It was five days before my birthday and two weeks before my wedding. And there I sat, hugged up against the wall of a psych ward at the far end of the hall from the nurses’ station, arms wrapped around the teddy bear that my fiancée Rob had brought to visiting time. I sat there hugging Mr. Teds, as he’d been named by my fellow psych ward residents, and crying. Everyone was off in the rec room coloring or looking out the one big, locked window that made us feel more confined than anything else about this place, even the fact that the only thing to do was walk up and down the short hallway over and over again. One of the mental health technicians approached me. They were my favorite people because they were the ones who were always there. Not just taking notes about us, writing prescriptions for us, or calling us out every two to three days to talk. No, they were there for a full glorious twelve hours of our presence.
“Would you like something to take?” I didn’t really. Because really, who wouldn’t be crying? Rob, who understood better than anyone and had held my hand as I walked into the ER, was come and gone. And here I was, sitting against the wall of a psych ward hugging a teddy bear with two days before I’d be allowed any more visitors. It felt like there was something innately wrong with the question, but I didn’t have any better questions or answers, so I just said no and he went back to the other end of the hall. Being in the hospital was both alien and comforting, a layer between myself and my normal anxiety, interrupting the noise in my head with novelty and routines.
The good news about the psych ward was that someone finally told me my problems mattered. The problems were easy to hide because they were mostly in my head and whenever I tried to talk about them, no one seemed to think they were that big of a deal. It had been almost a decade ago that my mind had learned to turn my worst fears against me in a sadistic game that was endlessly mesmerizing, keeping me stuck in a loop to prove my haunting doubts wrong. What if I accidentally denied God? What if I didn’t really like him like that and was leading him on? What if I didn’t feel the right way right now? There was always a way things needed to feel and the quest to know if it was right became an all-consuming one. “If you aren’t willing to think about it, you might just be lying to yourself,” the anxiety taunted me. It seemed like a good point and I didn’t want to be inauthentic, so I kept at it.
The bad news about the psych ward was that after spending a week there and immersing myself in the mental health system for months afterward, I got worse instead of better. I’d gone from a high-performing college undergrad to someone who barely managed to hold a part-time job and was forced to sign “safety contracts” as an alternative to going back to a residential facility. You know, “I promise not to kill myself before next week.” I’d never wanted to die, but thinking about liabilities like pills and suicide makes you a liability. And so you talk and think more about pills and suicide, and sign contracts, and the cycle continues.
I hated therapy because I hated being silently stared at like I was supposed to being saying something I wasn’t saying. It seemed like an obviously bad way to deal with anxious people, but they all did it, making me feel — predictably — more anxious. My psychiatrist managed to make most things sound condescending and never seemed to believe I was telling the truth. One day he asked me if I wanted to hurt myself. I said no, because I didn’t. He asked again and again. I said no. At the end of the appointment, I got up to leave and as I walked past him, he asked again. Another time, he asked if I’d ever been molested by someone close to me. I said no, because I hadn’t. He asked again. I cried and he seemed to think maybe that meant I’d been molested after all. I always cried when I got to my car behind his office.
I saw another psychiatrist who was significantly more understanding and who listened as I described a time I’d recently and suddenly switched my direction in life. “But you’d been thinking about it for a long time, right?” It was a loaded question. It had a right answer and assertiveness wasn’t my strong suit, so I nodded. She went on, “Because not thinking about it wouldn’t fit very well with the obsessive-compulsive things.” The truth was, I didn’t fit very well. I was a watercolor splotch painted over the pages of the diagnostic manual, bleeding into disorders I wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with. The parts that didn’t fit were dismissed until they could no longer be ignored. Then the practitioners would scratch their heads and rethink: maybe she actually has bipolar. The search for the perfect fit had never served me before and it became more and more clear that the search for the perfect label wasn’t serving me either. I finally stopped going to therapy, went off the pills I was terrified I wouldn’t be okay without, and never sat crying in a psychiatrist’s parking lot again.
