed to “man up” and “accept responsibility” for what had happened, etc., etc.—basically, he treated us like subhumans. Now consider this: when you break your leg and go to your doctor seeking help, he doesn’t berate you for whatever caused the break, be it a fall off a ladder, skiing, or a slip on an icy sidewalk. So why should it be any different with addiction/withdrawal? Clearly an error was made, in judgment, in thinking, in how you dealt with your problems, because your first instinct was to reach outside yourself for a destructive fix. But now here you are seeking help, only to be belittled for it, despite having acknowledged (or at least started to acknowledge) your initial error—what the hell?
In the fragile state one finds oneself in while trying to get off psych meds, even if there have been some concurrent substance-abuse issues, such damning energy from others causes psychic harm and impairs recovery. I’ve also seen some of this in the survivor/recovery movement, too: “Oh, you abused your benzos? I just took them as prescribed, so I’m not sure what to tell you…”
Again, as if on a neuronal level your brain cared from where and how the chemicals were introduced. Again, as if “addicts” were somehow worse than anyone else—never mind that American society has a huge blind spot for those addicted to power, money, fame, and digital-age distractions; and never mind that “addicts” are certainly not the only people in the history of the human race who have harmed others, deliberately or not.
Your focus in the withdrawal state should be on your recovery, and not on who’s to blame for your reaching this point. This power lies completely in your hands; the answer lies completely within you. As to other people, if they can’t be supportive and take your story at face value, then they are more hindrance than help and you might consider exorcizing them from your life so you can focus on getting better.
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.