In November 2015, I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska thanks to the generosity and support of Jim Gottstein and the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights. I met a bunch of really wonderful, inspiring people, including ex-patients, folks currently in the process of coming off psychiatric drugs, and family members of people who lost their lives to psychiatric treatment. Here’s a video of my talk, Recovering Myself: A talk about journeying through the mental health system, in which I share some of my story and reflect on how I came off psychiatric drugs and left behind my psychiatric labels.
I’ve been writing, this morning, about the era of my childhood in which I began to wake up to the world as it really was, when the oak tree on the lower school playground showed me her true nature: that she was not ‘a tree’ but rather a world of vast vertical deserts of hard bark under which tens, hundreds, thousands of bugs made their homes; a jungle of two hundred thousand leaves, each with an intricate network of veins through which minerals journeyed just like I once did down the Piscataqua on a summer evening with my family.
Then, I believed in the possibility of almost anything. That’s what it feels like when you’re a kid in love with the world: your heart is full with faith in possibility, potential, the unknown, with yourself in this big thing called life. And this, of course, is what I’d lose to the mental health system only a few years later. What you lose when you become a mental patient.
I am, today, five years free from psychiatric drugs. As I sit here and reflect on my journey, I can’t help but feel like the same kind of waking up is happening all over again, has been happening, now, for a while. My time as a mental patient was a time of sleep—of numbed limbs, numbed thoughts, a numbed heart beneath the drugged, psychiatrized state of barely there existence. So much has changed since I took the last pill in September 2010. So much.
Waking up from a psychiatrized existence hurts. At first, it’s all it seems to do, and fuck, does it hurt beyond words… beyond anything you could possibly grasp unless you’ve been in its grasp yourself. But slowly over time, as your brain heals from pharmaceutical trauma, a kind of space is made within you in which non-hurt starts to take hold. It’s slow, non-linear, and confusing, but bit by bit it begins to grow. And as the non-hurt grows slowly larger, the hurt feels less overwhelming, because there’s something else within you now to share the space. Eventually, that non-hurt begins to change slightly in nature until it’s less of an absence of pain and more of the presence of something else, something totally foreign to you: okayness. In this shared space of pain and non-pain, there is now this sense from somewhere deep down inside of you that you’re okay, that what you’re in is bearable.
Somewhere down the line, that okayness then begins to morph into something you soon discover is even better: pleasure. Perhaps it’s physical in nature—the rush of sexual desire, the smell of a flower—or perhaps it’s more mental or emotional. Whatever it is, once you feel it, my friend—even if it’s for a few seconds at the start— you’re off (and if you’re reading this and you don’t yet feel it, hang in there; time is bringing you closer to it, I promise.) You now have proof in your capacity to feel something pleasurable, and the momentum of hope takes hold. All you need to do going forward is buckle into the ride back to aliveness.
For what a ride it is.
Over the past year, life has been full. Full of pain and full of joy. Full of connection and aloneness, of struggle and beautiful quiet. It’s overwhelming nearly all the time, this aliveness I feel. I’m still bumbling around in my body, my life, still perplexed on a regular basis by the vibrancy of my thoughts and emotions, my body’s sensations, my capacity to expand and contract in the world depending on how I’m taking care of myself. But I am here, feet on the ground, present in my life, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. And most of all, I am not afraid anymore of myself, just as the mental health system once trained me so effectively to be.
I’ve been thinking about the circular nature of existence this morning, about how it seems I’ve
come back to that little girl I was beneath the oak tree, waking up into aliveness and consciousness, seeing the intricacies of life around me as if for the first time. What a thing, this life.
