My life seems to be divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the most defining point in my life — a late spring day in 1994 when a psychiatrist explained to me that as a schizophrenic, I would probably be on medication and under the care of a psychiatrist for the rest of my life.
I was in shock. Schizophrenics were alcoholics or drug addicts or homeless people, I thought. Not someone working as an analyst in the oil and gas industry. Not me: honor roll student for most of my life, and winner of an award for top scholastic achievement as a Finance graduate from the University of Calgary in 1980. I was someone who didn’t take recreational drugs and rarely drank alcohol. I was basically a striving, overachieving daughter of an immigrant.
Yet there was no denying that I had lost touch with reality over the last year and the year previous. Struggling with a troubled marriage and eventual divorce, I had been seeking psychotherapy help for over six years as I struggled with my anxiety and incessant crying spells. There were the private counselling appointments, group therapy sessions and a residential group therapy retreat. Psychotherapists labelled me “codependent,” and although I had no alcohol or drug issues, they obsessively hunted for some sort of addiction problem to label me with. They grew increasingly frustrated with my resistance to being told that I was an abused child and that the treatment I received in my family of origin was the source of all my problems.
I just grew worse and worse despite the various antidepressants that my doctor prescribed. Finally I fell into a psychotic state of long enough duration and severity to be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. In July of the previous year I had become acutely aware that I was being watched. I quickly became convinced that my phone was being wiretapped. I told my brother, and his advice was to go talk to my psychotherapist. I complied. Despite my growing obsession with learning who was responsible for the monitoring of the conversations on my phone, the psychotherapist kept questioning me for details of my childhood and how I interrelated with my parents and siblings.
My behavior grew more bizarre. I started following men in the downtown core who I believed were viewing me suspiciously, and started visiting law offices to see if I recognized any conspirators. I started questioning neighbours travelling on the same bus to work who might be involved. As I shared my concerns with friends and family, their usual alarmed response consisted of “Are you still visiting that nice lady?” However, that psychotherapist was not interested in my distorted thoughts and only wanted to bring the discussion back to my childhood.
Things reached a head when I invited over half a dozen managers at my place of employment (a major oil and gas company) to a private meeting at a local bar because I suspected that they were part of a conspiracy to bring down the company. Although I was in a state of psychosis, I appeared persuasive and coherent. I even had managers inviting other managers to this meeting.
However, my sister decided that the family needed a second opinion and arranged for a meeting with a psychologist, who happened to also be the Director of Crisis Management of a Calgary hospital. He, in turn, selected a psychiatrist to verify his analysis and put me on antipsychotics. This took some time and I was placed on medical leave from work. I was let go from my job shortly after I returned. Somehow, through the daze of the antipsychotics (Orap and then Risperdal), I managed to find a contract position and then a new permanent job. The psychiatrist questioned the original diagnosis and decided that perhaps I was just prone to psychotic episodes under stress.
The psychologist disagreed because of the time span of my psychosis, and kept to the original diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was desperate to come off the medications. It was taking every source of willpower I had to get myself to work and function. I was such a zombie that I was drinking copious amounts of coffee to get myself through the day, and then couldn’t sleep at night because of the caffeine. By then I was under the care of my regular doctor and we decided to follow the recommendation of the psychiatrist and try a drug holiday after a tapering period.
Soon after the drug discontinuation, I walked into a health food store for help with the withdrawal effects. My physical appearance had declined substantially as the whites of my eyes had turned yellow and I had the worst case of acne of my life. The sales clerk pulled half a dozen pill bottles off the shelf and I didn’t know which one to buy. She decided to send me to her own holistic practitioner, an herbalist. She advised me to discover what the root cause of the underlying problem was, and not focus on the obvious symptoms showing on my face.
I didn’t tell the herbalist I had just come off antipsychotics or that I was schizophrenic. Instead, I informed her I wanted to feel better. Within six months I felt better than I had in six years of psychotherapy and antidepressants. I woke up one day and realized that the seemingly endless crying spells had stopped. For the first time since I had started searching for help, I felt I had truly found relief in dealing with my painful emotions.
