For 15 years, I was improperly diagnosed and treated for a number of psychiatric illnesses. I was medicated with a cocktail of antipsychotics, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and mood stabilizers from the time I was 15 years old until I was 30. The belief that I would be dependent on these substances for the rest of my life was pounded into my psyche by every prescriber my family and I entrusted with my well-being. Recently, over six months and with the help of a psychiatrist, I successfully tapered off each medication, thereby reclaiming my life. I now view myself not as a victimized, dependent, mentally ill individual but as a capable, multi-faceted human being who possesses a great deal of strength—the identity I’ve created for myself with the reinforcement of many members of my treatment team. I choose to view the suffering I underwent in the past as an opportunity. If I had not crumbled, brought to my knees beneath the weight of the misdiagnoses and sordid side-effects of the medications, I would not have had the opportunity to rise up and gain such a strong sense of self— something for which many spend their whole life searching.
My mood took a downward shift around the age of 10, when I was transferred from a small private school to a large public school following my parents’ divorce. Sixth grade was the last year of elementary school, meaning everyone had solidified their group of friends. Unable to join any of the preexisting cliques of pre-adolescent girls, I grew accustomed to spending lunch alone on the bleachers or sequestered in a bathroom stall. I was incredibly lonely and would continue to be until I was surrounded by other individuals who were also being treated for psychiatric illnesses.
My lack of friends caused me to struggle with low self-esteem and poor body image. In the years to come, I would swing between starving myself to purging after meals. I sought relief in drinking and habitual recreational drug use. At the age of 14, I was introduced to self-injury by a friend’s boyfriend. He explained that cutting himself made him feel alive and eased his emotional pain. A few days later, curiosity and desperation led me to drag a razor across my arms for the first time. It was like releasing a scream I had been holding inside of me since I was 10.
About a year later, a softball teammate alerted my coaches that I was self-injuring. They, in turn, informed my parents, and I found myself at 15 years old sitting across the desk from an elderly psychiatrist. He explained to me that I had Bipolar II Disorder and proceeded to prescribe me an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, an antipsychotic, and Naltrexone ( a medication commonly used to treat individuals who suffer from addiction to narcotics – the thought being that it would help curtail my impulse to self-injure). In a way, I was happy to receive a diagnosis. Not only did it mean that I now had a treatment plan that would ultimately “cure” me, but more importantly, the diagnosis gave me a sense of identity at a time when I was desperately searching for one. I was Bipolar and I would now apply myself to my treatment plan with the same intensity I had devoted to excelling in both school and sports. I couldn’t have imagined that, 16 years later, I would find myself challenging the system and finding such immense empowerment in shedding that diagnosis.
Entering the System
I began going to therapy twice a week and grew to love my therapist. She validated my feelings by assuring me that they were normal for someone suffering from Bipolar II. I enrolled in her group-therapy group and met three other girls with the same diagnosis. I found comfort in being surrounded by others experiencing similar things. They became my once-a-week friends. For the first time since I was 10 years old, I felt a sense of belonging.
My symptoms did not improve with therapy or medications, though. In fact, they worsened. I began having vivid auditory and visual hallucinations accompanied by paranoia, and still suffered with a persistent, crippling depression. I would report these symptoms to my doctor who, in turn, would raise the dosages of my medications. By the time I was 17, I had been on combinations of 15 different drugs. In March of my senior year of high school, driven by the hopelessness and fear surrounding my situation, I made my first suicide attempt. I lost consciousness and awoke in a hospital bed, confused and utterly disappointed that I had survived.
A year and a half later, I made a second attempt, which landed me in a recovery center specializing in self-injury and drug addiction. It was explained to me that, based on the frequency of my usage, I was a “drug addict.”I promptly decided to discontinue using recreational drugs – which, in hindsight, is not characteristic of someone with an actual drug addiction. Between the ages of 19 and 21, I circulated in and out of the finest rehabs and psychiatric facilities. While I found camaraderie among the patients and staff, I continued to deteriorate as I succumbed to the ongoing hallucinations and crippling depression.
At this point, I began collecting diagnoses. In addition to the original diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder, I had also accumulated Bipolar Disorder with Psychotic Features, PTSD (stemming from early childhood traumas), Psychotic Depression, Schizoaffective Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder. I found a sense of security and definition in each diagnosis. I remember feeling utterly marginalized when one psychiatrist suggested that my medications might be causing me more harm than good. These medications were intertwined with the mentally ill persona that had been handed me at a time when I was desperately searching for an identity. I knew nothing else. I rejected his opinion as ignorant and continued my descent into the psychiatric nightmare that had become my life.
