When I lived in Massachusetts I taught yoga and led writing groups for alternative mental health communities. While the organizations I worked for were alternative, many of the students and participants were heavily drugged with psychiatric pharmaceuticals. There was one skinny teenager I’d never have forgotten who listed the drugs he was on for me once in the yoga room after class: a long list of stimulants, neuroleptics, moods stabilizers, far too many drugs and classes of drugs to remember. His slender frame, fair skin and impulsive speech clued me in to how sensitive he was and what a tragedy it was for him to be so heavily drugged. His body moved jerkily and he sometimes got incredibly frustrated in yoga class. Many positions hurt his body in one way or another, and as a skinny, highly sensitive person myself, I could relate to some of his frustration.
There were times he left yoga class in the middle, frustrated he was in so much pain. There were times he stormed out of writing group in a fit, seeming to feel hurt and embarrassed that he hadn’t gotten enough attention or feedback for what he shared. He was the most loyal participant in both groups though.
I felt uncomfortable around him sometimes, concerned at any moment he might have an intense feeling or perception and storm out or accuse me of criticizing him, ignoring him or yelling at him. He was the only teenage client in the community and being on so many psych drugs at that age, which is so angst ridden for most of us anyway, made him a poster boy (in my eyes) of the teen who is constantly seeking attention, immature, lacking in self awareness see sawing between extreme confidence and utter insecurity. He frequently had outbursts of rage and mini tantrums.
In Ayurveda, this constitution he and I share is called vata. Skinny, cold, anxious, erratic, cracking joints, impulsive, sometimes lacking in self control. People who tend toward this constitution are considered to be most easily thrown off balance and need a lot of soothing, nourishment, nurturing the body back to feeling ease (as opposed to a lot of loud stimulation, strenuous exercise or aggressive forms of healing). Vata benefits from warmth, gentle oil massages, consistency, regular habits, regular warm and nourishing meals, meditation, gentle yoga (holding postures and breathing into them slowly), a fairly heavy diet with ample fat, deep breaths, touch, soft soothing music, quiet time and plenty of rest.
Ayurveda teaches that the vata in anyone can get out of balance, but those of us who tend towards vata imbalance, have the hardest time feeling stable and calm. On the other hand we can go into the deepest states of relaxation, trance and meditation (when we actually do) and tend to be highly creative.
The last thing this constitution needs is unpredictable toxic substances like psychiatric drugs taken regularly. These drugs add yet another variable to the mix of things a vata person can be sensitive to and while they may provide instant relief for a vata attack (extreme anxiety, panic, insomnia, erratic eating etc.) taken everyday or regularly, they add yet another factor to deal with in the pursuit of a delicate balance. This factor is an unpredictable one, since makers and dispensers of these drugs have little idea how they work, acknowledging their effects vary drastically from person to person and even moment to moment. The withdrawal process from any dependency creating substance, including these drugs, generally puts even the most stable and steady constitution into a vata attack.
After teaching yoga and leading writing groups as alternatives to mainstream mental health care for years in Massachusetts, my own vata nature became weary of the long cold winters and I moved to San Francisco 4 years ago. I lived on the west coast for 4 years before returning to Western Massachusetts for an extended visit. After being back east for a couple of months, I was at the housewarming party of an old friend, and who should walk in but that boy who used to come to my yoga classes and writing groups religiously. And he was no longer a boy; he was now a young man.
I noticed my guard go up right away. He sat across the table from me at this dinner party with long frizzy hair and a healthy looking face. I scanned him for signs of medication but didn’t see any. He looked around the room, 23 now, noting that he knew how he knew everyone there except me.
“I know you from somewhere but I can’t remember where,” he said.
“I know you,” I told him.
“I want to see if you can remember,” I smiled.
“I’m thinking yoga teacher,” he said. I nodded. Did he remember where? “I’m not stupid,” he said, as if reading my mind. “I’m not on drugs anymore. I’m not stupid anymore.”
