Sixteen years ago I dusted myself off from several years of entanglement with the mental health system and left it all behind to redefine my life and myself. I had become ensnared in the mid-1990’s when I exposed the beginnings of a consciousness awakening mixed with unprocessed feelings of discovering I was a potential father without partnership with the mother. She told me on the phone after I had moved 5000 miles away for college that actually she really could get pregnant.
School counselors were my entry point to mental health engagement. Prior to the news of the pregnancy I had been a light one or two drink drinker and had smoked cannabis and a nicotine cigarette once each with no further draw to try either again. I had never made more than a couple dollars over minimum wage and was still too early in college with loans hanging over my head to be close to a professional career. It was a pretty simple math equation of financial life game over for me. At least the options I was aware of. The mother offered that she could take care of the child on her own and didn’t need my help. I could participate as much as I chose so the child would get to know who I was. She had a career path ready to take off that more than doubled my wage. I attempted to continue on living in the unknown.
I began to try cannabis more when offered, then LSD and mushrooms out in Hawaii where I was at school. I had been studying biology, chemistry and physics and was left wondering how solid reality and we really were when looked at from atomic building blocks of matter. I changed majors and began to study psychology. Sensation and Perception class focused my contemplation on how much the actual construction of the world takes place in our perception.
The drugs combined with my desire to know how life worked and what made a human broke down all past social conditioning of my individual self. I realized I was God. So was everyone else and I shared with anyone who would listen, but found no one who could understand or navigate the territory. “Loopy Laren,” one friend called me. As my experience was much clearer and more self-evident than the materialistic constructs I was raised with, I was convinced I was onto something. There was little internet to speak of then and no Google to find others who experienced life as I was beginning to, so I voyaged on my own as best I could. I transferred back to school in Maine to face life unfolding there with new eyes.
It took two years for a confirmation from paternity testing that I had a firstborn son. I began to roll cigarettes with a little cannabis at the tip before classes. I still got A’s and B’s, but couldn’t take the edge off the life stress. I hit up the school doctor for a Valium prescription, and then a psychiatrist for more Valium, which meant they insisted on Prozac to go with it at least. Valium felt nice for about two days until it was gone and Prozac left the edges of my mouth cracked from yawning, my body feeling amped up with additional stress, and my penis numbed from sensation so much that ejaculation was near impossible. In that time I went from trying one illicit substance to every one I could find, moving on from psychedelics to opioids and stimulants including heroin and crack cocaine.
Needless to say, rather than process my feelings and adjust my life course according to circumstance, I became too numb to feel and didn’t have a productive discussion of my life experience or emotions around it in mental health settings. I was not surprised. I was told in psychology classes that emotions were a laughed at not serious line of study and though behavior was in vogue for a while, it was now all about genetic predisposition and brain chemical imbalances.
Some people do a beach in Florida on school break, but that was just a little too vanilla for me. I combined psychedelic mushrooms, injectable Ativan, credit cards given so easily to college kids back then and a memorized phone number for United Airlines, which I dialed in the middle of the night. I desired to leave the frozen solid early Maine spring and see the hot oozing volcanic lava in Hawaii. This flowed into a 10-day, $10,000 crack cocaine and random spending spree. Forgetting the sage advice of a friend that what goes up must come down, I interrupted my spree to wander through the Kilauea lava fields in a drowsy drug withdrawal and eventually was met by U.S. Forest Rangers with guns at the ready. After a quick search of me and my belongings, the volcano growled a thunderous roar and low cracking that sounded as if the newly formed earth we were standing on was about to split open and swallow us whole. The rangers scurried back up to the plateau where their helicopter was idling as one yelled out “come quick if you want, or we’re leaving without you.” In a flash I abandoned the cave where I had been sleeping next to an active lava flow and joined them for a helicopter ride up to the station for interrogation. I passed with a small fine and continued on to receive traffic tickets at the airport after smoking crack while driving my rented Mustang pedal to the metal to catch a flight heading back home.
