Why I Got Locked Up in the Madhouse (Twice)

Andri Pretorius
18
2766

My journey begins a few years back after reaching a tipping point in my life. I was feeling really drained while working three different jobs, parenting two young children, and being acutely aware that my marriage was no longer working.

Feeling extremely burnt out, I took my husband with me and sought help from a GP who prescribed an antidepressant (Citalopram) which I had not taken before. After moving to New Zealand, I had used Fluoxetine for six months to help me through the adjustment, but the GP was adamant that Citalopram was better. She did say I might be up in the night when taking this antidepressant. I didn’t think it would matter that much as I was usually disrupted in my sleep anyway, still breastfeeding my 20-month-old baby daughter.

I took the first pill (which was bad choice number one) and got no sleep that night. I thought this would settle down and took another. By the third consecutive night, having had no sleep, anxious and distressed, I called my friend who took me to the psychiatric emergency service. I told a nurse my story of how I felt my symptoms were “made up” and all I needed was to be loved. Nothing else was prescribed to help me get to sleep that night.

I decided to spend the night at my friend’s house with my little one (bad choice number two as I was in an unfamiliar environment). Feeling absolutely exhausted, I couldn’t get to sleep that night either. I was extremely anxious and panicked to the point where I believed I was so sleep deprived I was going to die. I did not know how else to interpret how I felt at the time. I couldn’t make any more decisions about what would help, and thinking that I would not wake up if I did eventually go to sleep that night, I kissed my daughter goodnight for what I thought would be the last time.

Each time I attempted to just lie there until I fell asleep, I panicked. Later that night my friend got really worried about me wandering around her house like a zombie. She rang the psych emergency service again, explaining that something was really wrong and that she had never seen me like that before. So eventually we returned to the hospital with two psych nurses. I met a psychiatrist who assessed me and that night I was admitted as a voluntary patient to the psych ward. I said something about wanting to wear a nappy as I was too tired to go to the toilet and for once I wanted to be the baby. Neither my friend nor the psychiatrist thought that would be a good idea.

I just wanted to be left to sleep there in the assessment room. After telling the psychiatrist my story, I had some hope for finally being able to fall asleep. I thought that in the morning I might be OK. If they would just let me sleep.

After a short nap, they woke me up to take me to the psych hospital (another transition) and I felt myself become hypersensitive. I felt pins and needles as I tried to walk so they brought a wheelchair. My anxiety increased, and the delusions that I was dying returned that night. I heard what I later discovered was a washing machine, but was convinced at the time that this was a machine they would bring to help keep me alive artificially. I remember other bits and pieces, like the nurses trying to give me Zoplicone that night—I thought they wanted to poison me and did not take it.

Once in hospital, I wanted to go home, but everyone encouraged me to follow the doctor’s recommendations, including my family and my friend. I spat out the medication at the start as it was making me feel worse, but my friend told the nurses, so I was put under the mental health act and was made to take them. This loss of control probably made me more depressed than anything. I had to stop breastfeeding, which was one of the few activities I still enjoyed at that point. A few medication changes later, I became suicidal and tried to strangle myself in the hospital (I had never attempted this at home or at my friend’s home).

It was all a bit of a haze, but I started to cooperate as I did not really have a choice. However, after getting out of hospital about three weeks later, I was determined to get off my medication as soon as possible. I played my role as outpatient extremely well, as this was far better than being an inpatient. I went back to work, took my pills, and said the right things so I could earn “currently in remission” beside the diagnosis on my discharge report and have freedom to choose my own treatment options again.

Six months later I went on a retreat where I got some perspective on things. I slowly weaned myself off medication without any “professional” help (bad decision number three). This was while I was still unhappy in my marriage, unfulfilled in my job and more or less solo parenting as my husband was working full-time and studying. No one identified that these were the real issues underlying my “illness,” and apart from some counseling to talk through things, nothing really changed. I did start running as a way of coping while coming off Mirtazapine, and continued to run regularly. However I was still stuck in occupational imbalance, experiencing a lack of love in my primary relationship, and battling with the labels I had been given while trying to figure out what they actually meant.

My second ‘breakdown’ (or ‘awakening’ as I now like to refer to it) occurred after a year off any medication, just a couple of weeks after I had completed a half marathon for the first time in my life. After being on a high following this achievement, a number of stressful events soon followed. These included not getting enough sleep while caring for my sick children as my husband was away traveling for work, dealing with disappointment after an unsuccessful job interview, not having enough time to take care of myself, and not asking for help from others early enough. I was feeling stuck in a stressful job on a child oncology ward—I desperately wanted to resign but felt I would let others down. Adding the stress of living in earthquake-damaged Christchurch for the past five years, my ‘relapse prevention’ plan failed miserably.

This time I was labeled by the crisis response team as “profoundly psychotic,” thought-disordered and a risk to myself, because I tried to get out of the car when they were taking me to hospital. I was not so lucky as to be admitted voluntarily this time—I got locked up under the mental health act straight away. In hospital I wanted to contest this decision, but I deteriorated rapidly, significantly becoming nihilistic within a day. Within a week I was catatonic and not eating so they decided I needed ECT. After this I apparently slowly started to “recover” and was allowed some home visits after about the second or third treatment, according to my notes.

I don’t remember anything during this time, really, aside from the last treatment. After the third ECT the psychiatrist wanted to use bilateral ECT due to my “significant improvement,” but my husband did not consent to this on my behalf, for which I am truly grateful. As I had apparently gotten better with the unilateral treatment, in hindsight bilateral ECT did not seem justified. After six ECT sessions, I was discharged and was on Mirtazapine, Risperidone and Nitrazepam for sleep.

As an outpatient, I once again wanted to get off the pills as soon as possible, starting with Risperidone if I could. I sort of settled back into my job, but only long enough to resign, which was the best decision that I have made for my well being.

If I had been helped to sort out the imbalances in my life, I probably would have recovered without needing anything else. Instead, the first thing a doctor suggested was a pill. Currently my psychiatrist wants me to stay on an antidepressant for life, but I feel this recommendation has little evidence to back it up, especially now that I live a more balanced life and am gaining confidence in my ability to keep myself well (and to cope with being unwell temporarily).

I have also done an Imago relationship course with my husband; when we use it to communicate, I feel loved and appreciated again. I am involved in my local community and have some voluntary roles, while also enjoying being a full time mum. I have aspirations and dreams about studying health promotion and using both my personal and professional experience to help others regain occupational balance in their lives.

I do regular mindfulness-based meditation now. I’ve also joined a depression support group and am involved with the local peer support organisation. After complaining about the mental health service with regards to the lack of treatment options, I’ve been offered the option of attending a group on “compassionate mind training,” run by a psychologist and social worker. I am hopeful that I have the self-compassion I need to be able to get through any of life’s adversities which may eventuate, including deaths, marriage breakup, or anything else, without ever getting locked up on a psych ward again.

I have grown a lot through my experiences, and would not have made the changes I have made, nor be the person I am today, had my madness not returned a second time. It returned because I did not pay enough attention to the wake-up call the first time around. I now listen to my emotions (which can be “extreme” at times) and can tolerate distress, and take action, without accepting the illness labels given by psychiatrists or GPs who seem to want to prescribe pills to “help” people stay in unhealthy situations. I now cherish my most frightening experiences, as they made me pay attention to what I needed to do to become well. I am aware of my triggers, and my enablers, and of what I need to return to equilibrium. I am OK with who I am and what I have been through. I am sharing my experience in the hope that others who experience distress can find hope and not feel alone.

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Andri Pretorius
Andri Pretorius is an Occupational Therapist who found herself living an unbalanced life, resulting in her becoming a "service user." She is now an advocate for change in the way services are delivered, and is taking a break from her career to focus on repairing her relationships and being a full time mother. Andri's worldview has evolved as a result of her lived experience and will inform her future practice when/if she is ready to return to it.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. This appears that you were suffering some kind of iatrogenic mental illness, brought on by the assortment of drugs you were so enthusiastically prescribed without anyone giving you an HOD test, to see exactly how depressed you were and how appropriate your moods were.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. Enjoy your time with your children, they grow up so quickly, and properly raising children is a very important job. I agree, it does take time to heal from today’s staggeringly pessamistic and scientifically invalid psychiatric defamation, and their torturous poisonings. Plus I believe one should heal oneself, prior to trying to be a healer to others.

