“For Life”: New Opera Tells the Stories of Those Harmed by Psychiatric Drugs

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Editor’s Note: Dawn Sonntag and Kermit Cole have collaborated on an opera, For Life, that will be performed on January 15 at 9 pm Eastern Time. Dawn composed the music, and Kermit wrote the libretto. Their goal was to tell the stories of those harmed by psychiatric drugs. Below, Dawn and Kermit each describe how this opera came to be.

Dawn Sonntag

In the context of love and commitment, the words “For Life” elicit hope and trust. In the context of diagnosis, the words “For Life” resound like a hammer blow when they are preceded by words such as “symptom,” “incurable brain disorder,” and “medication.” What if, however, the suggested “symptoms” and supposed “brain disorder” are natural, transient responses to emotional and physical stressors? If so, then the “incurable” part of the “disorder” is as likely to be the result of toxic medications turned to by desperate individuals—and our current psychiatric system as a whole—out of a need for an apparently certain solution.

Dawn Sonntag
Dawn Sonntag

The words “For Life,” in this case, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that turns transient stressors into permanent problems. According to UK psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, who openly challenges the claim that psychotropic drugs “correct a genetic chemical imbalance in the brain,” drug companies have become as powerful as countries. The financial deals they offer to both physicians and politicians who unquestioningly support them has led to a corrupt system in which negative outcomes of research are hidden for financial gain.

My newest opera, For Life, premieres online on January 15 at 9 pm Eastern Time as part of the Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works festival. It gathers the voices of people who sought help for the sorts of challenges that—once upon a time—were normal and ephemeral, if not even the basis for growth and future resilience, and have, as a result of prescribed medication, spiraled into ongoing disability, captives to a system of care whose research and diagnostics are compromised by the financial and guild interests.

My previous operas have all been based on true historical stories of struggle, pain, and survival that were not widely known. When I realized that three of my close family members who were seriously harmed by psychiatric medication were not anomalies but rather a few drops in a large bucket of world-wide medication-induced harm, and that I had dodged possible devastating harm myself via the luck of having a physician and therapist who understood the dangers of these medications and suggested alternatives, I felt compelled to set this story of corruption, suffering, and survival to raise the public’s awareness of this issue.

Because this is a sensitive and controversial topic, deeply personal not only for myself but anyone likely to work on or hear the opera, I wanted to be sure to include the perspective of others who have been personally affected. I discovered that there were many support groups—with thousands of members—for individuals suffering damage from benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and antipsychotic medications. Individuals commonly report that they had been leading an active, mostly happy life until receiving a diagnosis and prescription for what might have been a temporary bout of insomnia, depression, or anxiety caused by life struggles like childbirth, death of a loved one, divorce, job stress, or financial issues. When they tried to discontinue the medications, they were plunged into a nightmare of emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms. Upon reporting these symptoms, their physicians often denied that they could be caused by the medication, even claiming the drug had “uncovered” mental illness, despite these individuals never having experienced such issues prior to the medication.

Reaching out to the community of people affected has added another dimension to the creation of For Life. In the course of my research, members of support groups privately messaged me with thanks for my words of encouragement. A young man, Angel, had posted that he felt hopeless and suicidal after three years of severe, unrelenting insomnia that began after he was prescribed benzodiazepines for insomnia. Ironically—but all too often the case—his insomnia became much more severe after he started the benzo. The severe insomnia caused him to become psychotic, leading to a schizophrenia diagnosis—although he had had no symptoms of schizophrenia before that—and a cocktail of psychiatric prescriptions that included more benzos, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

He had discontinued the benzos, he told me, but he was still on an antidepressant and an antipsychotic, Zyprexa, a drug that had already been under scrutiny because its maker, Eli Lilly, tried to hide information about dangerous side effects. He was so fatigued that he no longer could read or write more than a few lines of text; he was merely existing, living in an endless haze of severe fatigue, and he spoke of wanting to end his life to escape the torture. Finally, his messages to me stopped and his Facebook page disappeared. Stories such as Angel’s drive For Life’s mission to give as loud a voice as possible to the many voices that have gone silent.

In the past, I have written the librettos for my operas. I enjoy the process of shaping the story and creating the characters as I create the music. However, I also wanted to be sure to include the perspectives of professionals who were actively engaged with these issues. After learning from the Mad in America website that founding editor Kermit Cole has a background in film, as well as an education in psychology from Harvard and an Open Dialogue-inspired practice working with people and families struggling with psychosis, I asked if he would serve as an advisor for the libretto. I was delighted when he offered to write it. We collaborated in shaping the story and characters, discussing our perspectives of the issues and characters we wanted to include. The libretto thus evolved to reflect both Kermit’s insight as a mental health professional and my experiences as a family member.

