A little more than 10 years ago, when I was 29 and 2 weeks away from turning 30, I was a patient in the psychiatric system here in Copenhagen. I am a pharmacist and I specialized in neurochemistry and psychotropics throughout my studies.
While I was working in the labs at The Royal Danish School of Pharmacy I was intent on getting a job as a medicinal chemist at Lundbeck – the Danish pharmaceutical company behind Celexa and Lexapro and in their own words the only company specializing solely in developing drugs for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
At the university we were taught that psychiatric disorders were diseases just like diabetes and hypotension. We were told all the ‘truths’ that the psychiatrists now admit were myths about the so-called chemical imbalances in the brain and the clear genetic component of schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.
I have been hearing voices since I was 14 and I always knew that if I told anybody about them there was a significant risk that I would be labeled schizophrenic. I had kept that part of my life hidden for many years. I was so skilled at disregarding the fact that I heard voices that I could joke with my friends about “not ending up in there” when we passed the local psychiatric ward.
Life is not without a sense of irony. I never got to the point where I could contribute to Lundbeck’s prosperity in any other way than as a customer at my local pharmacy and I did end up in that local psychiatric ward. The first time I ‘visited’ that ward I stayed for 8 long months.
In June 2004 I had just moved back to Copenhagen and was living with my mother after an 11 month stint at various psychiatric wards across Denmark. In those days I rarely wrote anything and I have very little memory of writing this letter to myself. Yet somehow throughout the years I managed to keep safe the envelope that I had carefully labeled, “To be opened June 19th 2014”.
I don’t remember writing the letter. That process is bogged down in a neuroleptic mist and benzodiazepine-induced haze but somehow I had both the strength and the insight to write this letter to my future self.
I remember seeing the envelope when I moved to a supported living facility in 2006 and again in 2009 when I moved into my own apartment and lastly when I bought my current home and moved there in 2011.
In 2006 and in 2009 I was still heavily medicated so I quickly forgot about the envelope and in 2011 I had finally come off the meds and life was so full of new impressions, colors and conquests that I almost forgot about the letter.
Wednesday June 18th 2014 I opened the letter. It was a poorly phrased note telling myself that if I was still a patient in the psychiatric system and on disability there was really no reason to have my 40th birthday. I would then have spent more than 12 years as a psychiatric patient and if they hadn’t found the right combination of meds by then I was going to write a goodbye letter to my family and take the necessary overdose.
In 2004 my medication was a crazy mix of Risperdal, Zeldox, Nortriptyline, Mirtazapine, Chlorpromazine, Clonazepam and Movane and yet despite being so heavily drugged, I was clear enough in my head to know that never waking up again would be easy.
Earlier in June 2004 my family and I had had the first of many talks with the psychiatrist who emphasized that I was chronically ill, that I would never work again, that I would always need psychiatric care and the necessary psychiatric drugs and that I had to accept that life would be very different from what I had dreamt of.
I remember my mum telling me afterwards not to listen to the psychiatrists. “Doctors say so many things and no one knows what the future brings.”
I listened to my mother’s advice but had made a decision that if ten years hadn’t brought sufficient improvement then I had earned the right to end this misery.
Even though psychiatrists are more skilled at predicting the future than they are at discovering the cause of ‘schizophrenia,’ the dismal future the psychiatrist predicted in that small office in 2004 was not to be.
In 2007 my mum needed a homepage and even though I could not do programing my mum asked me to design it. When I presented the design to the woman who eventually programmed it, I can remember thinking that coding a web page can’t be so difficult if she can do it.
She might not have been a computer genius but she excelled at billing and her invoices showed me a promising way to earn some extra money. In November and December 2007 I started taking all the e-learning courses about web programming I could get and in February 2008 I attended an evening class on advanced HTML programming. In May 2008 I started the first of five six-week-courses on web design and DTP and that changed my future. In January 2009 I moved out of the supported living facility where I had stayed for almost 3 years.
On the 15th of March I started working as a webmaster at a psychiatric residential home where I learned about recovery and heard about a completely different approach to mental distress. The fact that severe mental distress and traumatic experiences were linked resonated deeply within me. When I became part of the Hearing Voices Network in Denmark I learned of their approach in dealing with the voices. I created a homepage for the Hearing Voices Network in Denmark and in October 2009 I attended the first International Hearing Voices Conference in Maastricht. I suddenly realized just how emotionally numb the drugs had made me as I heard Jacqui Dillon telling her story and saw how it affected the people around me, while I was more focused on getting my next shot of caffeine.
When I got back from Maastricht I started the process of tapering off my medication. I also came back with a clear understanding that as a pharmacist with personal experience of about 40% of the psychiatric medications used in Denmark, I could play a valuable role in helping people who felt handicapped by their psychiatric medication.
I spoke with Jørn Eriksen, the head of the facility where I work, about changing my job from webmaster to becoming the first clinical pharmacist working with users in social psychiatry in Europe.
For the last four and a half years I have been fighting for the rights of the mentally distressed to get off their medication and have helped many people find a new life without psychotropics. I have seen how people change and thrive as they come off their medication and have supported them in their consultations with psychiatrists throughout the country.
Dan Savage launched the ‘It gets better’ campaign after three LGBT teens committed suicide all within three months. The campaign focuses on bringing the message of hope to gay teens and helping them understand that life might be hard right now but if they make it through the hell of high school, then what seems like a troubled life will change and they will have a chance to fulfill their dreams of a good life.
The campaign features videos of individual LGBTs and LGBT celebrities and allies telling their personal stories as well as corporations promising gay rights by ensuring a fair and inclusive work environment for LGBT people and politicians promoting their views on how to improve civil rights for the LGBT community.
For a long time now I have wanted to launch a similar campaign for people undergoing psychiatric treatment. Having experienced the process of coming out as a gay man and the stigma associated with having a psychiatric label, my experience is that coming out as gay is easy compared to fighting the stigma associated with one or more psychiatric diagnoses.
Mad In America is abundant with stories of hope and recovery and it becomes clear that for those who want to recover from mental distress they must stop the chemical treatment and their beliefs in a biological cause.
For those who read this post and are still on medication – trust me, IT GETS BETTER – even if right now it seems impossible. Even if the all-knowing men and women in white tell you differently. Even if your family tells you you’re chemically imbalanced. Even if staying awake more than 6 hours a day seems impossible or writing messages to your future selves takes more energy than you have − IT GETS BETTER!
It gets better the day you leave the psychiatric system and find your own way – not back to who you were but to the beautiful person you are without the drugs!
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Editorial Note: Happy Birthday, Bertel.
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.