Despite my lengthy history in the Mental Health System, which spanned over three decades of my life, I was rarely at serious risk for suicide. Now, in hindsight, I know what caused me to want to do something actively to end my life.

Back in 1983, I put myself in a mental ward. I desperately wanted help with my eating disorder, but no one took these types of problems seriously back then. The ward was rather nice, so I returned many times. Nothing good ever came of it, but I always hoped this time, it will do some magic. Every time I left, I’d realize my eating problems hadn’t been solved at all.

A year later, in a flash, I knew that the “great” psychologist I was seeing didn’t know what he was doing. My eating disorder had gotten far worse. He was a humbug. I saw no way out of the situation.

I think this is the reason most people kill themselves. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of the trap we’re in. Society tells us there’s something inherently wrong on the inside. Now, I know that notion is false, but then, it caused me to feel terrible about myself.

I had picked up the idea of overdosing from a gal I had met on the mental ward. She sat across the table from me and made hand-to-mouth gestures, showing me how she rapidly took pill after pill. Was dying the answer? On a cold night in January, 1984, shortly before my 26th birthday, I swallowed a lethal dose of psychiatric medications and anything else I could find within reach.

What resulted was devastating. I woke up in a hospital after being in a coma. My best friend called me and told me she never wanted to speak to me again. The nurses , usually kind, were now hostile. I had no visitors. I told myself over and over that I wished I had died. I felt even more trapped.

My parents got me out of the hospital and into a rehab place. Was this supposed to help my eating disorder? The place sure promised a cure. But as soon as I arrived, I was told they didn’t know anything about eating disorders.

I was stuck there with no way out. The staff completely ignored me if I mentioned my eating disorders. I was given all sorts of medications, only to be disappointed that these were no cure for what was truly wrong.

The rehab place filled out paperwork for disability, saying I had schizophrenia. There was no other way to get me the payments except to give me some arbitrary diagnosis. To say I had an eating disorder wasn’t going to float because ED’s weren’t considered serious enough. That diagnosis, a complete lie, haunted me for decades.

Over the years, I faced discrimination because the drugs made me shake all over and gave me pimples. I was discriminated against in employment and academic situations. The only place I found acceptance was within the mental health system itself. That was, in part, what kept me trapped within it.

When I was 39 I was stuck at McLean Hospital. From there they were going to send me to a state hospital and lose my state-funded housing. The staff at McLean were uncaring and lazy. Looking back, I know darned well what was wrong: The hospital had given me far too many shock treatments a year previously and I had become so confused that I appeared psychotic. They were scared they had permanently damaged me, and were avoiding a lawsuit. Not even knowing what was wrong with me, I took an overdose which did nothing except put me back in McLean. I know why, in hindsight, that the attempt never went on record. The hospital didn’t want it known how badly they screwed me up. Truthfully, it wasn’t death that I desired, but a drastic change in my situation.

I got away, defying everything they claimed about me. I was lucky that the effects from the shock treatments wore off. I went to college and after five years, earned my long-awaited bachelor’s degree. I earned my master’s as well.

I still had both feet in the mental health system, and this was my downfall. My boyfriend died. My dog died. I was raped when I was 50 years old. All this was ignored by those that were supposedly helping me. The claim was that I had something wrong inside, some disease, and no one recognized the real things happening in my life.

It was now 2012. Due to stress, my eating disorder became even more disabling than ever. No one even cared anymore. I made hundreds of calls, begging for help, but was always turned down. Finally, I made active plans to kill myself, seeing no way out.

I went to the police to report the rape. I hoped something could be done to stop the man from assaulting others. This would be my last deed on earth, my gift. I was shocked, though, that the police said it sounded like I had fabricated my story. Even though I was secretly on the verge of dying, it seemed that no one cared or took me seriously. I had no voice.

I had been planning suicide now for about a month, in a foreign city. I tied up loose ends. I didn’t want anyone to stop me, so I said “See you soon,” instead of “Goodbye.” I felt like an awful liar. At night, I cried and begged God for forgiveness for what I was about to do.

The day of my flight was approaching. One of the hardest things was saying goodbye to my little dog, Puzzle. The dogsitter put her in the car, and I saw the look on Puzzle’s face as they drove off.

“Oh my god. I will never see my little girl again, and no one even knows or cares.”

I had no plans to use the return plane ticket. I was in London a few days and then it was the Big Day.   I recall getting in front of a webcam and showing the camera all the pills I planned to take in an hour or so. The timing had to be perfect to ensure I wasn’t “rescued.”

Suddenly, I realized I was lying in bed and many hours had passed. I hadn’t taken any pills. I had accidentally fallen asleep. If I took any pills now, the housekeepers at the hotel might find me still alive the next day. I knew I had blown it. I got out of bed and decided to walk around the city.