The goal of For Life is to spotlight truths about psychiatric medications that have been obscured or suppressed by drug companies and the American Psychiatric Association. Those who criticize this system are accused of “stigmatizing” mental illness, or of conspiracy theorizing. However, in an era when abuse, racism, and discrimination are beginning to be addressed in our country, we should take care to remember that not having seen or experienced an oppression does not mean that it does not exist. When the call to “destigmatize mental illness” becomes synonymous with “Trust your doctor and take medication without question,” attention must be paid.

For Life is not naïve about the severity of the distresses and dangers that lead people into these situations and accompany their routes out of them. The severity of the problem is why the subject deserves—even cries out for—treatment on an operatic scale.

I feel compelled to remind the reader that psychotropic medications should never be suddenly discontinued unless a physician has specifically directed it, and with the patient fully informed of the reasons and the risks associated with discontinuation and full support for the return of symptoms that often accompany withdrawal.

However, although For Life is a sobering critique of the pain and damage that can result from the medicalization of human emotion, it concludes with a message of hope: that the support of a caring community that listens, accepts, and encourages rather than diagnoses, sentences, and condemns can help people through their personal journeys of suffering and discovery, potentially leading to healing and new life … For Life.

Kermit Cole

When I have tried to comprehend the experiences of so many people prescribed benzodiazepines, neuroleptics, and serotonergic drugs, I couldn’t imagine how to convey the nightmares they were attempted to describe. Their despair was not only for what they had experienced; it was for the fact that they could not adequately convey the upside-down world of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment they had become lost in. There was so much more behind their eyes than they seemed able to find words for. I grew to love so many people who, in the depth of their suffering, were learning fundamental things about being human that—like atoms—are not revealed until they are smashed, and light pours forth.

Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole

I had the great fortune to play a role in helping get unheard voices out when Robert Whitaker asked me to help start the Mad in America website. We aspired to make it as direct and unfiltered a forum as possible. Even so, I am wary about the role of media in attempting to convey difficult things, if only because inadequate attempts risk allowing people to mistakenly believe they understand a person’s experience, and worse, feel they have done something about it.

However, having worked on Mad in America literally night and day for its first four years, I found that I needed to return to full-time direct service work. I needed the experience again that being with people in their struggle without any intention to communicate it to others is both a necessary and—on some level, at least—sufficient. I believe that Bob has done and continues to do that with integrity within his role as a journalist, but my primary identity lay in doing the work itself and I needed to return to doing it out of the public sphere for a while. I needed to remember, in the face of a seemingly intractable problem, that our success is not only measured by change; it is measured by simple willingness to take our turn; sitting with sorrows that have always been, aspiring only to lessen them a little for those that come after.

Then, composer Dawn Sonntag approached me to discuss the project that became For Life, which will be performed online this December. I remember thinking, “What could come closer to conveying these experiences than opera?” What medium has a better potential to giving a full-throated voice to the voiceless, while at the same time capturing in music the poignant inadequacy of words? An opera, I thought, might be capable of exploring the vast world I had glimpsed behind so many people’s eyes; a world that mere words can only point toward. Dawn, Scott Skiba (the director of the Cleveland Opera Theater), and I hoped to capture the experiences of the many people we have known and loved who had been lost in the strange world of psychiatric diagnosis and prescribed drugs.

Working together began, literally, as a dream, when Dawn told me about a dream she had in which she was lost in the woods with a loved one, trying to find their way out. The Byzantine world of psychiatry seemed perfectly at home there; an enchanted forest where “symptoms” are worsened by the same drugs purported to treat them, and then declared to not only vindicate the initial diagnosis but “unmask” other ones. Where “symptoms” are multiplied by withdrawal but further labeled as proof of an illness. The exasperating magical fallacies of psychiatry seemed perfectly at home in the world of enchanted rings and valkyries.

I grew up in a house full of opera on old 78 rpm records, with librettos on fragile yellowed paper that ran side-by-side with their English translation. By high school I was familiar with words and concepts—death, madness, abortion, suicide—that were otherwise under-represented in first-year French. But it had never occurred to me to write an opera until Dawn approached me and I found that the world of psychiatry had prepared me for it.

I have marveled at and tried to express, for example, the brilliant travesty of the legal concept of “Learned Intermediary,” by which pharmaceutical companies have twisted out of culpability in lawsuit after lawsuit for the effects of drugs from which they earn billions. The concept shifts responsibility to prescribers—the “Learned Intermediaries”—who were in actuality acting on information furnished entirely at the discretion of the drug companies. The doctors, in hall-of-mirrors fashion, are further protected by “off-label” prescribing, in which they are free to use any approved drug in any way.

I had tried and despaired of express the perfection of this travesty until “Learned Intermediary” perfectly substituted for “Modern Major General” in an early draft of For Life. Dawn and I laughed uproariously. An echo of that joke survives in For Life, which deals mostly with sterner stuff, but it stands as a good example of the paradoxes we grappled with.

