My name is Sandra. I aspire to hopes and dreams just like everybody else. I’m a hardworking woman, taking great pride in my manual labor jobs that keep me physically fit. Because of my love for the great outdoors, my dream is to eventually work in the Parks and Recreation Department in some capacity. I highly value my integrity, honesty and creativity. I am friendly, social and active. I’m fun-loving, inheriting my father’s dry sense of humor, sense of adventure and gift of gab. I inherited my mother’s love of nature, independence and self-sufficiency. I strive to fulfill my American Dream: cherishing my children beyond words, looking forward to my life with them, them with me, settling down with a husband somewhere in a small country home with a few horses, flower beds, a vegetable garden and cats galore. I do not expect nor want anything fancy. My goal is to live a very simple life. I’m ambitious, goal driven and highly motivated, making sure I accomplish my dreams.
But, that was my previous life.
That was before my dreams were shattered by psychiatric labels and drugs. The mental health system displaced me from my normal life, forcing me to live on the other side of the tracks, pushing me to the fringes of society.
Over thirty-five years ago, at the age of 22, my local community mental healthcare system gave me a life sentence. By then, I’d been living with PTSD for years following two violent rapes. The first rape was at knifepoint when I was 13 years old, the other at 19 when I was kidnapped and taken to a cemetery for the night by two unknown men. Both experiences were terrifying. I was also trying to adjust to living with my new abusive, alcoholic husband that I did love. So, I sought out the guidance of a psychiatrist, in whom I put my utmost trust. Instead of the help I anticipated, the psychiatrist labeled me with bipolar disorder, telling me that I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. I quickly found out that the minute you sit down in the chair in a mental health professional’s office, you’re no longer seen as a person. The mental health system is incapable of seeing past the solid wall of your current label. Their only cure is drugs.
Little did I know that the drugs I was prescribed during that visit would change the entire course of my life. Due to the severe side effects, adverse effects and continuous withdrawal symptoms I experienced from at least 60 different medications and rounds of ECT doctors used to treat the ‘diseased’ mind they said I had, for decades, my entire life was stuck in the revolving door of psychiatric hospitals, intensive care units, police stations, jails, burn units, alcohol treatment centers and AA meetings. My twin sister was the only relative that ever helped me. She often flew to Michigan from Florida to help me care for my five-acre property after I became too disabled to do it myself, when I had always taken great pride in doing it myself before. Only rarely did I ever experience true peace.
During the third decade of being stuck in that unrelenting revolving door of hell, Klonopin was introduced into the mix after I developed insomnia due to the Ritalin prescribed to treat my drug-induced depressions. What I didn’t know, nor would any doctor tell me, was that my life was about to go from bad to worse. That I would be in for the fight of my life. I’d already survived two intentional drug-induced comas trying to escape my endless suffering. Into my second year of taking Klonopin, my anxiety actually increased until panic attacks set in and I was no longer able to leave my house. I developed agoraphobia, which I had never experienced before. My crippling depressions, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts and behavior intensified. I developed sinus problems, watery diarrhea, urinary problems and intense migraines, and I increased my alcohol intake to combat the side effects until I became a full-blown raging, violent alcoholic. Over these years, I was no longer a wife to my husband, but had become his patient. This eventually destroyed my eighteen-year marriage; he finally walked out and never looked back. Every day, I hated God for keeping me alive.
After eight years of suffering on my medications, along with my recent overdose, in which I emptied yet another bottle of Klonopin in combination with a fifth of vodka in an attempt to escape from the living hellish nightmare I found myself in, I decided that enough was enough. The mental health system had never addressed my suicide attempts; they just kept prescribing the drugs to do it with. So, I thought I would take things into my own hands.
I’d been attending classes at my community mental health center for exactly a year, so I knew my mental health-care workers well and had good rapport with them all. They came to my tidy, comfortable, country home weekly to refill my medication box, where we often sat at my kitchen table and chatted. It was here where my drug and alcohol addictions specialist informed me it should be “just fine” to stop taking my Klonopin if I wanted to do so, without mentioning one single withdrawal symptom I might experience. So, with his permission in addition to the blessings of my DBT teacher and my therapist, I in fact did just that. I quit my Klonopin cold turkey, and I was proud of myself for making what I believed was a positive life-changing decision to end my addiction to this drug.
