I write this from my family’s sunroom looking out over the distant Maine ocean, its deep blue color ablaze with specks of gold from the November sun. I’m watching the waves roll in, one after the other, reliably meeting the shore, and I am full of gratitude for their stark contrast with human nature and its potential for profound metamorphosis. The ocean’s waves are constant and unchangeable, bound by earth and gravity; for a long time I believed life was this way, too—that who I was and how I felt and what I believed about myself were all bound by some invisible force that would always keep me trapped in a perpetual state of agonizing being. What a beautiful thing to know that after so many years of believing this, I’ve proven myself wrong.
I woke up this morning, up in Maine for the holiday weekend with my family, with the urge to write about my gratitude for life. I’m sure this holiday of giving thanks has something to do with it, but more than that, I feel the urge to write today because Thanksgiving stands as my life’s most important marker, the measure of my darkest hour, and the touchstone for all the change that’s followed.
FIVE YEARS AGO
This Saturday will mark five years since I tried to kill myself, after making the decision to act on a nearly eight-year long urge to die. It happened on the other side of the woods, about a half-mile down the coastline I’m looking at right now. It was a cold, late afternoon, the sun descending into the horizon, the sight of the sea as beautiful as ever. I knew I wanted the last image I ever set my eyes on to be this, my favorite place in the world, the place my grandparents raised my dad and his siblings. My “Bipolar” sentence of life-long meds, life-long reliance on psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and psych wards, and life-long inability to fit into the world as a “normal” person had become, for me, a life not worth living. I wanted an end to the pain, the loneliness, the hopelessness, the emptiness. I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything else. I made this decision in the room next to where I sit right now, as I looked out the window at this same ocean, that Saturday afternoon five years ago, and I left this house for what I was sure would be the last time.
THREE YEARS AGO
Three years ago, I sat here reflecting on the two-year anniversary of my suicide attempt, and the two-month anniversary of being off the psychiatric drugs I’d been on for nearly half my life. I’d recently met Robert Whitaker for the first time over coffee and started to blog for Mad in America, and was only just beginning to grasp how much I’d lost to Psychiatry over the previous thirteen years. I was full of anger, bitterness, self-victimization, and frustration over the fact that my adolescence and young adulthood had been swallowed up by Psychiatry. I was confused and disoriented, and totally overwhelmed by life off of meds. I was just leaving an intensive outpatient program I’d been in for ten months, and was scared to reenter the “real world”. Every minute of the day, life pushed hard on my fragile and unstable being to the point of near self-implosion. I shut down at the tiniest encounter with stress of any kind, retreating to an empty room so that I could curl up in a ball under heavy blankets and dissociate. Conversations filled me with anxiety and frustration, as organizing words to form coherent sentences to participate in dialogue was like running an exhausting emotional and cognitive marathon over and over again. I swung back and forth between periods of emotional numbness and disconnect, and periods of feeling completely overwhelmed by intense, foreign, overpowering feelings that had me convinced I was a Jekyll and Hyde. I was exhausted to the very core of my being.
I felt trapped in a body that was fifty pounds heavier from psychiatric drugs (I’ve since realized that the “binge-eating disorder” I was told I had was, in fact, largely the result of my completely dysregulated appetite and metabolism caused by the meds), and the only pants I could stand to wear were elastic-waisted ones. Strange smells emanated from my skin, and boils and acne covered my face and neck. Showering more than once a week felt nearly impossible to me, as did brushing my hair. I yearned for sofas in people-less rooms with televisions so that I could stare at the screen for hours on end, desperately hoping to distract myself from my mind, or to fall into the oblivion of conscious-less sleep. My thoughts were inescapable, screaming at me, You are pathetic! You are a piece of shit! You are lazy and a waste of a life! Why can’t you get your act together?!? You don’t belong anywhere! No one will ever understand you! You will never be able to function in the world independently! Why are you even trying? Those psychiatrists were right—you’re crazy—how can you think you can function without them? I found only glimpses of relief from this in pints of frozen yogurt (for by that time I’d quit drinking alcohol), South Park and Law and Order, Sudoku and crossword puzzles (in the beginning of withdrawal, both were nearly impossible!), and needlepointing. Sleep during the day was my one true escape, and only recently had I begun to sleep at night after months of insomnia.