In our enchanted twilight forest, the hope of eliminating fear and sadness—magically, without risk, and without consequence—is an accepted reality. Deeper in the forest, transient experiences and apparent cures are magically transformed into supposed knowledge of a person’s trajectory—“for life.” Diagnosis is a one-way path into a dark forest from which nobody returns. Those who know a person best become, at best, obstacles to their loved one’s “treatment,” ultimately to be cast aside as if the person being “treated” has some other world to live in than one in which they are loved.

In our modern world, the deepest human experiences and aspirations have become the province of suspect authorities with unproven science. Dawn and I tried to create a magical world in which it is possible to take that authority back. To whatever degree we succeeded or failed, the experience whetted our appetite and we are at work on our next opera. Whatever you may think of opera, it is a medium that can aspire to depict the dream we are, hopefully, waking up from.

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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.

22 COMMENTS

  1. “….According to UK psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, who openly challenges the claim that psychotropic drugs “correct a genetic chemical imbalance in the brain,” drug companies have become as powerful as countries….”

    I can demonstrate with reliable documentary evidence that “Drug Companies” have become more powerful than “National Governments” within at least one First World European Country.

  2. I LOVE this article! SO WELL expressed and not written to try and be excusing of psychiatry.
    It is straight to the point of the matter. Too often we see critics making excuses for psych, to try and look “nice”. People who have been psychiatrized by whatever system or people have the licence to do so, are further traumatized by efforts to excuse the people responsible for their harms.

    Thanks for this Dawn and Kermit. Excellent words. Nice to see them put into loud voices.

  3. Thanks for all the work in creating an opera. Forgive me for pessimism but if it is only to be shown online I don’t think it will register with mainstream policy makers who outsource all matters of human distress to psychiatry and with the public who are happy with that.

    Kermit Cole’s last sentence that the dark forest that people who are drugged and diagnosed with a condition ‘for life’ go into ‘is a dream that we are hopefully waking up from’ is more than a little optimistic.

    Thanks to the virus (I am not a denier and took the vaccine), pharmaceutical companies have become more powerful.

    Psychiatry is very cleverly repositioning itself to take in aspects of the psycho social model – private psyche hospitals now offer mindfulness along with the drugs and the new big thing in psychiatry is ‘nutritional’ psychiatry.

    Oppressive ‘mental health’ laws remain in place throughout the world making it very easy to incarcerate and forcibly drug those unlucky enough to manifest distress who have no one to protect them.

    In 2020 Ireland had the largest numbers yet recorded for the ‘involuntary admission’ by the police force:-

    https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2021/0701/1232330-mental-health-commission-report/

    So kudos for writing it…and all that…but I don’t think anything will change

  4. This is very interesting; an opera about psychiatric survivors of “forced” and dangerous drugging. Personally, I am, unfortuantely, not an opera fan, but this is a tremondously big start to get the message out about the damage done by psychotropic drugs (also known as psychiatric drugs and very probably related to psychadelic drugs.) Maybe someday, a cable tv show or movie. There are lots of independent movie makers and streaming services that now do movies and such that would not normally play in the usual big screen movie houses or on mass media/network tv. The good thing is that people are noticing these alternatives and they are not being either cancelled or censured by big tech or the mass media, etc. And, of course, there is the print media an all kinds of ways to get our stories out. Each person can find what is best for him or her to learn about this terror. We don’t need congressional hearings at least right now when such creativity to get our stories out is so abundantly available. Thank you.

  5. Thank You Maedhbh,

    I think the the Irish Police might be looking in the wrong places.

    The Official Mental Health System in terms of looking after people doesn’t work.

    https://youtu.be/YT2ecA6bJ1c

    MH Danger:- There is an ongoing, High Profile Epidemic in Ireland of Familicide/Suicide/Homicide – usually carried out by the “Normal Population”.

    About 1% of people are likely to experience Extreme Paradoxical Reaction to “Stress Reducing Drugs” (like “antidepressants”) and about 15% of the “Normal Irish Population” consume these drugs.

    Stopping these drugs would probably stop the Epidemic. But recognising the problem for what it is, and taking more care of “Normal People” consuming these drugs would probably improve things.

    I think the main problem is that the Irish Economy has allowed itself to become very Dependant on the Pharmaceutical Industry – through political dishonesty.

    • Fiachra,

      I am in agreement with you about the political dependence on pharma companies who manufacture these drugs that have bases in Ireland: – Johnson and Johnson (Janssen) – ( Risperdal ), Pfizer (Zoloft, Effexor and Xanax), Eli Lilly (Prozac & Cymbalta), GlaxoSmithKline (Paxil).