Within two weeks, bizarre symptoms appeared. My anxiety levels became so high I could no longer drive. The only way I can describe this is that time and space themselves became too difficult. Severe paranoia set in, and I felt like I was high on acid. Every window in my house was covered with blankets due to my light sensitivity. I couldn’t eat, bathe or care for myself in any sense of the word. I was sweating profusely and had chills at the same time, and I experienced pounding migraines so painful it felt like my head was in a vise twenty-four hours a day. Confusion, hallucinations, vivid nightmares, delusions, obsessive/compulsive thinking and depersonalization set in. I couldn’t walk without bouncing off the walls. Panic attacks and fear of dying haunted my every waking moment.
My mind had become the enemy. I could not process any incoming information of any kind anymore. Not TV, radio or books. Therefore, I lived in torturous silence. I hid in my bedroom under the covers, hallucinating that my skin was crawling. All I could do was sit and cry. I prayed for a gun to kill myself with every second of every minute of every hour of every day until they melted into weeks.
I had no idea why I was losing my mind, going insane, and no one would tell me. I saw my workers every week, who blamed me for my symptoms: “It’s your Bipolar resurfacing,” “It’s because you’re an alcoholic,” “It’s your Borderline Personality Disorder,” “It’s because you’re not trying hard enough to be well.” Blame the patient. Always, at all costs — blame the patient.
As I became more and more psychotic, I lost my sense of what time was. It didn’t exist in my world. I no longer knew that a piece of paper was a piece of paper. I no longer knew how to empty an ashtray, eat or drink water. I no longer knew how to talk. I lost my ability to do things most people take for granted. My ongoing seizures weren’t even the worst part; my terror-stricken psychosis was. It felt as if time and space had begun crumbling in on itself, with no way out of this nightmare. I found myself living in utter panic and endless pain, alone.
I was refused access to my psychiatrist not once, but twice, by my therapist. She said, “Sandy, you have to wait until your next appointment three weeks away.” I informed her, “I’m not going to last that long.” And I didn’t. I ended up in the psychiatric hospital shortly thereafter, after repeatedly stabbing myself in the leg so I could feel something, anything, other than the mental torture I was going through at home alone.
Upon release from the psychiatric hospital, my withdrawal symptoms resumed full force. I went five straight days with no sleep whatsoever, after which my body began shaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t make it stop. Catatonic, I somehow drove myself to the emergency room. I now know what utter insanity feels like, and I shouldn’t. Not one worker on my team believed a single word I told them as my life slowly descended into pure hell. Not then, during or after. Especially my therapist. Her words to me were, “Sandy, you wouldn’t have experienced what you did if you wouldn’t have taken all your Klonopin in the first place.” I filed a Recipients Rights case against them for “neglect of care” for not informing me of the dangers of a cold-turkey benzodiazepine withdrawal after I’d been on it for a decade and beyond. They blatantly lied in their defense, and my case was denied, silencing me further. I was also blocked from receiving any more services from my community mental health center. In other words, the door was slammed in my face.
Eight months following my Klonopin withdrawal, I endured a Trazodone, Effexor and lithium cold-turkey withdrawal, actually telling myself if I could live through a benzodiazepine withdrawal, then how hard could it be coming off these? Keep in mind, mental health workers rarely ever inform patients of withdrawal symptoms they may experience, and they certainly did not inform me.
This withdrawal took me to new levels of utter madness for five long, excruciating months. This time I became not only suicidal but extremely homicidal as well. Every day, for months, I endured wild, unrelenting mood swings, as well as brain zaps, severe insomnia, extreme anxiety and a deep emotional pain causing uncontrollable crying, to list only a few symptoms. I experienced every mental disorder listed in the DSM, and an anger, violence and rage that I never knew before. I was now on a mission to kill everyone inside that mental health building, and I not only knew I would die in the process, but it was expected. My psychotic mind told me I was fine with that. I sought out help everywhere I could to no avail.