As I sat here in this sunroom at the beginning of my awakening from Psychiatry, I was like a newborn, struggling to walk, to form words, to absorb the world around me, to participate in life. I felt vulnerable and completely exposed to everything around me. To be awake was to be nearly debilitated by fear and confusion and deep grief at all I believed I’d lost to the drugs and the “mentally ill” identity. Three years ago, at two months off of the last of the lithium, Lamictal, Abilify, Effexor, Ativan, and a PRN of Seroquel, I felt like I was barely living. All I could do was go through the motions of life and survive.
TWO YEARS AGO
Two years ago, as I sat here at Thanksgiving time, I was a little over a year off psychiatric drugs. I was still trapped in a body that didn’t feel like mine, and still at the mercy of painful and confusing thoughts and emotions, but shifts had happened. Time had given me distance from Psychiatry, and this distance had slowly brought me closer to a sense that I could eventually be an autonomous person with an autonomous Self, even though I was still completely unsure of what that meant. I slowly started to recognize how afraid I was of myself, of my emotions, of my mind, and while it would be some time before I’d come to see that this fear was the cornerstone of my psychiatric indoctrination, I was at least becoming aware of it, and getting better at naming it. In naming this fear, I was able to create distance from it, and to see that while I couldn’t control the thoughts it was placing in my mind—You are too weak, too pathetic, too broken, too far gone to function in this world! You will never fully heal! You will never be successful at anything and will always be dependent on your family! You will always just be a mental patient!— I didn’t have to believe them. And in this important, albeit painful space of awareness, I began to find respite from the emotional pain. I also began to understand that I was not my withdrawal; that this excruciating pain was something that was happening to me, but wasn’t who I was. Slowly, I began to imagine that there might be life for me beyond this, as a human being truly free from Psychiatry. I began to think of the unknown—the future, who I would be once I’d healed from psych drugs, what it was I was meant to contribute to the world—not just as something to be afraid of, but also something to be curious about. This all started as a fantasy, but in this sacred space between myself and my fear, and between myself and my withdrawal, I began to believe that perhaps I had a meaningful life ahead of me.
While the emotional struggles—anxiety, deep sadness, anger, irritability, guilt, and shame—were much the same, the changes in the way I was understanding my pain gave me enough evidence to hang in there, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep orienting myself towards the future, no matter how scared I was of it or how much agony I was still in. Two years ago, I slowly began to have faith in myself, and in my capacity to keep changing, even if I wasn’t fully conscious of it yet. Continuing forward each day in spite of the pain was an act of that self-faith.
At the end of that weekend two years ago, I remember driving over to the emergency room to leave a ‘Thank You’ card for the emergency room doctor who kept my unconscious body alive until the LifeFlight arrived to take me to Massachusetts General Hospital. In that card, I wrote about how grateful I was that my life had been saved so that I could have a second chance at being human. I remember writing those words and not being sure of what they even meant, just knowing that I needed to write them. I see now that at a year off of psychiatric drugs, I was starting to experience gratitude, still mostly in small glimmers, but sometimes even lasting up to days at a time, amidst the emotional agony. It was then that I came to see that hope and emotional pain can coexist, and that hope is in fact most powerful when it endures in the midst of suffering. I had no idea where my life was going or how I’d be able to live it, but I knew then, for the first time, that it was going somewhere and that somehow, perhaps, I was strong enough to stick around and find out.