People were still out, even at 11:30 at night. It had rained, but now, the London sidewalks were dry. I began to laugh inside. I was alive.

When I reached 55 years old, I no longer had any desire to die. I gave that year a name: “55 and Alive.” Dying wasn’t going to solve anything. A failed attempt at suicide would make my life far worse. I needed to get away from the bogus psychiatric diagnoses. I needed to change what others thought of me. Was this possible?

Sometimes, you can’t change those around you, no matter how hard you try. People have their preconceived notions, which are nothing but gossip and bigotry. You can’t change an entire community, nor can you erase your medical records now that everything is computerized. I assumed there was no way out. This time, though, was different. I refused to give up. One night, unbeknownst to anyone, my little dog and I boarded a plane at Logan Airport, leaving behind almost all of my belongings, and I never looked back.

I didn’t need to change myself, only to get away from the oppression of diagnosis. I love my new community here in South America. I am healthier than ever. I run 10k every other day. Today, I call myself a survivor. No one can take my story away. I’ll never go back to the Mental Health System that had caused all the trouble. You can count on that.


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.


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  1. Thank you, and happy new year from me and Puzzle. There’s no such thing as a hopeless case. I can remember times when, if folks could have voted, I’d have been voted in unanimouosly as “Least likely to succeed.” When everyone’s convince you’re a total failure and will be forever dependent on the System, stand up for yourself and prove ’em wrong.

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  2. Aw thanks you guys. People do tend to argue theory far too much, while disregarding the value of first-hand experience. We need to honor these unique stories. Each of us has such a valuable gift. Sadly, many who had such terrific tales to tell us, tales from the wards, streets, gutters, and jailhouses, are no longer alive to speak to us. We can only hope for their sake that their lives, words, and deeds aren’t subject to incorrect guesses on our part. Happy 2015.

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  3. A truly inspirational story. Puts the lovely mental death system in its usual bad light.
    If you had ED, why were you subjected to shock? How does the brain recover from the state of confusion and near psychosis that shock caused in your case? Is it a matter of luck that your brain rebounded and your memories returned?
    I was driven to the point of iatrogenic “madness” through the prescription of multiple drugs used to treat what I now understand was a withdrawal reaction to an AD. In a state of complete panic and terror, I gave uninformed consent to shock. I was injured 21 times in 7 months. I have lost huge chunks of memory, have cognitive dysfunction. A year and a half has passed and my mind feels so damaged. I am afraid I will never recover any part of my self.

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    • Hello “Truth,” and happy 2015. Thanks so much for sharing your story. To answer your question, it was 1995 when shock was first suggested to me as a “quick fix.” I was told “It is the most effective treatment for depression out there.” I was “shocked” to hear this and felt devastated that anyone would suggest such a radical thing to me. The hospital, McLean, which I was having a love affair with (as often patients do with these places) had a procedure where they showed the patient a movie filled with propaganda, but we were told it described the “pros and cons” of shock. Why would I not believe what I was told? Perhaps you were shown the movie yourself. It’s supposedly educational but doesn’t show the devastation that shock often causes, nor is there mention of lawsuits. The film said there was a slim risk that the patient might die.

      I think I had become depressed because my boyfriend, whom I adored, had picked up a gambling habit. I tried to help him but it seemed futile and I feared he was going down a bad path. Eventually, he overcame it entirely on his own and in his own time, but I had no clue that it would ever resolve, and the MH professionals were as usual unhelpful. I had to change therapists and the new “highly recommended” famous one at McLean, Dr. Ronningstam, turned out to be cruel, irresponsible, chronically late, and regularly nodded off during our sessions. I didn’t want to admit I had made an extremely bad choice. Anyone would be depressed in such a situation. At the time, folks were still making light of my eating disorder, and completely ignored that my weight had dropped dangerously low. In fact, they claimed i was “faking” ED for attention, even though I had stated that ED had been my main trouble all along.

      The first round of shock “worked,” and now I know this was the placebo effect. I have a theory as to why this happens so frequently which I’ll get into sometime. I was the one who asked for shock in 1996. A new doc, Dr. Henry, was at McLean raking in tons of dough for doing shock. He did a bunch of single-sided on me, and then, one day, while I was about to be put under, he asked if it was okay if they did bilateral. I signed no papers and wasn’t informed that the risk of memory loss and confusion was far greater.

      No way would I admit, even to myself at first, that this “wonder cure” that I myself had insisted upon had caused me such damage. I was so confused that I wasn’t aware of what was happening. My boyfriend tried over and over to speak on my behalf and told them to stop. Even my parents were disturbed by what they saw.

