Can withdrawal from psychiatric drugging be so terrible as to leave you with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — to somehow rearrange your psyche for the worse even once time and hard work have undone the damage caused by the chemicals? To so profoundly alter your core self that you acquire a new diagnosis meriting special considerations or further treatment in order to resume a normal life again?
For myself, and writing strictly as a layperson, I don’t believe this to be the case. This is both because I’ve healed from the damage without further intervention — and precisely because there was no further intervention! — but also because I now recognize that PTSD is simply another psychiatric label, another potential path to drugging and mistreatment. If we in fact apply a little logic, and going by the National Institute of Mental Health’s definition, feeling “stressed or frightened even when… no longer in danger” would seem to be one’s only possible sane reaction to having survived or witnessed “mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.”
I mean, holy shit: if events like these don’t change you somehow, then you’re either dead or a robot.
That’s a long list of horrible stuff, to which we could easily append an acute, symptomatic withdrawal syndrome, or forced hospitalization, ECT, and drugging or other related psychiatric abuses. In any case, accepting a DSM-stamped diagnosis as the result of damage wrought by psychiatric abuse strikes me as the bleakest sort of irony. A tragic misstep, a choice that might potentially trap you in the system forever, or at least mire you in interpreting your experience via the selfsame rubrics that sowed all that damage in the first place. (It’s not such a big step from believing something you’ve been told about yourself to letting someone else control your life, perhaps chemically, as a result of this interpretation.) This isn’t to say that there’s no help nor should there be for what we’ve come to call “PTSD” — talk therapy, exposure therapy, and meditation, for example, are avenues back to wellness after trauma — only that unquestioningly embracing the diagnosis per se could bring you back to square one psychopharmacologically. To wit:
“Doctor, I’m worried that your rapid taper off Klonopin and Seroquel in a locked ward coupled with forced restraint and a volley of ten ECT treatments has left me with flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, avoidance of hospitals, angry outbursts, and an exaggerated startle response.”
“Ah, I see…Yes. That sounds quite troubling. Yes, very troubling indeed.”
“So what can we do?”
“Well, this sounds serious. I think we should immediately readmit you to the ward and start aggressive treatment with high doses of Paxil and further ECT. You clearly have the gene for PTSD, which these earlier events have, I now see, unmasked.”
And so it goes: the snake devours its own tail.
For me it’s been critical to steer clear of the whole circus, even if I note some changes in how I experience the world. While to a clinician’s perspective these changes might fall under the umbrella of “PTSD,” I would argue that they’re instead adaptive and intuitive, the only sane reaction to having had my personhood and faith in others so roundly and unapologetically violated.
Mine is a long and labyrinthine story, but at a glance I ended up hospitalized multiple times and polydrugged in 2005 while fighting to break free of benzodiazepine tranquilizers. My end goal was to be free of all psychiatric medications, to find out who I was again, even as the doctors (predictably, I now see) were having none of that and simply put me on more drugs each time I fell into their clutches. There, on those locked wards, those hope-snuffing purgatories of endless disinformative “therapy” groups, buzzing fluorescents, Russian bread lines thrice daily at the med station, and Lysol-lemon linoleum floors, I saw how quickly autonomy and dignity can be stripped away. How every last decision, from when you ate, slept, and woke, to where and how you moved about the world, to how you were allowed to frame your reality, was now going to be made by others. Those in control were often unfeeling, uncaring, un-self-aware, and cynical individuals who could barely remember your name, who dismissed every last one of your concerns as symptoms of some sham “disease,” and who seemed not to have your best interests at heart unless these interests aligned with their own.
Namely, they had no “help” for you unless you obeyed and didn’t ask too many questions. Or any questions at all.
If you scroll back up this story, you’ll remember that one possible cause of PTSD is “being kidnapped or held captive”; if you’re held on a psychiatric ward against your will, or once there are forced to ingest toxic chemicals against your better judgment, or are enduring the torturous symptoms of a too-rapid withdrawal from medication, as is often the case, then there will be scars. This is a fact. Even if you’re not on a ward but instead shut up in your house enduring these same scenarios as the result of outpatient “care,” there will be scars.
