By spring of 2016, my ability to say “no” to suicide was holding on by a thread. I wanted to be well or I wanted to be dead. I couldn’t stand the in-between anymore. My inner world was growing increasingly dark. Hospitalizations had always felt like warped sanctuaries, where a sophisticated bulldozer demolished the little sense I had left while holding me, powerless, in a trance. I did not want to end up there again.
After my parent’s divorce and my first suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in the spring of 1998. Since then, I have been diagnosed with ADHD, borderline personality disorder, psychosis, etc… I have attempted suicide and been hospitalized many times. For about 20 years, I tried my best to adjust and comply with the diverse medication cocktails I was prescribed. They immediately sent me far away in and from my mind, and for the enormous cost of treatment, the system never taught or encouraged me to heal myself. Instead, I was told my condition was incurable. The term ‘recovery’ within the system was a confused and confusing concept. It didn’t mean I was going to recover my true self, but I kept falling for the bait, desperate for relief while remaining treatment resistant. Recovery meant I was integrating into society as a shadow self, my brain invaded by foreign, hardcore psychotropic drugs that supposedly knew how to run my life better than I did. A few scripts with lifelong refills provided ephemeral first aid, but rather than addressing my original problems, stifled and added to them.
I felt I had failed my mother, my rock, so many times in life, I could not fail her now that she needed me. Her Alzheimer’s was worsening rapidly and she had appointed me her health care proxy. Before, during and after work, I did things for my mom every day, but by spring 2016, I was showing up to my life with deadly scenes playing in my head. At every turn, a part of me ruminated about suicide uncontrollably. My brain enacted reruns of the darkest variety where I was both predator and prey. As weeks passed, it became increasingly difficult to resist the lure to act on them. Many times a recurring daydream (taking up too much of my headspace) was of me going to the convenience store next door, stealing a gun from a cop, and bringing it home to shoot my mom, then me, so neither of us would be a burden anymore.
Other times I envisioned renting a storage unit, parking my car inside and letting the CO2 end me. I would hold my mother close as if for the last time while simultaneously thinking of hiring a double to care for her and play the role of her only daughter — someone sweet and smart, not the damned mess I turned out to be, so I could kill myself in peace already. No matter how much I prayed, suicide was getting harder to fend off. I went on Amazon to buy Final Exit by Derek Humphry since I had failed at killing myself multiple times. Once online I was instead guided to buy A Promise of Hope by Autumn Stringam and Med Free Bipolar by Aspen Morrow. My mother and I owe a debt of gratitude to these women. The first story slowly restored my hope and the second gave me instruction on how to get off the medications which were likely contributors to, if not the causes of, my suicidal ideations and dark psychosis. With the help of Aspen Morrow’s book, I started addressing what I was putting into my gut and by January of 2017 I added micronutrients to my new treatment plan. I wanted to die and be someone else and little by little that is exactly what is happening. The necrotic parts of my life are slowly falling to the wayside or being restored back to health.
Through the years, the worst part was the ongoing blurring of the line between what a side effect was, what a response to a stimulus was, what a symptom of the so-called disorders was or even what my personality was. It was challenging to be myself, if that even existed anymore. I was no longer able to fully engage my prefrontal cortex — and everything connected to it. Some meds made it very hard to swallow. My body has fluctuated form like a blood pressure cuff. I’ve had terrible adult acne. At night, I have felt paralyzed, unable to move my body in bed with much difficulty breathing, consumed by fear, feeling things crawl on me and stalked by demons. Most days I believed I was being punished by God because I was such a disgrace to humanity.
I’ve been arrested. I’ve had to report to probation officers. I’ve done so many things that make no sense to me right now. I have left home to be homeless, I’ve slept on the subway or in the Port Authority, I’ve asked for money from strangers. I have been on disability. I’ve picked up cigarette butts off the sidewalk to smoke them. I have felt lower than the cigarette butt on the sidewalk that got trampled on all day. Most of me seemed to have checked out and whatever semblance of self and self-worth I had left was negative. Once a bright young girl, I had turned to trash. Like most folks, I have also had countless experiences of flying high through life followed by crash landings. I’ve lost good relationships with my unruly behavior. I’ve lost jobs and opportunities as if they were grains of sand slipping through my fingers without being able to adjust my grip. My college transcripts are filled with all sorts of letters and I remain without a degree.
I’ve hit “rock bottom” countless times to find that it is, in fact, a bottomless pit. As long as there’s a pulse, life can always get worse. I’ve endured akathisia and tardive dyskinesia as a result of my medication regimen, but the worst side effect of the medications and the system was the loss of my sense of agency. I never addressed the issue that catapulted me into the system in the first place. I never found meaning in my life experience. I just became a “mentally ill” person and I saw myself as an untrustworthy stranger who had to consult therapists and psychiatrists about every move I made regarding my life, which was worse than the brain damage, memory loss, cognitive malfunction, threat of developing diabetes and organ failure among all the other adverse effects from the medications I was prescribed.
In spring of 2017, I took a Narrative Healing class online with Teleosis Institute, taught by a coach, author and a high school English teacher of mine, Reggie Marra. The class helped me improve my footing on the track to a “new way of being.” The writing assignments were like physical therapy for my mind as I was working through mental scar tissue on lower doses of meds in a supportive environment. One of the assigned readings in the class was by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D. Ph.D. who holds degrees from Stanford University and the Psychological Studies Institute. He is a prodigy, psychiatrist, geriatrician, author, etc. with decades of experience helping many heal from mental and physical illness. A lifelong student, he integrates indigenous, eastern and western medicine to help activate and assist each client’s system’s innate ability to heal itself.
