When I was 10 years old, I started to experience severe social anxiety. I was having difficulty getting along with others and often ended up in fights with other girls my age. More often than not, someone said something to me that was verbally abusive, or I was very overwhelmed. Even though I had social anxiety I was still a functioning smart kid that needed an explanation for things that were beyond my initial comprehension or my usual logical thinking. I was perceived as being a rebel because of the constant questioning my guardian would endure after I’d been told what I needed to do or how I should be behaving. Authority and hierarchy did not register in my ten-year-old mind, and this upset a lot of adults that wanted their authority respected and acknowledged, even by a little kid.
My guardian noticed these “symptoms” or personality characteristics that I was displaying and decided to seek out “professional” advice about how to treat my anxiety and diminish my angry and often argumentative “outbursts” that generally stemmed from a perceived injustice, misuse of power, or too many expectations. I was perceived as a problem that needed to be extinguished into a compliant state, which led to a very long ten years of being on several different medications at a time with ten different diagnoses.
The “professional” advice recommended that I start taking a drug called Paxil, also known in generic form as Paroxetine. It was 1997, long before the drug was FDA approved in 1999 and I was merely experimented on to see if the drug would ease the supposed problematic symptoms I was experiencing. As you will read, it did not.
Shortly after taking Paxil, I started planning my suicide. It’s important to note that before taking Paxil, I was not suicidal at all. I had anxiety, but I was also full of life, curious, had straight A’s, and even though I was mouthy I had no clue what it would mean to die. I didn’t want to die.
I did attempt to take my own life at the age of ten years without any prior history of suicidal ideation or behaviors. I almost died. I was flown by helicopter to a hospital and there they pumped my stomach and at some point, I came to, not fully understanding what I had done. From that moment forward, my life was so dramatically changed because I became a cog in the system of psychiatry. By the time I got out, I had ten different diagnoses, I was on several different medications, and the shame and behavioral modifications, as well as institutional abuse I endured in one of the placements I was at, only traumatized me more.
When I became an adult, the opportunity arose to break free from the mental health industry and my adoptive family, and find myself. It’s important to note that I am adopted and so the journey to finding myself began with finding my roots. I found my birth family in 2008 and I met them in 2019. I started to understand the genetic components of my behaviors which clarified a lot.
In 2011, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. I noticed that she behaved a lot like me and at some point, I became worried that she would experience the world the way that I did. She has an eye for injustice, has very intense meltdowns due to sensory overload, and has keen special interests that wouldn’t jump out at anyone as being odd. I asked doctors if they thought what I thought. When she was two years old, I suggested that she was autistic and was immediately turned down. “There’s no way, she’s meeting or exceeding all of her milestones,” the doctor said. Under the assumption that they surely knew better than me, I went on my way, struggling for many years with my daughters’ behaviors and learning how to approach and coexist, but knowing that there was a genetic correlation.
In 2017, I started attending college. I was a stay-at-home mom with two kids and there was always a quest inside of me to understand the world more so that I could understand my experiences more. In 2021, I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Sociology. This led me to many different authors and the educational background to understand research and be taken seriously in my thoughts and ideas. That was always one of the issues I experienced previously. I would find a way to narrate my experience but because I had too little education or merit, no one would take my theories seriously.
My entire life I had quarrels with the idea that I just voluntarily tried to kill myself. When I brought it up with family that were there, the invalidation burned into my soul. I know me. I know what I want, and I know what ten-year-old me wanted. I later found out through research articles and other people’s experiences with Paxil (or Paroxetine), that I am not the only person/child that tried to end my life (or actually did) after the use of Paxil. In fact, it is now not recommended for children under the age of 18 at all because of the increased risks of suicidal ideation.
After reading about these experiences and understanding the research, the narrative of my childhood changed. I tried to commit suicide after starting a drug called Paxil, which then sent me into psychiatric treatment and residential treatment centers for years because now I had a history of mental health issues and any step out of line was a step into a facility. It was a domino effect. Another important thing to note is that once I turned 18, I never stepped foot into another facility again. I came off all the prescription drugs I was prescribed; I only told my new doctor in a new state that I had anxiety and depression and nothing else. I then started a new quest. The quest for family medical history.
Despite coming off all of the medications and shunning almost all of the diagnoses I was diagnosed with, I still knew that something was off about me. I have trouble with conversations and small talk, I avoid people, and I often would obsess over certain topics of interest. One of the most bothersome was difficulty with emotional regulation. What I knew as ‘tantrums’ as a kid became something entirely different for me as an adult.
It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my half-brother, half-sister, and other siblings that I discovered autism runs genetically in our family. I looked up the telltale signs of level one autism and discovered that both my daughter and I experience these things as well as autistic meltdowns. We were both diagnosed this year and although I can only speak of my experience, I feel like I am fully and authentically myself which has lent itself to me being a better and more understanding mom, wife, and future social worker.
This discovery is an important one because it not only liberates me from the chains of misdiagnoses, it liberates my father who was born in 1941. Although I cannot prove it, I fully believe he was autistic, and he was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. After reading Neuro Tribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman (2015), I became more convinced because of the history of diagnosing autistic people with schizophrenia instead. This also reflects the liberation I have experienced from the shame attached to mental health diagnoses. Why is every person that is not neurotypical shamed for being different? If there is anything we can do to help people and their mental health, it is to rid ourselves of the negative language and perceptions attached to it. Please Hollywood, stop perpetuating it.
This brings us to a decent time in my life where I am not medicated, I am properly diagnosed, and I view myself and my daughter from a strength-based approach instead of a deficit-based approach. Something the DSM-5 should consider the next time they edit it.
I also understand why my experiences were and are the way they were and are. As I start and finish my MSW, I will keep in mind what I have learned about misdiagnoses, the cause and effect of prescription medication, and autism, so that when I am in contact with another struggling child or family, I will have the necessary understanding, education, and background to help them. I will always remain critical of psychiatry, the dynamics of power, the normalization of being medicated, and the pathologizing of almost every human behavior. It’s more important now than ever to question the status quo and the institutions that benefit from it.
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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