Imagine for a moment that you had a sleepwalking episode in which you tried to commit suicide. When you awaken you are in a hospital bed, having no idea where or even who you are nor how you got there. Then someone who loves you tells you that you tried to take your own life. But you totally refuse to believe it. One, what a horrific idea to think about, and two, you remember absolutely nothing.
Yet I am one of the “lucky ones.” I lived to learn about the attempt.
The Old Annette
I was never a sad person. I was happy by nature, the glass-half-full, never-give-up, and go-for-it type. My self-esteem was high: I considered myself intelligent, healthy, and attractive. I had a voracious appetite for anything positive, inspirational, and spiritual. I was into motivational speakers and could always be counted on to cheer people on and bring a sense of adventure and enthusiasm to life.
For 20-plus years, I was a self-employed piano teacher, an excellent singer/songwriter with a fabulous music CD, a spiritual counselor, and even the author of a self-help book. I was very proud of my achievements and optimistic about nearly everything.
Then, one day the boyfriend I had been living with abruptly broke up with me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought we had a good relationship, so I was devastated. Suddenly, I went from being an energetic, high-functioning human being to one who was deeply, deeply sad.
Stepping on the Pill Train
I found myself truly struggling to move beyond this grief, so I began looking for a therapist who did Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); I’d heard it helped people to feel calm and it seemed like a natural, reasonable approach. After several weeks, however, the therapist I was working with felt that I wasn’t getting anywhere with EMDR. It was then that our conversation turned to antidepressants. Since I had heard that pills could help people to get out of a funk, together we decided it was worth looking into. So, the therapist sent me to Jean, a psychiatrist who could prescribe them.
After a psychiatric evaluation, Jean readily prescribed the SSRI Celexa for my “depression.” Since I had always had trouble sleeping, she also prescribed Trazodone, a different class of “antidepressant,” and Ativan, a benzodiazepine drug. Jean told me I was experiencing a “chemical imbalance.” She gave me the impression that the pills would balance out those chemicals and could fix me.
One year turned into three, during which time I was additionally prescribed various drug cocktails. These combinations included Lexapro, Seroquel, Effexor, Zyprexa, Abilify, Ambien, Valium, and Vyvanse. Nothing seemed to work; it was as if she thought that if she just kept throwing various meds at my pain, maybe one of them would stick.
As the drugs shifted, so did my psychiatric assessment. After several months I had gone from being told I had a simple “chemical imbalance,” to being given the diagnosis of “Major Depressive Disorder with Manic and Psychotic Elements.”
My prior lifetime status of happy normalcy was nowhere to be found.
After it was too late, I discovered that several of these drugs carry warnings of suicidal ideation and suicide, the risk being especially high among those who have a suicide in their family history. Both my maternal grandfather and uncle had taken their own lives. Jean knew this, as it was the topic of our sessions on several occasions.
She never once mentioned the risks involved with any of the drugs. Yet, in the medical records I acquired there is a disclaimer on every page: “Patient educated regarding risks, benefits, side effects, and alternatives…,” highlighted and initialed by Jean. After I nearly died this fact was not just a little bit infuriating to me.
Plain and simple: I was told nothing. For over three years, we followed the routine of Jean writing prescriptions and me obediently taking them to the drugstore. I took the pills she’d prescribed and from there it seemed I spent all my days and nights trying to manage the deteriorating state of my brain.
I would get teary and upset at my appointments, questioning why I was not experiencing improvement. Jean would respond with what looked like frustration as she told me they couldn’t work because I was not taking them in the proper manner. It was always my fault and not the drugs’. Then I would feel like a total failure. This only served to make me feel more helpless and worsened my feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Post-recovery from the suicide attempt, in my efforts to pull together the pieces of what had happened to me, I had a meeting with the therapist I was also seeing at that time. To my surprise, she recounted to me that I talked often about “exiting” this life, if only I could figure out how to do it. She was so concerned that at one of my appointments one week before the attempt, she had drawn up a contract in which I promised not to try to kill myself. I had signed it. I didn’t remember any of this.
