My Red October – An Army Veteran’s Crucible to Recovery

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My brother Jesse sat next to me on the couch in my living room. Two police officers stood inside my entryway, watching us. My mind raced. I believed my brother’s life was in danger. I believed I was the only person who knew it and only I could save him. If only I could stop the police officers from reading my mind — as I knew they were — and prevent them from spoiling my plan.

Not knowing what to do, my husband, parents and brother called the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Crisis Line. Since my parents lived out of state, Jesse was the closest to me and he saw it as his job to protect me, from myself. The help we received was cops in my living room.

This was my second major psychotic episode in three years. It was also the second time I’d been prescribed Prozac. The mania, paranoia, delusional thoughts and rage I’d been experiencing in the days and weeks leading up to this event became an untenable crisis.

Army veterans recovery
Diana Rodriguez in Bagram, Afghanistan, 2012

The scene above played out in October 2022 at my family’s home just outside of Fort Liberty, North Carolina where I’d been stationed in the Army years earlier. But in a short three-year window preceding this event, a VA psychiatrist told my husband and friends that I was a schizophrenic (I’m not schizophrenic, nor have I been diagnosed with it); I was forcibly institutionalized twice and voluntarily admitted once; my children were taken from me by court order; my husband filed divorce paperwork; and I was forced to move in with my mother because I could no longer care for myself. None of this aligned with the life I lived for the 35 years preceding this period, nor does it align with my life today.

How the hell did this happen?

It all started in 2014, less than a year after my honorable discharge from the Army, and shortly after returning home from Afghanistan, where I’d served as an Apache helicopter mechanic. My children’s psychologist had approached me with concerns. The concerns weren’t for my children though. Instead, they were about me. She felt I might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I heeded her concerns and sought help myself. I began talk therapy and peer support programs, and started holistic treatments such as meditation. Through all of this, I felt the issues she raised were merited and I felt that I’d significantly improved over these four years. But by the end of 2018, life started to become overwhelming. My middle school-aged daughter had a suicide attempt, the result of relentless bullying. I was grappling with the pressures of balancing the needs of my teenagers, who were struggling in different ways, and my two preschoolers with developmental delays that no professional could explain — all while attempting to manage and overcome my own trauma from military service.

I was stretched thin without much support since my husband worked at the military base all day as a helicopter mechanic and contractor. My family and friends were spread throughout the country. The numerous calls per week to address each family member and my own challenges made it difficult to manage day-to-day life, though I tried desperately.

Overwhelmed, I sought help from my VA mental health team. After discussing all of the stressors in my life and the challenges I was experiencing, my psychiatric nurse practitioner decided to prescribe me Prozac. She mentioned that the medication could cause depressive symptoms and suicidal ideations. But when she talked about the side effects, she didn’t seem very worried and assured me that these side effects were “rare,” so we decided to try Prozac to see if it would help.

In the first few weeks, I didn’t notice any major issues with the medication, but there was little by way of medication management, so my family and I didn’t know what to be looking for. I understand that when starting these medications, you’re supposed to be closely monitored, but I don’t remember having any additional check-ins with my nurse practitioner.

After the first few weeks, I began experiencing rapidly escalating behavioral changes, but I didn’t connect the medications to any of this. In the first few days of 2019, I was really struggling, so I went back to the VA for two psychiatric holds for observation. Unfortunately, my situation only continued to decline.

Though I was apprehensive about the idea, my husband and I talked about voluntarily admitting myself into the VA for inpatient psychiatric care. In response to how quickly my mental health had devolved, my husband was concerned I might have a brain tumor. Prior to my intake, the VA providers told my husband and me that they too were concerned. They told us they would do a brain scan to rule out the possibility of a tumor and assured us I would be placed in a less restrictive unit. Unfortunately, the Prozac I’d been prescribed just a few months earlier was never even considered as a potential cause of my mania and psychosis.

Immediately after completing my intake, I was forcibly injected with a psychiatric drug, which turned me into all but a vegetable. It seemed the doctor’s answers to my problems were more and more potent psychiatric drugs, all to be started at the same time. I was not moved to the less restrictive unit until the day prior to my release from my two-week inpatient stay, and I felt I was treated like a prisoner throughout my time there. My treatment did not make me better. Instead, I was worse off and I now felt alone, as I no longer trusted anyone involved in taking me there.