My herbalist determined an individualized recovery plan based on various physical indicators she would recheck each visit. In the beginning, she focused on detoxifying my liver and improving my sleep quality, my digestion and the health of my elimination system. It may appear like a circuitous, roundabout way of healing mental illness, but the fogginess in my brain lifted. Or perhaps it was due to the lack of medication that my recovery was not impeded? I’m not sure, but I managed to hold onto my oil and gas analyst job while I slowly and surely strengthened my physical health at a subtle level.
Although I no longer had active, outward signs of psychosis, I was now coping with the fact that I had been diagnosed schizophrenic — and that proved to be more difficult to recover from. I was so lonesome and ashamed of whom I was. Every time I read a newspaper article about a mass murderer considered schizophrenic, I would burst into tears wondering if I could ever become that dangerous. Although I felt I had made huge improvements with my herbalist and was free from being on antipsychotics, I still felt like a damaged human being, like something was wrong with me.
I thought I had reached a plateau with the herbalist and interspersed working with an acupuncturist, clearing away energy blockages for an extended time. I also experimented with massage therapy, Qi Gong, and a homeopathic practitioner. Everything had a positive effect and seemed less expensive than the traditional treatments for mental illness I had tried. I grew to truly appreciate and respect the wisdom that all these holistic healers possessed regarding the effects of stress and emotions on the body. They all had their own way to help the natural healing processes of the body to heal itself. Their warmth, directness and practicality also appealed to my personality. However, I was still haunted by the diagnosis of schizophrenia.
I quit my job in 2003 to play the stock market — something I don’t recommend for anyone. However, it gave me an opportunity to focus on my meditation. It wasn’t until I started a serious meditation practice with almost daily group sessions with my teacher that I finally felt like I was healing from the trauma of being diagnosed schizophrenic. I stopped seeing all other holistic practitioners. Meditation was something I could do by myself to help myself as much as I wanted, without the added cost of an external specialist. I loved the feeling of control.
The benefits of meditation are so subtle that there were many times I questioned why I was spending so much time on it. However, every year I kept noticing that Christmas was becoming a happier, calmer and more peaceful time. Over the years I have marvelled about how well I deal with adverse situations compared to earlier times. Before the diagnosis, I had tried so hard to change my personality by reading self-help books, taking self-development courses and attending psychotherapy sessions, and now it was occurring naturally from meditation.
I was shocked and unprepared for the amount of disbelief, opposition, and jealousy that I encountered with my recovery story. I naively thought that everyone would be happy for me that I had recovered without pharmaceutical drugs. However, not only do I have the stigma of once being diagnosed with schizophrenia, I also have the extra stigma of not being on medication. We are taught by the drug companies that any schizophrenic not on medication is dangerous. Well, I believe any schizophrenic on medication is a walking time bomb, because any day they could stop taking their medication — secretly, out of desperation — and all those repressed emotions and thoughts could come exploding out in uncontrollable fury with unpredictable timing. I am not a medical professional, but the release of deeply buried emotions was a common aim with my holistic healers.
I have wanted to go public with my story ever since I started getting so dramatically better via holistic means, but I consistently chickened out. It wasn’t until I hopped on a plane to Boston to meet other psychiatric survivors at the Mad in America Film Festival in 2014 that I found the community and forum to do so. After my return, I enlisted the aid of a holistic healer, someone that had apprenticed with my original herbalist, to help me gather the courage I needed. The publication of this story brings an end to the shame and secrecy of that part of my life.
Yes, over the years, I suffered a lot of emotional pain, but I grew in compassion and wisdom. I am more confident, happier and have more friends than I ever thought imaginable. There is an inner strength in me that I never had when I was younger, and the icing on the cake is that I have been enjoying a relationship with a lovely man for over a year now.
When I was on antipsychotics, I felt disconnected, emotionally numbed, dazed and overwhelmed compared to when I was in a psychotic state and employed. In some respects, I got off easy as I wasn’t on psychiatric drugs for very long. It is those people suffering protracted withdrawal issues that really earn our compassion, or those with brains permanently damaged by prolonged psychiatric drug taking and ECT, who don’t even realize it. Even they are lucky compared to those poor souls that have committed violence towards themselves or others. Not due to their history of mental illness, but due to their history of psychiatric drug use.
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.