      I am in complete agreement about the suicides and homicides occurring here by people who are on psychotropic drugs. The recent tragic case of the nurse who killed both her children who was found not guilty by reason of insanity was on two antidepressants at the time that occurred. By being under psychiatric care at the time she killed her children she probably did not qualify as a ‘normal person’. Now the poor woman never will again.

  6. I applaud Ms. Sonntag’s dedicated work to expose the grift that is the psychiatric industry. ANY form it takes to effectively reach more eyes & ears should be applauded.
    This article was powerful in it’s concise articulation of the complexity of this topic and the muffled cries for help from the targeted individuals being snuffed out by simple, hideous greed.
    As someone who was drugged into the system for 11 years and was able to mount a chaotic/careful/successful repudiation of my “lifelong diagnosis & drugs-for-life” fate (with on-the-record, exit documentation), I have just re-started my life at 70 years old…clear-headed, re-formed, & holding tightly to my seemingly restored good health-body & soul-that I have re-crafted step-by-step for 6 years.
    Last week I landed (back) in my former home state (scene of the original ‘crime’), eager to begin an exciting 3rd act.
    Those 2 diagnosticians have so far ignored my emailed invitations for a ‘Come-to-Jesus’ dialogue with a former client, the result of their “lifelong” condemnation…& my ‘exonerating’ documentation from much bigger MD ‘fish’ (Titles, education, APA recognition-things that matter in their ‘pond’) that underscores the terrible, damaging, nearly fatal result of their & their industry’s hubris and greed.

    Why wouldn’t a professional in behavioral health take this rare opportunity to develop some personal & professional insight & humility that could have the effect of delivering improved, SAFER ‘treatment’?
    Perhaps it’s the $-including the psychiatrist’s $65,000+/annually from pharma-publicly reported by the federal Sunshine Law-or legal liability issues?
    I’m aware-as are their attornies-any statute of limitations has long expired.

    And yet they avoid a rare opportunity to learn and develop improved behaviors…a popular CBT raison d’etre…the emptiest of rhetoric applied relentlessly to clients entombed in all those drugs.

    “First do no harm” is the acid poured into the gaping, oozing wound they created…I bequeath it to them both…a deep, permanent scar, visible to me when I view them in my carefully managed memory files.
    It’s no longer mine. It’s all their’s…my gift…& I know they can’t bear to look at what it says about them.

    They fear my living truth, my victory over evil…their professional legacy & personal tragedy.

    Keep writing Ms. Sonntag.

  7. Yes, many psychiatrists tell patients they’re suffering from a “chemical” imbalance and then write out a prescription for the chemicals the patient supposedly “needs.” But we humans have a BIOchemistry, not a “chemistry.” The human body runs on all-natural biochemicals made from the food and liquids we take in. “Orthomolecular Medicine” is the science of restoring one’s BIO-chemical imbalance with the right “nutraceuticals” and, of course, the American Psychiatric Association has been fighting this approach since the 1950s or before. Nutraceuticals can’t be patented so there’s only a tiny profit to be made from prescribing them.

  8. Also, if you’d like to learn just how crooked the drug company is that produces Zyprexa, read “The Zyprexa Papers” by attorney, Jim Gottstein. You’ll see just how far drug companies will go to keep their secrets about how dangerous and ineffective their drugs are.

  9. Quote: “I feel compelled to remind the reader that psychotropic medications should never be suddenly discontinued unless a physician has specifically directed it, and with the patient fully informed of the reasons and the risks associated with discontinuation and full support for the return of symptoms that often accompany withdrawal.”

    Really? I wouldn’t be alive today had I followed that imperative. What we feel, when withdrawing, is far from a return to symptoms. Withdrawal is a completely different world bearing no resemblance to any “original complaint”, and why is this mistaken characteristic still sold?

    • I would say that physicians almost NEVER direct someone to discontinue ANY psychiatric drug. Additionally, “return of symptoms” is often a euphemism for “withdrawal symptoms” occurring upon withdrawal. Support is, indeed, needed, but medical providers almost never provide the kind of support that is helpful. If we all waited for a physician to “direct” their patent to withdraw, almost no one would ever get off psych drugs, no matter how bad the effects of the drug in question.

    • Ten or twenty years ago I would have said “yes” to the warning statement mentioned by the author. Today, I agree with “Bananas” To say “no” to this statement is to live and to value your life and the lives of others. To say “yes” is essentially a death sentence for you and others, too. We have got to stop giving authority to “psychiatrists, etc.” and other “medical/health personal, M.D.s, etc.” and return it back to ourselves. Those who think they are “experts,” “professionals,” and “officials” lose all validity when they disregard that “you” may know something about “you” and that “you” are the “authority” on “you.” There are many good people and books, etc. out there that may help, but they are only helpful when “you” can attest and verify that they truly resonate with “who you are” or what they are saying or doing does not harm “you.” And only “you” know best. Thank you.

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