Broken trust

It wasn’t just the doctors I’d lost trust in. I now felt I couldn’t trust my husband, my best friend of over 15 years and other family friends who had taken me to this place. I was a shell of my former self, unable to think, staring off into space; all while trying my best to care for my family. I felt like a zombie, merely watching the world around me, not participating in it.

My husband no longer trusted me with our children. He told our eldest kids not to listen to me and to watch over me because I was crazy. As a result, my teenage daughter ignored me, causing further behavioral issues with her, in addition to the crisis I was going through. There was a reason my husband would not listen when I insisted the new medications were causing problems. There was a reason he thought I was crazy, beyond my behavior. There was a reason he wouldn’t listen to me when I complained of the side effects of the drugs.

Without my knowledge, and without a diagnosis or a medical history that would support such a diagnosis, my VA psychiatrist told my husband and a family friend that I had schizophrenia. Aside from my biological family, this doctor’s actions took away the only people I had as a support system.

Several months of sadness, isolation and suffering went by. Unable to continue living this way, I asked my best friend if my children and I could move in with her temporarily. After she told me no, I made the difficult decision to leave my husband and sought refuge and support from my mother to focus on my recovery.

As soon as I arrived at my mother’s house in Texas, I took myself off all the psychiatric drugs I’d been prescribed, including the antipsychotic risperidone. I did not do this safely, as I stopped them cold turkey. But in the coming weeks and months, I began returning to a functional state and the mother my family could recognize. Though I was starting to do better in many other ways, my PTSD symptoms were worse than when I began treatment years earlier. The nightmare that was my inpatient hospitalization, combined with my newly developed distrust of those around me, exacerbated my previous traumas. Though I still struggled and my cognitive functioning was far from my norm, I could think again; I was no longer burning food while cooking and I could manage most things independently, although for once I did not have to because many family members were there and helping.

Taking my family away

Just as I was feeling as though I were myself again, my children were removed from me in emergency custody hearings that I hadn’t even been aware of. I was served with a court order at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport while dropping my eldest children off for a flight to have a summer visitation with my ex-husband.

My ex-husband, with the help of my friends and current husband, used the court order for emergency custody in North Carolina that my husband had been granted as proof my children were in danger, because “Diana had schizophrenia and was refusing to take her medication.”

Just as things began to settle down in the legal battle for my eldest children, the sheriff’s department showed up at my mother’s house and presented me with another court order granting my husband emergency custody of my youngest children. Though heartbroken, I quietly and politely packed their belongings. I hugged them and kissed them before they got into the car. Then I watched as the sheriffs drove away from the house, with my kids in the back seat of the cruiser.

A few weeks later, I was in court fighting the emergency custody order. During the hearing, my attorney presented my medical records to the judge and my husband’s lawyer. After the judge reviewed the documents, he reversed the previous ruling and ordered that my children be returned to me. This was the first time my husband learned there was never a schizophrenia diagnosis and the doctor had not told him the truth. He was crushed by this and was left in a state of shock.

The judge ordered that I remain in North Carolina with our children, which isolated me from my family in Texas, with the exception of my eldest brother Jesse who lived an hour away. If it were not for my youngest son’s teachers, who became close family friends, I would have had no one in the local area.

Army veterans recovery
Diana and her husband John

The cause of the separation from my husband was his misguided trust in the psychiatrists and the VA. When it was proven in court that there had been no such diagnosis and much of what he had been told wasn’t true, we talked and in spite of everything we’d gone through, we were able to reconcile.

Over the next three years, I continued to improve as the combination of psychotropic medications gradually left my system, and my ability to fully function returned. I built a new support system. Since my trust in the VA for mental health care was gone, I decided to take the advice of some older veterans and sought out a local Vet Center to work on my latest trauma resulting from the medication and care received. At one point, I told my Vet Center counselor that I believed the psychotic episode and institutionalization may have stemmed from a reaction to something I was taking at the time, but I wasn’t sure. The root cause of the initial behavioral changes with psychosis remained unknown.

Back to the beginning… On the couch with my brother and the police

As I looked up at the officers, I just wished they would go away; I was still focused on saving my brother. They didn’t go away. Instead, the police and paramedics loaded me into an ambulance and drove me to the military base hospital nearby. My brother and father arranged for me to go there, as they refused to allow me to go back to inpatient care at the VA. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the cause, this time, I was admitted involuntarily to Womack Army Medical Center.

