Editor’s note: for personal and professional reasons the author has chosen to use an abbreviated version of his name.
It was a two-weekend, sixty-hour intensive designed to improve the quality of one’s life—a “consciousness raising course,” known as “The EST Training.” It seemed like everyone was doing it: everyday people, men and women of all ages, many of my friends—celebs, politicians, professionals. It was the thing to do if you wanted to merge onto the expressway to improve the quality of your life.
The year was 1981 and EST had reached its peak. Werner Erhard, the creator and frontman, was a 40ish charismatic man, very suave, rugged, influential and handsome.
A lot of my New York City cronies who graduated from the two-weekend, seventeen hour per day intensive were urging me to take the course. They said it was “mind-blowing” and transformative. “It will radically change your life” is what I constantly heard from them. “It will make it so your life will become easier, just in the process of living it,” was Werner’s mantra.
Beyond that, the seminar was something that really couldn’t be explained, much like taking a ride on a roller coaster can’t be explained. It’s something that had to be experienced.
January 1981, at the age of 24, I signed up and attended the course. And boy was it intense. And powerful. Very powerful. I sat in a large room for the most mind-provoking hours of my life, joined with over 200 other souls. And you only break for meals and the bathroom.
You got to look at yourself up close, and break through emotional and behavioral barriers. You got to hear other people’s stories and realize that we’re all the same. We all have drama. We all have pain. We all hide. We all buy into our warped version of our life stories.
It was a lot of time to be introspective. A lot of time to reach a sort of altered state of consciousness. And toward the end of the last day, I began to feel high, really high. Not a drug high—sort of a freeing feeling. Like I was lifted from all worry and concern. I felt godlike, revved up.
For the next two months, I was invincible. Slept for an hour and a half a night, maybe. At every party I attended (and there were many) I was the center of attention, telling jokes, clowning around. At one party, I noticed a few guys flirting with a very attractive woman. I interrupted, walked right up to her and said: “You’re going to be my girlfriend.” She looked at me as if I was nuts, and at the same time she seemed intrigued by my nerve. Her name was Lisa, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. We left the party and were inseparable for the next two months.
Just a Hop to the Hospital
Sitting alone in her nurse’s dorm room, a short distance from the hospital, I sat waiting for Lisa to return after her shift. It was early evening. I put a Jackson Browne album on her stereo, turned the volume to the max. I went to her kitchen, pulled out plates from the cupboard and started tossing them like Frisbees. I was having a blast watching them smash into pieces as they hit the walls. Then I tossed glasses like baseballs, jacked up the music and laughed hysterically.
According to psychiatrists, you could say I was psychotic. According to a Shaman, they’d say it was something altogether different but nothing they would deem abnormal.
Unfortunately for me, there was no Shaman or anyone who really understood what was going on with me to greet me.
Instead, this incredibly intrusive (to say the least) event got the attention of every nurse living on the floor. Suddenly there was a loud banging on the door. Keys rattled, the door opened, and what looked like fifty women (nurses) peered into the room with their collective jaws dropped to the floor. Then I saw Lisa machete her way through the crowd, accompanied by four security guards.
Lisa and the guards escorted me to the hospital emergency room, just an alleyway away from the dorm. I was incorrigible, resisting, running around. Eventually the guards and doctors caught up with me, put me in a straitjacket and sedated me. I felt so claustrophobic that I screamed, so they sedated me more. I was petrified and stupefied.
A Magical Misery Tour
I woke up the next morning in a hospital room. My family was there. A man in a white coat walked into the room as my mother and sisters sat sobbing, and then I heard that haunting label for the first time as the doctor turned to my family and uttered with certainty: “Your son is manic depressive.” They accepted this diagnosis to be absolute fact. Who were they to argue? I had just wigged out like a crazy man! It couldn’t have been massive stress release from the trauma of years of physical and verbal abuse from my alcoholic father. It couldn’t have been a “spiritual experience.”
No, this was Dr. God, and I was labeled for life: it became part of my identity.
When I Thought it was Cool to be Bipolar
And as I researched and learned that many high profile successful people were supposedly bipolar—Jean Claude Van Damme, Carrie Fisher, Linda Hamilton, the iconic painter Van Gogh, Ludwig von Beethoven—I thought: wow, it’s really cool to be bipolar! Yes, for a long while I thought it was in vogue to be bipolar, a way to impress my dates. “By the way, I have something sexy-cool to tell you, I’m bipolar.” Some women were intrigued. Some never returned my calls. Still, many agreed with my assessment that if so many famous artist types had it too, it must be cool. I must be super creative. So I popped my lithium, and everything was, well, cool. “I’m bipolar, and I rock.”