Over the next few years, I did the best I could. The twisted vines that had begun inside my head had found their way out and into my life. My marriage was loving but challenging. Having someone I finally trusted with my feelings meant that I could finally express them. But anxiety is an instinctual force of self-preservation which when expressed, especially with no obvious threat to diffuse it, is equally as terrifying as when confined to our thoughts. The feelings pushed me to a desperate need to escape them, or at least make the intangible terror physical so that it was as real to those around me as it had always been for me. I took too many sleeping pills so I wouldn’t have to face another day at my boring but otherwise benign job. I dropped classes I needed and things I wanted to do because I associated them with the bad feelings. I avoided social situations because I didn’t want to “get weird” in front of people I knew. I thought about and sometimes practiced self-harm. In the moments that my fear reached its fever pitch, I cared only about feeling more safe and okay.
It’s not that I hadn’t grown or taken my life back from my anxiety in big and important ways. I had. I had chosen to be with my husband in spite of the anxiety that said I was guilty for staying. I had walked away from a strict faith to find a spiritual path that would allow me to feel free. I had embraced a worldview that said there were many right choices in life, not one choice I always needed to be in search of. But in its sneaky way, the anxiety had found places where I would keep it safe because I believed I had to in order to keep me safe. I put it in front of everything, including myself and my husband. Day by day, it was easy to think that how I was living was the only way to live. But eventually, I was forced to realize that I was hurting the man I loved and keeping myself from the full life I’d always wanted. It was my reality check, a this-is-bigger-than-you-want-to-believe-it-is moment. The truth dawns more quickly when we’re afraid of losing everything we love, and so the truth was clear as day.
At first, I did what people do. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and booked a session with a therapist I’d never heard of or spoken to. If I was broken, I’d get fixed. If I was sick, I’d try to get well. But this wasn’t the first time I’d been in this place. This wasn’t seven years ago, walking into an ER full of desperate hope. And I realized this wasn’t what I needed.
I was afraid of how it would look. People will think I’m in denial. People will think I’m not trying. But this wasn’t about people. It was about me. So I canceled the hastily-made appointments and sat down with my journal, writing the things that mattered and the things that made sense. I found a non-pathologizing therapist, one who saw emotional distress less as disorders and more as the complex ways we cope with the world around us. He was the first therapist I didn’t have to pretend to agree with, and I had the first good therapy session of my life. He didn’t ask me questions like they weren’t really questions but answers he already knew. And he wouldn’t look at me like I was stupid if I raised my eyebrows at convenient but unscientific explanations about “chemical imbalances.” I wanted real stuff, not easy stuff. I wanted to talk about what was going on in my mind and why, because I’d figured out by now that it had a hell of a lot to do with the anxiety sitting tucked away in the fortress of my mind, blind to all the dusty corners that light could slowly shine into if I’d let it.
I made journaling non-negotiable. I’d found a new level of self-awareness and I wasn’t about to lose it. I stopped drinking coffee because it wasn’t worth setting off my anxiety at such a vulnerable time. I started sitting in nature and running trails. I practiced being present, prioritized sleep, and kept with therapy. Things started to shift. I’m still at the beginning of this journey, but I continue to be excited about the little things I notice and do that I didn’t before. These things are my medicine. In a society that sees psychological problems as disease, these things are often seen as what you do if your problems aren’t really that bad. But to me, these are the things I do to save myself every day.
It was never about dogmatically saying no to meds. It was about not dogmatically saying yes to anything just because I was hurting and wanted to please others. I had always nodded my head and tried to get by, and that’s a sensible way of coping with a system that turns valid concerns into signs of sickness. But nothing could begin to change for me as long as I tried to pass as a good and obedient patient. There is no change without empowerment, without the right to be the expert of our own lives. It wasn’t the radical notion it was treated as, but the simple truth. No one knew me like me. This time around, I accepted the truth about my situation just as I had before. But this time, I didn’t give up the authority to define and make meaning of my own life. I wasn’t silently nodding along. And finally, I was in a position to get somewhere.
