My mental health story begins in 1993. I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school who had no idea what “mental health” was. All I knew was that something felt off inside, and I did not feel comfortable in my own skin. Lo and behold, a dark, relentless, persistent, sinking feeling crept in, which has followed me for almost 26 years. The symptoms of chronic sad days, which is not foreign to many other individuals, were hijacked by a group of glib people with letters after their name. They created a mental health manifesto, calling it the DSM, and I believe it was created in order to capitalize financially on affliction, by labeling a very common feeling of trying to adjust to change, 296.30, major depression, which is merely a billing code — one that almost made me a lifelong consumer of a very sinister, poisonous mental health industry.
To make a long story short, high school was rough. I’d cry a lot and especially at the sight of other students walking with one another, laughing, connecting, making plans for the weekend, and there I was alone, feeling left out. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I had a very difficult time connecting and now believe it stemmed from not fitting in at home either. My parents struggled with their own mental health. Because of their personal struggles with their own demons, I believe I came up very empty handed in learning the tools, skills, strategies, and social savviness to navigate and find solutions to life’s inevitable challenges. This made me easy prey to be condemned as “mentally ill.” Being socially awkward, uncomfortable, curious, intense, confused, sad, and lonely are not symptoms to medicate with poison nor are they prerequisites to be institutionalized, although that part did not come until a while later.
When I hear about the nightmare stories of children and teens being medicated for mental health reasons and sedated for “inappropriate” behavior, I know that I dodged a bullet because, thankfully, that isn’t part of my story. However, I do remember seeing a counselor during my sophomore year for a very brief duration, who was kind and attentive, but medication was never part of my treatment. I count myself lucky because I think my life would have been much harder for me if I was being poisoned by medication so early in my brain development. I came to know the drug Zoloft in 2001 when I was in college. Like I said, that heavy feeling of not being good enough was around me constantly. I was encouraged to “talk with someone” about the way I was feeling. I followed the instructions by making an appointment with a counselor because I was trained to believe that professionals know more about my mind, body and spirit than I do. After the first session with the counselor, I was put on 50 mg of Zoloft. I remember about two weeks into taking it, I not only stopped crying, I couldn’t cry. That sticks out like a sore thumb, and at the time, I found it strange. Even though I lacked the awareness I have today around this, I knew medications weren’t for me. I wasn’t on Zoloft very long; however, my life changed forever, due to many years of being a test patient to see if different pills would work for my “symptoms” of sadness.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in 2002, I white knuckled it for four years without any help, but still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I wasn’t enough. In 2006, I tried going back to school and ended up becoming overwhelmed again, and I began frequenting the mental health department, where I started to see another therapist who wanted to start me on Prozac. I remember going home and researching Prozac articles to read about the horror and success stories in an effort to make a sound decision about whether or not go on it. I found one that really resonated with me that was against taking it due to the research on the placebo effect and showing how detrimental it is in the long term to the body and mind. I placed it in the therapist’s box and we discussed it during the next session. I remember him reporting that he read it but that it really didn’t have an effect on him because he still encouraged me to take it. Basically, he said these medications are more helpful than harmful, and that I might need to be on it for the rest of my life, “but, everyone is different.” Truth is, I started it and discontinued it after a year or so, still never feeling quite right about taking medication like that.
After a couple of years spinning my wheels on what career path to choose, working odd jobs here and there, and beginning a long, painstaking road of failed relationships that began passionately and ended just as fast and fervently, I attempted to end my life in January 2008. It was right after Heath Ledger took his own life. Hearing the news planted the seed and I found myself envious that he was able to take his life so successfully. During this time, I somehow ended up on three different types of medications (Zoloft, Trazodone, and Seroquel). In a rush to leave this world, I gulped all of them down and hoped I did not wake up. Well, I did wake up and the details are foggy, but I was then hospitalized, and my life changed. During this period, I discovered a gem. The “aha” moment came to me when a particular social worker in the facility asked me how I was doing and we ended up talking about the work he did. I was immediately intrigued as if hope had just knocked on my door, giving me something else to think about rather than my fantasy to end my life. I was impressed, and when I discharged, I did feel optimistic about using my struggle to help others. However, I was still desperate, and the brain chemist within had a very difficult time getting my mind back to stability and balance after taking all those pills as I was still fixated on how to end my life. Two months later, I ended up swallowing a Costco sized bottle of Tylenol, since the other pills hadn’t worked.