Upon arrival, I was placed under 24-hour supervision, watched by a team of Army medics, and taken under the care of an Army medical doctor. The doctor’s first action was discontinuing the Prozac I’d been prescribed. Within a day and a half, my behavior began to stabilize. The delusions subsided enough to the point where the doctor was able to identify the cause of my psychosis.

The doctor’s diagnosis was “medication-induced psychosis caused by Prozac.”

I was allowed to return home after just three days in the hospital this time. As a result of stopping the Prozac my sleep schedule was destroyed. I spent 24-hour periods of time awake, broken apart by brief crashes, before the cycle repeated itself. My husband took on all tasks in the household so I could focus on recovery, since he no longer worked outside the home. Within two weeks, I was able to resume my university courses. I have maintained a 4.0 grade point average since, in addition to being able to be a good mother to my kids. I was even able to resume my work volunteering to help other veterans.

Resolution

In 2023, I finally saw my middle son after four years apart. My older children had been angry with me for years because I had not corrected the bad information they’d been told about my psychotic events. I hadn’t corrected them as I didn’t feel it was an appropriate conversation to have until they were adults, and I didn’t want to cause them any further trauma.

After my son graduated from high school and no longer lived with his father and stepmother, I explained what had happened and tried to help him understand both sides. Thankfully, we were able to mend our relationship. All of my eldest children appreciate that I prioritized their well-being and didn’t involve them in adult issues just to defend myself.

Knowing all of this now, if I could go back and if I really understood the risks, I might not have taken the medication. Undoubtedly, that would surprise no one, but I’ve had to ask myself, what can I learn from this? What can others learn from my story? What are my real insights about how things failed? What would I like to see done in the future so others do not go through what my family and I have?

For me, there are two primary takeaways. First, the patient and the family must be told of all the side effects of the medications you might be prescribed. If mania and psychosis are possible side effects, everyone should be aware so they can watch for them, and so other doctors can properly diagnose you when you do have a bad reaction to a drug. Second, patients should be empowered and encouraged to create an Advance Directive or Psychiatric Advance Directive. If you become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself, as happened to me, you need a person you trust who can make decisions on your behalf. During my first inpatient stay I did not have this in place, and I suffered immensely for it.

These two differences would not have changed my experiences with taking Prozac; it would, however, have drastically changed the outcome. When I had my first inpatient psychiatric admission, my father would have been able to request a medical doctor to oversee my care, and he could have refused the new psychiatric drugs and the injection. I tried to refuse them myself, but the doctors threatened to involuntarily extend my inpatient hospitalization, even though I had voluntarily admitted myself.

Last December, amidst a battle with bronchitis, when my condition had deteriorated to the point where a visit to the VA emergency room was unavoidable, I came to the stark realization that the trauma of my experience with the mental health system hadn’t only broken my trust with the medical system as a whole, but that of others close to me as well.

During the drive to the ER, my youngest asked, “Mom, what if they don’t let you leave?”

My journey through medication-induced mania and psychosis was a crucible of suffering and resilience. While the scars may linger, they serve as reminders of the strength found in adversity and the need for change. Through advocacy and awareness, I now strive to illuminate the shadows cast by inadequate mental health care, and hope to inspire others towards a path of healing and hope.

Army veterans recovery
Family camping trip, 2023

Editor’s Note: The Gruntstyle Foundation, a non-profit led by veterans, is collecting stories by veterans and their families to support its  “War Cry For Change: The Revolution to Reclaim Veteran Mental Health” initiative. Mad in America is supporting this initiative by publishing these stories and archiving them on our site. Members of the veterans community, including their families and friends, can submit their story here.

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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.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Powerful testimony to the need for change in how veterans receive mental health care. I am so glad you were able to repair the relationships with your family. What I really don’t understand is how all of the medical personnel involved appear so uninformed about how these drugs can change a person that you had to suffer so long—and made the decision to stop taking them yourself as so many have. You know I’m crying after reading this story that is just too familiar to me, and shouldn’t be.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Diana. Just an FYI, both the antidepressants and the antipsychotics are in a drug class called the anticholinergic drugs. And the medical community was all taught about anticholinergic toxidrome in med school. Check out the symptoms of anticholinergic toxidrome.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome

    I just thought you might like to know the actual medical term for your “medication-induced psychosis caused by Prozac.” And I’ve found that if you tell a doctor that you and/or a loved one is allergic to the anticholinergic drugs, they tend to listen much more respectfully, than if you name off various antidepressants or antipsychotics.

