A little over eight years ago, I voluntarily signed myself into a psychiatric hospital for medication management as I could not get in to see a psychiatrist for months. A year prior, I’d gone off of two antidepressants too quickly. After an exhausting year of SSRI withdrawal, job loss and coming out of the closet, I was looking to drugs once again to solve basic life and health problems, just as I had at twenty-one while coping with the effects of childhood trauma and a bout of Lyme disease.
Being a passionate, fairly intelligent and compassionate Aries, one of my mottos has always been “No regrets.” But while I’ve come to accept and even at times rejoice in the rewards that my life-altering experience in the psychiatric system has given me, I do deeply regret signing myself into hospital. That one act opened up a door to the most profound hell-on-earth experience that I believe I will ever endure: benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Had I accepted a prescription for Ativan as an outpatient, I would have had access to the pharmacy print out and refused to take it for more than a week, owing to benzodiazepine’s addictive nature. But I didn’t have the print-outs locked up, even though I asked for them, and my self-esteem was being eroded by professionals who were profoundly committed to the idea that medicalizing extreme moods or thoughts is helpful to their patients. One nurse, to her credit, did say to me, “You’re an artist. You might have mood swings your entire life. You feel life deeply. You don’t need drugs for that”.
On a gut level, I believed her, but I had been trained to distrust my mind and was in considerable pain. The drug commercials continued to play through my head, and despite my higher wisdom, I continued my search for the “right” mood altering chemicals, still holding out some hope they were actually medicine. At that time, I was coming out as gay. I was in SSRI withdrawal. I was unemployed. This conflagration of events and realities would precipitate a change in role for me over the course of three years from social worker to psychiatric patient.
Although I began titration two months out of hospital release, because of the number of drugs they’d put me on and my fifteen-year dependence on antidepressants, the withdrawal would take twenty-two months. It would include two more hospitalizations for medical reasons, a partial hospitalization program, homelessness, a near death experience, cognitive dementia so extreme I would forget to shower for days on end and when I showered, would forget to use soap, as well as a wasting syndrome that would take me to the brink of a heart attack at eighty-three pounds.
I have recently published the story of what followed that first hospitalization in my book, Losing the Plot: A Journey Away from Psychiatry. In it, you won’t read that psychiatry is doing its best or that the clinicians who receive large kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies mean well; my book is a scathing critique of the industry from the inside out and outside in. My skepticism of the industry began years before my hospitalization, while I was a social worker who promoted an “anti-stigma” message to over-drugged, poverty-stricken individuals close to comatose from sedative mixtures in continuing day treatment programs, encouraging them to “self-care”, which meant of course to take those drugs. As any ethical person would, I began listening to that still small voice in myself and the sick-to-my-stomach feeling I was getting from my work. That is really when the departure from psychiatry began, but I’d dive in deep first, as any good researcher, to fully test the waters. Just like most of their drug trials, my long-term version of the experiment failed miserably.
While I have an incredible distrust for the psychiatric system, I do say that psychiatry healed me in spite of itself. Besides Lyme disease and a fairly dysfunctional upbringing with two Vietnam veteran parents, one of the main reasons I constantly sought help in the psychiatric system was because of a hefty dose of self-doubt. I wasn’t ok enough in my eyes, something was wrong with me. I didn’t even know what, but something, and having grown up in a medical family, I reasoned medicine—even half-hearted and experimental medicine—must be the answer. It took surviving all of the symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal, including derealization, gastritis, auditory hallucinations, wasting, dementia, panic attacks and profound depression, for me to come to understand that not only had I really been a cool person before all that shit, but also that nothing was wrong with me. I was smart and a little neurotic at times, but that was it. Drugs caused me to be mentally ill where I had not been before.
Yes, I had struggled as a child and through periods of high stress in adulthood with what some would label anxiety or depression, but all of those episodes had pretty big explanations, like post traumatic stress and coming out of the closet. Overall, my life was pretty grand compared to full-scale, chemically-induced psychosis. I had a lot of friends, in part because I was so anxious and concerned over my relationships. I was deeply interested in ethics and personal growth, excelled in school, found solace and contentment in nature and music, was a dedicated and hard worker, writer and director. I coped well with chronic pain and so I had a well of compassion at my disposal in my work with people with disabilities. I did get down, but those are often the cards you’re dealt when raised by two Vietnam vets and living with chronic pain. I never needed the drugs, ever, even when I felt they were helping me.
My book outlines the many problems inherent in diagnosing and drugging en masse the American population, but because it was written only a year or two after I got off of everything, it does not get into my life now much, or the spiritual rewards of rugged warriorship, which are many. I have been off of all medicine for five and a half years, and have been working for almost five, the last four full-time. I am again in social work, though now in the benefits management vs. “take your drugs” role. I am taking prerequisites toward medical school, just transcended my first plateau in learning the guitar for my songwriting, and for the first time am submitting my poetry for publication (it’s getting accepted, too.) I am also out in nature doing things the rheumatologist I had at fifteen may have never expected me to do, like backpacking.
Life has brought many challenges the past five and a half years, like incredible debt I still struggle with and other things unrelated to the drugging, but I go outside and garden, play with my spaniel mutt, cook a nice stir fry, complain about my job, love my job, attend women’s circles, drumming circles, spiritual retreats, wear fuzzy socks to bed in the winter. In short, I live life. As those with means are fortunate to do, I consider none of it therapy. It’s just life, with all its beauty and despair, best lived fully and unapologetically, except when apology is needed, for the short time we are here.
I would say that I meditate and do yoga, and I have joined a Buddhist sangha and have taken yoga classes, but if I learned anything from my rendezvous with psychiatry, it is that no one pill or religion or cultural icon has the answer for life’s conundrums, or is a panacea to the reality that all of us eventually get sick and die. I have vowed not to become a new age priestess yielding an arsenal of ‘shoulds’ and ‘have tos’ related to personal growth and sitting in lotus position. In fact I have learned that, among other actual physical illnesses, I have a genetic mutation that causes me to improperly process folic acid. Low folate contributes to anxiety and chronic pain, so my inability to sit still for meditation has been a function of this actual physical illness.
I’m not here to claim mind over matter. Folks who hallucinate or obsess or want to kill themselves are either likely enduring/recovering from trauma and/or physically ill. Some of them are psychics and shamans, yes, but I know first-hand, from a drug-induced experience, that real hardcore horrible psychosis exists. Yet despite the numerical diagnoses in the DSM like 317.5 or whatever, the lack of specificity in pinpointing the causes for such phenomena in psychiatry is stunning. Each person’s brain, body and journey, are unique. The “pick 5 of 9” symptoms from this checklist method of diagnostics is, scientifically, horrifying. And the idea that some shading or lighting on an MRI can be accurate enough to induct someone into the psychiatric paradigm is equally baffling. How scary if our brains all lit up the same on an MRI! How frightening if we all believed and felt exactly the same; what would be left to discuss?
The critique I make of psychiatry is comprehensive. The experience I endured, along with many others, is damning of the way the profession currently operates. At the very least, the question of “Why psychiatry?” needs to be asked.
When I stopped seeing psychiatry as a viable resource, it stopped being a backup plan. When it was no longer a backup plan, I suddenly no longer needed it. But first and foremost, when I stopped thinking something was wrong with me, I already no longer needed psychiatry.
Losing the Plot documents the steps I had to take to leave psychiatry behind, including some details on tapering antidepressants, Lithium and benzodiazepines. It also provides snippets of my life as social worker before the drugging. It touches briefly on some family history, including the untreated mental health struggles of my mother (which might make anyone a believer in psychiatry, except that in retrospect, I am very glad she never did enter a hospital or take an antipsychotic.) And lastly, it leaves the reader with four possible future renditions of my life, none of which are under the auspices of psychiatry but each of which includes the continued influence of psychiatry, as all of our lives do. It begs the following questions: Is happily ever after realistic, preferable and for our highest good? Is Hollywood’s instant gratification narrative, which psychiatry relies on to sell drugs, the best story to live? Or is working through and being present with the grief, the visions, the tremors, and the uncertainty of our days a better prescription for a long and fulfilling life?
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.