I can’t really describe the disturbing feeling of not having any recollection of what had happened. It was as if some other depressed, out-of-control being had taken over my life and consciousness for over three years. Those years can never be returned to me.
My self-destructive thinking and talk indicated a colossal change had been taking place prior to my suicide attempt. Yet no one, namely Jean, was pointing to the pills as a possible cause of my downhill slide. Quite the contrary: I was routinely being told that they were necessary and that it would be “dangerous” for me to get off them. So, on it went. I had gone from an intelligent, rational, upbeat person to a dark, huddled, ruminating being with a constant loop of exaggerated fears ruining her life.
The suicide attempt on December 6, 2017, happened at my job in a clothing store. It was the end of my shift and I was mostly alone in the building, getting ready to lock up. Apparently, I blacked out, took a green scarf, wrapped it tightly around my neck, and attached it to the wooden beam of a dressing room and hanged myself.
After a short time, the beam broke.
At this very moment, “John,” the director of a community theater company housed in the downstairs section of the building came upstairs to use the restroom. He later recounted that he’d heard a strange sound and went looking for its source. That is when he found me on the floor, face down and unconscious, my eyes wide open. He panicked, thinking I was dead.
In my later research, I discovered that what John had heard was the “death rattle,” the sound the breath makes right before a person expires.
John called 9-1-1 services, who were on the scene immediately. Paramedics resuscitated me, then rushed me to the ER. I ended up in the ICU, where my sisters came to identify me. From there I was volleyed by ambulance from one hospital to another until they found a bed for me at Pembroke Hospital, an inpatient psychiatric facility.
I later heard from the Pembroke nurses that when I arrived, I was belligerent, yelling that I didn’t belong there, and difficult to calm down.
I remained at Pembroke for six weeks. I recall nothing of the first four weeks. My therapist later explained that I had likely experienced “localized dissociative amnesia,” the brain’s protective response to major trauma. When I asked friends and family members who had come to visit, they reported that they all had, and that I was functional and responsive even though my memory did not retain anything.
At Pembroke, my medications were changed. I was put on Effexor and a sedative for sleep. I also received three ECT treatments per week. Slowly, I started to feel my brain come back again. Perhaps it was because I was taking significantly fewer drugs, but I think I owe much of my improvement to my strong survival instinct, aided by my 20-plus years of meditation practice. Somehow, I was able to open a mental window back into my keen sense of inner knowing.
The day I was finally released I was functional. I didn’t feel incapacitated by that same dark, ruminating, depressed presence anymore. I felt fragile and vulnerable, but also mentally stronger and in control.
Slowly, I got back into my life. I had just a few sessions with the therapist. Then my insurance changed—an easy out. I also simply stopped going to see Jean, my psychiatrist.
Jean called several times, strongly urging me to come back. When I did make it to the last couple of appointments, she encouraged me to go on food stamps, which I did for a short time. I also recall her telling me it would be a good idea for me to go on disability insurance.
When she brought up disability insurance, it was like a lightbulb went on in my head. Everything was now crystal clear: Jean perceived me as hopelessly mentally ill, convinced there was no chance I could return to my life as a normal, functioning member of society. It felt that, from her perspective, I was marked forever.
I was stunned, mainly because the real me was back. She had finally awakened. She knew better.
The psychiatry jig was up, as I decided to take matters into my own hands. I had survived the reality of these drugs and fortunately had lived to tell the tale. The dangerous pills had almost done me in. The thing I needed most in the world now was glaringly obvious. It was way past time for me to be set free.
I quit. I did it myself, withdrawals and all. Anyone I mentioned it to would show alarm and say it was “so dangerous.” So, I just kept it to myself and went ahead with the taper. Over a few weeks, I’d weaned myself off everything. Just like that.
