This week on MIA Radio, we interview Amanda Burrill. After a successful career as a Surface Warfare Officer and Rescue Swimmer in the United States Navy, Amanda was on track to continue her career as a professional triathlete and marathon runner, as she had already been competing internationally while still in uniform. Around the time of her discharge, she was prescribed a cocktail of psychiatric medications that caused physical injuries, leading to an early end to her rapidly accelerating career.
Amanda completed a Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University, a culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and continued her work as a travel and culinary journalist; all while surviving a cocktail of over a dozen psychiatric drugs over eleven years.
While being treated for a traumatic brain injury (TBI) by specialists at New York University in 2018, Amanda’s doctors raised concerns about the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, stimulants, sleeping medications and mood stabilizers concurrently prescribed to her by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the next 12 months, Amanda was successful in withdrawing from her cocktail of meds, which included the SSRI Zoloft. She now sees it as her mission to ensure that what happened to her does not happen to others.
- How Amanda completed a six-year enlistment as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy, where she deployed once to Iraq and with multiple deployments around the world.
- How she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling through a ship hatch.
- How she was prescribed psychiatric medications to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other symptoms from her TBI.
- How this cocktail of medications increased until she was prescribed nearly half a dozen psychiatric drugs at a time.
- How her career as a professional athlete ended because of foot and leg injuries, and how she has since connected the antidepressants with the physical injuries she sustained.
- That her treatment consisted of switching from one drug to another: “it was always lateral motion, it was never a decisive move in one way or another.”
- Amanda describes being prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs: “Klonopin was a drug that I was told to take three times a day for years of my life. We’re looking at eleven years on drugs of some sort, and seven of them being heavily medicated.”
- How she fought away thoughts of suicide caused by antidepressant withdrawal: “My situation, my state of mind, my inability to really plan anything and do anything, was not sustainable. And so what I started to think about were if it gets to where I can’t take it anymore, I should have a plan in place, and the plan should either be to make it look like an accident, or make sure that it’s not a situation where people feel bad for me. That is to say, I started to have ideations about not being alive anymore because I saw it as a better choice than having no control and no future.”
- How her suicidal thoughts came as she withdrew from Zoloft: “It was the first time we had tapered down on the Zoloft, I was at my apartment and I was thinking about the fact that I had to go onto a managed Medicaid plan to address my medical issues because they weren’t being addressed by the VA. I was like, am I depressed because I’m on this managed Medicaid plan? I’m in my mid-thirties, I’m not allowed to make more than X amount per month, I mean, I wasn’t allowed to make money. I was almost sort of trying to rationalize that maybe it was a blessing that my feet collapsed because I’d want to be out running and (getting) sponsored.”
- How she “still had motivations, but to just know that I didn’t want my life to be this.” And “I even remember, I threw myself down onto the floor, I had my fist clenched and I was yelling, why, why, why can’t I figure this out?”
- How she withdrew from her medications with the support of doctors, outside of the VA: “I had just started to taper the SSRI (Zoloft), and none of this was the VA’s idea. It was the hospital that was treating my brain injury that was insistent and supportive of me getting off of these drugs.”
- How even though she had the support of her doctors as she withdrew from Zoloft there was never a clear warning of the dangers: “It’s not as though we were like, we have to be careful here, we’re doing a withdrawal.”
- How she knew: “something was wrong on a grand scale. It was that combination of you know, losing your body, which I actually kind of was.”
- Amanda says “I feel as though, to others it couldn’t have been that bad because look at what you were able to accomplish; and to me it’s ‘I could have done so much better.’ I’m not just talking about what I could have achieved more vocationally; I could have done better by my friends, and my family and my relationships, and that’s a lot to swallow.”
- How Amanda compares psych drug withdrawal to an exorcism: “There is no clinical diagnosis that I’m aware of for a person that is withdrawing from a huge cocktail of drugs. It’s not necessarily that this is a mental illness, but it’s almost like it’s an exorcism of sorts, there is no diagnosis for that.”
- Amanda does not think the doctors understand the harm many of their patients experience: “There is no way of putting words on that, and to be honest, we can describe what that feels like, but I don’t know that half of the doctors or more that we see are really aware of the harm of being just completely soaked in these drugs for any amount of time can do.”
- How she thinks many people across the country are trapped in a drug-induced “purgatory” and that this can be “a numb, emotionless place to be.”
- How the more she insisted “that something isn’t right” and “the more you insist things are wrong, the more the urgency seemingly to raise your dosage, or to add something else to the mix.”
- Amanda shares that all the smiles on her TV appearances and in magazines during this time were not fake, but was an adaptation trying to make things look okay, so she could still work and still survive.
- How in spite of everything she endured, she is “thankful for pivoting towards things that interested me.”
- That Amanda now believes in the importance of advocacy: “It’s being open about all the mental health diagnosis, it’s being open and honest about all the psych meds I was put on, and that does mean admitting I didn’t know any better. It took me a really long time to figure it out, but it’s better than not figuring it out.”
- Amanda talks about her trip to Washington, D.C. with High Ground Veterans Advocacy, to advocate for other veterans and to reform mental health treatment at the VA.
- How she has set herself “on a mission to ensure this stops happening,” advocating for other veterans and seeking to reform mental health treatment at the VA.
- Amanda’s message to listeners is to: “advocate for yourself and never stop believing that it is better on the other side because it is.”