But are these scars PTSD? Or are they ultimately adaptations that are protective against further abuse?
For me, it’s been the latter. My experience has changed me and I’ll never be the same person again, but I consider this neither tragic nor a “disorder.” In fact, I consider it a gift. As we move through life, and fate bats us about like a cat with a ball of yarn, many great but also terrible things will befall us. And these things change who we are — such are the natural workings of the universe, and there’s no point in fighting or pathologizing them because our job here as human beings is to evolve despite the vicissitudes of life. (This is not to deny that there isn’t a very real post-trauma syndrome, of some sort, that people experience after dark events; only that I don’t think it’s as simple, causal, and easily pinpointed as a DSM diagnosis might lead you to believe.) Instead I see the new me as a smarter, savvier, more outspoken yet cautious man who won’t be duped again by bullshitters. This might not make it easier for me to be around other people, and for others to be around me, but given what I’ve been through I don’t especially care.
Like an old farm dog that’s been kicked one too many times, I’ve earned the right to lie on my blanket and growl at whoever goes past, if I don’t like the way they smell.
Here are some changes to my personality that I’ve noticed that could be considered “PTSD-like” but that I instead choose to embrace as adaptive:
I have more difficulty than before trusting people—unless they are trusted friends or family members who were already part of my orbit. Moreover, I find it especially difficult to rely on strangers whose actions have some direct bearing on my health and autonomy, especially medical professionals. I realize this can be a liability in today’s overly connected world, where we rely on strangers for so many things, but I don’t believe I’ve suffered any negative consequences as a result. I’ve simply pulled away from scenarios that, and people who, make me uncomfortable. Though maybe we all tend to do this as we age: you figure out what you like and what you don’t, and you seek out the former because happiness is fleeing, the idiots are myriad, and life is short.
If this means I get on fewer airplanes (trust some person I’ve never met, behind a locked door out of sight, to fly a giant bucket of flexing aluminum through the sky with me on it — um, OK?) or try fewer “fun” new activities (whitewater rafting, ziplining, laser tag; yippee-skippee!) where I must rely on templated instructions and some barely engaged instructor, or am less open to new scenarios, then so be it. I’m a simple man with simple pleasures—family time, climbing rocks, walking the dog—and I don’t believe I’m missing out by “only” doing these few things that bring me fulfillment. It’s taken me forty-some odd years to find the things that make me happy, and I’m glad I did. I stick to situations now where I’m in control, because I’ve seen how bad life becomes when you let other people make decisions for you.
Perhaps this is what a psychiatrist would call the “anger” or “irritability” component of PTSD, but again, I see it as a necessary response to having been steamrollered by others—by “medical experts” whose opinions about my mental well-being were ultimately wrong and in fact nearly cost me my life.
If I don’t like what someone is doing to or telling me, I state my objection—often not in the most diplomatic terms, but hey; I’m working on it. This has gotten me into trouble a few times, and even had some effect on a few relationships, but again, I don’t care. If someone is behaving in a hurtful or exploitative fashion toward someone I care about or toward me, then diplomacy be damned. They can piss off, either temporarily or for good, and I’m happy to say as much. I even walked off a high-profile job I’d worked toward all my life for this very reason.
If this sounds extreme, consider that it probably took the same burning anger and force of will to fire your psychiatrist, which for me was a huge step on the road to wellness. If you find yourself quicker to anger than in the past, maybe it’s because the you who opted to take drugs to “fix” your problems was not quick enough to anger — maybe the stronger, more forthright, angrier new you is who you needed to be in the first place, to avoid being victimized. After years of being a timid little mouse while on the drugs and in the withdrawal state, I tend not to keep my mouth shut now to spare someone’s feelings if their behavior is negatively impacting my well-being.