I’m lucky. My husband has been nothing but supportive, whether that meant holding my hand as I walked into the ER or forgoing the easy answers that didn’t fit and finding a different path. I’m lucky because not everyone who struggles finds this kind of unconditional support. I’m also lucky because not everyone is able to access knowledgeable, progressive professionals they’re comfortable with. If we’re being honest, many of us are told that asking questions about what we’re experiencing is just another sign we’re sick. We’re dismissed if we say that the meds that are supposed to be making us feel better are making us feel worse, despite a huge body of evidence to support that this is frequently the case. We’re written off if we don’t like the therapy we’re receiving as if it’s obviously our illness that doesn’t like it.
I think it’s time to call bullshit on these dismissive and easy answers to emotional suffering. Because that’s all they are, answers from people who don’t know. From friends, family, and even professionals who don’t have better answers. And unfortunately, these answers lead to individuals being shamed into getting “help” that is often far from informed consent, into reluctant agreement to damaging “therapeutic” relationships, and into unnecessary and unethical force when we’re at our most raw and vulnerable.
I see it, because I’m one of them, and I talk to others who experience it all the time. We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t listen to the questions, if we only hear in them the answers we think we already know. Now, fifteen years after my emotional distress began and seven years after psychiatry first medicalized it, I feel hope. I will forge a path forward for myself, and I will work to make it wider so that one day, all of us can.
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.
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Kalina, thank you for sharing. You concluded your story with an observation that is similar to what I, too, learned the hard way:
“Now, fifteen years after my emotional distress began and seven years after psychiatry first medicalized it, I feel hope.”
I try not to feel hopeless as I see psychiatry continuing to lose its mind and heart in favor of the brain. The medicalization of emotional distress by psychiatry, with the support of government research dollars seems to be accelerating.
The latest newsletter from NIMH appeared in my inbox this morning – with yet another discouraging conclusion about the direction and audacity of psychiatry – it’s all biology. We can soon look forward to more ‘care’ through more jolts and tweaks of electricity to our neural circuits, or arms-length chemical concoctions to ‘rebalance’ our brains.
In contrast to the conclusion of your story, NIMH says this about their goals in psychiatry:
“The [imaging] work is in keeping with NIMH’s efforts to foster research aimed at developing a circuit-based understanding of brain function and psychiatric disorders; Etkin points out that this work shows how the therapeutic effects of psychosocial treatments for brain disorders are, like medication and brain stimulation techniques, grounded in biology.”
But I continue to hope because of the voice of you and others on this site.
When I was an undergraduate studying psychology, we read an awful lot about the “biopsychosocial model,” the model of viewing mental health problems and personalities and such that was supposed to be well-rounded and based on all that we know about these things. That was conventional psychology (not psychiatry, notably) and biology was still only 1/3 of the equation, alongside the psychological and sociological. In practice, even psychologists and therapists often make biology a much larger part of the equation, a fact made worse by the problem that much of what they often consider scientific isn’t evidence-based.
Thank you for reading, and for the comment! I’m glad my piece gave you a little bit of hope for the future. Mad In America often has that effect on me!
I noticed that even my therapist at the s.m.i. clinic I attended kept insisting that the neuroleptic drugs were to re-balance my brain chemistry. And get this… she didn’t even have her master’s degree yet in counseling psychology. All she had was a bachelor’s degree in a non-scientific field of study: English. And here she was telling me about my brain chemistry.
thank you kalina for being so helpful….
from an old retired psychiatrist…
Thank you for reading!
Thanks for sharing your story, Kalina. I totally agree with you, “I think it’s time to call bullshit on these dismissive and easy answers to emotional suffering. Because that’s all they are, answers from people who don’t know. From friends, family, and even professionals who don’t have better answers.”
Absolutely, no one knows you better than you. I found journalling to be helpful, too. And I found my delusions of grandeur filled psychiatrist’s claim that my entire life was a “credible fictional story” to be insane. It’s quite ridiculous for psychiatrists to think they can help other people when they do not even bother to listen to the person’s real life concerns, due to their obsession with finding the right, made up, and scientifically invalid DSM diagnosis.
Glad you once again have hope, and I hope the “mental health industry” will get out of the business of lying to their clients claiming their disorders are “lifelong incurable genetic mental illnesses” caused by “chemical imbalances,” when none of this is true. Best wishes on your healing journey.