When I was one month off meds, Dr. Mehl-Madrona agreed to doctor me, and in our sessions, he treated my mind, body, and spirit without partitions by using Narrative Medicine, Osteopathic myofascial release and ceremony within a community. Integrating the Native perspective into my recovery offered my starved intellect a potent dose of common sense that has resonated deeply and taken root. The First Nation healers’ way of acknowledging the environment as well as the individual who is afflicted makes more sense than the dissection of the afflicted (and affliction) from its environment and mistreating it independently from its context, which had mostly been the case for me in mainstream care. Everything is connected. Dr. Lewis also introduced me to The Red Road. Its profound simplicity makes it a practical way for me to get back in alignment with what is important when I feel myself getting off track. Even though my time as his client has been brief, I can testify that while his combination of practices is atypical, this ex-treatment-resistant consumer is more proof of the effectiveness of his methods. Recently, his partner and wife Barbara Mainguy, MFA, MA has agreed to become my therapist. A Canadian creative arts psychotherapist among other disciplines, she is well versed in Quantum Psychology and has implemented with me a variety of modalities that in my two-decades-plus of attending therapy I didn’t even know existed. A hard-working, forward-thinking professional, she is not alarmed when my supposed “psychosis” surfaces.
It is long overdue that the numerous longstanding and effective “unconventional” therapies be covered by insurance. They need to be brought into the mainstream so more people have the resources to recover from mental illness instead of continuing to perpetuate their dis-ease within the current system’s confined parameters. As I stand amid the ruins of my past, parts of me that I thought were dead somehow keep crawling out from the wreckage. My life has much room for improvement, but I could not be happier with this homecoming — that mainstream psychiatry overcharged me for and was unequipped to offer me. In spring 2018 I was even strong enough to go on a pilgrimage along The Camino de Santiago in my deceased mother’s name, nine months after her death and six months after quitting psych meds. This mission fortified me in many ways.
To be fair, I’ve had plenty of good times throughout my life, but they have felt like misunderstanding the rules of the game, trying to hide the cracks in my best poker face and holding a hand of cards I didn’t know how to read, while balancing on a high wire trying to shake the relentless fear of free-falling back into the abyss at the next misstep. It’s hard to have control over your life when you are ingesting prescribed mind-controlling substances which were not designed for long-term use for good reasons.
Now, in spring 2019, I am reconciling my past with my present with the intention of better tomorrows than my yesterdays. I’m 39 years old and have been living medication-free since my mother’s birthday, December 2nd, 2017. Off the meds, I do not recognize my life as my life. I feel like a survivor stumbling around her own ground zero, looking over her shoulder, unsure what just happened, how I’m still alive or how and if it’s safe to build a life worth living. No matter how much I would have preferred not waking from that hell and possibly reincarnating as something else, I managed to escape the system and here I am in the same lifetime, alive and well. My prayer to be taken out of my misery was answered, just not the way I used to envision. I feel out of my depth with my new lease on life. I’m slowly getting acquainted with this new setup and am eternally grateful for yet another opportunity at life, which I hope does not slip through my fingers.
I’m a non-smoker and live medication-free after 20 years of dependence. My life may not seem like much from the outside, but to me it’s everything. I’m so grateful to be regaining the use of my brain again! I live in a cozy little apartment by myself and have kept the same job for almost 10 years. I’m a psychiatric survivor making small changes towards a purposeful life. Yes, I sometimes have intense symptoms that I now reason through organically, unencumbered by psychotropics. As I remap my mind, my brain rewires itself. The practice of running new circuits in my brain allows for the possibility that perhaps the so-called symptoms are a good thing, making me human instead of a member of the walking dead.
The substance-free view is so different, at times dizzying with the wondrous vastness of life. As being med-free has blown my consciousness wide open, I struggle with the basic mechanics and maintenance of life. It is a challenge to find my place in society and not get lost in the shuffle. I get tripped up by mundane things that I take as reminders for me to stay slow and steady, which makes it a challenge to integrate more life changes more quickly. Time continues to slip away and I did not attain the goals I had in mind for my first-year-plus med-free, but I thank the Creator for this thoroughly frustrating yet humbling experience. I have so much to be grateful for. I can sleep without drugs and I can cry when I need to again! Each day I am becoming increasingly more able to use words to show someone the view from my perspective — which used to be a delicacy reserved for rare, special occasions. To connect to life this deeply feels so vulnerable, intense and embarrassing, yet awkwardly awesome.
I hope it’s not too much to ask that it never end. It feels like on some offhand merit, or perhaps my mother’s putting in a good word for me, I’ve been allowed back into the human race. In a way, I feel like an almost-forty-year-old teenager finally going through a kind of puberty. I hope the process won’t be interrupted again. As I cautiously navigate this beautifully patterned and infinite shared mind space within and among all of us, I pray to continue to thrive so that someday I may be of service to others who may find themselves at a dead end within traditional psych care and need a hand out of it. This new path may not have any markers or guarantees but makes more sense than the burning hell from which I have risen. I may have come a long way, but I’m just getting started.
In closing, I’d like to thank the people I mentioned above, and their like-minded peers, for not giving up when the mainstream offered them resistance for daring to think, practice medicine and build lives outside of the “black boxed” norm. If it were not for them, I would not be here. They are the pioneers and beacons of light that continue to illuminate the dark path towards a new dawn within our healthcare system.
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.