Well, that didn’t work either and I found myself at a different psychiatric hospital with a list of diagnoses, ranging from Bipolar I, to Borderline Personality disorder, to Generalized Anxiety and Dysthymia. I began believing I was a lost cause and was very scared, but still, in the back of my mind, the inner voice that was still alive was nudging me to wake up to my divinity. I knew I could heal on my own. It was during that second hospitalization that I allowed myself to engage with others who were also struggling. Not only that, but I also went to groups on how to cope with depression, tools to manage anxiety, anger management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and partook in art classes, all the while taking note of the mental health workers leading these groups. There it was again, that gem, the light, the way out of this mess, and it was through discovering my purpose in going through all this and realizing that nothing that I was going through was accidental; it was all part of my path. I left the hospital believing that I was to become a beacon of light for others by intertwining my lived experience with mental health and my newly found passion to become a social worker. I came to learn that many people called this kind of a person “The Wounded Healer” and they are the best kind of professional in the mental health field because they are relatable and understand the conundrum one faces as they try to make sense of their mental health.
I decided in 2008 after the second suicide attempt to never go back on any medications, as the nudge within to go a different route was very clear to me. After the second hospitalization, I moved home with my parents and struggled a lot. All those feelings of inadequacy, which had plagued me for years, reared their ugly heads again. I still had health insurance from my job at the time, so I began an intensive outpatient program as I took some time off from work. I was encouraged to try medications again, from well-meaning but programed mental health professionals, but I continued to refuse. Per usual, the drug-based paradigm was putting the pressure on me, as it made me feel that I could not do it on my own. Because I wouldn’t go on medications, the therapist from the program made me verbally commit every day before I left to doing no harm to myself and had me sign a contract to hopefully keep me safe. I persisted medication free and graduated from the program feeling empowered, renewed, and a bit more equipped to handle the dark night of my soul and life’s inevitable setbacks.
Fast forward to January 2009, I began getting my feet wet in the field of social work and started a master’s degree program in the field of Mental Health Rehabilitation. I knew change was always difficult for me, but the challenges hit me like a ton of bricks and within the first week of school, I completely stopped sleeping and for four weeks I tried to beat it and became very paranoid due to the lack of sleep. My mind raced with worst case scenarios and fears, and sadly I became so frantic, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist who convinced me to go on an antidepressant called Remeron, which he reported, “also helped with sleep.” I began taking it right away and initially, albeit due to the placebo effect and because I was convinced by the doctor that I would be able to get off of it at any time, I began sleeping right away. Little did the psychiatrist know about the hellish experience I was going to encounter years later, while trying to get off of it, or maybe he did know the truth, but prescribed it anyway. The Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm does not apply in the mental health field.
During the two years while earning my degree, I was still experiencing relational struggles with others and internal problems accepting who I was and who I wasn’t. However, I began working as a substance abuse counselor at a detox facility and was so excited, because I was finally in the field ready to share my personal experience and the knowledge learned in school, so I could help others. I was in complete shock during the first few weeks on the job, as I came face to face with the reality that legal drugs, such as benzos, antidepressants, pain killers, etc., were the most difficult for individuals to withdraw from. This reality was so perplexing to me, because I had no idea these drugs were so addicting and excruciating to discontinue. I was under the illusion that I was taking a magic pill of my very own, because I was sleeping, even though I had used many other varieties of pills to take my life and had also vowed to never get on another one again.
I ended up quitting the job at the detox facility and began a position at a community mental health agency as a mental health counselor. I was the group leader and was doing what I dreamed of doing and I also graduated with a master’s degree at the top of my class in 2011. I was excited about the future and was really good at helping others struggling with addiction and mental health. Yet, I also saw once again the devastating consequences from long-term use of tranquilizers, SSRI’s, antidepressants, benzos, etc. Most of the people I worked with started out just like me… sad, that’s it. Disappointed with life, traumatized by neglect and unfortunate events, who went for help and ended up on disability because of the effects from the psychotropic medications they were put on to treat their symptoms. The reality hit me hard because I was also taking a medication like that and fear set in regarding what that drug was doing to me. This moment was the catalyst to my mental health awakening.
