Modern psychiatry claims that psychiatric diagnoses are lifelong, debilitating, organic illnesses, despite the fact that there are no physical tests to determine mental illness. I would say that psychiatric diagnosis seems more like a tool of stigma and manipulation, placed upon a person in an authoritarian manner when the psychiatrist deems fit. I should know; my mother was a psychiatrist.
I put the emphasis on “was” because at the relatively young age of 53 she took her own life, leaving behind my sister, myself, and a duffle bag full of pills for her various diagnoses. Did she die because of all the pills, or in spite of them? She had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. And it was through this lens that I was inducted into the paradigm of psychiatric care that I have come to loathe.
I was 11 or 12 when my mom had me diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m not sure of the precipitating factors to this; I do know that I never got along with my mom. I was the outspoken daughter, the feistier one who wouldn’t tolerate my mom’s tumultuous moods and frequent vitriol. But because my mother was a psychiatrist and because she had the diagnosis herself, she knew better. Shortly after she had me diagnosed, I was put on Depakote, and this started my journey into psychiatric offices, hospitalizations, treatment centers, and even more medications.
I have to say that my recollections of this time in my life are emotionally detached. A lot of this time is hazy, some of it blank. Perhaps it’s because of the drugs, but it’s like I’m recounting a movie that I’ve watched a million times.
I wasn’t a bad kid before I was diagnosed. I was on the honor roll, and despite having a volatile relationship with my mother (and having been in therapy for such since the age of 8), I wasn’t terrible. To my mother, on the other hand, I was her burden to bear. After I was diagnosed and put on Depakote, I was “much better,” despite my introverted demeanor and the constant shaking of my hands. She had claimed that my grades were falling, which looking back I can’t find any evidence of, but it’s true that after being put on the Depakote I wasn’t fighting with her as much and my grades did improve.
This twilight period didn’t last long. At some point I began dabbling in recreational drugs, particularly after my mother introduced me to marijuana. This, of course, confirmed my clinical diagnosis, and my first psychiatric hospitalization was in Boston after I decided to throw an unapproved house party, thus continuing on the path of having my deviance medicalized.
I landed in McLean hospital for two weeks. I don’t remember much of my stay except being heavily drugged and taking walks to the duck pond. In addition to the Depakote I acquired some Zoloft because, of course, I was depressed (by being in that wretched place!).
After my hospitalization, my mother became more adamant in her proclamations of how sick I was. She continued to insist that I take my medications because I was so sick! Look what I did! I threw a party. The next thing that validated her point (in her mind) was when I got kicked out of the boarding school she’d sent me to. I hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, and after getting caught smoking pot twice, I was expelled. I freaked out, decided to snort my sleeping pills (which had been thrown into the mix at some point) and landed in the infirmary for three days until she picked me up with her newly acquired boyfriend.
My parents had divorced when I was 10, and when my mom showed up with a man I had never met, I was shocked. Little did I know at the time, but meeting this man, “Tony,” would be pivotal in the lives of everyone in my family.
Tony was a patient of my mother’s and had been for several years. According to her, he was a little depressed and somewhat anxious. She prescribed him OxyContin for his bad back.
Tony turned out to be so much worse than my mom even knew. He claimed to be an “enforcer” and wanted me to work for him. He sensed my mom’s fragile mental state and used that as a weapon against her, claiming (without actually doing so) that he had the phone lines tapped and the trees around our house bugged. He began to groom me, tried to befriend me, gave me marijuana and the anxiety pills my mom prescribed him, and then he began to molest me.
Things really went downhill when, one night, my mother called me while I was staying at my father’s house and told me that my dad was going to send me away to a hospital or program and that I needed to come with her right away. There she was, manipulating me into believing that my father would use the same tactics she used against me.
I snuck out of my father’s house that fateful night and met my mom and Tony down the street. We stayed at my mom’s house, and then the next morning went to a hotel about half an hour away. Tony paid off the receptionist to wipe our names from their records so that if the police were to call, they wouldn’t find me; I was now considered a runaway because my dad didn’t know I had left. My mom and Tony pretended like they didn’t know where I was the entire time.
I was in the hotel for two weeks. The days were spent listlessly consuming marijuana, pills, and alcohol, all provided by Tony and my mom. She would leave at night and Tony would sexually abuse me. I don’t remember if I was on my medications for my “bipolar” at the time.
