This week I celebrate my six month anniversary off of psychiatric drugs. Over the course of fourteen years, I have been on Prozac, Lithium, Lamictal, Zyprexa, Paxil, Zoloft, Ativan, Seroquel, Depakote, Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Geodon, Abilify, and probably others.
I was first prescribed Prozac by my GP when I was 18. It was my freshman year at Yale during finals; I was paralyzed by anxiety and couldn’t study. Prozac freed me up from the anxiety and I finished with As and one B that semester. I was pretty crushed about that B, because as a first-generation Bangladeshi American girl with an immigrant father who was a professor at an elite liberal arts college, coming from a culture in which higher formal education is highly valued and also means freedom, pursuing higher education and doing well in school was what I cared about most in my life. My parents had left Bangladesh and settled in the US for a better life for their kids – when they were around the age of 18, their education had been interrupted by genocide.
Prozac clearly changed my personality, but I didn’t mind. I loved it. I had always been really shy, and with the newfound confidence and loss of inhibitions I learned to sparkle in ways I never could before, and also how to draw attention to myself and develop a big personality. But along with the sparkle there were unseen, unexpected effects. My memory of this time period is blurry, but during sophomore year I think I tried to come off because my dad didn’t think it was wise for me to be on the drug forever. I then experienced the deepest feelings of numbing, cloud-over-my-head-that-wouldn’t-lift depression I had ever felt in my life, including suicidal thoughts that overcame me with their persistent and intrusive nature.
I now strongly believe that this was a drug withdrawal response. Prozac withdrawal, compounded by my existential identity confusion as a 19-year-old plus a breakup with my first “boyfriend” (a summer fling with another Yalie).
As I wrote in a previous blog, I was then hospitalized multiple times and forced to withdraw from Yale (I had to reapply five times to get back in and get my degree). I was heavily drugged despite my desperate pleas that the drugs were making me worse. I felt dead inside, but Lithium was touted as the only thing that could ‘cure’ me, so I learned to resign myself.
And then I reached the point where I knew I could no longer live that way and not lose myself. So I tried to come off the drugs without clinical support, and things got worse. I started hearing voices. I went into altered states of consciousness and lived on a plane of sleeplessness and madness and divinity, with feelings of cosmic consciousness and nightmares that I had never experienced in my life before.
During periods of trying to come off psychiatric drugs, I have twice had to take medical leave from non-profit mental health jobs where I held leadership positions. I sought clinical support to come off, from psychiatrists in the community mental health system and from psychiatrists working at prestigious universities. All refused to give me clinical support. Instead, they gave me more pills, or tried to discourage me, or halfheartedly agreed but had no idea what they were doing and didn’t really seem to care.
I suffered through trying to come off psychiatric drugs by myself – working through waking-nightmare states, working through headaches and flu-like symptoms, working through being unable to sleep. In 2012, I found a therapist who believed in me. He helped me deprogram myself from psychiatry’s messages that I had a chronic illness and needed the drugs to survive. I also found an amazing mindfulness coach who helped me. I developed a strong network of friends and professional support. But I still could not find a psychiatrist to help me come off.
When I tried to come off in 2012, I again had the sleeplessness and the nightmare visions and the altered states of reality, but this time I had more tools, more information and support, and an important reframe – I was not sick. I experienced the world differently than ‘the norm,’ but other people experienced the world this way too. I started thinking more and more about chemical withdrawal psychosis, a concept that I first discovered in Robert Whitaker’s book Anatomy of an Epidemic.
In the fall of 2012 I came to study at a Masters in Counseling Psychology program at CIIS, and in 2013, I finally found an integrative psychiatrist in San Francisco who helped me come off psychiatric drugs in two years. She heard me. She was hesitant about the coming off process, but she always said to me, “Naas, I trust your intuition and I don’t worry about you.”
Even though there were times she actually did worry about me, she treated me with the utmost compassion and respect. She offered her clinical perspective, and we figured it out together – what would be medically safe, what would be the right pace. How to process the feelings, insights, personality changes, and forgotten memories of my life (I had lost much of my long term memory). With her Jungian training, she helped me understand the periods of altered consciousness with greater depth and an appreciation for their significance to my personal life and my broader life processes. I also found a therapist who helped me make sense of things, not only in my everyday life, but in the context of my waking-dream and nightmare periods and my fantasy and daydreaming life.
It was not an easy process. In 2014, while in graduate school, I managed a withdrawal process with my psychiatrist but I couldn’t come all the way off. It was too intense. I tried again in the winter of 2015. I was on 900 mg of Lithium and 3 mg of Abilify. By February of 2016, I was completely off of everything.
My parents didn’t believe I could come off the drugs, even though my dad wanted that so badly for me. I think my mom was too scared to see me come off, as she had witnessed more of my periods of altered states than my dad had. Even though I lost connection with them in many ways, my parents were ALWAYS spiritually and financially supportive. Many of my friends didn’t believe I could come off – they had seen me struggle through too much while trying to come off, and they’d also had to bear the brunt of my personality changes and intensity and chaos. But my partner of three years knew I could come off, and I am forever indebted to him for sticking with me though it.
I can’t say that life is easy now. But I am much happier, because I feel myself, I feel my feelings, I feel in touch with my deep spiritual creativity. I feel my body, and I am returning to myself while carving a new identity with all my experiences.
I am still being flooded by memories, which is glorious, heartwarming, bittersweet, intensely sad, and sometimes traumatic. I have a lot of dental work that needs to be completed now – I think some psychiatric drugs rot your teeth like meth does. I neglected my body health for a long time because I stopped caring. For me, it was too hard to take care of my body while on drugs that had taken it over. I gained 60 pounds on psychiatric drugs, developed acne when I’d had really clear skin before, and I lost a lot of hair. I tried to maintain a healthy diet and regimen but it was too big a fight. I know it’s not impossible, but for me it was just too hard. I had stopped looking at my face in the mirror for a long, long time.
A HUGE part of coming off psychiatric drugs was believing that I could do it. There were so many messages I had been fed – from clinicians and society and even peers – that said I couldn’t. I had to dismiss all of that.
I don’t think I ever had bipolar disorder. I think psychiatry gave it to me. I am in Recovery from forced psychiatric drugging, psychiatric chemical withdrawal and psychiatric abuse. Life is still hard sometimes. I recognize certain aspects of myself that make it hard – I am moody and have a generous heart, so I get really upset by harshness and violence in the world. And I observe a lot, so I witness a lot of harshness and violence in the world.
As a mental health advocate, an academic, and a therapist (I don’t have my license yet, but have completed my graduate level training and a year as a student therapist at my practicum site), I have a lot of hope for people to come off psychiatric drugs. Not everyone finds a supportive psychiatrist to help them come off. I did. I also had the financial resources to see a private psychiatrist. I have friends who have come off psychiatric drugs without help from a psychiatrist. It is definitely possible. But also difficult. I hope that clinical medical help will become more available and accessible to everyone who wants to taper or come fully off their psychiatric drugs.
I have hopes for the field of psychiatry. I hope the field will redeem itself, and redeem its practitioners, because they do have clinical skill and the opportunity to learn more and grow. Many of them, I believe, were just taught bad science, influenced and infiltrated by Big Pharma. My psychiatrist was traditionally trained at big research universities, but she sought out extra training so her practice became truly integrative. I am colleagues with other psychiatrists, PsyDs and psychiatric nurse practitioners who have brought in alternative medicine, nutrition, mindfulness, and other holistic modalities into their clinical work. Psychiatrists have received many years of training, but unfortunately, it is my belief as a psychiatric survivor that many concepts they learned in medical school need to be unlearned.