A Journey Into Madness
and Back Again: Part 1

Steindór J. Erlingsson, PhD
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During the past 29 years I have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD, Biploar II and complex PTSD.  I have experienced months after months of severe depression, much shorter hypo manic episodes, terrifying periods where I switched rapidly from severe depression to hypomania and back again, sometimes within the same day, and prolonged periods of severe anxiety. I have tried numerous drug combinations and been through ECT several times. None of this helped me. My road to recovery started a few years ago when I decided to rebel against conventional psychiatry. This has been a difficult journey, strewn with mistakes, but with the help of my family and open-minded professionals I have gradually recovered, drug free. I want to share some snapshots from my story with you.
I was born and raised in Iceland, a small island nation in the North-Atlantic with a population of 320K. My childhood and most of my teenage years were uneventful. I come from a loving family and did not experience any problems during my upbringing. But something was brewing in my head as I started having panic attacks few months prior to my 18th birthday. This was a terrifying experience. I was sent to our general practitioner and he told me literally to shake it off. The panic attacks certainly affected my life, especially since I did not receive any professional help, but in spite of this I was able to finish secondary school (from 16 to 20 years in Iceland) and continue pursuing my main interest at that time, soccer.
After secondary school I wanted to do something exciting with my life before going to university. I wanted to live abroad. The opportunity arose when the Icelandic Red Cross advertised for two volunteers to live and work in a small town in Ethiopia. Several months later I was on a plane headed for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The months I lived in this African country were both exciting and very difficult. The shocking things I experienced there seem to have shaken my anxiety-driven mind, but I did not feel it at the time.
One day I came to the crash site of a Boing 737 and witnessed the devastation. The following day I had to photograph the dead bodies that were identifiable, while the relatives were walking around me looking for their loved ones. In the evening of that day I witnessed a shooting. Its most terrifying aspect was the mortally wounded man I took to the hospital, where he died while I held his hand. Prior to the experience I had never seen a dead body.
My stay in Ethiopia was cut short when I became seriously ill with hepatitis A. With great difficulties I was able to leave the country and wound up in an isolation ward in a hospital in Iceland. From that moment on my mental health started rapidly to deteriorate. Thoughts of suicide and self-loathing gradually consumed me. I lost contact with most of my friends. The psychiatrist I met gave me drugs but did not focus on my prior experience. This did not help me and as a result I was admitted to a psychiatric ward two years after I came home from Ethiopia. I was in and out of hospital for the next four years.
Since I did not respond to any drugs, I had to go through ECT several times. This is one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Each morning I waited in a queue on a mobile bed, usually with women that were much older. Often some of them were crying. I wondered why? Maybe they were as afraid as I was of the anesthesia? Every time the doctor gave me the anesthetic agent I felt as if I was choking. When I discussed my experience a few years later with an emergency nurse who worked at the hospital, she was shocked to hear this. She told me that being put to sleep was supposed to be a pleasurable feeling, but due to my choking experience it was evident that the doctor was administering the drug way too fast. It seems like the anesthesiologist wanted to get through the ECT-queue as quickly as possible. The nurse promised to raise this issue with her superiors.
A few months after I came home from Ethiopia I entered the University of Iceland to pursue my life-long dream of becoming a biologist. My university years were extremely difficult. I felt miserable among the other students and, since I was in and out of hospital, my academic progress was very slow. I watched people graduate while I was left behind. This increased my self-loathing even more. I considered suicide every day for many years. I was in a vicious cycle that I seemed unable to escape from.
But a beacon of light entered my life when I met a wonderful young woman in 1993. She was also a biology student. After our first date I told her everything about the state of my mental health and, some would say amazingly, she did not mind. We started living together a few months later. When in hospital once again I asked why she did not run away while she had the chance.  Remember, I had told her everything before our relationship became serious. Her answer reflected the fact that she had been a horse enthusiast since she was very young: “I look at you as a wild stallion that needs to be tamed”.
After we started living together my mental health gradually became better. This enabled me to finish my BSc degree in biology in 1996. And she was not about to leave me. We had our first child in 1995 and got married a year later. Our second child was born in 1999 and our third one was born in 2010. The taming of the madman was going to be a long process.
The year before the graduation I had a very traumatic drug-induced experience, which I will discuss in my next post.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Steindor,

    Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you suffered some very shocking, traumatic events in Africa that probably contributed a lot to your original anxiety and problems. Sounds like you were lucky to find love with your current wife and children while finding alternatives to main stream psychiatry that was not helping you.

    I will look forward to reading your future articles.