I was so convinced I would carry out my murderous rampage that I finally enrolled in a trauma program at a psychiatric hospital in Texas. Considering what I’d been through for the past year with withdrawals and decades of taking neurotoxic medications, I begged them to treat me without using drugs, but they didn’t see it that way. After I refused multiple drugs, the psychiatrist said, “Sandy, if you refuse one more medication, we’re going to start injecting them.” Even though I finally complied, my status went from “voluntary” admittance to “non-voluntary.” I fought as hard as I could to get out. I now knew that there wasn’t one single person on the face of this planet who was going to help me.
I eventually went home from that psychiatric hospital on my multiple “court-ordered” medications, trying to withdraw again. While sitting outside on my deck one warm summer night, I left one of my gas burners on my stove going, again. I’d done this repeatedly since my Klonopin withdrawal due to severe, permanent cognitive impairment resulting from the psychiatric drugs and withdrawal. My house burned to the ground, leaving me homeless for eight months. Who came to my aid? No one. Psychiatry certainly didn’t. Unlike me, none of my mental health professionals ever had give up their warm houses, their loved ones, their very lives, their own sanity. The Hippocratic Oath — “First Do No Harm” — are powerful words. It’s unfortunate they don’t apply to psychiatry.
In the aftermath of the fire, I went on a mission to find out exactly why I had been so sick for so long by researching psychiatric drugs and the entire mental healthcare field, only to discover that every one of my “mental health problems” was drug-induced. I accumulated over 700 pages of scientific documentation proving this. As I began digging into every corner of the world for information, the truth started unfolding before my eyes. I felt like I had opened Pandora’s Box with no end in sight of the negative, very serious, adverse reactions and often deadly consequences of withdrawal, including long-term permanent brain impairment caused by my psychiatric drugs. I was absolutely shocked by this information, which is too often kept secret from the public.
I began listening to ethical, highly accredited psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, pediatricians, scientists and nurses who were exposing the truth about mental illness and the often deadly consequences of taking medicine to treat it. I communicated via email with countless other sufferers (psychiatric patients) from every corner of the world. I read hundreds of personal stories as they described their hell and listened to how they survived while tapering off their cocktail of toxic medications. My heart goes out to each and every one of them, as it was their stories that helped me begin my process of healing and successful withdrawal and eventually attain recovery. I could not have done this without the knowledge, dedication and compassion of Dr. Breggin, Robert Whitaker, Paula J. Caplan, James Davies, Dr. David Healy and Peter C. Gotzsche, and so many others advocating on our behalf. Their listening and believing granted me permission to heal, something I very much needed.
I no longer harbor any ill will toward my community mental health center or any worker there. Today, I pray for them. I pray that one day they will implement a psychiatric drug withdrawal program to allow patients a safe way to taper from their drugs, if that’s what they choose to do, although I highly doubt I will ever see this in my lifetime.
While serving my life sentence, my American dream was never fulfilled: I’ve never owned a credit card, bought a shiny new car, owned my own home. I still live on $11,000 of disability payments a year. I never gained a college education, held a professional title or received any prestigious awards, yet I couldn’t be any more happy, content and serene. When the tumultuous waters calmed, when my emotions found their rightful place in my brain, I moved back across the tracks to my rightful place, where there are no labels, psychiatric drugs, pain or misery. Where peace and tranquility reside. Every single day the spirit of my soul feels itself — its true authentic self. This is a true gift. I no longer sacrifice my soul to anyone for any reason. When I was so sick for so long from taking my medicine, I rarely ever smiled. It’s hard to smile through endless tears. But what I’ve discovered since I’ve healed from my withdrawals is that when we give a smile, we get a smile, and this, my friend, is something money just can’t buy.
I will close with a poem I wrote after psychiatry stole from me everything it could steal.
God’s Little Gifts
This mask that I wear, it hides me so very well,
Harboring pain inside that no one can tell.
If it weren’t for this, I would certainly die,
How many times have I tried suicide.
Only, I have to reveal, what I’ve hidden so well,
I have to come out
I have to tell.
They say to feel human, wholesome inside,
Expel your secrets —
Do it with pride.
Let go of the guilt, overwhelming shame,
Self-hatred, self-pity —
Be proud of your name.
Embrace God’s Hand—embrace His help
And never forget to
Be Gracious, Have Patience,
As life always Shifts—
Always be Thankful, They’re just
God’s little Gifts…
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.