In 2001, after suffering from malaria in Africa, I had my first nervous breakdown and took time away from my busy career internship. Doctors at the hospital gave me a brain scan and all looked okay. I felt relieved and went on a pre-booked trip to New York right after the towers had been hit. I remember the highlight of my visit was rollerblading in Central Park. I felt so alive on vacation and returned back to work only to be revisited by fuzzy thoughts. A few months later I was told I would need to take antipsychotics going forward, “just like a diabetic needs insulin.”
I was enlisted with an alpha male psychiatrist and I embarked on a polypharmacy voyage of discovery. Medication doses stultified my anxious mind and reassured doctors that I was in a safe state. After three years I tried to withdraw, with guidance from the doctor, and failed miserably, landing myself in the emergency ward on my mother’s birthday. My brain receptor response from withdrawing abruptly from antipsychotic medication and going onto antidepressants felt almost unimaginable. I saved my own life by calling 911 and was rescued by an excellent emergency team. It was a miracle I survived.
I went back to work at a new office still trembling with PTSD. Those were good years of slow and steady recovery and I qualified in my career, found a new girlfriend, and fixed up my new home. My employer was a great help. I also learned of the survivor movement and began to do my homework. Wonderful people were telling a different story about recovery. I joined a group that met in a church basement and we listened to experts on mental illness and medications. Could it be possible that the medications are actually making the problem much worse by making it extremely difficult to withdraw? Are the chemicals altering the brain structure in a harmful way?
I worked with my new psychiatrist to withdraw from the antipsychotic and reached near micro-dose levels before relapse occurred and my family had me hospitalized. The fear of being committed grew and all I could do was go back to work at a new office, study yoga to stay calm, and find a new partner. Several more attempts at withdrawal each led to withdrawal psychosis and my family and doctors became more worried. I luckily found an empathic peer counsellor who helped coax me out of the darkness. Yoga study also provided the foundation for spiritual weightlifting. If I could do a downward dog, maybe I could do tree pose or shavasana. Study of the Patanjali’s yoga sutras helped me to rebuild my sense of self in the face of terrible social stigma about psychosis. The sutras pointed out that altered states could also be part of a spiritual awakening and being a witness to one’s subconscious opened up a deeper reality. For thousands of years, individuals had been going into these states to reach beyond.
During the time of my hospitalizations my friend came to the ward and we played ping pong, and excitement for the game spread to other fun-loving patients as well. The hospital provided a temporary place for rest and reflection, and being there would have been almost acceptable without the high doses of zombifying medication. Normal human rights were not in effect and the prisoner’s dilemma became mine. Under the local system the patient cannot refuse to take medication — and this fact is disturbing because antipsychotics have numerous negative effects, and they create a chemical dependency that is observable upon withdrawal, and their long-term efficacy is in doubt, and, in addition, there is a human rights issue regarding coercive medicine.
What amazed me was my experience of antipsychotic drug withdrawal. At first life’s intensity surged back as though I were awakening from a cloudy slumber, art came alive, emotions flowed forth, and choirs sounded heavenly, but then there seemed to be a point where I might tip over the edge as my brain receptors were washed clean of chemical blockers. This is where my fear of being hospitalized and my family’s fear of my mental state kicked in, and no doubt the authorities under directive would come knocking. My experience of fear during withdrawal is that it is greatly exacerbated by the medical system. Sometimes dealing with anxiety can be done with pure cognitive therapy using logic and head-on confrontation, sort of like riding an elevator for those with claustrophobia. Anxiety also leads to addictions because patients need to escape the agony. Addictions can be to things like alcohol, sedatives, and the internet. This all can be a very lonely journey. Reaching out is important, and attending recovery groups helps. Other observations during my withdrawals were that movement spasms occurred, where I would jerk one way or another in a tortuous way, and I also had ringing in the head as though my brain were under a continuous pressure. In addition, my libido would return, which is vital for a sense of presence in the world, and for being able to fulfill desire and have children.
I was in a revolving door situation with the hospital and the withdrawal attempts. Were my tapers not slow enough? Tapering is poorly charted territory in the field of medicine. I consulted the peer experts for answers on this and found all kinds of creative means and measures like counting pill particles, creating dynamic liquid suspensions, or lying in bed for a couple of years with a caregiver to look after you. If the doctors prescribe these drugs, why can they not figure out a tapering procedure for antipsychotics? Instead the system is rigged so that patients are put on community treatment orders and long lasting injectables. Who wants to live in a drug-induced emotional netherworld?
I really wasn’t in a situation conducive to withdrawing, and I didn’t want to go back to hospital. I looked up and sought help from the amazing survivors who had fully withdrawn and were on the lecture circuit. I also volunteered to help patients in institutions and I participated in a fundraising campaign for people trying to recover from crisis. By staying on a very low dose I could still work, volunteer and avoid hospital.
The question still remains as to how to handle societal fears about the ‘mentally ill’. My blessed family are like hypervigilance officers on the watch for the slightest behavioural aberration. Doctors ask questions and search for ‘insight’ before entering the information onto the PARIS medical web. At my professional office workplace there were rumours going around about my sudden departures from previous offices. People knew and they were worried. The media abounded with reports of shootings, and songs and movies were created to terrify us about the mentally unwell. This is the wall of fear I had to scale, and the doctors and family needed also to let go of false preconceptions. Probably better empathy is needed and more faith in the loved one’s ability to recover.
I had to shed unscientific disease labels, and comfort and educate the people around me about my situation. Going back to work helped me gain confidence as well as earning a living. I learned complex new software, took on challenging new projects, and expanded my circle of friends and acquaintances. I had to do this several times with multiple offices. I tried to look for the positive. One of my fortunate turns was a job near the beach. I was able to walk the promenade at lunch and stretch my legs while watching volleyball. There was a wonderful store at the end of the walk that sold salted nuts and fresh sliced fruit. At another job I was able to bicycle 5 km along a custom bike path to get to and from work. During my breaks I could range out along the marshlands and see waterfowl, and on my return visit the local coffee shop. The jobs were not easy but they certainly had their perks. Often I felt down about my compromised status in the companies, but I soldiered on and my employers sometimes were able to give me great assignments.
With the biking and walking and good diet I was able to stay a little in shape. I maxed out my weight loss using a fitness tracker and digital scale to track my progress. It was really hard to lose weight. My theory is that the meds dulled my ability to feel reward, and as a consequence I needed to eat and drink more — to feel good. By sitting at a computer workstation for many hours a day my posture also started to collapse. Prop yoga helped me to work out some of the physical damage incurred, and meditation also aided in preparing my mind around the work day. In the morning I would sit and gather my thoughts prior to my commute, and then after work I would quiet my busy mind and de-stress. I continued to focus on the inner light and my own well being. I realized I am not my job. There were moments in my career when I felt inspired, but I was still just earning a living and being useful.
I pray for a rich life, away from the fear of job insecurity, coercive medicine, and false labels. My friend helped me go to church and participate in worship. I still remember how I was so heavy I was barely able to kneel in the pews, and just listening to the liturgy and the choir-filled interludes uplifted me. The church was beautiful, too. “Peace be with you” we all said to each other at mass, and “Namaste” we said at the end of yoga class. The great texts did not dwell on fear and nor should we. Listening to our deepest feelings and thoughts is vital.
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.