      As for recovering from the effects of shock, I’d say it takes time. Shock is unpredictable. I cannot say how long it’ll take for the effects to wear off. I do know that my ages 38 and 39 were completely sacrificed to McLean. I remember that time at McLean clearly, but I had considerable memory loss, a gap of time in my 30’s that after all these years is still in the process of coming back to me. As a person who now writes memoir of course this was devastating to me. During that time, my dad had died. McLean had thrown their hands in the air and were trying to get me into a state hospital. I got out of that situation. I noticed a sudden shift a few months later. It was dramatic and obvious and it wasn’t what I expected at all. I woke up on my birthday, now 40 years old, and I was absolutely fine. I felt so fantastic that I was freed of that disabling confusion and I felt like I could do anything. I began my first novel and rather shortly afterward, shocked the doctors who had claimed I was totally incapable by returning to college. I knew my dad would be proud.

      Please be patient because you don’t know if the same thing might happen to you. You may feel entirely hopeless because your brain won’t work, and then one day find that it works again. You feel so, so free, which is a wonderful thing, and I wish this for you as I would for anyone.

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    • Boans, I had to look that one up! I think if I were to rid this planet of anything, or let’s say the Western world, it would be the following grossly false belief: that we should all focus on blaming the victim, we should find some disease, some label for her, and that surely, she “deserves” lockup and other tortures “for her own good.” I’d like to zap that mentality straight off the planet. My theory is that the pervasiveness of therapy-worship (including what we see in popular self-help articles) is what has caused this myth to seep into the mainstream, into our laws, our schools, and our religions.

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      • It’s a narrative I have struggled with too.

        You know as far as eating disorders go I have never seen anyone morbidly obese involuntarily detained.

        I did get asked about my eating and sleeping patterns, and the fact they had been disturbed was one justification for detaining me, despite me asking the mental health nurse if he could point me to the legislative requirements so that I could meet them.

        Seems a bit strange to me, I can smoke 80 cigarettes a day, drink alcohol till I end up vomiting in the Emergency Dept, lay in the sun until I am red raw and risk skin cancer, eat MacDonalds till I weigh 400 pounds, have unprotected sex but if I don’t eat enough then I can be detained as a danger to self.

        Still, I don’t have a string of letters after my name. Oh, they call me bones not because I’m skinny, but because I bury them, like puzzle lol.

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        • I have a lot to say about obesity as well, boans. You are right that there are people who knowingly eat or smoke themselves to death and they don’t get locked up. Although I have suffered with both anorexia and binge eating (yes, simultaneously, and I don’t purge) I have a problem with the naming of “binge eating disorder.” While I am glad that the dangers of binge eating are bringing about recognition of the seriousness of this problem, medical science has it all wrong. It’s also false that binge eating is as curable as medical science claims. I’m sure the statistics are way off here. For instance, we have no way to know how many car accidents are caused by binge eating and driving. We don’t know how many deaths are caused by stomach rupture (this can usually only be determined if there is an autopsy), nor can we tally the financial loss and resulting breakup of marriages and families or career loss or even homelessness that results. Medical science won’t acknowledge the physical toll on the body of binge eating itself and instead focus on weight concerns. This does those of us who are not overweight a huge disservice. I believe that this is why my eating disorder was trivialized for most of my life except when my weight dropped so low it was staring them in the face. I’ll get to this later, as well as my proposed alternative solutions, or, perhaps, antidotes, to the brainwashing that’s currently offered.

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  4. Julie, you give so many hope with your brilliant and courageous example of personal empowerment and spiritual freedom. I’m in awe. Thank you for providing such a clear and well-informed perspective, perfect way to start the year. My very best to you.

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    • Aw thanks. What I really want to do right now is to focus on how we can rebuild our lives. Yes, this horrible thing, the unthinkable has happened. If I could sue, I would. If I got a sincere apology (not an excuse) it would mean so much more than money. I need to focus on my new life and try to help others stay out of or escape the atrocity, because it only gets worse and worse the longer you stay in. It’s hard to convince people of this. I, too, defended shrinkage as if my life depended on winning these illogical arguments. Shrinkage was a Golden Calf.

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      • Your comment—and your story, in general–reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, by Marianne Williamson:

        “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

        Shine on!

