During the winter of 2004, when I was a senior at a private school in Maryland, I had my first brush with psychiatry. That week, I had experienced a panic attack after trying to stay up all night completing a mountain of homework assignments, college applications, and practice SATs.
On a cold Baltimore morning, I arrived at the office of a local psychiatrist. After a brief stay in the waiting room, I was greeted by the doctor, who motioned me back to her office. It was only a few feet away from where we had departed, yet I felt as though we had been walking together for miles.
As she reached for the door handle, I began to notice acutely the rate at which my heart was now beating. I recounted my panic attack to her and relayed that I still felt a significant amount of distress. After what felt like a 10-second conversation, I was given my diagnosis.
“You have panic disorder,” she stated. “This is treatable by antidepressant medication.”
There was not even a twinge of hesitation in her voice. I felt stunned, yet a large wave of relief slowly washed over my mind. This was it, I thought. There was a cure for all the distress I had been feeling.
The psychiatrist briefly described the side effects of the medication, which were limited to the potential for nausea and increased anxiety at the start of treatment.
“You’ll feel like yourself again in just a few short weeks!”, she exclaimed.
I was stunned. An anti-depressant? Zoloft? I had seen the commercials before and I even knew a couple of friends who took these drugs. I did not know what to feel, but a large part of me was excited about the possibility of relief.
“You can take these drugs for up to six months,” she added. “After six months, you can slowly come off and be back to normal. This medication should kick in soon! You’ll be back to your old self in no time!”’
In my vulnerability, I accepted her statement as an unwritten promise between us. She handed me a small sample pack of Zoloft (sertraline) and sent me on my way. Though I felt optimistic, I was also apprehensive about taking my first dose. My sea of optimism would soon come crashing down on me. To date, the worst mistake of my life was ever setting foot in that doctor’s office.
Later, I fumbled with my Zoloft pack and retrieved my first dose, a 25mg pill. I washed the pill down with some orange juice and walked over to my car. I knew that the medication would kick in soon and then I would feel better.
At first, I did not notice any change.
“This is fine,” I said to myself out loud. “The doctor said it may take up to a few weeks for the medication to have its full effect.”
Day 7: I had continued to increase my dose of Zoloft as instructed by my doctor and was now taking 75 mg. When I showed up to my community service job, I was asked to make copies of a flyer, a trivial task that I had completed many times in the past. However, this time was different.
I asked my supervisor how to work the copy machine. She explained the process, but I could not comprehend what she was saying. I asked her twice more to repeat the instructions. As she spoke, I felt my brain shutting down inside my skull. I managed to nod my head after she finished speaking in an effort to appear normal.
Then I dashed to the women’s bathroom and opened up the first vacant stall in sight. Once inside, I moved the silver knob to the locked position and crumbled down onto the cold, bare tile.
“It’s finally happened,” I cried. “I have lost my mind.”
I went home that evening with a horrible zapping sensation in my head. I felt as though I could begin seizing at any moment. So, I called my doctor.
“I guess we should try to get you off of this medication,” she stated. “Let’s try you on Xanax [a benzodiazepine drug] next.”
I took the Xanax as prescribed, hoping for the slightest bit of relief. The next day, I entered my psychiatrist’s office, barely able to sit down as another round of brain zaps shook me to my core. “My head hurts ALL the time,” I exclaimed. “It’s like I am being plugged into an electrical outlet!”
She barely looked at me and said, “Rose, you have anxiety. Anxiety can cause physical sensations. Why don’t you try counting to ten as you breathe in and out.”
I pretended that her breathing exercises worked, and she then told me that we would try a new medication. This prescription was for Klonopin, a different and more potent benzodiazepine than Xanax. I nervously asked her if there were any side effects, recounting my previous experience with the Zoloft. She shook her head and told me that I had nothing to worry about.
Klonopin and Paxil
At first, Klonopin seemed like a miracle. But soon enough, although I had taken the medication as prescribed at 0.5 mg twice a day, all the strange brain-zap sensations returned with a vengeance. Despite being a previously diligent student, I had missed so many days of class that I was in danger of not graduating. When I did make it to school, I often ended up in the nurse’s office, holding my head and crying about how awful I felt.