My answer came faster than I could have gotten it if I’d tried. This healthy looking young man had gotten off all the drugs he’d been on and looked great. I did many double takes throughout the evening when he mentioned things like his job, his roommate, his apartment, friends of his who I knew as well. He had escaped “mentally ill” status and was a thriving member of the community I’d been part of in Massachusetts, the community of dancers, health conscious and creative people there was more his than mine now.
There are many people of all ages who don’t live this success story—this escape from psychiatry and a mental illness identity. It is much more common for me to reconnect with old friends who are heart heartbreakingly drugged up and have lost the twinkle in their eyes. This young man was clear of psych drugs and had gotten it back. He was glowing with health. I told him we need to talk. He had no idea why, he said, and he was curious.
“What could you need to talk to me about after 6 years?” he asked. I asked for his email address and told him I’d be in touch but didn’t say more at the party in front of others. He has a story that must be shared was all I could think. He was eager to give me his contact info and curious what this was about.
I knew I was witnessing him in a way no one else had, based on having been through a similar thing myself. In his journey, I could see my own, right away. Having those witnesses in life was crucial for my own success in exiting and staying out of the psychiatric industry. I wanted to tell his story or help him to do so himself.
Chaya: I’d like to interview you about your experiences coming off psych drugs for an article on Mad In America, where I blog. Please let me know if you’d be up for that.
FJ: Yes I’d be interested in talking about my experiences.
Chaya: How did you make the decision to stop taking psych drugs?
FJ: In a documentary I watched about monoculture farming, the American West was described as having been turned into “a sponge onto which we pour chemicals every year.”
When you are on the number and dosage of drugs that I was on at age 18, you become analogous to that: you do not exist; you are simply an entity that can reproduce the thoughts that it is given. First, that means I have no memories of the time period that are in the first person; the ones I have, I see from outside myself. Second, it means that I cannot recall basically anything that I was thinking at the time.
Generally speaking, I give credit for my ability to break the cycle to the fact that I was playing World of Warcraft about 12-14 hours a day in the three months leading up to my becoming sober. Spending such long periods of time entirely isolated from anyone who wished to “pour chemicals” (or dictate thoughts and feelings) into my drug-addled “sponge” was probably what created the space for me to learn what it would take to break out of the spell.
The process went like this:
One evening, I took all the bottles out of the cabinet and threw them away. Since I was unable to sleep without them, by the next morning i was overwhelmed and miserable and it was a fairly easy push for my mother, having dug the bottles out of the trash, to more or less whine and plead me into taking them.
After taking them, I waited for her to leave the house, gathered some kindling, and made a fire. In went all the drugs. Even though I didn’t burn the bottles (I recycled them), the whole house still smelled of burning plastic when I was done.
Chaya: How many and which drugs were you on? Did you go off cold turkey? How was the withdrawal for you?
FJ: I don’t remember which ones, and they changed frequently because of course they didn’t work. At least 3 at the end.
There’s no such thing as “cold turkey.” Any alcoholic will tell you that you either do it or you don’t. After I burned the pills, the insurance wasn’t up for another few weeks and I never took them again.
The withdrawal from the psych chemicals did not affect me. The two effects were that because they controlled my sleep, I was awake from Tuesday to Saturday, even while taking over the counter sleep drugs. (That Tuesday happens to have been one week after Obama was elected).
By that Thursday, I had lost all desire to play video games and I never have since. I do not know why.
The main effect of withdrawal was the severe and prolonged retaliation from those who wished I was still taking them. I can get more into that later; I have to leave for work now.
Chaya: What made you take them in the first place? Pressure from others? Do you remember what classes of drugs you were on and how many was the most you took at any one time?
FJ: I just remembered that I obtained a full list of the drugs, including dosage and reason for taking them, in 2009. Don’t let me forget. After the 4 consecutive nights of sleeplessness, for which regular sleep drugs might as well have been mashed potatoes for all they accomplished, at 11:00am on Saturday I was in a parked car when a thunderstorm hit. I later learned that we had had one of the first tornado warnings ever in November but I only saw one flash. Immediately after that, I felt entirely normal and I slept fine that night and every night after.
