If you have ever had the misfortune of receiving a psychiatric diagnosis… I can guarantee you will never be able to forget it. It will follow you to the ends of the earth, completely transforming your relationships with your family, friends, employers, co-workers and health professionals. It will impact what they think of you, how they treat you, even to the point of how they speak to you and about you. It will change the very concept you have of yourself. It comes with its own scorched earth policy. Can you think of a more significant way to make a person feel disempowered than by giving an individual a psychiatric diagnosis?
Personally it has cost me friendships, my dignity and my self-respect. It has shaken my confidence and shaped my perceptions. Slowly self-doubt begins to creep in, and you learn to mistrust your decisions and emotions as you view everything through the lens of a psychiatric ‘diagnosis’, deferring everything over to the advice of your psychiatrist. Basically, it is like a complete and total brainwashing where eventually you find yourself distrusting the human race as a whole. The stigma and discrimination I have had to endure due to my ‘diagnosis’ crushed my spirit and the dreams I had for my life.
But the most devastating part of all is how my ‘diagnosis’ altered my developing relationship with my two sons. They were both fed a constant diet of a false narrative about the status of their mother’s mental health onwards from the ages of four and seven, which impacted our developing relationship in countless ways that continue to this day. This is the part of my past that hurts deeply. There is nothing more precious to a mother than her children. My children are now grown men. My eldest has children of his own. Something was truly lost that I can’t get back and although my relationship with my children today is a loving one, irreparable damage has occurred that continues to impact our relationship. Yet when you’re told a lie and from that point on you base your life on that lie and so does everyone else around you, the truth becomes elusive. If you are fortunate enough to find out the truth, there is nothing to do but face it or ignore it, but good luck to you if you decide to try to explain to others that you are not what a psychiatrist labeled you. It’s a catch-22.
Like many Americans, I originally accepted my ‘diagnosis’ of manic depression. Since then, manic depression has been renamed and is now known by the more consumer-friendly ‘bipolar disorder’. I guess you could say that I was carrying on a family tradition, since I have an older sister who, years earlier than myself, also walked away from a psychiatrist’s office with that same label.
My journey down the rabbit hole began late in the spring of 1989 when I was experiencing a major depression. The words ‘major depression’ never crossed my mind to describe the way I was feeling. At the suggestion of the wife of my husband’s brother, I was taken to her own personal psychiatrist. When I reflect on my situation at the time, I wonder why the suggestion was made in the first place as my circumstances were well known to his family. I was 29 and the mother of two children. My youngest was in preschool and my eldest was enrolled at a parochial school where I volunteered as headroom mother. My husband and I had just purchased our first home five years earlier. A year after we moved in, I gave birth to our second child. These financial obligations led my husband to work an increased number of hours at his father’s business. Most days I wouldn’t see him until nightfall, which left him little time to devote to our family life not to mention our relationship with each other. At the time I had relatively few close friends and although my husband’s large family lived nearby, all of my seven siblings and their family members lived hundreds of miles away. None of my neighbors were stay-at-home moms like myself and at times I felt isolated; cut off.
I was single-handedly coping with a lot of stress. I never really noticed how I was slipping into a depression until I found myself within its midst. It’s not like there is an ‘a-ha’ moment where you tell yourself, “I have depression.” It’s only in retrospect when you have a past reference point from which to compare. So, when I found myself alone, in a small office, facing a woman, a psychiatrist I had never met before, I felt overwhelmed. This encounter would be the first and the last encounter I would have with this person. To this day I don’t know what was said between us or even her name. I do recall that I had been having thoughts about being a bad mother. It never occurred to me just how irrational these intruding and reoccurring thoughts were or even to challenge them within my mind. Up until this point, I had always prided myself on being a good mother. And even though the self-condemning thoughts about being a bad mother had been happening prior to the visit to the psychiatrist, the visit set off a real paranoia that I can’t explain. It felt like I had done something so horribly wrong, and this visit seemed to justify what I had been feeling. I don’t know if I voiced these thoughts to her during the interview, but she wrote out a prescription for an antidepressant which my husband filled.
At this point in the story, it gets hazy. I began to lose track of time and I don’t know how long after the visit to the psychiatrist this happened, but I remember my husband decided to drop off my children at another one of my sister-in-law’s houses and I was left at home alone. This seemed rather odd to me. My children were always either at school or they were with me. I also think the situation fed into the thoughts I was having about being a bad mother. There by myself, I began to experience fear as it occurred to me that the psychiatrist had tricked me and had given me a placebo. I honestly thought this. So, to counter this fear I took more of the antidepressant. I know I did not take all the pills in the bottle but apparently, I took enough. I immediately called my sister-in-law, the one who was watching my children, and explained that the psychiatrist had slipped me a placebo and that I had taken more of them. She immediately called 911.
By the time my husband arrived back at our house, emergency vehicles were blocking the street in front. I was rushed to the hospital. In the emergency room, right after having my stomach pumped, I was confronted with papers of commitment. I refused to sign. My husband called one of my sisters who was a phlebotomist at the time and worked at a hospital. She gave me a speech about signing the commitment papers because if not I could be kept for up to 90 days against my will. So, while lying in a hospital bed surrounded by medical equipment I decided to sign. As it so happened, my hospital stay came close to fulfilling those 90 days.