Thanks for the comment! What you bring up about the scientific invalidity of diagnoses is one of the things that frustrates me most about trying to change how we think about “mental health” or emotional distress or whatever we call it. It’s just so accepted that these are medical pathologies that it’s hard to even know where to begin to plant the seed that “Hey, we all think this very definitive stuff about “mental illness” and chemical imbalances, but all of us believing it doesn’t make it true.” And that it’s not valid seems fairly accepted among academics, which makes it all the stranger that we have to feel shamed for our supposed quackiness for questioning it. But ah well, it is what it is until we keep bothering everyone about it and it isn’t that way anymore! 😀
Toxic Culture – How Materialism Makes Us, Gabor Mate, MD, youtube.com , ‘Mental illness ‘ is simply a denigrating description, a maddening metaphor, a pejorative psychiatric label for the accumulated stresses and strains of a person’s life beginning at conception such as the different timing of environmental risk factors like toxins, infectious diseases during mom’s pregnancy and / or trauma; physical, mental, emotional, and / or sexual transmitted through one’s family effected by a corporately controlled culture ( allostatic overload, Bruce McEwen, neuroscientist ) that a person Unconsciously Reacts To and is simply given a description of that person’s lived stressful experiential life, a ‘ diagnosis ‘ by an unaware, often compassionless pro. So What? ! To continue to call that person ‘ mentally ill ‘ is to be obtuse, be ignorant of the facts, the reality, the truth of that person’s lived stressful experiential life. Why Capitalism Makes Us Sick? Dr. Gabor Mate, MD, youtube.com ‘Mental illness ‘ is simply a pejorative psychiatric label for those who don’t normalize to an insane world. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, Dr. John Coleman, also on youtube.com. Scientific Mind Control and Widespread Availability of Psychoactive Drugs which can be Addictive with Withdrawal Symptoms and have Harmful Effects. No Wonder We Have Problems. Personally, given an Unscientific Libelous label from the DSM ( Tom Insel, MD, director of NIMH, DSM not valid. ) Then based on that Unscientific Libelous label, pontificating psychiatrists prescribed harmful synthetic chemicals, pharmaceuticals 8 years, 2005-2013 and ECT, electric current through the brain, Spring 2006, 13 times, twice weekly With No Cumlative Healing Effect, making them instruments, tools of torture, provided by pilfering medical / pharmaceutical companies, ancillary staff complicit, obtuse, and silent to the suffering of a vulnerable human being to be Controlled for the MONEY. Psychotropics – Chemical lobotomy. ECT – Electrical lobotomy. Psychiatric Drugs Are More Dangerous Than You Ever Imagined. Peter Breggin MD http://www.breggin.com Pharmacy < Pharmakeia < Sorcery, Drugs, Enchantment. Modern day black magic.
Thanks for telling a great story so effectively! It sounds like the last therapist you saw was the only one who got what was going on. It kind of sounds like your need to go along with what others were suggesting was a big part of your struggle, but “the system” saw that compliance as the ultimate in good patient behavior. Does that sound right? I say this as a person who worked years to overcome my need to keep everyone but me happy. I was very fortunate to strike gold on my first therapist, but this was back in the 80s before the DSM was in place. It was particularly disheartening to hear how much time they spent trying to figure out which DSM box you should be fit into and so little time actually listening to your view of things. It seems they actually did the exact OPPOSITE of what you really needed, and it predictably made things worse.
Thanks again for sharing your story. It’s very important for people in similar situations to see that there really IS a way out, but that finding the right label is not part of the path to a better life.
Thank you! And yes, you’re absolutely right. I always knew assertiveness was an issue for me, but I saw it as sort of a side issue when, in reality, it’s one of the primary issues. It was sort of acknowledged by practitioners, but I’m not sure that any of them ever considered that me being able to stand up to THEM was all that important. Another aspect of my story that I didn’t have time to delve into here but that occurred to me is that I actually had the option to say no to the meds as I sat crying in the hall because I was seen as a “good,” cooperative patient. That is really remarkable because so many people would not have had that choice, and I’ve only realized more recently how terribly unsafe and traumatic it would be to actually be in crisis under the care of mental health services.