Finally I got out of there. Tony was driving me around during the day, which was rare; a cop pulled him over and in a panic, Tony told me to jump out of the car; I did, and then the cops took me away. From there I proceeded to a couple of foster homes, the first for a few days, the second for several months. Then I was on to my first long-term treatment facility, Red Rock Canyon School in Utah.
By this time my drug cocktail consisted of the Depakote, Zoloft, sleeping pills and Seroquel. Seroquel was a coma in a pill. The way I had gotten to Red Rock was by my dad saying we were going to visit his friends in Utah; he then me an extra dose of Seroquel on the plane, I conked out, and when I woke up I was in this strange place with people telling me to take out my eyebrow rings or they would “do it for me.”
I’m sure my mother had told the facility all kinds of terrible things about me: how I was a delinquent, ran away, was out of control, etc. This “therapeutic boarding school” really honed in on my diagnosis, and the facility’s doctors experimented with all kinds of pills. I was on so much Seroquel that I was tired all day long and my time at Red Rock is hazy. They also tried me on various mood stabilizers and antidepressants because I had PTSD as a new diagnosis due to the sexual abuse. In addition to keeping me medicated, this facility implemented a paradigm of care called “Positive Peer Culture,” which was a behavioral modification type of modality where your peers could aggressively confront you in a group setting.
It was in this program that I had taken up cutting. I think I just wanted to feel something. I was so numb due to all the meds, yet I was continuously being encouraged to share my feelings or else I wasn’t “working the program.” Physical pain was something I could still feel, though, so I would carve up my legs, unbeknownst to staff.
Here I was, 15 years old and already in a long-term treatment facility. I was, on paper: crazy! This entire time, all the adults in my life had been speaking for me. I never felt like I was any of the things they said, but I went along with it. What else could I have done? Every time I rebelled, it only confirmed to my mother what she thought of me. During the time when I was being shuffled back and forth, I stood in a courtroom with my mother who proceeded to tell the judge how sick and out of control I was. I needed to be medicated, and I needed all the treatment I received.
After I got out of Red Rock my mother became fixated on how severely ill I was, and she began saying that I would be deemed incompetent. She would tell me that I was so sick (and now that I had experimented with drugs, also a drug addict) that I would need to be on SSI and SSDI for the rest of my life. She liked to say to me (and anyone else who would listen, including psychiatrists) that I was “genetically double-whammied” – a drug addict and bipolar. Because of this, she said, I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself past the age of 18. This threat loomed over my head for quite some time.
I was living with my mother in Orlando, FL in my post-Red Rock days (this despite the fact that we didn’t get along and I had been subjected to sexual abuse under her care). It was during this time that I found myself in handcuffs for the first time in my life. She had me Baker Acted, which in Florida means that one is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward for a 72-hour observation.
Because of my mother’s tumultuous moods, she didn’t have a consistent curfew for me. I had been out with a friend, and when I got home my mother decided that I was “late.” I was walking up the stairs to the apartment, smoking a cigarette, and she stormed outside demanding that I come up immediately. I wanted to finish my cigarette and said so. In response she pummeled down the stairs, grabbed me by the arm, nails digging into my flesh, and pulled me up the steps. My defiance was obviously symptomatic of my “illnesses,” so she demanded that I take my medications right away. I told her that I wasn’t going to take the pills, and she proceeded to try to pry open my mouth and force them down my throat. In reaction, I slapped her hand away and the pills rolled under the fridge.
My mother immediately grabbed the phone and called the cops. “I have an out of control teenage daughter!” she wailed to the 911 operator. A few minutes later I was escorted to the cop car, handcuffed and led away to a psychiatric hospital. I remember the maroon-colored scrubs I wore, but little else. After 72 hours I was transferred to another hospital where I spent two weeks.
During this second hospital stay, what really stood out to me was how powerless I felt. I remember feeling that my mother was abusing me and no one would listen. I tried to express myself to doctors, nurses, whoever, but I felt that because my mom was a psychiatrist and I her crazy daughter, I wasn’t taken seriously. I acquired the diagnosis of “Borderline Personality Disorder” at this hospital, despite the fact that the diagnosis couldn’t be given to anyone under the age of 18 and I was 16 at the time. I suppose my cutting and defiance were not symptoms of my environment, the trauma I faced, or being forcibly medicated – no, there was something wrong with my personality.