In my mind at least, this was not a suicide attempt, but it wouldn’t matter. That was only a technicality. When I first recounted what happened that day, to one of my sisters, I got the distinct impression she didn’t believe me.
She said, “That doesn’t make sense.”
If this was the end of my story, I would consider myself blessed, but it wasn’t. This was just the beginning of a nightmarish turning point that became my life for the next 30 years. Eight months later I found myself again committed to the same psychiatric ward at the same hospital but this time for different reasons and with a new ‘diagnosis’: manic depression.
Many years later, after reading the criteria for bipolar in the DSM, I was quite puzzled as to how I got this ‘diagnosis’. None of what was listed seemed to apply to me back on that February evening in 1990. Sure, my husband and I had been fighting but this was no different than the many other times we had fought. Except this time, he called his mother. I remember sitting on the landing with one of my sons sitting quietly by my side, listening to his call. I can remember being driven to the same hospital that I was admitted to eight months prior, in the backseat of my mother-in-law’s car, with my husband driving and my mother-in-law sitting in the passenger seat; I did not fully comprehend what their intentions were or what awaited me when I got to the hospital. So confident was I that, as a new Christian, I decided to take my Bible. This action could have been my undoing along with my previous record of overdose. When we eventually arrived and according to my memory, without even seeing one psychiatrist, I was escorted upstairs to the behavioral facility by a nurse and my husband and admitted.
Unfortunately, when I recently wanted access to my hospital records from this night, I was told the records had been destroyed. I have no way of knowing what was recorded as being said by either my husband or mother-in-law or any notations by hospital staff. But I do know that sleep was not an issue, nor grandiosity. I was in control of my faculties. I was not ranting and raving, acting hysterically or brandishing a weapon. I was not delusional nor was I trying to convert anyone or reading from my Bible. I just naively and willingly went to the hospital with no questions asked.
My stay was a short one. This time less than a week and now I was officially ‘manic depressive’ and prescribed lithium for life. I had been assigned to a psychiatrist my husband’s eldest brother had been seeing after his divorce when I was first hospitalized in 1989. He initially lied to me, telling me I would only need to be on lithium for a year, never even bothering to mention any of the side effects. At 5 foot 2 inches with a small frame, during the next 12 months I gained 60 lbs with nary a word from him about this weight gain.
After receiving that ‘diagnosis’ I never saw the writing on the wall. I was to be hospitalized eight more times in a 30-year period, sometimes with as many as 11 years in between hospitalizations. On one occasion I drove myself to the hospital at the request of my husband and was admitted based just upon his recommendation. Of course, by that time I had an involuntary commitment history. But it was the last two hospitalizations in the first part of 2020 that were the most horrific. This is when I was abruptly withdrawn from a concoction of drugs. The woman I became was unrecognizable from the genuine person that I am — a far cry from the naive young mother of 1990 who first received the label manic depressive. My personal agency was completely in shatters. I can tell you firsthand the destructive nature of psychiatric drugs because I have lived through it.
I am aware of how many people may feel these drugs help them and I don’t want to disparage anyone’s feelings. But one of the things I do object to is how the psychiatric and medical community, along with the drug companies, do not fully disclose to the public the inherent dangers involved in taking psychiatric medications and the flimsy and arbitrary criteria not backed by empirical science that these drugs are dispensed with, normally being prescribed to the person for life. These are mind-altering substances. Instead of fixing some chemical imbalance, they cause them. It is a less than honest way of doing business. Iatrogenic effects, which can happen quite frequently and without warning to the consumers of these medications, are often blamed on the consumer as a reemergence of the ‘mental illness’ rather than acknowledging the true culprit which is the medication itself.
The 19th century’s sordid psychiatric treatment of the so-called mentally ill is well known by the public. Ask anyone what images come to mind when you say the word “asylum” and compassionate care will not be among any of those images. Although many of the bizarre, tortuous and abusive treatments were cast off by the psychiatric community, precisely because these forms of ‘treatment’ have no scientific or curative value, new ones replaced the old, therefore little has changed since then. Psychiatry remains a very destructive, coercive, and highly political means of social control. Psychiatry’s reputation for exploiting women, the poor and the disadvantaged is also common knowledge to the general public. So why does a false sense of what psychiatry is and what it represents persist in the mind of the average person?
The answer to this question is multifaceted, but the shame of it all lies in the populace’s blind trust that psychiatry is valid science. Society’s overall complacency towards psychiatry’s utter lack of scientific evidence has cost millions of psychiatric survivors much grief, heartache and ruined lives. And in psychiatry’s wake, society continues to deny people their civil rights based solely upon its perception that ‘they’ need ‘help’. But is psychiatric help the answer? I can think of far more kindhearted and empathetic methods and less stressful ways of helping someone cope with a life crisis or distressing situation than locking them up, forcibly drugging them and stigmatizing them with a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives.
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.