In this sunroom over the last thirty years, I’ve sat in my grandparents’ and parents’ laps, wheeled doll strollers across the floor, played with toys, given dogs belly rubs, read books, looked out at the ocean, struggled with life, planned my death, and re-embraced what it means to be human. It’s funny to think back to how the ‘me’ of three years ago—two months off the meds, sitting here in agony, wanting to rip my skin off and shut my mind off and scream at the top of my lungs in emotional pain—would most likely have responded if she was told that in three years’ time she’d feel peace of mind, and a connection to herself, to the world around her, and to a life that is meaningful and authentic. I don’t think she would have believed it, and likely, she’d have dismissed the idea as totally impossible and even, well, cheesy. But this is where I find myself today, still early on in my healing journey, but far enough to now fully believe that life will continue to unfold before me in the most amazing of ways if I let it, and if I allow myself to have faith in the human condition, no matter how afraid I am. I believe this to be true for every single person out there who finds him- or herself in the midst of psychiatric drug withdrawal (in the midst of any kind of struggle, for that matter!).
I couldn’t have predicted or planned out the way my life has evolved, and this is what has finally made the process of recovering from psychiatry so liberating: because I can now trust in the inherently uncomfortable process of being human, I no longer feel the need to fight it, and can stop trying to understand it and dissect it and control it through having it all figured out. It’s allowed me to accept myself, my mind, and my emotions, even on my toughest days, because I know today that nothing is permanent, and that I’m an active agent in my life, rather than a passive recipient of it (which is, of course, what Psychiatry taught me to believe for all those years that it told me I had a brain disease beyond my control). It may sound paradoxical, but this new life I’ve found myself in post-Psychiatry has happened both because of me, and in spite of me.
As I sit in this chair a little over three years free from psychiatric drugs and a “mentally ill” identity, I write these words with hands connected to my human spirit, which Psychiatry was never able to extinguish no matter how much it drugged me or locked me away from myself. On a daily basis, I feel joy and pain and everything in between, and it is genuine and meaningful. l am in love with life—even on its most difficult days, which happen more than rarely— and just as I once made the shift from fear to curiosity of the unknown, in the past year, I’ve shifted from curiosity to excitement of all that’s to come. While I still feel quite overwhelmed by day-to-day living—by all the sensory stimuli, the intense thoughts and emotions that have emerged since getting off the drugs, the occasional paranoia about how others around me perceive me, and the meaningful connections with people from all around the world who’ve been through similar struggles—it is an overwhelm that I now find fulfilling instead of draining.
My body is very much healing. I sense that my metabolism is almost back to where it was always meant to be. My menstrual cycle returned this past spring after disappearing for two and a half years when I began to come off psych drugs (I’m also healing from twelve years of the birth control pill, which I came off of this past spring, but that’s a whole different story!). My sexual function—completely gone while I was medicated—has returned. While my thyroid is still damaged from lithium, I’ve been able to make the switch from synthetic thyroid hormone to natural pig thyroid, which for me is a step in the right direction. My adrenal system is still off, but I’m confident it will continue to right itself as I sort out what my body needs nutritionally and how to manage stress more effectively. I can tell my different systems are still detoxifying from all those years of psychoactive chemicals, but I am privileged and lucky enough to be able to eat clean, organic, whole food. Perhaps most importantly, I, for the first time, feel connected enough to my body to actually be able to take good care of it, and to believe it’s worth taking care of in the first place.
My mind is getting clearer and sharper by the day. I feel more creative than ever before (just a couple of years ago, producing a piece of writing was an agonizing, draining, forced process of mental manipulation; today, when I’m ready to write, I feel like I can tap right into my heart). Just a few years back, I was unable to absorb words on a page; this has slowly gotten better over time and I’m once again enjoying reading. While I still struggle with memory problems, I have faith in my brain’s plasticity and believe that my cognitive processes will continue to get better over time. Day-to-day simple tasks and errands no longer feel paralyzing like they used to. When I make plans with others, I’m able to keep them today, no longer debilitated by social anxiety like I was just a year or two ago. In fact, most of the time, I look forward to socializing—never would have believed it a few years back!
