Like slavery took such a long time to be ‘officially’ forbidden, psychiatric hospitals will be with us for some time yet. Their masters, the doctors or administrators, no longer give beatings with their hands but with the far more treacherous chemicals that allow them to keep a good conscience and distribute what are beatings nevertheless.
Today I’ve recovered a semblance of my old life, and I, like millions of others, deserve answers. What have these drugs actually done to us? Everything I’ve learned thus far shows that antidepressants were poorly researched, and society, especially our military service members and veterans, were used as test subjects.
My world turned upside down when my daughter nearly died from a serious suicide attempt. After several years as her caretaker I began to wonder: What can we do to change the way our mental health services are organized so they won't turn a crisis into a way of life for already distressed and vulnerable people?
My blood work indicated a host of issues that had been lurking under the surface of my “psychiatric diagnoses” for years. I’d seen various mental health professionals and none had recommended these types of tests, or stopped to think about any underlying factors, aside from the well-known “serotonin myth.”
My stay at the hospital had no impact on the problem that led to my admission. But it did exacerbate other problems and change me in fundamental ways. I am a deformed product of that ‘cutting-edge facility’ and the ‘treatments’ I received there — social isolation, pills and shots, ice bath and ECT.
I’m alive. More than 30,000 veterans in the past decade alone are not. I was not warned of the risks of this drug. I was not told that once on it, I might never be able to get off it, or the nightmare that would ensue when I tried. I know millions of others were not told either.
The amount of anxiety I felt on these medications — and for a couple of years after — was unfathomable. I felt as though I was trapped in an air-tight vat, constantly gasping for breath. And my thoughts were guided by my state of constant worry and panic.
At my job with a NAMI affiliate, I heard daily from people who looked at family members with “mental illness” as non-people, non-human, the “other.” In the office, it was no different. If NAMI had a tagline, it would be “Please be normal like us.”
One needs no psychiatric or counseling degree to have the common sense of displaying some good manners in a profession that claims to be all about helping people. I’m glad I did not get further involved within a field that seems to be so hypocritical and moody.
After telling my psychotherapist about my medication-fueled suicidal ideation, he said, “You have two options. We can do this either voluntarily or involuntarily.” Aghast and shaken, but assuming everyone in the medical system had my best interests at heart, I reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital without any protest.
Once you walk through the door to the psychiatric system, all of the protections afforded criminal detainees go out the window. No due process, no speedy trial, no right to see or vet the evidence against you, and most importantly: NO RELEASE DATE!
Recovery is not a bridge we cross and never return to. Rather, it is more like crossing a stream we ford by side-stepping on different stones. Not all of the stones are as sturdy as some of the others. Yes, we slip at times, only to regain our footing and forge ahead.
Jean was never warned about Librium's potential to cause physical dependence or the subsequent withdrawal effects that can result from its long-term use, nor was she counseled on an exit plan. So when she decided to taper off the drug, her withdrawal symptoms were so severe that her life and health quickly spiraled out of control.
Lithium is a notoriously toxic substance, and if it isn’t managed carefully enough, can have some very nasty effects. I discovered this the hard way. It got to the point where I could barely eat or drink or walk around. Yet lithium never made a dent — not for a single moment — in what was going on in my head.
I had been an excellent combat medic — I had deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan totaling over 28 months of combat in Infantry and Cavalry units. Yet, after over six years on these psychiatric drugs, I felt reduced to a helpless being who would require assistance for the simplest of menial tasks.
I'd like to be peers with anyone struggling against persecution, anyone struggling toward the promise of dignity and respect for marginalized communities, for freaks and weirdos. To fit the diversity of our experiences, maybe our definitions need to be as flexible and individual as we are.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and not knowing which one to take, I stood straight, watching my life pass me by. But in therapy, I began to feel the knots of my life come alive inside me. The point is not just to talk, it is to feel your story inside, to hear your silences, and to realize who you are… and who you can be.
Darkness began to consume my life, both literally and metaphorically. My surroundings and even my own thoughts would become distorted into something terrifying. As the nights droned on, shadows in my dorm room would contort themselves into threatening figures. The whispers continued to grow, overcoming the thoughts in my head.
If the drugs I am prescribed did not benefit me overall, believe me, I would no more take them willingly than I would swallow rat poison. I went through many attempts to wean myself, but invariably the loss of my ability to do art brought me to the place where I went back on them. I remain on them and I want to remain on them.
Overall I learned a great deal during my hospital adventure. The whole experience seemed like a comedy of errors. For me the only people there who were truly out of touch with reality were staff members. All of the patients were very present, albeit in some distress. The reasons for their distress were not unreasonable.
Forty years after I had first been admitted to the hospital, I was ready to confront my past. So, I sent for my hospital records, and I read them. As an experienced clinician, I recognized immediately what the doctors hadn’t been able to see in 1960: my problem wasn’t ‘schizophrenia’ but PTSD, connected with incest.
Here and now, I am Ativan-free and slowly tapering off Wellbutrin after 25+ years. Unable to work due to the severity of iatrogenic injury, I sometimes think of myself as a healing journeywoman. When the terrain is especially rough, I reflect on the words: "The best revenge is living a happy, healthy life." When circumstances and symptoms permit, I’m doing just that.
Dear Doctor, I wonder if you remember my son... you only spent about ten minutes with him, exactly four days after his first suicide attempt. I asked you if his medication, Zoloft, had anything to do with what was happening. You looked at me and said, "There's no way of knowing; there are too many factors involved."
Around me in the room I could see the different faces lit up by the big whiteboard raised above us. “There are these symptoms...” The psychiatrist would talk for long periods of time, while the nurses would sit quiet, nodding. I became skeptical and thought: “You are trying to talk me into something.”
I was told that I had only two choices: Do not have children, or take lithium while I was pregnant—the drug that posed the least amount of birth defects, and the very medication that had killed the painter in me years ago. I refused both options and set out on my own, and luckily found a willing psychiatrist to help me taper off the meds.