This hospital liked to experiment with my medications. I was on Paxil, Seroquel, Depakote, Trazodone, and I’m sure others that I’m forgetting. After a particularly distressing “therapy” session with my mother, I got so angry that I started screaming at her. The hospital’s response was to feed me Haldol and keep me isolated in my room for the entire day. I remember thinking that at least the meds made me tired so I could sleep to pass the time.
After I was released I went back to living with my mother. Despite me being a “drug addict,” she continued to smoke pot with me and give me her Ativan, which I didn’t mind because she was actually pretty tolerable when she was stoned.
Little did I know that this was her plan to get me into another long-term residential facility. She later admitted to me that she did drugs with me because she knew I would end up doing other drugs as well, and that would allow her to send me to treatment.
I don’t know how she tricked me into going to this place; perhaps it was something as simple as a doctor’s appointment. Where I ended up was hell on earth. It was called S.A.F.E (Substance Abuse Family Education) Inc. It was in an innocuous Orlando strip mall. I didn’t know at the time that the methods they employed were experimental and followed the tenets of brainwashing used in Chinese prison camps. I also didn’t know that the program was an offshoot of another program called Straight Inc. which had been shut down for its abusive methods, only to be reopened the same day under the name of S.A.F.E Inc.! All I knew at the time was that I was screwed.
I could dedicate an entire book to my experiences at S.A.F.E. This place didn’t employ psychiatrists, doctors, social workers, or therapists. It was a “tough-love” program for teen drug addicts, and the only people who could help us wayward souls were those who had been through it themselves, so it was employed by graduated staff. Despite this lack of medical oversight, we were still medicated. The drug addicts were medicated! There have been accounts of S.A.F.E overmedicating people with Adderall, but I wasn’t one of those. I was given my thrice-daily regimen of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and atypical antipsychotics. If I didn’t take my medication, I was seen as noncompliant and “not working my program.” For such a crime I could be confronted and set back phases (this was a gradual five-phase program). I remember how one girl who was in there with me was so heavily medicated that she would fall asleep standing up and had a constant string of drool dripping off her chin.
My imprisonment at S.A.F.E was an unpleasant experience to say the least. The most notably unpleasant experience (aside from the constant and overarching feeling of dread and doom that I felt every second of every day) was when the staff lost my medication. Even though I was supposedly a horrible drug addict destined to die without the program, I had never experienced drug withdrawals – that is, until they lost my meds! For three days I was a writhing, sweating, vomiting mess as I lay on a plastic mattress on the dusty floor. At the time, I didn’t know how dangerous it could be to go off these medications so suddenly, but I am now aware that I could have suffered a seizure because Depakote is an anticonvulsant.
I got out of the program in a considerably short 14 months (short considering that some individuals had been in there for 4 or 5 years, and 2 years was the mean). After my release, I experienced what sociology calls a sense of “anomie”; that is, normlessness. I didn’t know what to expect from society and I didn’t know what society expected of me. I had been under a form of thought control for the past 14 months and didn’t know what to do with myself.
I couldn’t go back to live with my father (he didn’t want to deal with me) or my mother (halfway through the program she decided she didn’t like it anymore and was consequently excommunicated; I wasn’t allowed to speak to her or even think of her). So I went to live with a parent in the aftercare program for a while, until I decided that I wanted nothing more to do with the program and I left.
Although this was a very volatile time in my life – I was basically homeless, staying with friends, and living in hotels – it was also very enlightening. I decided to get myself off all the medications, and I did it with no medical assistance. I never really felt that I needed the pills anyway, so I decided not to be shackled to them anymore.
I wish I could say that it was like a fog was lifted, but I really can’t remember. I can say that while my brain and body were adjusting to being medication-free, I went through a time of incredible mania. I was like a feral child: wild-eyed and mistrusting. I calmed down and leveled out eventually, but it took a while.
Now, at the age of 29, I have a sense of clarity that I don’t think I would have ever known if I had stayed on the meds. I know that I’m not the only one who has been subjected to the rigmarole of institutions, psychiatric and otherwise. I try to look at the big picture now, and question the methods of treatment that I and so many others received. Why was I voiceless? Why was I stuck in institutions that were supposed to help me but hurt me more? Why didn’t I have a say in my own treatment, and why don’t these institutions view a patient from a holistic perspective as opposed to mere symptoms? These are big questions, but questions that should be asked by patients and doctors alike; particularly doctors treating children. It’s time to take a step back and look at the big picture. What is really going on? And are these treatments helping or hurting?
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.