    I, too, was hospitalized twice. In my case, both times medically unnecessarily (for a sleep walking / talking issue and for peacefully lying in a park, looking at the clouds), although both times I was suffering through a mild, iatrogenic, drug withdrawal induced “super sensitivity manic psychosis.” My “manic psychoses” took the form of a healing spiritual journey and an awakening to my dreams / subconscious self. It basically functioned as a way for my conscious self to become integrated with my subconscious self, which is kind of like a form of enlightenment, so not a bad thing. Getting off of psych drugs isn’t easy, but it is a good thing, at least it was for me. Best wishes on your healing journey.

  3. Its my own experience that most people are not prepared to deal with psychiatric treatment, especially when the go to the ER for help as you did in an emergency. That you were mistreated is clear, and my guess is that you take too much responsibility for everything that happened.

    Psychiatrist are trained to give medication, that’s what they do. In fact most of the time their treatment interventions are solely designed to send you to medications, because of what they believe to be the cause of your distress. When you don’t respond to your interventions, that escalates them.

    That is why you ended up on ECT. Also ECT is quite lucrative to those that conduct it. In my experience, it has no value at all in treatment, but only makes things worse. But, when it gets worse they increase the frequency, some people get ECT once weekly for years.

    Your statements about what you needed were crystal clear, unfortunately, people rarely have their emotions validated, because once again, that’s not psychiatry’s view of things.

    Its too bad you didn’t have someone to listen, you should have had that.

  4. Yes, modern life can be extremely stressful, and more often than not marriages become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    But hopefully we can all get to the point where we all know that not drugs, not psychiatry, and not psychotherapy are ever the solutions to the challenges we face. We all need to learn to feel our feelings when they come up, and to understand ourselves as fully as possible.

    A psychotherapist is never going to support this, because that would challenge their own denial systems. If this were not true, they would be a legal and political activist, not someone who profits off of another person’s misery.

    Nomadic

  5. Dear Andri I would love to hear some of your insomnia solutions. This is often a trigger point for my son and one we have never really got to grips with. have tried melatonin and relaxation with limited success maybe you could do another post on it ?? thanks for your story take care

  6. Thank you for your story. It is a courageous and useful point of view. For a while now I have felt extremely alienated by the discourse of my friends and peers and the popular online texts shared by them surrounding their thoughts on mental illness. It always seems that nothing can be expressed unless by understanding or figuring out a self diagnosis or getting diagnosed with a mental illness or that they have tried this or that medication for ‘symptoms’ and suggest it, or else there is no talk at all. It causes me to feel unheard and ignored. It always seems like I am the ‘odd’ case if I try to speak looking for help or attention but shy away from using the same language, even contradicting it. That I don’t deserve attention as much as it is given otherwise, that I am undermining the seriousness of mental health. It makes me feel like I am being marked as strange or uncooperative. Two of my friends were involuntarily committed several years ago now and wronged by the coercive methods used including the administration of cocktails of unknown drugs in response to their emotion and confusion. It helps to hear stories like yours.

  7. Hi Andri

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. Truly believe we need to speak up. I am wondering if you could help with my initiative here –
    I am developing a storytelling and mental health platform with the ultimate aim of curating a museum exhibition. Soul relics Museum is a platform for people to read and tell stories of mental health through objects that help them connect or express to a present or past experience they have had with their mental health. The object can be anything personal to something in the system. It’s a unique and creative idea to help people come forward and share with others what mental health problems have been like for them and a safe and constructive way to read of others experiences while being brave enough to share your own. Together, we can create a collective voice in raising awareness and education on mental health!
    All you need to do to help is to take a look (http://soulrelicsmuseum.me ) and write a short personal story (http://soulrelicsmuseum.me/Contribute.html)!
    If you agree with the initiative, I would be super grateful if you could help me promote it (eg. share on social media and contribute to the discussion) as me as an individual can only do so little in unifying people’s voices.
    Let me know if you have any thoughts!

    With Solidarity,
    Van