Thank you for reading and for the thoughtful comment!
Thank you for sharing your story. I too tried to comply with the psychiatrists, all three of whom did talk therapy (and at times forced drugs and hurled diagnoses), and it was disastrous for me. I too cried rivers after every session, ‘cos I’d got it wrong yet again, and I too took to journaling and exercise. After 12 years of what in retrospect amounts to significant twice weekly emotional abuse (called therapy) by those psychiatrists, 18 months ago I walked away with far more serious difficulties than when that particular journey began.
Journalling and exercise are now my mainstays too, but there’s no way I’ll go near another professional “helper”. I am still recovering from the overwhelming destructiveness of the “mental health” industry – it may take a very long time before I can trust another human being again…I need to regain trust in and knowledge of myself first as that was what they attacked most viciously. However, I am now beginning to have glimmers of hope that life can be different, better.
Labelling people, and shaming them into accepting treatments that are inappropriate, uninformed, cruel and demeaning is not helpful, and the sooner our society makes psychiatry responsible for the harms it perpetrates by doing this, the sooner people will be free to pursue the paths that actually heal, rather than harm.
Thank you again for sharing your story – I am sure it will help many others too.
Thank you for reading, and I’m glad you are finding your way to healing as well! I totally understand where you’re coming from when you talk about the mental health industry. I’ve always felt a distinct power differential between practitioner and client that seems to be built into the system, and that’s one reason I’m hesitant about trying to bring about reform by entering those kinds of professions. How can we ever begin to heal if we’re made more powerless by the system intended to “help” us, the system in which we’re blamed if we find our own answers and they don’t match the ones we were told? I’m sorry you had to go through so much help that wasn’t helping, but I’m glad for the journey you’re on now. I’m rooting for all of us.
Good for you. Mainstream psychiatry REALLY doesn’t want anyone to feel better. Quacks dare to look at your progress and equate your “non-compliance” with your “illness”. THAT’S sick! Under ANY circumstances, it is grossly entitled and possessive to demand eternal and non-negotiable control over someone else’s life. But, it’s a far increased violation, when it’s perpetrated by a professional on a person who came to them for help. Enjoy your liberation from mainstream psychiatry, and always remember why you had to reject it.
Thank you so much! And spot-on about non-compliance. I’m afraid that not having the same insights they’re having about you isn’t quite the same as lacking insight. I think that as movements like those represented by Mad In America gain traction, it will be easier for us to remember why we left conventional psychiatry and to never feel so desperate and out-of-options that we return against our own better judgment.
I’m a firm believer in journaling, too.
Not sure what your specific, religious upbringing was from your vague references, but I hope you are able to untangle things without abandoning the good things. One of my wife’s ‘alters’ has a ministry online of helping former homeschoolers who were raised in strict religious/family settings, and trying to help them move on. There’s a lot of ugly stuff done in the name of religion, and yet there’s also a lot of good things and it’s a hard process to throw out the ugly and not lose the good at the same time.
Thank you for the comment! I actually grew up in the Methodist church for 16 years and then got into more “evangelical” movements for a few years after that. The decision to leave was initially an emotional one, but as I explored other perspectives, I knew that going back didn’t rationally make sense for me. I’ve now identified as religiously pagan for about 5 years and am very happy with where I’m at.
Kalina, this is a most heartfelt and beautifully communicated story.
I’d like to hear it read aloud – by you. I wonder if you can podcast it? I have friends in distress who could hear your story and benefit – but they cannot read very well. (withdrawal).
Let us know if you do! (link on this page: “now available as podcast”)
Your journalling shows in your writing. Those things which I have felt, too – but could never sort the threads of the feeling out enough to say – like you did :
watercolor splash across the DM and
he listened to me without knowing the answer (like the others had)
This is a beautiful journey, with all the hallmarks of someone who will get better (and better!) and help the rest of us, too.
Kalina, congratulations on recovering! I started “losing it” at age nine. Like you, religious doubts (could God love a wicked girl like me?) kept plaguing me. In my teens they put me on drugs. This just made it harder to resolve my crisis of faith.
You are very perceptive!
Thank you for sharing your story.