As I said, I am one of the lucky ones. This story could have had a devastating ending. Three days after the December 6, 2017, attempt to take my life was my birthday. There are no words to express my gratitude that I was still alive that day and that my family and loved ones had not had to spend that time planning and attending my funeral.
Now it is over two years later. I am fully well.
I opened a new office space on Main Street in my town and am back to doing spiritual counseling and giving piano lessons. I am creating and hosting my own public events. I am thoroughly enjoying my community of friends and the challenges and tribulations of growing my own business. My life is fulfilling and getting better every day. I am constantly filled with gratitude.
There is nothing like almost losing your life to make you cherish it beyond belief.
That is one of the things I told my psychiatrist in a letter after a meeting I initiated in December 2019:
Thank you for taking the time to meet with me on Thursday. Today is my “re-birth” day.
I processed a few thoughts after our meeting that I want to share with you.
I am not in agreement that my non-compliance of taking the prescribed dosage of my medication was the reason that I sunk so low into a major depressive state and attempted suicide. Knowing me, I was likely repeatedly responding to an inner sense that the drugs were not good for me. I intuitively felt they were dangerous all along, messing with the way my brain functioned, and I was looking for a way out of that.
All my personal notes and memories of being on the drugs back then pertain to how much I did not want to take them because they consistently made me feel worse, not better. At no point do I remember any significant improvement. The times I was “doing pretty well,” as you put it, I don’t see that way. The times I seemed “OK” I was still struggling pretty profoundly; simply maintaining and just barely keeping my head above water.
What is so concerning to me is the various cocktails of chemicals I was consistently taking, and the effect that was having on my brain. I recognize that in the psychiatric field, the solution for a drug not being effective is often to try another drug or increase the dosage. From my perspective, these are common-sensibly horrible options.
Once again, I do not believe that my not complying with the instructions was the main issue. The drugs had clearly stated warnings of risk of suicide on them. For anyone to believe that a person like myself, with a family history of suicide, should get anywhere NEAR using those drugs (as in Trintellix, AND Vyvanse….to name a couple) is profoundly beyond my ability to comprehend.
I am documenting all that I can remember of my experience and I will be sharing my story in the future when I feel that I am ready. I want to help people to never go on these drugs, which could put them at risk of having a blackout, as I did, and potentially taking their own lives. I want to make them aware that there are healthier alternatives.
The really great tragedy to me is this: Those people who have actually committed suicide. IF they blacked out due to drugs, would never be able to inform their grieving loved ones that they had no idea what they were doing when they killed themselves. [By this I meant that their families would never find out that they did not actively choose to take their own life.]
As you could see when we met on Thursday, this “Annette Dion” is not the woman who was coming to you for appointments and prescriptions in the past. That person was somebody else. I am so grateful to have THIS version of myself, rather than the one that at that time was being highly suggested and even recommended for me.
The picture of “that Annette” was one with me on food stamps, continually attending adult mental health day programs, faithfully “taking my meds” indefinitely, and collecting disability checks.
That is, quite simply, not who I authentically am.
The real fact is that I finally “came back” when I quit everything pharmaceutical and was able to heal my brain. On my own….
Please let me know when I can stop in and pick up my records, which will hopefully be very soon. Perhaps if you have just a few minutes at that time we could have a brief follow-up chat.
In the days since the “nightmare years,” I have unfortunately encountered people grappling with the tragedy of a loved one’s suicide. It is so difficult for me to hear. When it feels OK, I ask them what happened and learn that their loved one was struggling with depression and on medications.
Knowing there is no balm to heal the unspeakable pain, I have found myself—without revealing my personal story—searching for one thing I can only hope might offer the survivors any semblance of comfort.
Hiding the tears that well up inside of me, I take a deep breath. Then I tell them, “I am certain that, at that moment, they simply did not know what they were doing.”
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.