I Was Living in a Dreamworld
I was living a lie. I hadn’t been given the choice of the blue or the red pill. I just naively thought the white pill was the thing to do.
Over the next thirty years, I would have obsessive dreams in the wee hours of the morning—like cortisol attacks, the anxiety would rush in, and I would leap out of bed as if someone had stabbed me in the butt with a sizzling hot branding iron. I would call my pharmacologist, who was on-call, and you could tell I just woke him up from deep sleep. He would exclaim, without a milligram of compassion, “JUST TAKE A DAMN RISPERDAL.”
I complied. Never thought that the lithium could be the culprit behind these frequent (two to three times per week) painful, anxiety-provoking awakenings.
I was an advertising copywriter by profession, and I loved it. I particularly loved presenting my concepts to clients. That is, until one day in 1984 when I was presenting the storyboard for a toy commercial, “the cat really got my tongue,” and I sounded like the room temperature had reached down to thirty below zero. “Ca-ca-ca-ca-da-da,” I stammered. My art director partner immediately stepped in and finished the presentation. I was mortified.
Leaving the room, I noticed my hand shaking as I turned the doorknob. These symptoms would haunt me for years to come. I would be deathly afraid to present to clients, even to my boss. This dynamic, gutsy adman turned into a scared little boy. For thirty years, yes thirty years, I tried to brave presentations by popping Klonopin (which my psychiatrist prescribed), as well as beta blockers, beer, wine, anything that would calm me down enough to present my work.
Not to mention the periods of depression I went through over the years, which would last many months at a time. My psychiatrist (whom I stayed with until I was 50 years old; I’m now 59) told me, “You just need therapy.” So I went through a lot of therapy, mostly cognitive, Erickson Hypnosis, other modalities. It still didn’t stop the depression.
The Alarm Clock Finally Goes Off
I finally decided it was time to switch doctors and go to another psychiatrist for a “cocktail.” I figured the more, the better. That’s what I had been told by this new doctor, that more meds would make me feel better, more grounded. And I did feel better, sort of, for about nine months. I felt high all the time. Never in a bad mood, the world was wonderful. But giving presentations never got better. After all these years, I still needed something, anything to calm me down for presentations—my biggest nightmare.
Then my emotions began to go in the other direction. I was scared, depressed, and afraid to go to work. My doctor tinkered with my cocktail, and I felt worse. Went back to see him days later, more tinkering, felt even worse. After I went back for a third time for a third session, my doctor wanted to put me on even more meds. I refused and left his office.
That’s when the bells went off. I realized it wasn’t me with all these problems. It was the drugs. I was a drug addict. I should have never been on this stuff. Or maybe I should have been on them for just a few months. Instead it’s been a life of hell.
September of 2013, I tried going off the drugs on my own—went down a little too fast and had a bad breakdown.
Then I bounced from psychiatrist to psychiatrist (10 to be exact) for several years, trying to get help. All to no avail. Finally, last year I actually found one who put me on a regimen of micronutrients. I’ve slowly been reducing my current cocktail with the aid of specific healing modalities—Reiki, cranial sacral therapy, transcendental meditation, EFT, and social therapy.
All of these modalities have really helped me to process and heal the unacknowledged traumas that caused my breakdown in the first place. Collectively, they’ve been the catalysts helping me to slowly and steadily regulate my nervous system—habitually incorporating transcendental meditation to minimize troubling thoughts, using Reiki to connect with cosmic energy to restore my body to its authentic state, working with a master practitioner at correcting and redirecting the flow of my body’s cranial fluids, and participating in a social therapy group where everyone is committed to helping each other grow and develop more fulfilling lives.
All told, for more than a year, I’ve been on a path that has allowed me to purge the severe, emotionally encrusted pain put there by the paternal tantrums I was subjected to early on.
Finally, and thankfully, I’m moving in the right direction, rescuing myself from the pernicious grip of psychotropic drugs. It’s been exceptionally challenging, dealing with the adverse physiological reactions my body’s been going through.
Waking up may be the toughest thing to do. Ultimately, the way I see it, it’s the only thing to do.
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.