If you’re out there overwhelmed by the seemingly unbearable pain of psychiatric drug withdrawal, I promise you that this, this now that feels so total and smothering, will change. As time guides you back to aliveness, the nature of this hurt you’re swallowed whole by will evolve, make space for non-hurt, and eventually okayness. After that, you will reclaim the capacity for pleasure, joy, and peace of mind. This isn’t to say you won’t hurt anymore—you will, for you’re human after all!—but it will feel entirely different. For when you wake up from psychiatrized sleep, realize that you’re not sentenced to a life of pills and labels and institutions, and discover that there’s nothing wrong with emotional pain, you slowly feel less and less afraid of yourself and your darkness, until the fear isn’t there at all anymore. There, in that liberated space, pain no longer feels like a prison. It feels, instead, like a facet of daily existence that is as impermanent as the leaves of an oak tree. And in that internal space of liberation, you have the chance to fall back in love again with the world. It’s always there, that chance, waiting for you patiently.
Five years ago today, while locked up on my last psych ward, I made the decision to give quitting alcohol a shot. By that time, booze had become the one and only reliable thing keeping me from killing myself: it made me stop caring—for a few hours at least—that my life with “serious and persistent mental illness” was as numb, empty, lonely, disconnected, and hopeless as it was… until it didn’t anymore, and there I was being kindly escorted by two security guards to the double-locked doors, where they offered me the “choice” of going “voluntarily” or “involuntarily.”
Choosing to give up alcohol gave me enough clarity of mind to realize I had no idea who I was on the five psychiatric drugs I’d been taking since I was a teenager. This realization (and the discovery of a book by Robert Whitaker) would soon spark in me the determination and courage necessary to come off all those “meds” and say goodbye to psychiatry, psychology, the rest of the “Mental Health” Industry, and, most importantly, a “Bipolar” identity. I am forever grateful for the unconditional love and support I received during the time it made sense to me to say, “Hi, I’m Laura and I’m an alcoholic”; though it’s been a few years since I identified with that label or with a twelve-step institution, I still choose not to drink today. This choice is entirely my power and agency at work—the power and agency that was stripped from me the moment my behaviors, emotions, and thoughts were medicalized into “symptoms” by “experts.” Never again will I turn myself over to any institution or ideology that tells me who I am and how I need to be in the world.
While I don’t know what the future holds for me, I do know that I spent enough of my past in a chemically induced haze thanks to a desperate fear of myself, an unlucky encounter with a psychiatrist’s gaze, and a handful of arbitrary words from the DSM. I also know that for the first time since early childhood, I have no interest in escaping the pain of my day-to-day life, or running away from myself. And as I continue to heal from “mental health treatment”, I know most of all that I have this newly discovered realm of my human being to explore, and that it feels way better than a case of Harpoon IPA ever did, now that I’m free from a psychiatrized existence.
The list of all that’s awakened in me since I came off psychiatric drugs four and a half years ago runs on for pages and pages, but what I’m thinking particularly about today is how connected I feel to my body: I feel my feet on the ground when I walk, these anchors I now have to the earth. I feel my lungs expand and contract as I breathe, filling me with life. My skin is so sensitive to touch, my nose to smells, my eyes to sights, my ears to sound. My stomach tells me when it’s hungry and full; my throat and head and muscles, when I’m in need of water. I feel my body thanking me by giving me strength when I fill it with fruits and vegetables and other natural foods; it now makes sense to me why so many people have said over the years, “Your body is a temple.” It may sound strange, but I am grateful to have discovered the agony of the experiences that get labeled “PMS”, for I know it means my reproductive system is healthy and regular and active. And I have sexuality today—what a gift, after an adolescence and twenties with next-to-none of it. This is the healing body after coming off psychiatric drugs.
Every day I bumble about and make mistakes, or find myself confused and disoriented, or afraid and in pain, or clumsy and awkward in my skin and my self. Indeed, it’s a strange thing to be waking up in a body you’ve had for nearly thirty-two years like you’re meeting it for the first time, but what it also means is this: every day becomes a new learning, a new adventure, a new opportunity to grow and evolve in a body I’m becoming ever more connected to, this body I am excited to have for the rest of my life, this body that’s ever-increasingly an integrated part of life around me.