I was picked up in the Los Angeles LAX airport for my first hospitalization. I had kept my sister in the loop of my travel plans in case I went missing and she got concerned. After smoking more crack in the restroom, I was tapped on the shoulder by the police at the gate to board a changed-on-the-whim flight back to Hawaii before returning to Maine. I let the police know I was too busy to talk with them, as I needed to catch a flight. I turned back away from them. They tapped me on the shoulder again and let me know I was going with them. Friendly enough folk to a 6’2” white guy, and they apologetically kept suggesting they were treating me well. In a holding cell, awaiting my baggage, I swallowed a pill bottle full of random psychiatric meds I had traded with someone I met in Hawaii. After all, I didn’t want to pick up a drug charge if they searched me. On the way to the hospital for evaluation the officers didn’t appreciate me moving my cuffed hands from behind my back where it hurt to in front, but I repeatedly did it anyway as it was more comfortable and I could. I did it for the last time at the Harbor UCLA hospital intake area where I heard a staff member yell out “get the Haldol.”
Next thing I remember was being sucked back into my body. The sounds of static and sight of dots formed into beeping electronics, voices, and ceiling tiles. I soon met a psychiatrist near my own young 20’s age. She asked how I managed to get a Valium script and insisted that surely Prozac was the wrong prescription as my diagnosis should now be Bipolar and required different meds. There were many more DSM labels to come. Something about being in a coma reset myself and let me remember my intuition that all along knew no meds or illicit drugs were the answer. I let her know I wasn’t into their psychiatric meds, however the system was not yet done with me. Easy in, not so easy out.
I couldn’t find out how many hospitals I went to over the years as some lost all records of me being there, including Harbor UCLA. I don’t know how many involuntary hospitalizations I endured either. I adjusted to my new role leaving all hope of ever working again or completing my last semester at the university, as I was withdrawn from classes after that hospitalization. I lived on Social Security, Medicare, HUD housing assistance, food stamps, and a payee at the General Assistance office to dole out $30 each week in spending money. I pulled cigarette butts from the ash cans outside the emergency rooms that I frequented to lodge my complaints, and rolled the remaining tobacco into the nastiest cigarettes I ever smoked. I fulfilled the miserable role of permanently and totally disabled and carried out the suicidal thoughts and attempts that went with it. I knew from the get-go that the DSM disorders were just temporary made-up constructs to organize behavior and symptom patterns and no one really knew what the meds did, so I ditched all meds soon after each hospital release.
When I found an exit window to turn away from illicit drugs, I also tried to refuse the psychiatric meds at the treatment center. I was informed a few days after, while in withdrawal from the five years of benzodiazepine use, that I had to choose to take antipsychotics or be transferred to indefinite commitment in a state hospital. I had been up against that kind of threat before and knew from past experience they would just force medicate me to silence ways of thinking they deemed unacceptable. I wish I had been allowed more time to detox my body and mind without threat of a legalized gang attacking me, pulling my pants down, jamming a long pointy object in my ass, and squirting unwanted fluid into me.
I also had gotten jammed up in the awakening process in a sort of metaphysical solipsism or Drishti-Srishti Vada state of experiencing everything and everyone in the world as just a construction of my own consciousness. It had gotten so painfully lonely I was willing to attempt to keep living for a year, but if things didn’t turn around I was done. I pretended the psychiatrist really existed to submit myself and take the antipsychotic Seroquel, and of course several other medications.
After I left the treatment center, I refused a court offer of probation contingent on taking antipsychotics and fortunately my case was dismissed. I did not want legal precedent forcing me to take meds outside a hospital. I had been arrested before going to treatment when I asked to use a phone at a jail to call for help to get a dog out of the mud nearby in the bay, and I thought it inhumane that they said no. Intuitively, I still knew that meds and drugs were not necessary. I let my outpatient psychiatrist know I was going to get off all the meds, but would let him manage the elimination process. He thankfully agreed though it was a much longer three-year timetable than I would have designed.
In the process, a translation of a text written over 1600 years ago, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, almost fell off the library shelf at me. I finally knew that someone else sometime else had awakened in a similar way to me. Everything aligned with my experience except line 16 in section four about objects existing independent from being cognized by any single consciousness (Iyengar, 19931). At least I was not alone in experience and awareness completely.
I utilized my charity membership at the YMCA to manage the lower back pain I had picked up when I became obese from the Seroquel. I had ballooned to 239 pounds from my usual 175 back then. I knew I couldn’t shed the weight until I shed the Seroquel, so I built my core muscles to carry the weight better.
I found my first yoga classes at that Y which evolved into a vinyasa yoga practice. Yoga allowed me to survive the withdrawal process from the psychiatric meds. Association with experienced teachers brought me in touch with the Nondual Indian Vedanta philosophy. That furthered my ability to normalize the part of me that had given rise to society’s perceived need to contain my enthusiasm distorted by unprocessed life events with tranquilizers. Volunteer work in the 12-step fellowship I attended allowed a way to feel of value to society.