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  5. Happy New Year Julie! Thank you for sharing your story. Truly inspiring and I know people using eating disorders as a coping method will learn a lot from you. So glad people are sharing these stories. We mustn’t shut up. Fear wants to paralyze us from the trauma we endured, but so glad you have found your voice and living your life! Namaste

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  6. Hello Corrine, Thanks and happy new year to you. It’s interesting that you said that, because for many, in fact most people with eating disorders, we don’t “use eating disorders as a coping method.” This is a common myth that “therapists” would love us to believe, since this would make therapy actually useful. However, therapy rarely helps people with ED. Of course, it’s immensely relieving at first to find someone caring to talk to since we tend to get isolated and alone. However, ED is far more complicated than “poor coping.” If it were only “poor coping,” then all we would need would be a few months of “therapy” and we’d be just fine. When you read the self-help articles you’ll read about “stuffing our feelings,” etc, and this is all part of the brainwashing and why people continue to have eating problems despite years of therapy. Honestly, if therapy really worked, it shouldn’t take years! Therapy does help some people and when it does, the sessions come to an end and the person returns to their life and is happy again and no longer has the problem they started with. I see people going to therapy and ending up with more problems than they dreamed possible. I think “poor coping” is one of those myths they feed us in treatment, and feed society as a whole. It’s kinda sad.

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  7. Julie
    Thank you for sharing your story of healing from “schizophrenia.” It is important for others to hear about how arbitrarily handed out the “serious mental illness” labels truly are – not an ounce of scientific validity, whatsoever.

    I, like many here, and apparently over a million innocent little American children, had the adverse effects of an antidepressant misdiagnosed as “bipolar.” It’s a crying shame the American psychiatric practitioners aren’t intelligent enough to be able to read the rules in their DSM-IV-TR and they seemingly have no clue what the actual effects of their drugs are. It makes for a rather incompetent bunch of “experts,” doesn’t it?

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  8. Oh goodness, how can those doctors be so dumb? I myself was never manic. Once I was but it was drug induced. After that, every time I paced from akathesia, I was called manic. Whenever it was November and I did National Novel Writing Month, that was mania too. Funny, the pacing stopped entirely once I got off antipsychotics! Had I recovered? I think right now, I’d rather see a person getting drugs off the street or from a PCP or illegally from a dentist than from a shrink. That way, they can get their fix without submitting to “diagnosis.” Here in Uruguay, almost any drug can be purchased without a doctor’s prescription. I believe that’s better, since that way, “doctor” doesn’t run your life. In fact, the power of “doctor” was one of my first observations when I entered day treatment in 1981. I think people should take their power back.

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  9. Hi Julie- thank you for sharing your story. I am a psychotherapist and agree with many of the points you bring up about how oftentimes “mental health professionals” can be cruel, ignorant, and just plain shitty. I also have struggled with my own difficulties in living for a long time, although I’ve never ended up a patient in a psych ward, coming close in college but being able to convince others I was “normal” enough to walk among them. My main interests are in working with people who have had experiences that some call “psychotic”, doing my best to understand them and their stories, and assisting them in avoiding the more barbaric aspects of the system. My question to you is: in light of your experiences with therapists, what can I do to be helpful to those with which I work? I’d really like to hear others’ thoughts on this question, as well. Thank you!

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  10. Geez, thanks for asking. I’d say please don’t be like the bad ones I had. Respect respect respect. When a patient tells you something, don’t doubt their word nor accuse them of something they didn’t do. Please don’t call the patient a liar nor threaten the patient. Never diagnose. Think of what the patient CAN do and never in terms of limitation. Always listen, because this is what the patient desperately needs. Advocate for the patient, stick up for her, help encourage her to have her own voice. Therapy should be extremely short term, and always state that you want the patient to be independent and to be free and to live entirely without MH care ASAP, entirely without diagnosis, that she has a temporary problem, not a permanent condition. Even if you feel it’ll go on a long time. Because you don’t really know that. Above all, the person must remove themselves from oppression if they are going to get over anything, including getting out of halfway houses, getting out of marriages, getting away from parents or yucky roommate situations, leaving bad jobs and finding new ones, etc, or even leaving you as a therapist if it’s not working for them. Help means learning to help yourself mostly, getting back on your feet and learning to trust. The third step is rebuilding your life. In my experience, that’s the fun part.

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  11. Thanks for your insights, Julie! Sorry, have been away from MIA for a while or I would have responded sooner.

    I completely agree that the end goal should be that I make myself unnecessary, and that respect is above all else what needs to be conveyed. And while that last part about respect would seem like an obvious, “duh” thing to say, I am constantly flabbergasted at the lack of respect, oftentimes quite subtle, that is demonstrated by many clinicians towards those with which they work on a daily basis. This has been true in every single environment that I have worked in over the last several years, and I guarantee that most of the clinicians who I believe show this disrespect would gasp and deny that they do so if it were brought to their attention. In fact on those occasions where I have diplomatically made such comments I have received some variation on that response.

    The thing is, I actually do believe that consciously most of these therapists do not believe that they lack respect for the people that they work with; however the words that they use, the gestures and body language that they give off, the tones of their voices, and the things that they DON’T say strongly illustrate that they see these others as just that, OTHERS, and treat them accordingly.

    Thanks again for your advice, I truly appreciate it!

    Much respect,

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