Part 1 of 2
When I first entered the mental health system at 23 years old, my parents were baffled. I was a promising music-composition student at Bennington College, in my senior year with no academic troubles. So why had I chosen to go to therapy? I was not a minor and the choice had been mine alone. I went secretly at first, knowing my parents would likely not approve. A few months after starting treatment, I quit college abruptly and moved in with Mom and Dad in Massachusetts. I finally revealed to them that I had an eating disorder.
I soon began a more intensive therapy program called Options Day Treatment, which cost my parents nearly $10,000 yet still failed to address my eating disorder. Eventually, I received a new diagnosis: schizophrenia, and later bipolar disorder. Treatment caused changes my parents witnessed. I started smoking. I gained weight. I didn’t have any friends except people at the mental health center. Even worse, I had lost all interest in my former college studies. I had stopped composing music or playing an instrument. I was cross and unpleasant. I avoided family gatherings, especially with extended family. I shut myself in my room and refused to come out for hours. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Even back then, my parents questioned whether this strange behavior had been caused by an “illness” or by the therapy environment itself. Both my parents had master’s degrees. My father was an engineer. He told me he did not see the logic in my claim that I had a mental illness. Yet I refused to listen to Mom and Dad and insisted they needed to “get with the times.”
Later, while I was at a residential treatment center called Gould Farm, I started taking lithium. My face broke out in pimples. I had never had pimples that bad before, not even when I was a teenager. I covered them with makeup. My hands shook all the time. I also paced a lot from the antipsychotic drugs I was also being given. Some days, I didn’t do much except watch television.
My Parents Persisted
As I cycled through treatment programs and hospitals, my parents continued to do research on their own. They started with the local public library and later discovered NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. My father observed that many parents in their group were frustrated because their children refused “treatment.” My father continued to observe my experience and noted that the “treatment” didn’t seem to offer any answers and wasn’t very humane. I was totally compliant, but I can understand now why so many of us refused it!
Both my parents noted that the “staff” at the facilities I cycled through lacked insight and were poorly paid. My parents felt the doctors failed to listen to patients and were dismissive of what mattered most. My father read Judi Chamberlin’s On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System. One day, he told me, “I think you need to start thinking about human rights.”
By then he was so concerned about the way patients like me were treated that he took on a position as a NAMI Monitor. He visited state hospitals in Massachusetts and asked the patients about their experience there. Likely, my father spent more time talking to them than the doctors ever did.
Through all the years that I was a mental patient, my parents were excellent advocates who constantly questioned what the docs were doing, even though my own faith in psychiatry was unwavering. It was Mom and Dad who repeatedly phoned the doctor who’d put me on lithium, reminding him he’d better test my blood levels of the drug. Later, my parents insisted that the next doctor test my thyroid hormone levels (they were right).
Yet, I continued to think of my parents as old-fashioned, insisting that the psychiatrists and staff knew better. However, when these providers did things that offended me, I went straight to Dad to complain. He always stuck up for me!
A decade later, when I was given electroshock (“electroconvulsive therapy”) for my “treatment-resistant mental illness,” they both spoke out against it— even though I was totally convinced it was “safe.” They continued to defend me and stood by my side even while my father was dying of cancer. It wasn’t till later that I realized that the negative changes in me, especially cognitive problems after ECT, were not a new mental illness I’d suddenly developed, but a result of the ECT “treatment” itself.
Rejecting the System
I got out of the mental health system by a fluke. By the time I was 40, I had been hospitalized over 50 times. I never realized any of it could possibly be wrong or cruel. I still worshiped my doctors, worshiped the practice of psychiatry—even though I questioned why I didn’t quite fit any of their disease categories.
After I was cruelly deprived of water in a hospital, I made a complete turnaround at age 53. (Lithium causes extreme thirst and can lead to a condition called diabetes insipidus.) This was the first time I had ever been so traumatized. I was scared for my life, afraid I would die of dehydration.
This one incident changed me in many ways, some of those not so good. I have a harder time getting along with other people now, and I became more prone to post-traumatic stress. The friends I had failed to understand. They stopped speaking to me. I only got angrier, and very isolated and lonely. One day, I realized I needed to leave town, to go far away where no one knew my past. I told no one of my plans.
I left the country and moved to Uruguay with my dog. I did not come back for two years, and never returned to Massachusetts. This exodus and “time out” helped me realize just how harmful the mental health system had been for me. I also learned that I was never really “mentally ill.” Mental illness is a completely false delineation between people that makes the ruling-class claim that some people are inferior, or defective, human beings. The recommended “treatments” do more to marginalize and silence us than to help us. This kind of dangerous thinking, the idea that these nonexistent sicknesses have to be squelched, is more pervasive now in society than ever. It is a subversive form of eugenics.
After I left the USA, I remembered something my mother had told me when I was only 13. She, too, had suffered from an eating disorder as a teen and had recovered from it. I estimate this to be sometime around 1940, when the words, “eating disorder” did not exist. She recovered in only two years, completely without mental health “care.” Realizing this, I challenged myself over and over: If Mom did it, so can I.
Amazingly, what cured me of my eating disorder was not some type of “treatment,” but getting away from drugs and therapy, and most of all, ending my self-identification as a mental patient. I am now fully employed, physically fit, active, and happy. I even developed my own protocol to help me recover the kidney functioning that lithium destroyed. I outline this in my upcoming book, Life After Lithium. Mostly I write about how to stop thinking like a mental patient!
Thanks, Mom and Dad
Now that I am completely away from the mental health system, if I could look back and say anything to my own parents right now, I’d thank them over and over for giving me a solid upbringing, for teaching me and my siblings mountaineering and feeding us well.
I’d thank my mom for her tireless insistence that I was okay just as I am. She was an excellent role model, a dancer who danced to her own music. She wanted me to think independently, to read, and to study music. Mom was headstrong in many ways, and I am grateful that somehow she inspired this trait in me.
I would thank my dad for teaching me good morals. I am grateful for my Jewish upbringing (even though we all hated Hebrew school). When my dad was dying of cancer, he told me something I have carried with me all these years: “Julie, you will make it someday.”
I would love to thank Mom and Dad again and again for sticking up for me, for standing up to the doctors even when I couldn’t in my drugged and worshipful state. I’d tell Mom and Dad that they were the ones who encouraged me to think and act independently, even if it meant being different, even if it meant I was the only one speaking out. I’d tell my parents I’m proud of who I am today and thank them for helping me to become that person.
Oddly, I look a lot like my late mother now. I am proud to carry a part of her inside me. And If I could, I would tell Dad, right now, some 20 years after his death: “Hey, Dad, you were right.”
This piece is adapted from a chapter in Julie’s upcoming book, Life After Lithium.
You can read Part 2 here.
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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