I’ve never been the most social person, and have long avoided gatherings, parties, and crowds, but post-withdrawal this introverted streak has become more pronounced. Certainly small talk is never easy for all but the most extroverted among us, but I’ve come in recent years to find it all but impossible unless I’m chatting with people I genuinely connect to. I chalk this up to having had to, while in florid withdrawal, put on a “Matt mask” every day in public just to get by, even as my internal world resembled the ninth circle of Dante’s hell. If you’ve been through it, then you know—psych-drug withdrawal is uncut suffering, but it’s also a hell you can describe only to a select few trusted people, because most people’s reactions will be weird, judgmental, and generally steeped in the tired “chemical-imbalance” rhetoric trumpeted by Big Pharma, the psychiatric industry, and the corporate media.
Hence how much energy it takes to project a facsimile of yourself that doesn’t make others uncomfortable, and spares you all that arguing and explaining.
These days, I don’t have the patience to pretend to be anything anymore, especially on low-energy days; or it takes more energy than I’m willing to invest. So I avoid social situations. But again, for me, an introvert, this hasn’t been a problem. If I previously had a purple belt in reclusiveness, today it’s a third-degree black belt: Kiyai!
Is this the “exaggerated startle response” mentioned above? Not necessarily. I’ve merely noticed that I’ve become hyper-cautious about everything from driving to checking my safety equipment while climbing (a good habit!) to constantly surveying my surroundings in public. On psych meds, I noticed a certain blasé attitude toward life; a result of the drugs’ sedating and spellbinding effects. This perma-fog made me less cautious than I needed to be, and as a result I experienced two climbing accidents, among myriad other moments of carelessness, that have left me with bad knees and a limp.
Maybe I overthink, overanalyze, and over-scrutinize things now, but then again maybe not. Taking a pill to insulate you from and make you feel better about the world’s chaotic, violent, and entropic nature won’t change the reality—only your reaction to it (or lack thereof). Now that my senses are no longer dulled, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to notice what and who is around me, and be proactive in protecting my person and that of my friends and family. Now, when I’m in a situation I don’t like, I simply leave. Try doing that on a locked ward and you’ll see what an essential human freedom this really is.
Difficulty Starting Anything
I don’t know why this is, but I’ve heard of other people in withdrawal, and even a few “old timers,” complain of this as well. It’s gotten better over the years, but for a while I had trouble beginning anything, be it a work task, chores, a drive, or even something ostensibly fun like a new book or video game. I would feel this giant wall of inertia—almost a pressure to not begin—that would disappear the moment I was in motion and actually doing, upon having dug deep to find the motivation to begin. Perhaps it was a fear of some negative consequence arising as a result of undertaking the action, but it’s hard to see how washing the dishes could lead to tragedy (?).
Was this “avoidance behavior”? I don’t think so; more just a peculiar quirk of a brain in a compromised chemical state and/or a symptom of the larger withdrawal syndrome of fatigue. These days, difficulty starting anything has become a background noise or a curiosity I can easily overcome by simply acknowledging it, shrugging my shoulders, and then moving on.
I believe that we are meant to learn from our experiences, the good and the bad ones alike. We incorporate them into our personality, and evolve in whatever direction as the result of our new perspective. If this means that, as a result of my withdrawal experience, the person I am today is less talkative, more reclusive, and more guarded than the person I was a decade ago, then so be it. I consider myself a better, smarter, and much happier man now than the guy who so unquestioningly took psychiatric drugs.
Who took candy from strangers.
If the real definition of insanity is “repeating the same mistake over and over and expecting a different result,” then embracing a psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD as a result of psychiatric damage would surely make you “insane”. Sign up for another ride on that rollercoaster and you’ll soon be puking your guts out all over again. If you’ve walked through the fire, you will be a different person and you will have scars. I know that I do. However, it’s what you do with those scars — incorporate or pathologies them — that defines the skin you’ll inhabit this day and the next.
Of further interest:
Rock climber, author, and MIA Blogger Matt Samet discusses his experience becoming addicted to, and subsequently coming off of, benzodiazepines.
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.