I called my psychiatrist about a dozen times throughout this experience, but she would only keep telling me that my “underlying” anxiety was causing all my distress. Deep down, I knew this was not the case. I had had none of these symptoms prior to taking the medication. So, I Googled my concerns and found a website titled “Antidepressant Facts.” In horror, I read all the horrific side effects that can occur from psychiatric medications. At this point, however, I did not know what to believe. As I continued taking the Klonopin, I built up a tolerance for it and then started getting interdose withdrawals, including intense anxiety, brain zaps, and depersonalization. I detailed these symptoms to my psychiatrist, but she continued to brush them off as evidence of underlying anxiety. Meanwhile, I felt as though I were having mini seizures on a daily basis.
In a desperate attempt to feel better, I asked her to try a different medication. She suggested Paxil, another antidepressant. Upon ingesting a single dose, I hallucinated the letter “E” coming off of the ceiling and felt so agitated that I ended up in the hospital. During my stay, I calmly and articulately explained that I was having adverse reactions to psychiatric medication. No one believed me. Instead, they asked me leading questions about suicide. They removed my belly-button ring and a metal ornament that I had in my pocket. I felt like a prisoner.
Meanwhile, the potent effects of the Paxil had taken their toll. I became convinced I was dying and said goodbye to my entire family. I lay my head on the hospital pillow and was ready to part with life. I felt at peace about it and I waited for death to rescue me. Instead, I passed out into a deep slumber and awoke to the doctors pleading with my parents to let me stay and have them try different drugs on me. My parents refused, and I was lucky enough to return home.
Withdrawal and More Drugs
After my dehumanizing experience at the hospital, I told my doctor that I was ready to come off the Klonopin. She provided me with a rapid taper plan to get off the drug and asked me to buy a pill cutter. I went down by 0.25 mg every two days until I was fully off the medication in less than a week. Although this method seemed questionable, I still trusted that my doctor knew what was best for me.
Every day, I continued to file more pieces of the pill away and swallow the powdered specks of poison. After I completed my taper, I was promised that my symptoms would disappear. Unfortunately, they only escalated. I had severe inner restlessness, a condition that I can now identify as akathisia. My brain zaps were so severe that I again felt like I was having a mini seizure on a daily basis. And I experienced depersonalization, feeling that I was completely dissociated from myself. I felt as if my soul had been lit on fire. I was no longer a person, but a hollow shell of who I once was. I could not even recognize myself when I looked in the mirror.
All of my friends were going off to college and I felt pressured to do the same. I started at the University of Maryland in the fall of 2005. But due to my unrelenting symptoms, I had to withdraw from all my courses and move out of the dorms after only a couple of months. After this period of high stress, I developed new withdrawal symptoms. I started to suffer from agonizing intrusive thoughts that would torment me 24/7. I also developed vocal tics, involuntary movements, and speech patterns that I had never experienced before.
Despite my negative experiences, I went on to see more than a dozen other psychiatrists. I was desperate to feel better and I did not know where else to turn. I always brought up the possibility that my original medication regimen could be responsible for my current state. These concerns were heavily dismissed, and instead I was given multiple diagnoses throughout the years, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder. Each psychiatrist would always tell me that my only hope was to try another medication. Over the last 15 years, I have tried over a dozen different psychiatric medications including antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.
During this time frame, I was able to successfully complete college and even go on to acquire a doctoral degree. However, any periods of stability were also fraught with underlying bouts of extreme anxiety, obsessive thinking, and depersonalization. Although the brain zaps would fade over time, they would inevitably return and I would suffer silently, in horrific pain.
Off the Merry-Go-Round
A couple of years ago, my pain had escalated to the degree that I became determined to find more answers about my condition. The first name I came across while searching the Internet was that of Dr. Peter Breggin, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who writes scientific literature on the dangers of psychiatric medications. This led me to find the Facebook support group “Beating Benzos,” a community of more than 5,000 individuals who have had protracted symptoms from taking benzodiazepine drugs. This was a huge revelation, and I immediately read hundreds of stories that mirrored my own. For the first time in more than a decade, I did not feel alone. As important, I was now 100 percent confident that the source of all of my ongoing symptoms was the psychiatric medications I had taken for years.
While I am still in the process of fully coming off of my medication, I feel more hopeful about a future that is free of psychiatric drugs. I am now educated about slow and safe micro tapering methods, a means of reducing doses in order to minimize withdrawal symptoms. I also have the support of a community that validates my experience and provides an outlet to document this silent epidemic. I feel angry, frustrated, and sad about the many years of my life lost to psychiatry. However, I do feel hopeful about my future. I hope to advocate for other psychiatric survivors. And I hope that my story reaches others who may still be in the pits of despair. I want them to know that there is a life beyond psychiatric medications, and to keep going.
Rose may be contacted at [email protected] .
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.