New Treatments, New Diagnoses
It wasn’t surprising when, at 21, my doctors began talking to my family and me about trying “alternative treatments.” It was decided that I would undergo a series of 12 bilateral electroconvulsive therapy treatments to combat my “treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders.”Even though my family did not want me to receive ECT, I pushed for this extreme treatment because I had no regard for my life. I thought, if I were lucky, maybe it would end up killing me.
The procedure was traumatic. The treatments took place at the hospital I had frequented from the time I was 15. Every other day, I was taken to a treatment room where I was strapped to a gurney, had a mouth guard placed in my mouth, and got my temples swabbed, after which an IV that administered general anesthesia was inserted into my heavily scarred forearm. Each treatment would cause me to seize, essentially resetting my brain. The staff speculated that while I would experience memory loss, it was possible my symptoms would improve following the first few treatment sessions.
ECT left me in a fog. In addition to being depressed, I was now exhausted, incapable of forming complete thoughts, and was experiencing periods of amnesia. Concerned about the frequency and length of time I was unable to account for, my psychiatrist referred me to a specialist in personality disorders. After one lengthy appointment, I received a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (commonly referred to as “multiple personality disorder”). This new diagnosis required specialized therapy three times a week to expose my different identities or personalities. Even with the additional support, I did not experience any relief from my symptoms. With the increase in treatments, all of my time was consumed inside the four walls of my therapists’ offices. I continued to overly identify as a patient, letting each symptom define who I was.
Following my third suicide attempt, my psychiatrist urged me to get a service dog. My parents and I began visiting shelters and breeders looking for suitable animals. We found the perfect companion in a nine-week-old Maltese with one eye bigger than the other. I named her Gracie, in hopes that she would be my “saving grace.” Gracie and I underwent rigorous training. Ironically, she was able to perform few of the tasks the trainers tried to teach her with the exception of the most important one: She attached herself to me 24/7. Gracie and I became inseparable.
After 12 years (off and on) in undergraduate studies, I graduated from college Summa Cum Laude with a B.A. in child development. Although this was an accomplishment, at the time I didn’t consider it to be. I was distracted. My hallucinations had increased and were both menacing and constant. In addition, I heard voices urging me to end my life. To add to my torment, I also began having olfactory hallucinations of dog feces and (what I believed to be) corpses. Additionally, I had put on a great deal of weight and suffered two grand mal seizures. I spent most of my days in absolute terror.
The seizures were attributed to an overly high dose of Wellbutrin. Out of concern for my health, my parents sought the opinion of a different psychiatrist. Following an extensive evaluation of my medication history and a series of blood tests, I received an urgent phone call from this doctor, instructing me to stop whatever I was doing and proceed to the nearest emergency room. He believed I was in danger of having a heart attack. I remember thinking that I should feel panicked about this, but instead found relief in the idea of dying. My mother rushed me to the hospital and after extensive evaluations there, it was discovered that I had an abnormal EKG, the test that measures the heart’s electrical activity. Another blood test revealed that I had toxic levels of one of my medications, which increased my risk of having a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Although I would require some monitoring, they told me I was going to be OK.
The doctor who evaluated my medications then reported my previous doctor to the state medical board, believing that he’d been negligent in the pharmaceutical regimen he’d prescribed me. He recommended a new psychiatrist with whom he worked closely. The new psychiatrist was younger than my previous ones, and his sessions included an hour of cognitive therapy. He took me off the medicines he deemed problematic and placed me on others that he thought were more suitable. While I still experienced the same set of symptoms, I found him to be insightful and enjoyed my weekly visits. Still, believing relief was outside the scope of possibilities for me and that my family would be better off without me, I made the decision to end my life the following year, on my 30th birthday.
The year leading up to my birthday was excruciating. I had put on even more weight, my hallucinations continued to intensify, and I lost my beloved grandfather. I spent hours writing letters to my family, expressing my love for them, and saying goodbye. I had all of my plans aligned when my friends decided that we should celebrate my birthday by spending a weekend at Disneyland. I begrudgingly went with them, postponing my suicide until Monday.
On the night of my birthday, I found myself sitting alone outside the front gates of Disneyland, thinking about the course of events on schedule for just a day-and-a-half later. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a child laughing. I looked up with fear, expecting to see the hallucination that had been tailing me throughout the theme park that day. To my relief, I saw a little girl running across the courtyard, a huge smile plastered to her face. Her mother, equally elated, was following close behind. The mother grabbed the little girl, swung her into the air, and embraced her, both collapsing in a fit of giggles.