As I took my last dose of the last medication in 2002, I started taking a psychopathology class. It was one of the last five to complete my undergraduate work. I was sickened to sit through the pharmaceutical company-funded videos for class. The whole class presented just a single narrow-minded view of broken brains producing mental illness leading naturally to medications being needed to correct the chemistry of the broken brains. I sat on my hands, committed not to speak up but to jump through the hoop. I had been in the same class with the same professor six years earlier and I had been very disruptive, insisting the theory was much less than ideal. A couple of girls followed me home from that class so I knew I had caused an unacceptable disruption.
Convinced the American mental health system was lost beyond repair, upon graduation I pursued the more seasoned philosophies of mind in Yoga and Vedanta with two trips to India. In between I wet my feet with part-time work as a research supervisor. I had ditched the meds successfully, but wanted to slowly build my work capacity along with my willingness to interface with ordinary society. I put off a yoga teaching career, convinced I needed the confidence that I could find healing back to a regular life first.
After the second time living in India, funded in part by my cashed-in IRA from the research job, my sold car, and Social Security monthly payments for living expenses, I dove on into full-time work leaving disability income behind, and sent money to my son’s mother to replace what Social Security had been sending to her. I entered full-time work first in manual labor and then went on to become a welfare worker, but told none of the employers or coworkers of my colorful past. It was enough to deal with internalized stigma without having to be treated different by them.
Eight years later, with a wife and daughter entering school age, a mortgage, and supporting my wife’s schooling, it was time for her to work and me to look beyond proving I could work and into a career where I could be of more benefit. I had begun to do yoga again at work on breaks to bring back my happy that was dimmed by being overworked in an office and sure I saw value in teaching it. Yoga also helped me manage the sometimes torturous disc injuries in my lower back that persisted long after the last dose of Seroquel that had caused them. More, though, after eight years as a welfare worker meeting with countless disabled folks in the office, I was compelled to find some way to enter the mental health counseling field to carry a different perspective and different options for healing. Maybe I could help someone else turn their permanent disability that they often would prefer death over into just a stage to go through in a developmental process. Perhaps I could combine the counseling and yoga disciplines together.
I was made aware of a psychiatric survivor movement last fall, of folks like me who have looked outside the flimsy box that holds the stigmatizing brain disorder model and found ways to live beyond meds, and beyond labels to embrace their full experience of life. At the same time I saw from my counseling coursework that the mental health treatment system has gone from bad to worse. I was so saddened to see on the FDA website that in November an ingestible electronic tracking device was approved to be used in an antipsychotic medication to prove when it is ingested. In the 16 years I have averted my eyes from it, forced medication treatment with antipsychotics even in outpatient settings has grown tremendously along with the expansion of their use on kids. The CATIE study reported that when given a choice, most folks refuse to continue taking antipsychotics within 18 months, which suggests that they do not work for the people who are subjected to taking them (Lieberman et al., 20052). Colton and Manderscheid (20063) indicate that those labeled and treated as having serious mental health conditions can expect to die from 13 to over 30 years earlier than the general population, of mostly natural causes. Are we forcing people to die decades earlier and live with intolerable side effects in the meantime? It’s time to listen to those who suffer and widen the available options for true choice.
Forced treatment is inhumane torture for sure, from my personal experience, but I’m a born and raised in the woods American and believe in freedom of choice to take meds even if it cuts my life short. Freedom requires choice, a mosaic of healing paths to meet the mosaic of cultural expression taking root in the west. I’d like to see what could be done to open up options for others to change their story and allow their life to become worth living for.
- Iyengar, B. K. S. (1993). Light on the yoga sutras of Patanjali. New Delhi, India: HarperCollins. ↩
- Lieberman, J. A., Stroup, T. S., McEvoy, J. P., Swartz, M. S., Rosenheck, R. A., Perkins, D. O., … Hsiao, J. K. (2005). Effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs in patients with chronic schizophrenia. The New England Journal of Medicine 353(12), 1209-1223. ↩
- Colton, C. W., & Manderscheild, R. W. (2006). Congruencies in increased mortality rates, years of potential life lost, and causes of death among public mental health clients in eight states. Preventing Chronic Disease, 3(2), A42. ↩
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.