Because of all that’s happened in my life post-Psychiatry, I have more faith in myself and in each and every human being’s capacity to heal and transform than I ever did before. No matter how much oppression, dehumanization and hopelessness we’ve faced, I believe in my deepest depths that we can reclaim ourselves and create a meaningful, contented life. The most critical first step is simply having hope that it’s possible; indeed, all one needs to make a start is just a glimmer of hope. While everyone’s path is different, and each person has different kinds of stressors, responsibilities, obstacles, and access (or lack thereof) to supports, the seed of transformation is planted in each and every one of us—this, I believe. It is my hope that as time goes on and more and more people begin to awaken from psychiatric oppression, our communities will be better able to provide the needs and supports of people getting off psych drugs. (Here, in the Boston area, we’ve started our own mutual support group network. If you’d like to start one in your own community, you are more than welcome to use our introduction and group format, which you can find here under ‘Coming off Psych Drugs’)
As I sit here writing these words, looking out at an ocean that’s witnessed me grow up, come to the brink of my death, and grow back into a new life, I am awed by human metamorphosis, and by the undefinable, unpredictable, awe-inspiring nature of it.
Normally, it doesn’t feel comfortable for me to write to “you”, the reader, but something is compelling me to do so today, so I’ve decided to go for it: if you’re out there and you find yourself in the throes of psychiatric drug withdrawal, hang in there. If thoughts are assaulting you about your worthlessness, the pointlessness in going forward, the need to give up, the waste of a life you’ve lived under Psychiatry’s grasp, the burden you are to those around you, or any of the countless toxic narratives that can take us over as we fight for psychiatric liberation, remind yourself that these thoughts, while perhaps beyond your control, do not have to be your Truth. For me, I’ve made sense of them as manifestations of fear, a fear that was largely ingrained in me by Psychiatry: a fear of one’s Self, of one’s feelings, of one’s mind. Today, I know that I am nothing to be afraid of, and this, for me, is a daily practice of psychiatric liberation.
If you’re months or even years off of psychiatric drugs and you’re losing hope because you haven’t seen measurable evidence of your healing, hang in there. Undoubtedly, changes are happening within you that you just haven’t been made aware of yet. Remind yourself that our brains and bodies are incredibly strong, resilient, and plastic, and can heal from tremendous trauma. For me, it was a critical part of my withdrawal journey that I came to trust that healing was possible even when there didn’t seem to be evidence for it. I simply had to believe I could reclaim my life from Psychiatry, even when I had absolutely no understanding of how to do it. For a time, I couldn’t have faith in myself because I felt too hopeless; what I did, instead, was look to the stories of others who’d been through the experience before me and survived to tell the tale (of the many people who’ve inspired me, Monica Cassani at Beyond Meds, Matt Samet, and David Webb are right up there). I held onto faith in stories like these, until I finally became able to have it in myself. (I’ve written more in depth about this in a previous post on my experiences with psychiatric drug withdrawal).
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” I twice found myself drowning in the river of my life, my entire being nearly destroyed, first by Psychiatry, and then by psychiatric drug withdrawal. I floundered and desperately reached for whatever I could to stay afloat, swallowing water, losing air, losing hope. I felt weak, powerless, flimsy, fragile, convinced there was no way out. Overwhelmed by my suffering, I felt utterly unable to conceive of any kind of change, or to see light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, for me at least, wearing the lens of fear and suffering makes seeing life as anything other than hopeless nearly impossible.
Today, that river and I, as Heraclitus said, have changed. Life still pulses strong and sometimes catches me in its swells and tides, but I am different in it, and it is different around me. The waters of psychiatric trauma and subsequent healing have been raging, pounding my very being against rocks, sometimes pushing me under to the point of suffocation, but in learning how to float instead of thrash against the current, I’ve grown and strengthened and reclaimed my Self, and in doing so, the waters around me have settled significantly. Time, itself, has settled those waters, and will only continue to do so. As I write these words and look out to the rolling, repetitive waves before me I am reminded that the only constant in my life is change. Growth. Metamorphosis. Never again must I feel like a prisoner to my suffering, no matter how big or how permanent it may seem. Nothing about who I am or how I feel or what I believe about myself is set in stone, and this, to me, is what psychiatric liberation is all about.
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.