The main withdrawal symptom was the retaliation from the people who had been making me take them (my parents). I was thrown out of my mother’s house within 3 weeks, and sent to my father’s house. I was then thrown out of his house 6 weeks later and sent to an apartment with few possessions and no idea how to look after myself.
Withdrawal for me involved the loss of my mother, who I expect to never speak to again, and the revelation that neither of them really cared whether I lived or died – but that, while alive, they had better be controlling my thoughts.
What made me take them is the wrong question. The question is who, and the answer is doctors, parents, and psychologists. I had no say in the matter.
According to the record, this is what I was taking. No dates are available for the first four items. I have no idea how to classify them, that is your job.
Neurontin, (all begun after January 2002 and ended before July 2003)
Depakote, begun April, 2003 max: 1,000mg **
Risperdal, begun July, 2003 max: 4mg **
Geodon, begun & ended in June, 2004 max: 60mg
Abilify, begun & ended in June, 2004 max: 15mg
Seroquel, begun July, 2004; ended December, 2004 max: 350mg
Fluvoxamine, begun January, 2006 max: 100mg **
Lexapro, begun December, 2006 & ended January, 2007 max: 10mg
Wellbutrin, begun July, 2008 max: 150mg **
The four drugs marked with stars are the ones that I was still under the influence of when I quit. All others ran concurrent to those according to the dates. I have no verification of this other than a typed summary from the doctor, which she copied by hand from a less summarized version of her notes without my supervision. There is no way for my to know if she made any mistakes or omissions, on purpose or by accident.
Chaya: Is there anything you’ve said that you wouldn’t want published?
FJ: I see no shame in the truth, only carnage – and I see little likelihood of me ever reading any medical publication or blog, ever. No offense. So publish whatever you like.
Chaya: Did you know from the very beginning that you didn’t want to take them? Did you ever think they might be beneficial? At what point did you realize they were harming you? And would you describe the harm they did?
FJ: No, I didn’t know that I didn’t want to take them. I didn’t really think much of anything while I was on them, I just acted. I had innumerable physical and emotional ailments while I was on them, but they were always blamed on me, not the drugs. Since I was on drugs, I took that more or less on faith. As soon as I was free of the stupor it occurred to me they might be harmful, but the first evidence I got was when I obtained the drug summary and it listed the same reasons for going on the drugs as for going off them.
In fact, if that paper was fiction it would be quite funny, especially considering how many of the initial symptoms I had completely made up to get me out of trouble.
Chaya: If there was a message you could give to all children/teens who get a label and are told they need to take drugs, what would it be?
FJ: My message to kids would be this: don’t take drugs, they’re bad for you. If you don’t believe me, ask the people who are telling you to take them, because I heard it from them first. As to labels, I heard through the grapevine that if you peel them off the bottle whole, they make great roll-your-own paper for smoking pot.
Oh, wait, which kind of label did you mean?
If you’re under 21 and in school, I would be more worried if you CAN pay attention.
If the people who tuck you in at night can’t stand you, and you DON’T feel sad all the time, then maybe I would wonder if you’re crazy.
Most of the named disorders and diagnoses are pronouncements of normalcy more than anything else.
If you’re hyper and distracted because you eat twinkies for lunch and go to bed at 7:00 pm, that’s not attention deficit, that’s GOOD.
If, on the other hand, you are good at math and science and don’t like being in a gang, you’re not Autistic…you’re just not the same as the other kids.
Besides, the last people who should be name-calling kids are parents and doctors . . . right?
None of this is the kids’ fault though, so it seems strange to be giving the advice to the victims. It’s a bit like writing that young women should always wear sweatpants and use the front door of establishments to reduce the risk of rape.
The only things I would really say directly to kids are these:
1. If you’re going to smoke pot, do it on the weekends so you don’t fall behind on your grades, and
2. If you’re going to commit suicide, blame your parents, not another kid you didn’t get along with.
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.