No quick fix

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-10-07

A story of DIY recovery from psychiatric drugs and misdiagnosis

By Kate Malachite

I am writing this piece because I have had terrible experiences with psychiatric drugs, and I hope that some of what I learned while withdrawing from these drugs may help people who are dealing with similar challenges. 

I am not using my real name because I am keenly aware of the stigma and prejudice related to mental illness and recovery. I struggled with the decision because I am not ashamed of the issues I deal with, and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that mental illness is something to hide. I realize however, that not everyone sees it that way. I have decided to remain anonymous so that I can be completely open about my experiences without putting myself at risk.

I have been off psychiatric drugs for a year, and while things are not always easy, I feel stronger and healthier. I hope that my story can support people who are struggling. I am not suggesting that anyone stop taking prescribed drugs. I can only speak to my experience. It took a long time, but I eventually figured out what was best for me. I wish that for everyone.

I was misdiagnosed and overprescribed drugs for years. And when I decided I wanted to stop taking them when I was 34, I encountered huge resistance, was given terrible advice, and was left to sort things out on my own.

It is fair to say that the experience almost killed me. There were a few times when I probably should have been hospitalized. I was mentally altered and actively suicidal. I was also desperate to stay out of the hospital because I knew that I would be prescribed more drugs, and that I would have trouble finding anyone who would believe that what I was experiencing was caused by withdrawal, not mental illness. I was lucky that I knew a couple of people who had seen withdrawal from psychiatric drugs before and were able to help me through it. They pointed me to the scant resources available on the topic, encouraged me not to give up, and most importantly, affirmed that I wasn’t losing my mind—I was experiencing rarely acknowledged but fairly typical psychiatric drug withdrawal, and I would eventually be okay. They broke the isolation I was feeling. I was also embarrassed that I had let this happen. I felt stupid for allowing myself to end up on a cocktail of psychiatric drugs that never really helped.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve realized this wasn’t my fault. I was suffering. I wanted to feel better and my doctors wanted that for me, too. I became a living example of what can happen in a system that overprescribes psychiatric drugs, especially to women, because medication is generally perceived as the most accessible and least expensive form of treatment. Add to that rampant underestimation by health care professionals of how hard it is to get off these drugs and ignorance of the catastrophic withdrawal effects that people often experience, and I see that what happened to me is not at all unusual or surprising.

From age 23 to 34, I was prescribed 13 psychiatric drugs: eight antidepressants, three tranquilizers, a mood stabilizer and an anti-psychotic. There wasn’t a time that I was not medicated, and I never saw evidence that any of it was working. (There is mounting evidence that SSRIs may not be as effective as long believed.) I was pretty sure that the drugs weren’t helping, but I was caught in a cycle of overprescribing and dependence that I didn’t fully understand until I started to withdraw from the drugs in the fall of 2011. It was then that I began educating myself about the issues because I was having terrible withdrawal symptoms and none of my health care providers seemed to know how to help.

I spent 11 years on psychiatric drugs to treat problems I didn’t have. Over the years I was diagnosed with Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a few doctors even suggested I had a mood disorder. 

As it turned out, I was dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Living with undiagnosed and untreated OCD can cause unbearable stress in a person’s life, and is usually accompanied by shame, stigma and a sense that there is no way out. All of this can lead to depressive, isolating behaviours that superficially look like other mental health issues. OCD is far more complex than the pop culture image of a germaphobe who washes their hands too much or someone who checks repeatedly to make sure they locked the front door. It’s not hard to diagnose if you know what to look for, but it seems that few mental health professionals are trained to probe for clues when part of the disorder itself is a compulsion to hide it out of misplaced guilt and shame.

Looking back, I see now that I started having OCD symptoms when I was very young. I was seven years old when I realized I felt compelled to do things that other people didn’t think about. I remember asking a couple of grown-ups what I should do and they told me I was fine; I just needed to stop worrying about it. I suspected in my teens that I might have OCD when I saw something on television about it, but I didn’t understand what it was—just that it seemed awful and I didn’t want it. I hoped it would go away. None of the health care providers I saw over the years recognized my symptoms as OCD.

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