I wanted that. I realized that should I end my life come Monday, I would never partake in an interaction as beautiful as this. I looked down at my hands, which were covered by gloves that hid self-imposed burn marks and scratches. I pictured myself walking hand in hand with a child of my own someday. Even the thought of it made me smile. I remember thinking, This is worth fighting for. I set aside my plan to kill myself, enjoyed the rest of my birthday weekend with my friends, and returned home with a new goal: to have a child of my own.
Because my body was covered in wounds and I was overweight, my self-esteem was non-existent. Believing I would never be able to find a partner, I decided to explore in vitro fertilization. My doctors supported my desire to undergo IVF, identifying it as an affirmation of life. They agreed that while I was still young, and had a good chance of the procedure taking, I had one major obstacle to overcome first. I had to stop taking my medications.
Coming Off the Drugs
At the time, I was taking massive dosages of Seroquel, lithium, Effexor, clonazepam, propranolol, and desipramine. My psychiatrist had concerns about my “mental illness” symptoms becoming exacerbated without the medications. However, I was determined. We outlined a plan in which we would reduce each medication one by one at a rate of 25 percent each week. If I took a turn for the worse, we would adjust. With much trepidation, I began my withdrawal from the first medication, Seroquel. Instead of increasing, the hallucinations that had haunted me since I was 15 years old dissipated as soon as I stopped taking the drug. No one could believe it.
Then, to my surprise, my depression, which had been relentless since I was an adolescent, lifted after I stopped taking Effexor, my antidepressant. Encouraged, I continued to easily come off each medication; that is, until it was time to taper down from the high dose of the benzodiazepine, clonazepam. Because the dosage was so high, I experienced intense withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t keep food down, was unable to sleep for two weeks, and had crippling anxiety attacks. After I refused his recommendation that he put me back on a low dose of clonazepam, my doctor recommended that I try THC (medical marijuana). I was hesitant. For the past 11 years, I had been convinced that I was a drug addict. However, out of desperation, my mother and I went to a dispensary and purchased CBD with THC and gave it a try. The first night I slept well and awoke without an anxiety attack. After two weeks I stopped both the low dose of THC and subscribing to the belief that I was a drug addict.
After completing the drug-withdrawal process, I discontinued my relationship with my psychiatrist and both of my therapists. While I had excellent relationships with all of my doctors, I needed distance. I had been overmedicated, and the amount of therapy I’d been receiving had become excessive and detrimental. While I still experience a great deal of withdrawal-related physical pain, I stopped hurting myself, lost 96 lbs. in six months, and awoke with a hunger to live.
In the absence of medications, my ability to feel my emotions returned. I was surprised and delighted the first time I felt the warm sensation of tears running down my cheek. I remember struggling for breath and feeling my heart begin to flutter as the tears turned into a sob. After an hour of crying, my cheeks and eyes had become raw and stung, but I was flooded with happiness and relief as I realized that I had broken through the medication-imposed numbness and reclaimed my humanity. My heart and soul, which had been torn to pieces for the past 15 years, were finally restored.
About two months before completing this process, I’d decided not to pursue IVF. I realized that I did not need to have a child to experience the type of happiness I’d observed that day at Disneyland. My happiness was intrinsic. Along with a newly elevated mood came a craving for mental stimulation. I began working full time in my father’s business. Since returning from rehab at 19, I had worked there part-time answering phones, but now I began to take on more responsibilities at the office. Working at the company helped build my confidence in my ability to learn. After a few months, I decided I wanted to continue my education so that I could work with children. I will begin graduate school in August 2020.
I realize now that the strong emotions I experienced during adolescence are completely normal, especially for a child who underwent many changes in a relatively short amount of time. They did not warrant a diagnosis, yet one was assigned to me during that very first visit to the psychiatrist’s office. Some days I experience grief over the time I lost being unjustifiably labeled and medicated. I feel frustrated when I consider what I could have accomplished had I not been imprisoned by side effects and restricted by a “mentally-ill identity.” I see all that my peers have accomplished, and feel that I’m trailing behind them, trying to catch up.
Most days, however, I choose to focus on the lessons I learned and the empowerment associated with overcoming great odds. The outcome of this withdrawal process was well worth the six-month struggle it took because it gave me the opportunity to fight for my life. No one goes through life unscathed by adversity. While these trials may inflict unimaginable pain, they also give us the opportunity to regain our power and to rise up. On days when I need to regain perspective, I drive by the hospital where I was committed at 19 years old, following my second suicide attempt. I look up at the psychiatric ward, 13 floors above me, and affirm to myself that I am exactly where I need to be. After being numb for 16 years, I have awakened. I am filled with anticipation and desire to create a life filled with passion, purpose, friendship, and love. I trust that by sharing my ongoing journey I may lend support to others who walk a similar path.
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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