Drug Free and Free

This is my story of getting off psychiatric drugs. I didn’t get to choose the ways I was hurt in my life, but I did get to decide how to move through the effects of those hurts. I have been drug free for eleven years and counting.

When I faced a huge crisis in college, I sought help from the mental health center on campus. There was a lot going on in my life: a close friend attempted suicide; I was disowned by my family because I had reported a relative for sexually abusing me as a child. As a result of these highly charged experiences, I found myself anxious and depressed. When I asked for help, the doctors and psychological counselors convinced me that my brain was broken and I “needed” anti-depressants.

I was hospitalized more than once from the as–yet–unrecognized side effect of anti-depressants, causing suicidal ideations in young adults. I wanted to stop taking clonazepam, which I knew I had become addicted to. My doctor refused, convinced I “needed” the drug. In a desperate attempt to never have to take it again, I took an overdose of the drug.  I survived the overdose—but suffered from blindness for several days and tardive dyskinesia (uncontrollably shaky hands and arms) for several weeks. To my relief, I was informed that I would never be “allowed” to take that drug again. Within a month I discovered how much better I slept without the drug.

A new drug was started, Zyprexa, which caused me to become preoccupied with food, although previously I’d had a lack of appetite. I gained 50% more bodyweight over the course of about 8 months. My weight continued to increase, my panic increased, and I decided the drug’s benefits (I assumed there were some) were outweighed by the damage it was causing to my body. My doctor agreed to help me come off the drug. The withdrawal frightened me…and also frightened my psychiatrist. After stopping the drug, the fogginess in my head cleared significantly. I came to a new conclusion: not only had I not needed these two drugs, but my life was much easier without them.

Effexor was the last drug to consider letting go of, but I was afraid I would relapse into depression. My doctor reinforced all my fears and wanted me to take a mood stabilizer. My doctor drugged me to relieve her fears! I tried two different mood stabilizers, but I found the side effects unbearable. One caused me to vomit daily; the other triggered an incredibly itchy allergic reaction. On my 25th birthday, I realized I couldn’t accept a future where I would be dependent on anti-depressants for the rest of my life. I made several decisions: first, I was going to stop taking all psychiatric drugs. What I didn’t know then was that I would be experiencing a lot of strong emotions as the drugs left my system. I hadn’t yet developed ways to deal with the overwhelming memories and feelings that would come up.

My psychiatrist recommended that we reduce the dosage in increments of 1/8 the original dose. The first step down was physically agonizing. I couldn’t make sense of why a slightly smaller dose would have such a big impact. A smaller dose “worked” when I was also taking other drugs. My guess was that, in addition to going through withdrawal from this drug, I was experiencing the previously suppressed withdrawal from the other 11 psychiatric drugs I had taken over the previous few years.

My doctor would get very scared when I talked about the physical and emotional distress I was experiencing and urge me to increase the dose or add a different drug to take the edge off. She didn’t give me an ultimatum; instead she would give me a week at a time to consider her offers for “relief.” I continued decreasing the drugs anyway. My body eventually adjusted to the lower dose and about two months after the first decrease, I reduced it a second time. With this second reduction, I found myself unable to suppress my desire to cry. I cried at home, walking in the street, and when I was alone in my shared office. The only place I didn’t cry was in front of my psychiatrist. I hadn’t cried this much since before I took the first pill of Prozac almost 4 years earlier. I was afraid I was becoming “sick” again. But I sometimes wondered if the tears had waited four years to be released.

During the second decrease of the drug, I met the woman who became a close friend and taught me Re-evaluation Counseling (RC). I had not yet learned any of the theories of Re-evaluation Counseling, such as the idea that emotional releases, including shaking, are a natural response to physical and emotional trauma. I was convinced that shaking uncontrollably for over a half-hour at a time was unrefutable evidence of recurring “mental illness.” My friend assured me that it was okay to shake and to cry. Then she announced that sometimes I needed to stop crying and pay attention to her because she needed to cry, too. It was a revelation: she needed to release her pent up feelings, and she expected me to be there for her despite my struggles. I joined her RC class and started to see that there are other ways to handle big emotions successfully, without the use of psychiatric drugs.

One of the theories of RC is that human beings have the innate ability to heal from emotional traumas. I was amazed to discover that an organized group of people were taking a stand against the use of psychiatric drugs. It gave me hope as I worked through the hard parts of coming off drugs. There is also an understanding that a person taking psychiatric drugs needs to be in charge of the process of coming off them. Control over the process, and trusting my own thinking about what made sense to me!

By doing Re-evaluation Counseling sessions with people I met through the classes, I had a space to talk about and release the emotions that I had to face as I reduced my drug dosage. It provided a safe space that I did not have with my psychiatrist, who was always ready to give me more drugs. I spent my time in counseling sessions working on the old traumas that were no longer suppressed by the drugs: childhood sexual abuse, the suicide and attempted suicide of my college friend, etc.

I continued to reduce the drug, and three days before my last psychiatry appointment, I decided I would never take a psychotropic drug again. I didn’t take one that day or any day since. I had taken 12 different drugs over the course of 4 years, 8 months and 12 days! I continued to have withdrawal symptoms in varying degrees, as well as bouts of terror, hopelessness, grief and anger. My body worked its own way back to a healthy weight.  I became more active in RC, going to events and bringing a few of my friends. I also started to understand that Re-evaluation Counseling was not “therapy” where I had to struggle through my deepest hurts during every session. Fun and lightheartedness were important aspects of the way my teacher ran her class, and I tried to bring them into my sessions and the rest of my life. 

Now, eleven years later, I have not gone back to psychiatric drugs, even when my life got very rocky and emotionally difficult again. RC gave me a systematic tool for healing from the traumas that put me in the “mental health” system. The theories offered me hope that I could succeed in coming off drugs, the community provided me support and taught me that I was already strong enough to give back, the classes and workshops helped me realize that it was okay to have fun and not continually worry about relapsing. I learned ways to organize my goals for my life and handle the upsets, disappointments, and even the overwhelming feelings that can come with success.  ~~ R

Tags: