When snowfall whitens the ground in Colorado, there comes the inevitable question by way of small talk: “So, do you ski or snowboard?”
“Well, neither…” I answer.
“Really, why not?”
“I, um, well, I…I used to snowboard, but now I have some fatigue issues that make it kind of hard to breathe up high in the cold.”
“Oh, man, that’s rough—bummer.”
“Yeah, it’s OK—I don’t really miss it.”
And so, abruptly, ends the elevator talk because A) I don’t have the energy to explain why and how I continue to be plagued by iatrogenic symptoms as a result of psychiatric poisoning, and B) Because I know most people either can’t understand or would choose not to believe such a narrative anyway. First and foremost, call it the usual failure of compassion: “I don’t really want to hear about your complex, chronic, scary condition because it scares the living shit out of me and threatens the fragile bubble of illusion I inhabit, in which everything is OK and always will be, because, oh balls, oh hell, something like this could happen to me or people I care about, too.”
But that’s only half of the story. The other half, as any survivor of psychiatry knows, is that we’re fighting an uphill battle against a monolithic and moneyed propaganda machine, one writhing tentacle of the gigantic Crap Octopus that has America squeezed in a death grip. (The other seven tentacles perhaps being: the influence of corporations on politics, environmental destruction, for-profit health care, the prison state/War on Drugs, militarization of the police, Constant Global Warfare, and the underfunding of education. I’ll stop the list here; it’s just too depressing. Maybe this octopus has sixteen limbs, or sixteen thousand….)
Thus the blank stares when—if I can bring myself to bother—I explain that I was on a very bad class of tranquilizers called benzodiazepines for many years, which is why I still experience fatigue and other symptoms. That in trying to go off I made many mistakes, including continuing to trust mainstream medicine’s mewling, grasping, half-blind bastard spawn, psychiatry, which had helped me find my way into this mess and which, now that it had a lifetime customer on the hook, was loathe to let go—and so loaded up more drugs and more diagnoses until I finally broke free. And that even now, eight years off my last “medication,” I live with a compromised nervous system, especially in the last year and a half as I continue to heal from a setback.
Yeah, who has time for all that? People just want to know if you ski or snowboard.
They want glib, barely-skimming-the-surface articles on “chemical imbalances” and “Are you or someone in your family bipolar?” cobbled together by unpaid interns at Yahoo and CNN; they want reassuring ads for Gleemonex on the weekend-magazine overleaf, right before the ads for diabetes meds facing fatten-your-fat-ass holiday recipes from fat-ass celebrity chefs; they want to talk in low, whispered voices at family gatherings about “Uncle Dave, who never should have gone off his depression medicines and seemed to be doing so much better on them—I wish he’d listen to his doctor.”
They don’t want to hear the truth. They don’t to lift the curtain. Nobody wants to hear that these psychiatric medications, so part and parcel of mainstream America, destroy and end lives, and that they can make your life a hell beyond comprehension, potentially for a long, long time even after you stop taking the pills. Because to accept just this one truth, which reveals the institution of psychiatry as a big, fat lie when it has long positioned itself as a pillar, as both an alleviator of human suffering and an authority on the human condition, is to risk seeing that almost everything else around us is also potentially a lie, also corrupted, also in the service of fear and arrogance and cruelty and greed.
It’s like John Carpenter’s classic 1988 film They Live: Once you put on the sunglasses, you’ll never see things the same way again. For most people, this is too great of a shock, too much of an existential threat.
And so, it falls upon us survivors to prove that we were damaged, and that we aren’t malingerers or attention hounds or “mentally ill”— if we have any energy amidst the maelstrom to plead our case. Because if we don’t, we risk having our narratives rewritten by others’ “good intentions,” misinformed though they may be by the mainstream narrative. People get weird and pushy about this stuff, both because suffering is ugly and because our truth threatens their worldview. (And sure, you can avoid people, but only for so long. Eventually, you have to rejoin the human race.)
If I’d been exposed to nuclear waste for years and was sick from it years later, nobody would question what I was experiencing. If I fell off the roof and had my leg bones jamming through the skin, no one would question if I were in pain. But because we survivors, who have also been saddled with pejorative, reductive labels, were being “treated” for supposed “medical conditions,” and because our post-withdrawal suffering is so often invisible, so often internal, it somehow falls upon us to A) Prove that we no longer have the original “disease” for which we were being treated, and B) That it was in fact that very “treatment” that’s left us sicker than ever.
I mean, how could such a thing be possible, right? Doctors never hurt anybody. They are Gods. They exact cures. It’s the doctors who know what’s really going on: “Ask your doctor if Gleemonex is right for you.”
These days, I just don’t go into it. If you want to know, I’ll tell you; and if you don’t believe my story, then goodbye. That is the burden of proof: There is none. We don’t owe anyone an explanation. We owe only ourselves, and what we owe is love and time and compassion and healing, and nothing more.
By the same token, I’ve also been careful not to let mainstream “thinking” cloud my view of my predicament; to not stop believing in myself and what I know to be true, because it’s an easy thing to have happen when your thinking is diametrically opposed to that of, well, just about everyone else—when you are the outlier. A few things have been helpful in continually convincing myself that what I’m experiencing is a post-withdrawal syndrome that will heal in time, and is not some lifelong syndrome or inexplicable, untreatable constellation of suffering:
- Accepting and analyzing my symptoms, and trying to recall other periods when, while not on or damaged by the pills, I experienced these things. With the more bizarre symptoms, like an internal tremor, depersonalization/derealization, neuronal pain and “itching” in my teeth, taut, burning muscles, and numb hands and feet, it’s been easy. Even at emotional low points in my old life, or before I was railed by this setback, I did not once experience these things, many of which are purely physical or related to the central nervous system. They have nothing to do with emotion or life events; they are an island of beasties unto themselves.
- Going back and looking at old pictures and videos of myself before I got sick, especially before this setback (after I’d healed the first time). This has helped me to see that once, I was well. And that if I was healthy once, I can be so again. This video …
- … has been helpful over the past eighteen months. To see myself relaxed, speaking in a normal tone and not a hyperventilating wheeze, to see that there was light in my eyes and that I did have a sense of humor in the recent past has been tremendously hope instilling. Given the up-and-down, windows-and-waves nature of neuronal healing, it might even be useful for any of us sufferers to videotape ourselves while in a window, speaking a direct, clear message of hope to future us in a wave: “Hey, Matt, even though you might not believe me right now, you have not always felt this way. In fact, you’ve even felt good and will do so again. I promise it’s true, because I feel really, really good right now, and I was in hell, just like you are now, only yesterday.”
- Surrounding myself with people who either believe my story, or who, having seen great suffering themselves, can empathize, even if they can’t understand. I don’t really need to proselytize; I just need to not be on the defensive. A good friend will believe you no matter what, even if you say little pink pigs are flying out of your earholes. (And he won’t drag you off to the psych ward to have them flushed out with Gleemonex, either.)
So here’s to a happy, healthy 2015, one full of healing, light, and in which little pink pigs can take flight from your ears and you don’t owe anyone a single word of explanation.
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.