    I’ve even forewarned my children (as adults) that they have a family history of severe adverse reactions to the anticholinergic drugs … you may want to do the same with your children?

    I had a couple “Red Septembers” … “wake me when September ends.” But I will say, psychiatry and psychology are very good at destroying families with their lies, sadly.

    By the way, I think it’s great that veterans have partnered with MiA. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you for publicly sharing your story! Hopefully doing so will help someone else, somewhere, from having to go through something similar.

    Also, although this was just one part of your story, I hope that MIA shares more stories of the terrors of courts (or affiliated agencies such as CPS) stepping in to separate parents from their children, how poorly the systems are run and how much damage it can cause.

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  4. “The cause of the separation from my husband was his misguided trust in the psychiatrists and the VA. When it was proven in court that there had been no such diagnosis and much of what he had been told wasn’t true, we talked and in spite of everything we’d gone through, we were able to reconcile.”

    My ‘wife’ was a little misguided by the people who committed offences for her (I suppose for convenience we can call them mental health professionals, though I tend to think of people who commit crimes as criminals) A Community Nurse calling Police and requesting assistance with an “Outpatient” when you know the citizen isn’t a patient of your hospital is a crime in my State.

    Once the FOI Officer received requests for the documents relating to my unlawful detention, the hospital; needed the assistance of my wife to have an ear to the ground in my home…. not being satisfied with access to our bedroom. My wife spent weeks gaslighting me and ensuring that my attempts to obtain my medical records was frustrated. Her covert administration of date rape drugs to assist in torturing me (spiked with date rape drugs and then police cause “acute stress reaction” without lawful sanction = torture. NOT in the US I note, where the Convention has not been ratified).

    Those weeks of my wife doing damage to my cause of action were the worst days of my life. And when I told her that my lawyers had explained they would be receiving the unredacted documents from the hospital, she realised her conspiring to pervert the course of justice with the FOI Officer was up. Though I note my wife was not aware of the crime committed by telling police I was an “Outpatient” (create false belief is the offence in pursuit of other offences) to conceal the lack of a referral source, and enable the kidnapping made to look like a Police referral. It’s okay, they tend to euthanise anyone who complains because it’s not in the public interest to know they’re doing this. Sounds mad without the proof…. and Police did try and get that proof back.

    My wife realised that she had absolutely demolished any trust we once had, though did tell me that the hospital FOI Officer had been threatening her to have her ‘assist’ them with their criminal conduct…. all once again not in the public interest to know they’re using the hospital to torture people. Fairly easy when you can obtain lawful sanction to torture with a call to police and a request for assistance with an “Outpatient” (which is every person in the country apparently).

    I guess what I wonder Diana is, how much pressure was applied to your husband? I realise you weren’t the victim of crimes that the hospital needed to conceal but they do seem to have these methods of disrupting family relationships for their own convenience….. and as you can imagine, when they are aware they have committed crimes they might try and exploit such disruption?

    I have heard many a story here of how hospital staff do such things, but am yet to come across anyone who was subjected to the levels of viciousness I was. And the absolute sadistic glee in the eyes of police and mental health professionals in ‘baiting’ me. They are protecting the criminal operating within the State mechanism of course, and so feel justified in their actions (and the hypocrites who claim they are defenders of human rights turn a blind eye. Not totally, someone didn’t have the stomach for what they were going to do to me in the Emergency Dept [cause a little air hunger with a chemical cocktail] and rudely interrupted) . They’re actually very good at doing psychological damage to people, just frickin hopeless at undoing the damage they do. Hence stories like yours.

    It would be interesting to hear what your husband has to say about the whole experience too. The view from the other side when they were using slander to ‘poison’ your relationship.

    How ironic that my son in law served in Afghanistan with the SAS as a sniper, only to have his children threatened by police to ensure they maintained the right to torture citizens in the State where he lives. I guess we can laugh about that the same way the AMHP laughed at me for trying to complain about being tortured? He was sure he would receive support in silencing his victims…. as I am sure his colleagues are. Hence the vile state of ‘care’ when there is no accountability. Mental health’s “editing” of legal narratives worse than that of the military in Afghanistan where a ten year old unarmed boy became a whole Taliban Militia when it came time for medals (the whistleblower David McBride the only person to go to prison….. for telling us about these things He wouldn’t have a heartbeat had it been mental health, so in that sense he’s been fortunate)

    Take care and thanks for your article.

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