At that time there was also a dream of mine that resurfaced: to work as a social worker and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduation, I ended up taking a job in that area doing very similar work, where I became completely desensitized, burnt out, and on a crusade to speak out against what I witnessed, all while also trying to get off Remeron. In early 2015, I visited a psychiatrist to discuss a safe way to wean off Remeron. After the psychiatrist stopped trying to convince me to continue the medication, I was told it was easy to wean and that I would be able to within two to three weeks. Oh, how wrong she was. After six years of being on that drug, I found that I couldn’t get off without experiencing insomnia, intense depression and anxiety, and panic attacks that were accompanied by suicidal thoughts. I was scared, to say the least. Sadly, I started to see why so many get tricked into believing they will have to be on these drugs for the rest of their life. When I was tapering off Remeron, very familiar symptoms resurfaced, which frightened and misled me into thinking that I was doomed to this life. However, after much research, I got in contact with a scientific advisor from CITA (Counsel for Information on Tranquilizers, Antidepressants, and Painkillers). CITA assists people trying to discontinue these drugs, by providing a handbook called “Back to Life,” which included tables in the back of it describing the withdrawal process for various drugs and how to safely taper very slowly. It was a shock to me, because I realized it takes a lot longer to taper from these drugs than we are told. The person from CITA who wrote me gave me so much inspiration and encouraged me to keep going, while also expressing that it will continue to be difficult, due to the idiosyncratic nature of these drugs.
After many attempts to get off Remeron during that year, two things happened. I was hospitalized again at the same place where I decided to become a social worker and I began another master’s degree program, but this time in social work. This is where my life took a pivotal turn. During this hospitalization, I was faced with a psychiatrist that was as burnt out as I felt. As I sat waiting for him to look up from reading my chart, he asked me, “Have you ever been on lithium?” I remember the goosebumps that flooded my body and I thought to myself, “Lithium, really, that is straight poison.” I asked him, “Isn’t that the drug where one has to regularly get blood work done to check on the kidney function?” He said, “Yes, but you obviously have Bipolar and this is your third hospitalization,” while still not looking at me. I took a big, deep cleansing breath and said, “Okay,” because I knew the game. If I argued or challenged him, he would keep me there, locked up, like a criminal. I began the drug only to get out of that hospital so I could continue school and acknowledge the dark shadowy corners of my psyche. Right then, sitting in that dank, dreary, heartless office, I knew I had to do this life without synthetic medications.
A day later, I was released with a prescription for lithium. My parents were very worried for me and pleaded with me to stay on the medication; and every time I took it, I cried, and that lasted for one more week. I referred back to the handbook I was given from the scientific advisor from CITA and the chart laying out the process on how to slowly taper and he was right, it was really challenging to completely wean. Even after finishing the process and stopping the medication, I continued to feel some withdrawal symptoms for six more months. It has been almost four years now that I have been medication free. Not only that, but I am also a bona fide Social Worker with a master’s degree in Social Work, working towards my licensure.
A celebration is in order, because I have never felt more alive and because I make up a very colorful, complex mural of all the many battles I have won throughout my life — this truth makes me a walking art piece. Think about it, I am sitting here today with a 100% track record of getting through really tough days. I feel less afraid, less alone, and less desire to end my precious life. Although it’s taken me a while to acknowledge my right to be in this world, I know that I am not “mentally ill,” but rather have a dynamic spiritual and emotional sensitivity to this world. I am here for a reason, and having to go into the depths of a very dark cave in order to see the light is how I was able to grow and come to the conclusion that there is another reality, another modality in treating mental health — and it doesn’t involve having to take medications for the rest of my life. I had to face this, feel this, and then free it. There is beauty and freedom in facing the truth, yet, speaking my truth regarding all of this has saved me from having to go through all of it again. That is what I was missing… I had no idea who I was and I was not living in my truth. Now I know, and it had nothing to do with a “chemical imbalance,” but rather a spiritual imbalance.
Lastly, I leave with a quote from one of my heroes in the field of mental health, holistic psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan, who wrote the book, A Mind of Your Own. She states, “The ugly, often unspoken truth is that these medications are habit-forming and debilitating. The withdrawal symptoms they precipitate can potentially undermine your ability to commit to the process of healing with a positive and determined attitude of self-empowerment. That increases the risk of relapse, which is why psychiatrist Peter Breggin called drug withdrawal programs ‘the most urgently needed intervention in the field of psychiatry.’”
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.